In the 70s self help books had a we’re-all-in-this-together feeling and clustered around transpersonal themes such in the book I’m Ok, You’re OK   In the 80s, decade of major money-making, self help moved onto managing time and handling the people–either at home or in the workplace–who made you angry or got in your way: think One Minute Manager and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  In the 90s, books such as Listening to Prozac pondered pharmaceutical possibilities for being comfortable with the self.  Move on to the first decade of the 2000s and we find popular self-help and transformational books combine Buddhism with notions of happiness and letting go of ego. Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein is of that genre.

I saw this book on the coffee table of a friend who had just gone through a difficult divorce.  She said the book helped her get through it.  Since my adult child is having a difficult time right now, I thought I would  find out what useful advice the book might contain.

Going to Piece… is very formularific in the self-help way. For fans of the self-help genre, the predictable formula may be comforting and part of the attraction. Here is how it goes:  After the writer details his/her expertise, he introduces his self-help theme and outlines  what the reader can expect to read in coming chapters.  The chapters begin and are set up in this way: chapter idea/topic, examples, summary; idea, examples, summary; idea, examples, summary. You get the picture.

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness: Lessons from Meditation and Psychotherapy (two subtitles!) follows the pattern.  Writer Mark Epstein presents a deck of themes: themes such as Emptiness, Surrender, Tolerance.  He provides examples.  First, from his psychiatry practice: usually how his patients achieved an epiphany that related to a Buddhist principle that related to the title of the chapter.  Second, an example from his personal or family life. Third, he tells a story about Buddha or a Buddhist monk. Support for his observations and ideas appear in each summary (sometimes in examples, too) he cites Harvard–either his experience at Harvard, his medical training at Harvard, a Harvard study that he participated in or a Harvard study that was carried out by others.  Harvard carries a leading role in the book.

By the third chapter of Going to Pieces, the genre’s transparency became awfully tedious. The books are like merry-go-rounds; only he horses that rotate around the center are different.

I suppose relating Buddhist philosophy to feeling lonely, to passion, to relationships  and telling people it is OK to fall apart can be helpful, such as it was to my friend who was going through a divorce.  And the book keeps in mind  the twistaroonee in Buddhism, as I have been taught: abandon any hope for fruition. In other words, whatever you do, don’t expect results.  Epstein upholds this teaching as the core of his commentary.

For those interested in  Buddhism and transformation,in all its playfulness and irony, I recommend a book that is not so formularific:  Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness by Chogyam Trungpa.