Being human, much of our energy goes into resisting the basic mess of life, but messy it is nonetheless. The trick (as psychoanalysts know)...

Being human, much of our energy goes into resisting the basic mess of life, but messy it is nonetheless. The trick (as psychoanalysts know) is to embrace it all anyway. “Trauma is an indivisible part of human existence. It takes many forms but spares no one,” so writes psychiatrist and practicing Buddhist Dr. Mark Epstein. Epstein illustrates this truth by offering a psychoanalytic reading of the life of the Buddha in his latest work, The Trauma of Everyday Life (Penguin Press, 2013). It’s a brilliant psychobiographical single-case study. Think Erik Erikson’s Ghandi’s TruthorYoung Man Luther.

A little known detail of the Buddha’s biography is that his mother died when he was just seven days old. The book investigates the nature and repercussions of this early loss as a foundation of the Buddha’s life and salvation. Epstein writes that “primitive agony” (ala Winnicott) lay in the Buddha’s implicit memory coloring his experience in ways he could feel but never know. The unmetabolized grief plays out into Buddha’s young adulthood as he abandons his wife and own young child in renunciation of his cushy and privileged life. The ghosts and psychic ancestors that haunt the Buddha as well as his separation-individuation drama are familiar to modern day clinicians. Epstein describes a Buddha in the throes of repetition compulsion as well as enacting practices of starvation and self-harm—dissociative defenses that serve to ward off potential fragmentation. Epstein writes that the rhythm of this early trauma and the defenses the Buddha employed run through Buddhism like a “great underground river.” Buddha’s salvation comes about via the discovery of mindfulness which ultimately infuse his life and spiritual teaching. Within the meditative practice of mindfulness, a holding environment is created in which unknown and unexamined aspects of the past can be experienced for the first time in the here and now. Like the psychoanalytic encounter, therein lies its transformative power. In his detailed depictions of the Buddha as a human subject in formation and borrowing from Winnicott’s metapsychology, Epstein draws the parallel to the psychoanalytic space. Ultimately the book asks whether trauma itself can be transformational. According to Epstein, yes. Life itself is already broken and since we can’t control the essential traumas of life (whether they be big “T” or little) we must transform our relationship to them to go on being.

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