Mark Epstein on the formation of the self

Mark Epstein is a psychotherapist as well as a longtime student of Buddhist meditation. Here’s a passage from his book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (pp. 19-20) that I feel resonates with the view of practice I’ve been outlining on Tuesday evenings (I’ve bolded the lines that I find particularly resonant):

If aspects of the person remain undigested — cut off, denied, projected, rejected, indulged, or otherwise unassimilated — they become the points around which the core forces of greed, hatred, and delusion attach themselves. They are black holes that absorb fear and create the defensive posture of the isolated self, unable to make satisfying contact with others or with the world. As Wilhelm Reich demonstrated in his groundbreaking work on the formation of character, the personality is built on these points of self-estrangement; the paradox is that what we take to be so real, our selves, is constructed out of a reaction against just what we do not wish to acknowledge. We tense up around that which we are denying, and we experience ourselves through our tensions. One recent patient of mine, for example, realized that he had developed an identity centered on feelings of shame, unworthiness, and anger rooted in a momentary experience of his mother’s emotional unavailability when he was a young child. Sensing her absence, he had become afraid, but this fear was too threatening to his psyche so he instead converted it into feelings of inadequacy, making himself the problem. It was not until many years into his adulthood when his mother lay paralyzed by a stroke and was physically unable to respond to him that he could finally acknowledge his fear. The fabric of self is stitched together out of just these holes in our emotional experience. When those aspects that have been unconsciously refused are returned, when they are made conscious, accepted, tolerated, or integrated, the self can then be at one, the need to maintain the self-conscious edifice disappears, and the force of compassion is automatically unleashed. Only when my patient was finally able to acknowledge his own fear at his mother’s emotional unavailability could he begin to feel sympathy for her emotional predicament. His shame had prevented that beforehand. As the famous Zen master Dogen has said:

To study Buddhism is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be one with others.