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Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness

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For decades, Western psychology has promised fulfillment through building and strengthening the ego. We are taught that the ideal is a strong, individuated self, constructed and reinforced over a lifetime. But Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein has found a different way. Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart shows us that happiness doesn't come from any kind of acquisitiveness, be it material or psychological. Happiness comes from letting go. Weaving together the accumulated wisdom of his two worlds--Buddhism and Western psychotherapy--Epstein shows how "the happiness that we seek depends on our ability to balance the ego's need to do with our inherent capacity to be." He encourages us to relax the ever-vigilant mind in order to experience the freedom that comes only from relinquishing control. Drawing on events in his own life and stories from his patients, Going to Pieces  Without Falling Apart teaches us that only by letting go can we start on the path to a more peaceful and spiritually satisfying life.

About The Author: Mark Epstein, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice and the author of Thoughts Without a Thinker . He is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and clinical assistant professor of psychology at New York University. He lives in New York City.

200 pages, Paperback

First published June 15, 1998

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About the author

Mark Epstein

51 books585 followers
Mark Epstein, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy. He received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard University and is currently Clinical Assistant Professor in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 313 reviews
Profile Image for Dan Harris.
Author 96 books1,860 followers
February 28, 2014
It's not an exaggeration to say this book changed my life. It got me to consider meditation, something I'd always considered uniquely odious, but now believe has made me 10% happier. Also, I've become friends with Mark, and he's a gem.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books925 followers
November 21, 2022
Every once in a while, I need a hit of Buddhism. Something about the complex simplicity of it fascinates me. I would happily have lunch with a koan and guess myself silly through coffee and dessert.

Epstein's book is a bit unique in that he's a psychologist AND practicing Buddhist. That means the ideal reader would be one versed in psychoanalytical as well as Buddhist terms. I got a bit lost at times when Epstein dove into the former. As for the latter, all good, except for occasional guesses (back to my restaurant date).

Plenty of anecdotes from the life of the Buddha and other famous monks (the Dalai Lama even makes a cameo!). Also tales from Epstein's own practice (names of the innocents changed, as Dr. Epstein shows you how the Buddha sometimes has better answers than Freud and Friends).

So, yeah. One of those books where you get lost for a few pages, find yourself, wander down the wrong path again, find yourself, and so forth. A reading experience not unlike monkey mind. If you're looking for a primer, this is not your best choice, though there are moments where Epstein offers some clear advice on meditation practice.

Apparently this book inspired Dan Harris (ABC's morning program, once upon a time... no idea where he's working now) to write 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, which I'm moving into now. Much lighter fare, as TV news is easier to figure out than therapy, white noise machines, and telling guys with beards how something makes you feel.
Profile Image for Dana.
195 reviews
July 20, 2016
This book was not what I was expecting it to be. Dan Harris, of Good Morning America, said this book literally changed his life. While I didn't find it life changing in any way, nor what I was looking for - a book about how to quiet the mind in this crazy world we are living in and live with less stress - it was a good book about incorporating mindfulness into psychotherapy...if one is interested in that. :)

There are far better books out there on mindfulness and meditation, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Bell.
62 reviews
February 7, 2008

“If we are not our thoughts, then what are we?”

Dr. Epstein explores the productiveness of coming to terms with ourselves and our defenses/pain through psychotherapy and/or through Buddhist meditation practice.

He goes into the ways both practices complement each other and how being stuck in one method can lead to a breakthrough in the other. He also mentions several types of meditation – from sitting still and staring at a blank wall to sexual meditations, indicating that orgasms [in respectful relationships] are both liberating, spiritual and one of the least respected ways we have of letting go of our egos and the incessant thoughts that can plague our observation of ourselves.

By reading this book, I now realize that my problem with “The Secret” is that it speaks of the tip of the iceberg and its end result. In other words, thinking good thoughts will therefore bring good results. I whole-heartedly agree with this, but what’s missing in this thought or theory as it was presented is that it lacks the crucial middle part of cultivating self-awareness. Self-cultivation is what brings into account why we think such negative thoughts in the first place-thoughts that block our access to creativity and growth. For most people, “The Secret” is a good start, but there’s a lot we don’t pay attention to in our everyday lives. Epstein presents a few ways to pay attention.

“Going to Pieces” goes a step further than thought processes and speaks of the benefit of quieting or stilling the mind, as is often done when meditating, going to sleep, or in having orgasms. All are activities where thinking too much can impede our enjoyment so we have to become vulnerable to the process and “let go.”

I enjoyed reading Epstein’s co-creative East-West ideas so much that I almost ran out of post-its. I ended up cutting my regular post-its into 1/3rds and 1/4ths just so they would last me longer and I wouldn’t have to run out to the store.

Hopefully, my copy wasn’t too outdated from his more recent edition. I learned a lot about Tibetan Buddhism that I never knew even though I dabbled in it for a few years. I predominantly studied Chinese Zen so a lot of the content was new for me.

I don’t know how to rate this yet. I have another of his books ready to be read. I’ll hold off for a while so that I can absorb this book a little more.
Profile Image for Lorilin.
757 reviews241 followers
July 9, 2017
Good grief. This was the book I needed to read. If nothing else, it's given me a little bit of peace with the whole meditation process--this is the first book that has mentioned how difficult it can be to finally face all the mental chatter. I've been meditating daily for about a month and a half, and in some ways I feel better...but let's just say that taming my mind (and dealing with the emotions that have surfaced) has proven to be difficult, yikes.

But I really love the main message of this book which is to just feel what you feel. Don't analyze and don't attach meaning. The goal is to accept the feelings when they come and then watch them move on through. You don't have to be afraid, since "emotions, no matter how powerful, are not overwhelming if given room to breathe."

I don't know, the book is just comforting, plain and simple. Epstein has such a straightforward, relatable, and nonjudgmental attitude. I really enjoyed reading this one.
Profile Image for Dan.
192 reviews3 followers
July 9, 2014
Read this after reading Dan Harris' "10% Happier" and while I do think there is a lot of good stuff in Mark Epstein's book, reading it right after Harris's may have been overkill. For one, "10% Happier" is written in a much more accessible style. Epstein's book is very much a psychology book and a Buddhist book, and if you don't have a good grounding in both, you may get a little lost or lose interest. Plus, a lot of the same ideas are hit upon, but Mark describes them a little more abstractly. A little more practical advice would have been nice, but the book is what it is, and overall I did enjoy it.
Profile Image for Erika.
11 reviews7 followers
January 31, 2012
This book was PROFOUNDLY insightful to me. It is a case-by-case look at how a Buddhist perspective can aid in psychological healing. It's been a while, but I did read it twice. I'd have to look at my notes in the margins to give a better, more in depth review of this book. However, I can offer some clue by telling you what I got most out of this book and what I will ultimately take from it. Dr. Epstein did a marvelous job of putting Buddhist principles and concepts in context, making the religion far less abstract, by citing specific situations where specific principles were able to change a person's attitude. For example, the first time I read this book I was experiencing something of a depression, which a person always fights against because depression is "bad". Dr. Epstein helped to illustrate how Buddhist teachings can aid us in the ebb and flow of our emotions by realizing that we don't need to judge feelings that way; we should merely let them flow through us and take whatever positivity and learning we are able from all experiences. The Buddhist emptiness concept, which was once so elusive and abstract for me, was illustrated brilliantly in this book. Emptiness and letting go of the ego allow experiences to pass through our lives unjudged, and thus we learn rather than fight and fear.
Profile Image for Mariana.
Author 3 books19 followers
September 14, 2013
Good concepts. I'm no longer that impressed by books on Buddhism written by well-off,white, abled-bodied, males.
Profile Image for Ashley.
17 reviews2 followers
August 21, 2009
My favorite part of this book came before page 1. In the introduction, Dr. Epstein cites a Buddhist story of a university professor who goes to a Zen master eager to learn. The master offers him tea and then pours the tea into the cup until it overflows, and when the professor complains, the Zen master continues to pour and explains, "A mind that is already full cannot take in anything new."

The snippits of Zen tradition, Buddhist koans, and other pieces of Eastern philosophy that make their way into this slim volume stand on their own and sparked a desire in me to learn more about Buddhism, but the attempts to integrate his meditative practice with his psychological practice often verged on trite, like he wanted his patients' stories to be as significant as the parables of monks on mountaintops. And when they weren't (how could they be?) he padded them with unnecessary interpretation that, for the most part, felt condescending to the reader. I felt like an eighth grade English teacher saddled with grading 50 two-page essays on "What Religion Means to Me," complete with its requisite Real World Examples and all.

Snarky comments aside, I can't wholly dismiss a book that makes me want to learn more about something. So in accord with Epstein's teachings I'd suggest you read it, and then let it go.
Profile Image for Donna.
3,903 reviews20 followers
March 24, 2015
I struggled through this book. I read a book a while back where someone was a Buddhist and he talked about meditation. So I picked this up thinking I could learn something. But the author clearly has a vocabulary far different from mine. It was hard to follow along.

If you are familiar with Buddhism (and are an MD) and have the vocab down, then this book might mean something to you and you might be able to extract some useful information. I, unfortunately, lacked the key to unlock this book.
Profile Image for Deb.
349 reviews79 followers
February 23, 2012
* *

Although small in size, Epstein's book presents quite a powerful synthesis of Buddhism and psychotherapy. Amazingly, he brings clarity to the paradoxical concepts of: feeling whole by accepting emptiness; finding happiness by letting go; feeling more at peace by tolerating uncertainty; and being able to go to pieces in order to avoid falling apart. I've already read this book twice, and I have no doubt that each successive read will uncover more gems hidden inside. The writing is superb, the presentation is compelling and lucid, and the way Epstein is able to distill and integrate key concepts of Buddhism and psychotherapy is beyond impressive. Epstein concludes the book by reflecting on how his being able to incorporate the Buddhist principles into his life has "allowed my awareness to be stronger than my neurosis" (p. 181). May we all achieve such a state. :)
Profile Image for Nikmaack.
629 reviews18 followers
September 7, 2013
Something is wrong with this book. While there are the occasional insights, the author comes across as too worshipful of others & not respectful of himself. There are odd moments where he defers to the wisdom of others at times when it's not at all necessary.

The book is very dry, cerebral, detached. That seems to be something Buddhists strive for and it makes me want to punch them.

"I don't have feelings, I merely observe them. They don't control me."

Don't feel this! POW!

Something about this observing detachment is very depressing. Not to mention false. Almost Vulcan.

Epstein definitely lives in his head. The book reveals some of his struggles, but there's never a sense that he explores his real problems.

An interesting book, but I wouldn't recommend it to others.
Profile Image for MizzSandie.
336 reviews346 followers
December 20, 2014
One of the (few) books I gave up on. I just wasn't connecting with it. In spite of it connecting therapy and Buddhism, two very interesting and fascinating subjects. Maybe it was because I just didn't feel like it brought me any new insights, because it didn't move me, emotionally or mentally. And because I have a stack of other books waiting for me, so I chose not to waste any more time, but to just move on.
Profile Image for Mark Schlatter.
1,117 reviews10 followers
May 21, 2015
This is a reflection on how Buddhism and traditional psychotherapy conflict in some ways, but compliment each other as well. Epstein is not writing a self-help book, although there is much in the work that is edifying. Instead, he is weaving together strands of meditation and therapy to address issues of wholeness and emptiness. As a result, the work is somewhat dense --- although Epstein is very good at using stories to make his points, there's a lot of psychiatric theory and Buddhist history to work through. I think it might take me a few reads (if I was inclined) to absorb it all.

What worked best for me was Epstein's contrast between Western psychotherapy and Buddhism. In a traditional talk therapy setting, you might expect a diagnosis and then work on moving from a disintegrated self to an integrated self --- it's a Western model of find the problem and fix it. But Epstein argues that the unintegrated self may be important --- that who we are when we are lost (either in joy or sorrow) may be crucial. It's the Buddhist emphasis on acceptance of emptiness transformed to a psychological setting. I also found his explanation of mindfulness extremely well done; Epstein clearly showed how the "Four Foundations" (mindfulness of body, feelings, thoughts, and mind) build on each other.

If you are interested in the topics raised and willing to do a bit of heavy reading, I think this is worth a look. Finally, an interesting connection: one of Epstein's influences, the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, is the analyst profiled in sections of Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 3 books339 followers
January 28, 2023
if you like this review, i now have website: www.michaelkamakana.com

221112: this is an interesting combination of psychology and philosophy. if you accept certain axioms in psychotherapy and equally in buddhism this is bracing, heartening, encouraging. rather more 'case histories demonstrating ideas' if more skeptical. not much argument, description, assertion of buddhist thought, best to know some already...
Profile Image for Renate Eveline.
224 reviews7 followers
August 24, 2013
I was looking for a good perspective on buddhist psychology, but didn't find much insight here.
Concerning the Buddhist part, Epstein just covers the basics as so many books do. Regarding the psychological part, a broader perspecive would have been nive, Epstein leans too much on Winnicot for my liking. It became harder and harder to finish this book, which looked so promising at first.
Profile Image for Kevin Orth.
404 reviews41 followers
June 17, 2018
Love, love, love this author! I am totally enamored with his marrying emotional health from a psychiatric perspective with Buddhist principles. Now I have to read everything he has written. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
351 reviews7 followers
June 29, 2018
I read this book because Dan Harris had recommended it. Dan Harris wrote a much better book! I was pretty bored during this and did not find it helpful.
Profile Image for Jason.
99 reviews4 followers
November 28, 2018
I listened to this book because of "10% Happier." I don't think I got enough out of it to care, and I certainly didn't pay enough attention to be able to write a proper review. Maybe next time...
16 reviews
October 16, 2020
To be frank it felt kind of like a mental massage for the bourgeoisie
1,421 reviews13 followers
July 15, 2022
This is the third book of Epstein's that I read but the second written.

It's a good followup to the first one and basically goes in on the topic of the self/the ego.

Main points

(1) We're always striving
Especially in American culture, there is a feeling that you should always be striving for self-improvement, to accomplish something, to be more efficient, more productive, more, more and more. Epstein argues that this mentality can have a lot of negative effects, essentially magnifying our neuroses and our obsession with ourselves as we put so much pressure on ourselves to do better, be better, achieve more, etc.

(2) Letting Go
He talks about how hard it is to let go of trying to control everything. We feel that if we stop our vigilance even for an instant everything will completely fall apart. Not surprisingly, this attitude can lead to a lot of problems and developing the capacity to let go and realizing that the world doesn't fall apart can be very beneficial.

(3) Doing vs Being
In the West we focus so much on Doing at the expense of just Being. We should try to find a balance and accept that we can't control everything.

Comment: It's definitely not a new thought, but Epstein explains it well in the context of Buddhism and Psychotherapy.

Additional Points
(1) Sex
It's in this book that I noticed how frequently Epstein uses sex as metaphor to explain different concepts. Not in a bad way but definitely more than other therapy books I've read. Perhaps being influenced by Freud partially explains that.

(2) Humble and Imperfect
One thing I particularly like is how in all his books, Epstein tries hard to demystify meditation, enlightenment and "Buddha-hood". I like that he is self-deprecating and confesses his own foibles, that even as a very experienced meditator he still struggles with the same things that beginners do.
I think this is very encouraging for average people as it doesn't give them/us unrealistic expectations.

Profile Image for Howard Mansfield.
Author 29 books34 followers
October 8, 2017
Going to Pieces is very much in the self-help mode. Epstein mixes case histories from his psychiatry practice, his own stories, psychotherapy theories and Buddhist texts. His other books are more fluid and go deeper. But this is still an insightful guide to bringing Buddhists practices to bear on your daily life.
Profile Image for Angel.
53 reviews
August 8, 2018
I wish I had a bigger understanding of some of the psychology terms and people he mentions in the book so I could get more out of it. Regardless of some small episodes of language that I didn't know what to do with, I still enjoyed the book and had much to be learned and appreciated. I'll have to read it again.
Profile Image for Benoit Marinoff.
96 reviews3 followers
September 9, 2021
I have really been leaning toward spiritual content or related to meditation the last little bit but I am still very much so someone who is logical and realistic and often time the books you read about spirituality or meditation is either complete bullshit based on pseudo science or make absolutely no sense if you are not a complete hippy.

Now I love that this book was not that. Mixing the perspective of Epstein as not only a meditator but also a health professional since he is a therapist, I was quite happy with the content of the book.

So if you are interested in meditation but find often boring or crazy the content about it, I recommend this book.
Profile Image for Allison.
80 reviews
October 4, 2021
“When we seek happiness through accumulation, either outside of ourselves - from other people, relationships, or material goods - or from our own self development, we are missing the essential point. In either case we are trying to find completion. But according to Buddhism, such a strategy is doomed. Completion comes not from adding another piece to ourselves but from surrendering our ideas of perfection.” (xviii)

“It is only when two people forget themselves, in each other’s presence, that they can recognize each other.” (xx)

“To go willingly into unknowing [is] the key to living a full life.” (17)

“Meditation is meant to open a window into this something else; it is not meant to eradicate the previously existent ego. Somebody and nobody are interdependent: they feed off of each other rather than succeeding one another.” (35)

“In a high tide everything is floating, the self is submerged or dissolved, there’s no longer any foothold or point of reference, but it is not chaos. When we are afraid to relax the mind’s vigilance, however, we tend to equate this floating with drowning and we start to flounder. In this fear, we destroy our capacity to discover ourselves in a new way.” (47)

“It is a paradox of self-discovery that we can know ourselves only by surrendering into the void.” (48)

“We need to learn how to immobilize our reactive and anticipatory minds so that we can make the connections we are seeking.” (55)

“If we feel empty, taught the Buddha, we must not let that emptiness paralyze us. If we are reaching for intimacy, we must let ourselves get out of the way. If we want peace, we must first learn how to quiet our own minds. If we want release, we must learn how to cease our own craving.” (56)

“Our endlessly repetitive thinking interferes with our ability to connect with our own world. Isolated in our heads, we yearn for the kind of connection that our own thinking cards against.” (59)

“It is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects, and that in so doing we can alter the way in which we experience both time and our selves.” (62)

“Everything is always changing. When we take loved objects into our egos with the hope or expectation of having them forever, we are deluding ourselves and postponing an inevitable grief. The solution is not to deny attachment but become less controlling in how we love. From a Buddhist perspective, it is the very tendency to protect ourselves against mourning that is the cause of the greatest dissatisfaction.” (65)

“Intimacy puts us in touch with fragility… And the acceptance of fragility opens us to intimacy… reveling in intimacy means simultaneously appreciating its fleeting this. This is one of the reasons why we shy away from intimacy - it tends to put us in touch with her own vulnerability.” (71)

“The flower that blooms for only a single night is indeed a sight to behold.” (72)

“Love did not depend on how together I felt, nor was it something that I had to do. It was the more natural state.” (80)

“Beauty carries with it the seed of mourning over its eventual demise.” (101)

“The beloved presents himself or herself simultaneously as a body which can be penetrated and a consciousness which is impenetrable. There is always an element of separation in even the most profound union. Love is the revelation of the other persons freedom.” (155)

“Separateness and connection make each other possible; they are not mutually exclusive.” (156)

“Relationship [is as much a] spiritual teaching as a classical meditation. Both confront us with our refusal to let go, with our expectations for how things are supposed to be. Both demand faith that we will survive our own worst impulses. Both reveal the essential unknowability of self and other while at the same time providing a means of reveling in it.” (156)

“While teaching the emptiness of all things (no self in the body, no self in feelings or thoughts, no self in consciousness), Buddhists also teach a positive emptiness, a luminous knowing that is sometimes called the clear light nature of mind.” (161)

“ I often dream about falling… Lately I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock, but it would not hold. Gravel gave way. A grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss. Suddenly I realized that my fall was relative; there was no bottom and no end. A feeling of pleasure overcame me. I realized that what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed. It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness.” (167-8)
Profile Image for Yassir Islam.
10 reviews1 follower
August 31, 2014
I first read this book when it came out, and just finished rereading it 15 years later. It is still an insightful and relevant book today as it was then. This is not a practitioners guide to Buddhism, nor is it an introduction. Epstein grapples with the concept of emptiness as examined through the lens of western contemporary psychotherapy and Buddhism. What follows is his attempt to inform the more limited concept of emptiness in the western tradition with its more expansive and freeing interpretation from the eastern tradition. The self, he explains, is not something to be shored up to keep emptiness at bay. In fact, embracing emptiness in the Buddhist sense, paradoxically, is the path to liberation and knowing of true self.This books draws heavily from the discourse of western psychotherapy, and will probably be best appreciated by those looking for a more intellectual approach to the subject. More advanced readers or practitioners of Buddhism, also stand to benefit enormously from Epstein's enquiry into emptiness. He also uses examples from his own life to illustrate the points he is making. This may at time seem like an annoying scrutiny of the minutiae of one's one life, but it is only by doing so that we can begin to see that Buddhism is not about grand concepts, but about full awareness and attention, moment by moment, to our own lives. The trick is to get the analytical mind out of the way. What Epstein does is to bring his considerable analytical prowess to derive teachings from his personal and work experience and share them with us in a cogent, engaging manner.
Profile Image for Valentina Năstăşel.
28 reviews9 followers
August 21, 2016
"Like Freud’s friends, who shrunk back from the terrifying transitoriness of the flower’s bloom, and like Joe, we recoil from the revelation of our lover’s freedom. We insist on holding on, or we withdraw prematurely, rather than trusting in love’s ability to constantly reassert itself. Yet this is precisely what makes a relationship as much of a spiritual teaching as a classical meditation. Both confront us with our refusal to let go, with our expectations for how things are supposed to be. Both demand faith that we will survive our own worst impulses. Both reveal the essential unknowability of self and other while at the same time providing a means of revelling in it"
Profile Image for Steve Woods.
618 reviews59 followers
September 1, 2010
This book was one of the few sources that put the idea that what was happening to me at a very difficult time was not the end but a beginning. How true that has turned out to be, very populist in its approach and style but accessible to anyone. It was from the starting point that was established at the time I read this book that the journey has progressed, in fits and starts maybe but it did lead to serious consideration of another way of living that is central to my being now. This book was a small brick inthe path that has led a long way and has a long way still to run.
Profile Image for Mandi.
105 reviews2 followers
December 9, 2010
With Thoughts Without a Thinker I needed to break up the reading because the ideas were so intense. However, in Going to Pieces I would have preferred to have read it through in just a sitting or two. It is an easier read with easier concepts, so it would have been enjoyable to have really immersed myself into the material. It is a book to re-read several times, so next time I'll probably read it without the outside interruptions I had this time.

Mark Epstein definitely didn’t disappoint and reading this book has only made me a greater fan.
Profile Image for eHawk.
499 reviews4 followers
September 2, 2016
I spent a lot of time identifying with what Epstein had to say here, and I think it's interesting to see how contemplative practices can offer insights and peace that can round out what we're looking for in therapy... it's a good amt of pulling the wool away and looking at how westerners have been socially indoctrinated.
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