March 10, 2021

Episode 5: Being Alone

Are we in the midst of a loneliness epidemic? Well, it depends who you ask. This week's guest, Dr. Mark Epstein, a therapist in New York City and a practicing Buddhist, believes that loneliness is simply one of life's everyday traumas. A ubiquitous human condition that doesn't only visit the unlucky but almost everyone, much like sadness, fear and even death. 

Dr. Epstein is also the author of a number of books that bridge Buddhist teachings with Western psychology. During his interview on this episode of "Is Anybody Out There?" he offers great insight into these two traditions, simultaneously quoting Donald Winnicott, a British child psychoanalyst, and the Buddha.

In dealing with everyday traumas such as loneliness, he guides us away from quick fixes and instead, offers an alternative of mindfulness and self-reflection that's grounded in Buddhism. Through anecdotes, Buddhist fables and personal practices, he informs us that meditation encourages us to sit with these uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions in order to understand our feelings of incompleteness and to find solutions to help us navigate a way out. And when we do, we might even emerge more enlightened. Meditation and mindfulness, he believes, are ways for us to unlock the transformational potential of trauma because a hidden kindness often gets woken that we can apply towards ourselves and others who might need help.


Mark Epstein

Donald Winnicott


Daniel Goleman

Joseph Goldstein

Jack Kornfield

Richard Alpert 

Sharon Salzberg

Meditation and loneliness








Jeremy: (00:08)

Hi, and welcome to is anybody out there, a podcast series about loneliness brought to you by the connect tree? I'm Jeremy Warshaw. 


Judy (00:28)

And I'm Judy D'Mello. Today's episode is called "Being Alone." And I'm going to start off by asking you, Jeremy, for your interpretation of this quote. 


Jeremy (00:36)

Go ahead, go on. 


Judy (00:38)

"It's a joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found." What would you say that's about?


Jeremy (00:48)

Um, my last bar of Cadbury's chocolate? That's the best I can do.


Judy (00:53)

[LAUGHS] No, that's not it, but I love it. It was actually something the British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott said in the mid-1900s. I had read Winnicott's work growing up in London. I think everybody does read him at school. But this particular quote, I only recently came across after reading a book by Dr. Mark Epstein, who is both a practicing psychiatrist in New York city and a practicing Buddhist. He's really well known for his fusion of Eastern spirituality and Western psychotherapy.


Jeremy (01:26)

What's his take on the Winnicott quote?


Judy (01:28)

Well, he speaks about feeling alone or isolated in all of his books and about loneliness too. And the joy of being hidden here refers to periods in our lives when we are alone or even experiencing loneliness. Because, you know, at times it can be a sensual and indulgent experience to be on one own. But of course we're social animals at heart. So eventually we need to be found. But not simply as an object of someone's desire. Instead we want our inner selves to be recognized and found, and for that to be appreciated. But getting to that place is an ongoing process and being alone, even when it doesn't feel so good is actually part of that process of developing the self.


Jeremy (02:20)

And because our inclination is to say in less lofty terms -- I'm lonely and this sucks, so I've got to get out there and find someone -- I suppose, we're denying our ability to develop into our true self. And I guess that's when the disaster part comes in.


Judy (02:35)

Exactly right. Anyway, I was so fascinated by Mark Epstein, after reading and hearing about him, particularly his non-typical approaches in dealing with emotions like loneliness, that I got in touch with him and asked him for an interview. And, this is surely one of the pandemic's silver linings, Mark happened to be isolating with his wife in upstate New York, and he probably had nothing better to do so he said, yes! 


Jeremy (03:04)

Fantastic. Whatever it takes. Let's hear it.




Judy (03:15)

Welcome Mark. And thank you for agreeing to speak with me on this episode of, "Is Anybody Out There?" 


Mark Epstein (03:20)

I'm very happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me. 


Judy (03:23)

So you are the author of books, such as "Thoughts Without a Thinker," "Going to Places Without Falling Apart --" 


Mark (03:30)

Going to Pieces -- 


Judy (03:32)

I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!


Mark (03:34)

We're not going any places. 


Judy (03:36)

We're not going anywhere, that's why I'm falling apart. But okay. "Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart," "Going On Being," Open to Desire," and then two more, which I read during this period of isolation, "The Trauma of Everyday Life," which I believe identifies life's small traumas, such as fear and loneliness as being part of the human condition. And the second book I recently read was I think the last one you wrote, which is "Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself," which at its core is about getting away from oneself, by keeping one's ego at bay. Did I sum that up fairly correctly?


Mark (04:19)

Yeah, I think so. It's at least a way of getting away from one's ego to get closer to oneself, I would say. 


Judy (04:24)

So perhaps you can tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in Buddhism. 


Mark (04:31

Well, I actually chanced upon it. I wasn't looking for it necessarily. I found it early in my life. Uh, my freshman year in college, actually, uh, when I met a girl who, um, who I was interested in, who was taking an introduction to world religion class. I signed up for it because she was going. And we read one collection of Buddhist verse, which is called the Dhammapada, which was an ancient collection of Buddhist verse directed to householders, not to monks or nuns. And it jumped out at me. It was like, it talked about how important it was to train the mind. and it said that the untrained mind was like a fish thrown on dry ground, flapping all the time. And I immediately related to that. So I became interested. There were other courses at college about Buddhism. There were spiritual bookstores at Harvard square to go to peruse. And I, um, I lucked into, uh, a graduate student who was teaching a psychology course, was a man named Daniel Goleman, who later went on to become famous as the author of "Emotional Intelligence." And he had already been to India, interested in Buddhism. And he directed me to people that he trusted. And I met Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield and a former Harvard professor named Richard Alpert who had become Ram Dass. And I met them all and then in the next few years, they took me on and I started sitting Buddhist meditation retreats and so on. So I did all this before taking any classes in Western psychology and before deciding to become a psychiatrist. I, uh, marinated myself, you might say, in Buddhism to start with, and then, then went on a much later to go to medical school and study a Western psychotherapy psychiatry and so on.


Judy (06:26)

And, and this is particularly interesting because as you said, somewhere, that trauma is ubiquitous. I mean, we all suffer traumas of some kind, maybe not the very large ones, but certainly everyday traumas and loneliness too, is a fairly ubiquitous human condition that's visited all really at some point. So how do we learn to live with loneliness in your methodology? How do we learn to deal with it and find a way through it?


Mark (06:59)

Well, in terms of the, the underlying current of trauma, that's, that's ubiquitous, as you say, uh, I sometimes say that if we're not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we're suffering from pre traumatic stress disorder. Because, you know, old age illness, death, separation, loss, and loneliness, if we haven't experienced them already, we're bound to. It really is part of the human experience. And the main thing that I've learned from all of my meditation retreats is that try as hard as we might, we really cannot control everything. We can control a lot of things in the world and in life, but we can't control everything. So with the stuff that we cannot control, what we can only do is change the way we relate to whatever it is that's happening. So that's the great linking promise of both meditation and psychotherapy that it is actually possible to change the way we relate to things such as death or illness or old age or loneliness.


Mark (08:09)

So to look at loneliness in particular, since that's what you're asking about in one way, we're all alone. You know, we're always alone, we're locked inside our own sense of self. And in another way, none of us are alone. We're all part of an almost indescribable nexus that contains everything. And that when we overdo the feeling of loneliness, which we're all prone to do, because we feel sorry for ourselves, or we've been hurt in real ways, when we exaggerate the feeling of loneliness or when we cut ourselves off from the interconnected part, then we suffer more than we have to. So I think the first answer to the question is to contextualize the feeling of loneliness. Yes, it's there and it's there in everyone, because there's a great wish, a great longing for connection for union, for release. But part of the promise of being born into a human body and mind, according to the Buddhist side, is that we have just enough loneliness to motivate us to practice so that we don't drown in that feeling. So it can motivate us towards realizing our potential.


Judy (09:40)

Yes. I also have read that it's almost like a signal to us that we need more human connections, social connections in our life, or we need more meaningful social connections in our life. So I know loneliness does serve a purpose as well as being a crippling issue for many people.


Mark (10:00)

Yeah, it can go either way. There's a quote that I like, you know, one of the, um, inspiring figures in my life is a British child psychoanalyst named Donald Winnicott. Winnicott was one of the first child psychoanalysts so he really paid attention to the child's experience and the mother's experience with her infant. And he was the first in the psychoanalytic tradition to really do that, but he has this beautiful quote. And he says, "How can we be isolated without being insulated?" Because he takes for granted a certain kind of isolation, but the exaggeration of it is to insulate us too much from each other, from the world. That's what the ego does to try to protect itself, but really what the ego has to learn, how to do more is to open up to let go. And that's where the possibility of connection comes in. Even for lonely people.




Judy (11:11)

Mark, could I ask you to read an excerpt from your book, "Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart" that has to do with feelings of emptiness.


Mark (11:19)

Of course, I'll read anything you ask me to read.


Judy (11:22

Oh, good! 


Mark: (11:25

This is from my book "Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart": 

Our personal feelings of emptiness are like the low guttural rumblings of the Tibetan monks chanting. At first, they are all we can hear, but then slowly or sometimes suddenly, something sweet emerges out of the depths of our own minds. Gradually the overtone fills our consciousness, and we cannot believe what we are hearing. Our own personal and self centered emptiness yields to something more universal. The sparks of emptiness return to their source. This is the task that faces nearly all of us. We must learn how to be with our feelings of emptiness without rushing to change them. Only then can we have access to the still silent center of our own awareness that has been hiding unbeknownst to our caretaker selves behind our own embarrassment and shame. When we tap into this secret storehouse, we begin to appreciate the two-faced nature of emptiness. It fills us with dissatisfaction as it opens us to our own mystery. As the Buddhist traditions always insist, if we look outside of ourselves for relief from our own predicament, we are sure to come up short. Only by learning how to touch the ground of our own emptiness, can we feel whole again.


Judy (13:04)

That is such a beautiful section. And I think when you stop and listen to it, carefully listen to it, it really is so meaningful. But since I have you on the line, would you mind giving us a quick macro view about this belief?


Mark (13:23)

You know, I remember writing that passage after being at a concert where these Tibetan monks who had learned this kind of overtone singing had performed. And at first you only hear the low guttural rumblings. And they're doing this harmonic thing where if you listen carefully, suddenly at another octave up, you hear this sweet sound. And I remember first hearing the sweet sound and then all that, what I just wrote about, sort of clicking into place. So, um, from my own experience, growing up with a sense of psychological emptiness, like not feeling as complete or as real or as comfortable, we might just say with myself as I would have liked, I found that when I came to a meditation, when I discovered mindfulness and learned how to just be with my own experience, no matter what it was like, pleasant or unpleasant, you know, that by paying attention to that feeling of incompleteness to that feeling of awkwardness, or we might say emptiness, that that was actually the way into myself. And that instead of pushing it away and feeling shame about it or distraught about it, that just by leaving it alone, it opened up into something much more satisfying. So that's where I've been coming from Ever since. That we have to start where we are and go from there.




Jeremy (14:52)

You know, this notion that we should sit with our emotions, even painful ones, like loneliness, was something that Dr. Fay Alberti spoke about during her interview.


Judy (15:22)

I remember. You asked her about techniques she uses when she experiences loneliness. And she said, very specifically, that one way for her to get through these feelings of isolation is to be more mindful. To really understand what it is she's feeling at that moment. To almost ask herself what it is she physically needs. And only by sitting through these emotions, can she then come up with answers.


Jeremy (15:49)

Exactly right. And I think by facing your feelings in order to understand what you're experiencing and what you might need in order to help yourself, that really resonated with me. Because I think that in the West, when we're feeling not so great, our instinct is to try and fix these feelings, get rid of them by popping pills or drinking too much, or overeating -- all the things that our bodies don't need and can actually leave us feeling even more empty and hollow than before.




Judy (16:29)

So there's a wonderful story in your book about the woman who lost her one-year-old child and mustard seeds. Would you mind telling us that story?


Mark (16:40)

Sure. It's one of the most moving stories that I've found in the Buddhist literature. And it's about a woman named Kisagotami, who the local people see wandering around like a mad woman, clutching the corpse of her one-year-old child, who has died suddenly. And she wanders from house to house saying, "Won't somebody help me? My child has died! I need medicine for him. We have to bring him back to life, please!" And the people are scared of her because she's obviously losing her mind. But finally someone says to her, "Well, there is somebody close by who knows about this kind of medicine," because the Buddha's camping with some of his followers in a field close to this village. And they direct her to the Buddha.


Mark (17:28)

And she comes to him, still clutching the child. And he says, "Yes, actually I do have medicine for this. But before I can give it to you, you have to go to the village and ask the people there if anyone can give you a mustard seed from a house where no one has ever been sick or died." So she's calmed by his presence and listens to him and takes on the task and goes back and knocks on all the doors. And of course you can't find a house that hasn't known illness or death. And she comes back to the Buddha chaste and he says something like, "You thought you were the only one who's had to face this, but really we all have to face it. So here's what I can do for you." And then he lays out some early teachings for her, including some meditation instruction.


Judy (18:20)

If we had a story like that about loneliness, people would realize that they're not alone. There are a lot of people who suffer from loneliness and it visits every household, I think. So that's why I particularly loved that story. And what is it, now that ou have studied Buddhism to such a great degree, what is it now that you believe how Buddhism can enrich Western approaches to psychology?


Mark (18:47)

Well, there are a couple of ways that I might answer that. What comes to mind immediately is that Buddhism is actually, at least for me, is incredibly optimistic. It doesn't have that reputation, you know, because the Buddha's four noble truths, which were his first teachings about psychology, starts out with the statement that life is filled with Dukkah, which is generally translated as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. But really Buddhism is very optimistic. It says that within each one of us, no matter how troubled, no matter how much trauma we've experienced, no matter how much anxiety we have, that within each one of us is the dormant potential for inner peace. Or Nirvana, they would say, you know, enlightenment or awakening. And that it's very accessible. That all one needs to do is to learn how to tolerate or train one's own mind. And then the very practical aspect of mindfulness that there's a method of taking on even the horrors of oneself, you know. There's a method of learning how to hold one's mind and one's feelings in a way that allows a kind of emotional maturity to come. Those are things that I have found to be very helpful in my own life.


Mark (20:20)

I always reflect, I always think, well, all these silent retreats that I've gone on and still do. You know, I'm in my sixties now, but I try to go every year, at least for a week or two. And these retreats are designed really to accentuate the loneliness. They're silent. You're not allowed to make eye contact with anybody. Everything is done very, very slowly. There's a lot of sitting meditation. You're really with your own terrors and your, you know, your own mind and body. And the great revelation of that is how connected one can feel being totally apart from other people. Nothing but the sun coming up, the sun going down, the wind, blowing the birds fly, you know, a walk on the road, sitting without moving with your own experience. The loneliness, while it can be intense and severe, it doesn't last. It's not the last word on who we are or what we're capable of. And one can be very alone and not lonely.


Judy (21:31)

True, but that's a loneliness that you've chosen to embark upon for a week. And then, you know, you will go home to your loving family and your life. But there are people who don't have that option.


Mark (21:45)

You're right. That's a chosen loneliness and that's different than one that feels imposed. But that's again what I was saying. You know, we can't control everything. So, even when it feels like it's been imposed on us, sometimes we have to change the way we relate to it. But that's not to say that we should just accept the loneliness. I think people are capable of much more connection than they sometimes give themselves credit for. And the Buddha's eightfold path, he doesn't just talk about meditation. He talks about right effort, and right livelihood, and right relationship. So, um, sometimes people are so hurt or ashamed or afraid that they won't reach out in the way that they need to reach out in order to be less lonely. And that's a very important element also.


Judy (22:37)

So let's talk a little bit about meditation and how it might help somebody in this case.


Mark (22:43)

Well, I the book that you asked me to read from, I told a story about a good friend of mine -- Sharon Salzberg -- who has become a very well-known and beloved mindfulness teacher. She started out with terrible, terrible loneliness. Her mother got sick and died in front of her when she was nine years old. Her father suffered from a mental illness and a couple of years later went into the mental health system and never came back. She was raised by grandparents who died when she went away to college. She tells a story of reading a Peanuts cartoon, in which Charlie Brown is talking to Lucy, the psychiatrist who ends up saying, "You know what the problem is with you, Charlie Brown? The problem with you, is you. The problem with you, is you're you." And Sharon identified with that.


Mark (23:38)

And she ended up going to India and meeting all of these Buddhist teachers who got her to meditate. And the big lesson for her was that she had to learn how to put down that shame-filled image of herself, as the problem with her was her, and take chances in being with her own difficult feelings and also in relating to others. But she really got that courage and that encouragement from her meditation practice that started to make cracks in her self image. That's a lot of the way that I think meditation and psychotherapy work together, many of us are hampered by the way we think about ourselves. And once we start to crack that open a little bit and realize that we're not who we think we are, then there's a possibility of change that comes creeping in.


Judy (24:38)

So what do you think is the difference between loneliness and aloneness?


Mark (24:44)

Pain. Pain and distress.


Judy (24:50)

Um, and why do you believe that loneliness is on the rise in our society today?


Mark (24:56)

So I don't know if loneliness is really on the rise or if just talking about loneliness is on the rise. If a consciousness of loneliness is on the rise. But I think one of the downsides of the nuclear family, is that in the way that many of us grow up in the West, all we have are the parents or the babysitter, you know? And so if the holding environment -- which is another way Winnicott talks about it -- if the emotional climate, if the relational home, those are all phrases that we could use, is inadequate, if the parents are drinking or depressed, or just working all the time, or too anxious about the child's wellbeing, then there's nobody to fall back on. There's no kind auntie or cousin. Or, know, in the extended family there's a greater chance that somebody, the grandmother, the great grandmother will step in and give that kind of adequate attention that nurtures a growing child's sense of cohesion and trust.


Mark (26:04):

And without that, in adult life there can be a lot of insecurity and either a running away from intimate relationships or a kind of clinging to the ones that, uh, that a person finds. Clinging to the point of exhaustion of the other, which then feeds back and leads to more loneliness. But it can also come from one in which the parents are too involved so that the child never is left alone adequately to develop a kind of calm center in which they can unwind or in which they can play, et cetera. 


Judy (26:44)

I think you wrote those a line I liked very much, which is that "you're paying relaxed attention to the everyday world." Which I think really sums up what might take place in deep meditation and meditative practice.


Mark (26:59)

So the way I've been thinking about it now is that in paying relaxed attention to oneself and to the everyday world, a hidden kindness gets woken up inside of us. And that kindness, which can be applied or deployed towards oneself, but towards other people also who need us that kindness, is really the key, I think, to dealing with loneliness.


Judy (27:26)

Well, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. This has really been such a pleasure speaking with you. I've read so much about you, and from you, and it's just wonderful to hear your voice. 


Mark (27:38) Oh, it's a pleasure.




Jeremy (27:50):

I really do appreciate his point of view. If we could just be a little gentler with ourselves, less self-critical and less driven by outcome. I think we might gain an acceptance of our situation instead of always trying to control it.


Judy (28:03)

Here's to being kinder and gentler with ourselves and others. I think now more than ever in this world.


Jeremy (28:13)

Join us next week for an episode on the power and importance of friendships. I'll be speaking with Lydia Denworth a science journalist and author of a book called friendship. It's a truly touching and insightful investigation of companionship, this is central bond that humans and animals alike need to thrive during a lifetime.


Jeremy (28:36)

"Is Anybody Out There?" was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.


Judy (28:41)

This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Armada.


Jeremy (28:48)

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Judy (28:53)

And do subscribe wherever you download your podcasts.


Jeremy (28:57)

For more information about what you heard today, please visit Let's stay connected.

Mark EpsteinProfile Photo

Mark Epstein

Mark Epstein MD is a psychiatrist and author of 8 books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including Thoughts without a Thinker, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart, Psychotherapy without the Self, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, and the forthcoming The Zen of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life to be published in January 2022 by Penguin Press. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School.

Photo credit: Larry Bercow