My reading habit has long been to read two books at a time. One book is always fiction and the other is always non-fiction, sometimes self-help like Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life, but most often books on Buddhism. I started meditating thirty years ago as a way to de-stress from a difficult job. I dreaded each day, and each day I knew I had to face those out of control teenagers who had been kicked out of school and were in the alternative program where I’d been hired to teach English.
Meditation slowly led me into Buddhism and its many fine Western teachers like Mark Epstein. Yesterday the mail brought my copy of his new release Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. It’s Epstein’s seventh book that combines psychotherapy (he is a practicing psychiatrist) and Buddhist teachings. I’ve been reading Epstein since his first book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart.
Epstein’s titles are as intriguing as the ancient practices of Buddhism. The Buddha lived 2,600 years ago, but his teachings have remained relevant because they are so simple. But students of Buddhism soon find this simplicity contains multitudes. Dharma means living life fully, not simply sitting on a cushion in meditation, but joyfully bringing your messy life into the harsh world. The Buddha’s Eightfold Path, (similar to Christianity’s Ten Commandments) are the subject of Epstein’s seventh book.
Though I’ve been reading and practicing Buddhism and meditation for close to thirty years, I am still a beginner. I’ve read plenty on the Eightfold Path before, but I’m learning new things with this book. And that’s how life is meant to be: a school that teaches us how to be fully, joyfully and compassionately alive. Below are the steps in the Eightfold Path:
- Right View
- Right Motivation
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
I am getting better at some of these that others. Right speech is refraining from gossip, lies or hurtful words. This has helped my marriage! Even yesterday, feeling overwhelmed by all the holiday hoopla, I asked my husband for help. He had plans to go to the gym for a workout, but instead he helped me. I said “thank you” and almost added “for helping me after I begged you!” But I didn’t say that second half of the sentence because I’ve learned through the years to think before I speak. I’m getting better at that and it’s made my marriage stronger.
The new thing I discovered in Epstein’s book about right speech is something I really need to work on now. I’ve been having troubling thoughts about my past. This is nothing new, but lately it has become more frequent. I do that rumination thing in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, wishing I could go back and do things differently. I was a “good enough” mom. “Good enough” is another Buddhist concept with a different meaning than our Western minds would bring to it–it means I loved my children without smothering them with too much affection. Not too little, not too much, just “good enough.” Even though I know I was a good enough mom, I remember instances where I could have done better. I feel such shame, still, about all the ways I could have been better without being too much. I relive with shame and horror and despair a few specific times when I fell woefully short with one boy or the other or with both of them at the same time. These instances haunt me more lately since my kids now have kids of their own. This is where “right speech” goes deeper to address the way we speak to ourselves. I need to work on that. A lot. This book will help.
That’s the thing about Buddhism teachings. The right one always seems to come along when I need it. Meditation can be a great way to de-stress. I take twenty minutes a day to sit comfortably (I actually lounge on my sofa with soft cushions to support my upper torso and head) and empty my mind. Some meditators call this the “empty rice bowl” ~ imagine your mind as an empty bowl. In about three seconds (or sooner) you will begin to think. Most thoughts are not new, but part of the same repetitive mix tape we each have developed over time. So you notice, oh there’s that again and you gently let it go. Until the next thought comes. If I’m feeling too unsettled to sit for twenty minutes, I try for five. It’s all good. What regular meditation does is help us carry the calm into strife. It helps me think before I speak. And BTW, there’s no wrong way to meditate.
I’d recommend all of Mark Epstein’s books, but right now, part of the subtitle of Advice Not Given, the “Getting over Yourself” speaks the world to me.