Fall 2013

Lessons from Above

Psychiatrist Ronald Pies culls the wisdom of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism for advice in coping with life’s vicissitudes

By Taylor McNeil

Life throws many curveballs. Some even end up beaning us. How we respond, Ronald Pies says, is what makes the difference between a contented life and one filled with anger, sorrow and despair. You might expect Pies, a psychiatrist and clinical professor at the medical school, to recommend therapy to help mediate life’s difficulties. But in his new book, The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse, 2013), he offers a different path to happiness based on practical advice from Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism. He pulls together strands from the three traditions to make the case that wisdom comes in many forms that are accessible to all.

Pies has addressed two of those traditions in other books, including his introduction to Stoicism, Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living (Hamilton Books), and a guide to the ethics of the Talmud, Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone (Hamilton Books), the collection of commentary on the Torah. In his latest book, he weaves them together with Buddhism to provide, as the book’s subtitle suggests, counsel for “a healthy, fulfilled and flourishing life.” He first summarizes each discipline, and then uses examples from composites of his patients to illustrate how the different traditions approach everyday problems.

In the end, though two of his sources are indeed religions, the advice he finds in them is as much psychological as spiritual, and as relevant today as ever, as he told us in a recent interview.

Illustration: Alex Nabaum

Illustration: Alex Nabaum

Why did you write this book?

Ronald Pies: I have been coming to terms with a lot of changes in my life as I reach late middle age, including many good things, but some losses, friends who have died, the kinds of things we all encounter later in life. I was trying to synthesize some scattered ideas that I had accumulated over the years from several different spiritual traditions. I had written on Stoicism and a couple of books on Judaism, and more recently had been doing readings in Buddhist literature. At some point it occurred to me that there were many common strands that linked these three traditions. I felt focusing on these common strands would address some of the needs that I was feeling at the time and maybe help other people address them as well.

Is there a link between these spiritual traditions and psychotherapy?

There is a very specific link between Stoicism and rational emotive behavioral therapy, which was devised by Albert Ellis. It emphasizes the idea that our thoughts determine our feelings, that the way we think is the way we feel. That’s essentially what Stoicism says. Ellis traced his views to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

How does that work?

The idea is that people develop emotional problems, to put it bluntly, because they tell themselves a lot of nonsense, things like “I must have everybody’s love and approval, or I’m nothing,” or “I’ve got to succeed in everything I do, or else I’m a terrible person.” The Stoics would say, and Ellis would agree, that when you stop telling yourself all this nonsense, you’ll find that you’re much happier. Buddhism is really a kindred spirit to Stoicism in many ways, and I think that the Judaic tradition is as well.

In your book, you demonstrate the response of each tradition to particular emotional problems. What would each say about anger, for example? 

In all three traditions, anger is regarded for the most part as a pretty bad thing. That may not sound very controversial, but those of us who came of age in the 1960s were told that if you’re angry, you should let it rip, let it out. But what most psychologists have found is that when people do that, they just end up getting angrier.

In Judaism, anger is compared to idolatry, which is very interesting. What idol are you worshipping when you get angry? The answer is yourself. If somebody insults me, or looks at me the wrong way, that’s an awful thing, because I deserve everybody’s respect. In the Jewish tradition, when you find yourself really angry, what you’re doing is bowing down to the idol of your own ego. That’s what most psychiatrists would say is a form of narcissism.

“My own way of making these things real and part of my life is to practice the thinking that great sages advocate.”

—Ron Pies

Similarly, Buddhists would say there is nothing righteous about anger; it’s always a bad thing. There is a great exercise that one of the Tibetan Buddhist masters recommends when you’re very angry. (It’s in the book.) First of all, he says, don’t tell yourself “I am angry,” because you are identifying yourself with the anger. Instead, say “There is anger; I own it.” Then imagine your anger is an infant, and now you want to hold that infant, that anger, in your arms, and sort of cradle it, nurture it. When you do that, you’ve owned your anger, and you will find your anger diminishes. It’s an interesting, counterintuitive way to deal with anger.

The Stoics feel much the same way. They are very big on cognitive skills and logic. They would say, sit down and think logically about this. What is it that you are angry about? Well, I’m angry because I was invited to a dinner party, and I got seated at the end of the table instead of near the host. The Stoics would say: Are you out of your mind? What difference does it make what part of the table you are seated at? You are making yourself angry by having this preposterous idea.

The three traditions are very different in fundamental ways. What are some common approaches they offer about everyday living?

One is moderation, the middle path, avoiding extremes. Another would be self-restraint. It’s a critical part of Judaism, and it’s a critical part of Buddhism and Stoicism. Self-restraint has all kinds of subcategories, including things like controlling anger, but also controlling gluttony or excessive sexual activity or anything for that matter. And then, maybe surprisingly, I think all three traditions stress kindness.

When the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, was asked to summarize his religion, he said, “Be kind to people.” And that’s it. For him, all of the trappings of religion and ceremony and complicated theology and all of this stuff come down to one idea. And the view in Judaism is very similar. Hillel, a rabbi of the Talmudic era, said, “Don’t do to other people what you would not have done to you. All the rest is commentary.” He’s basically saying in a slightly different way what the Dalai Lama says. Hillel’s is worded in the negative, which I think is actually a more psychologically astute way of saying the same thing.

And the surprising thing is that in the Stoic tradition, a very similar thought is expressed. We are all human beings, we all breathe the same air, they say; we all have a responsibility to be kind and decent to each other. Stoics are often thought of as stiff-upper-lip logicians, and the assumption is that there is no spiritual quality to them, but in fact there really is. They see the same kind of need for kindness to our fellow human beings.

How can people integrate the knowledge that you offer in the book into their lives?

People interested in these three traditions will find the common strands that unite them and find ways of working them into their own lives. But each person, I think, needs to find a path that is comfortable: Zen meditation, reading Marcus Aurelius—there is a very good new translation of his Meditations by the Hicks brothers—or becoming involved in the Jewish faith. For some people, and I think this is true for me, it will be finding bits and pieces of all three traditions and somehow just melding them into their lives.

My own way of making these things real and part of my life is to practice the thinking that great sages advocate. And I mean really practice, like practicing an instrument. I have 20 sayings taped on my computer monitor; they are literally in front of my eyes every day. I often begin the day by reading two or three of those, sayings such as this one by Rabbi Rami Shapiro: “Don’t take life so seriously; it’s only temporary.” I read these sayings and try to commit them to memory, and I call them up when I find myself becoming upset or angry, sad or depressed.

Taylor McNeil, the senior news editor in Tufts’ Office of Publications, can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

Top Stories

Growing New Synapses

The medical school undergoes its first major reorganization in more than a century to promote catalytic research in a time of ever-tighter funding

The Contrarian

Our old theoretical models in biology are not working so well lately, says Ana Soto. She is determined to find something better.

Crossing Borders

School of Medicine steps up its recruitment of top-notch foreign medical graduates to give them opportunities for U.S. residencies

Lessons from Above

Psychiatrist Ronald Pies culls the wisdom of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism for advice in coping with life’s vicissitudes

Editor's Picks

Family Ties

A 50th-anniversary gathering evokes the pleasures of pursuing science in the same department while caring for each other without fail

A Double Helping

The medical school’s policy of matching donations makes generosity the rule

Among the Best in the World

Two Sackler School students named Howard Hughes Fellows