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Meet the WritersImage of T. Byram Karasu, M.D.
T. Byram Karasu, M.D.
Renowned throughout the medical community, psychiatrist T. Byram Karasu, M.D. is the Silverman Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Psychiatrist-in-Chief of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. A Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, he has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Sigmund Freud Award and the APA's Presidential Commendation.

Dr. Karasu has published extensively in professional journals and is the author of psychiatric textbooks such as the seminal Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders. He has also written spiritual self-help guides, including the New York Times bestsellers The Art of Serenity and The Spirit of Happiness; and, in 2009, he published Rags of My Soul, a first book of poetry.

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Good to Know
Karasu explained in our interview how he likes to unwind: "I like quietness; I seek sanctuary in places protected from the sounds of civilization. I like to sit still in my garden -- I am a good gardener, hard labor part included -- and I listen to nature, the ultimate teacher. There for hours I do nothing, waiting, not even waiting, just being. At times I touch a flower, I kiss its petals; I try to get very close to bumblebees and butterflies -- a few times their wings hit my eyelashes. In the garden I commune with the birds, insects and vegetation. I feel one with them and whole."

"My other sanctuaries are writing and reading where I converse with myself and with other authors. Reading a minimum of 200 books to writing 1 is a reasonable proportion. Those who write more than they read, tend to rediscover the wheel -- a lower quality of that. Other times I spend time with friends, my alternative home."

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In the winter of 2003, T. Byram Karasu, M.D., answered some of our questions"

What was the book that most influenced your life?
A biography of Albert Schweitzer. Here was a man, an accomplished musician, writer, and professor of theology and philosophy living in the comfortable civilized world of Strasbourg, who decides to become a physician. He leaves everything behind him and goes to Africa to help natives without any conventional gains associated with it. If anything there would be all sorts of losses: financial, health, and even danger to his life. For example, he was detained in an old French mental hospital as a prisoner of war during World War II. This was the first time I heard of someone intentionally serving others without any obvious benefit for himself. That totally confused me. I was only 11 years old and just learning the nature of reciprocity in human relationships. Schweitzer's behavior betrayed common sense. Some adults explained his behavior cynically: "He must have been running away from something!"; "He might have wanted to be famous!"; "He was having a sort of nervous breakdown!", etc.

My father was a writer and had an unusual collection of books in his library. There I used to spend a good deal of time. In one of the books on Eastern philosophy I read that enlightenment is preceded by confusion. So I waited, waited. Then came the revelation that one serves one's self best by serving others. This enlightenment came through reading about the life of Mahatma Gandhi. In his early years, in South Africa, whenever he settled down in a town he'd start serving people. When he was asked whether his interest in the poor was a humanitarian act, he replied, "Not at all; I am here to serve myself only; to find my own self-realization through the service of others." By then I was already 12 years old, and to me now the whole thing was obvious! How could I not have figured that out a year ago? Then and there I decided to become a physician.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life by Thomas Moore -- In contrast to Western psychology's interpretation of the Greek myth about Narcissus, the person is drowned in his pathology, Moore depicts Narcissus' fall into the river as the story of transformation from one form of nature to another -- a boy becomes a flower. In this book there is a hint of eternity if one understands that we are ephemeral in our presently manifested forms but eternal in all other potential forms. It provides an intelligent and optimistic view of life.

  • The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks -- Jalalu'l-Din Rumi is a 12th-century mystic, a Sufi. In his poetry, he reveals the mystery of being in communion with the world. "I am you and it," he says. The message is an antidote to the selfishness of our age. If one recognizes that we are all one, that we all came from the same divine womb, we would be kind and compassionate toward each other. It is the secret of peaceful coexistence.

  • Marsilio Ficino: The Book of Life, translated by Charles Boer -- It disabuses the concept of happiness as espoused in modern times as the gratification of all the senses or the constant and frenzied pursuit of excitement. It explains the most abused Epicurean motto -- "Pleasure in the present" -- by describing what the philosopher really meant. What seems to be an utterly hedonistic philosophy is not when you find out how Epicurus spent his life. For him, pleasure was eating very little, and then only vegetables, spending his time in gardening, reading books, and being with friends. If you live like that, then happiness will roll at your feet. No one has said it any simpler or better since.

  • Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki -- When you do something, "You should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire." If you put all your energy into your work, that is, do any kind of work with enthusiasm and devotion, the work becomes interesting and rewarding. Most people complain about their work because simply they lack that patience and engagement. One of my preferred mottos is not "I think therefore I am," but "I work therefore I am." Those who don't love their work end up not liking themselves and in return get disliked, and even lose their sense of selves.

  • Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm -- The source of our anxiety, that vague discomfort of being in the world, is related to our so cherished "freedom." Our assertion of individuality, separation and independence generate a sense of "not-belonging" and thus the existential anxiety. It is hard to make sense of one's life in isolation. The quest for community is an innate urge to seek basic structure. It is even better if such a structure is imposed upon us rather than being our choice. The decisions based on free choice are reversible and thus potentially destabilizing. Even choosing one's own religion would generate anxiety. Fromm offers freedom from existential anxiety as a way of escaping from freedom. We need to belong in order to be happy.

  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell -- In one of the 13th-century Turkish tales, the old and sick Nasreddin Hodja, a wise fool, was trying to plant an orange tree. A passerby watched and said in pity: "Dear Hodja, why on earth do you even bother to plant a tree whose fruit you'll never live long enough to eat?" Hodja replied, "That is true. But it is truer still that I have eaten plenty of fruit from the trees that others planted." The story is about the mutuality of our existence, a basic law of nature. This reciprocation, contemporary and multigenerational, serves as communal glue. Looking only after one's immediate self-interest is the contemporary expression of the ethic of Sodom, and it is equally soulless. Modern man is heading in that direction. There is a Zen saying: No seed ever sees the flower. We must think of our efforts, ourselves, as such seeds. The flowers that we enjoy today were seeded by someone else. That sense of continuity is what transforms our passions into compassion -- "suffering with" but also "enjoying with." It is reciprocative generosity that guarantees the survival of its community.

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau -- Here one learns the importance of solitude. The author describes how one feels man's oneness alone with the universe in soundless and harmonious synchrony of nature. Solitude puts the individual in touch with his or her deepest feelings and allows time for previously unrelated thoughts and emotions to interact, to regroup themselves into new formations and thus bring harmony to the mind. One can sink roots into the rhythm of nature and find himself in the process. The deprivation of solitude, on the other hand, is the cause of many psychological and physiological distresses. Being with other people for long periods of time, no matter how loving and interesting they may be, interferes with one's biopsychological rhythm.

  • A Traveler in Romance (Uncollected Writings 1901-1964) by W. Somerset Maugham, edited by John Whitehead -- Coming to terms with one's ending is an important task of a person if he is to die peacefully without grasping, especially if the cause of death is the exhaustion of our natural life span. Man often dies without full understanding of his death, without truly experiencing it, forfeiting this most powerful event in his life. The process of dying must also be lived. Maugham has his hero tell an interviewer how complacent he feels about the prospect of death without ninety years of "hedonism" behind him: "I am drunk with the thought of it. It seems to me to offer me the final and absolute freedom...and I am content that with my last breath my soul, with its aspirations and its weaknesses, will dissolve into nothingness."

    One needs to cultivate a concept of dying, in life, long before facing death. This cultivation could be based on one's religious convictions (going to Heaven); it could be naturalistic (death seeds life); it could be philosophical (infinity is a result of a series of finite transitions). One has to have a concept. Otherwise at the moment of death, the dread, and the panic are unbearable for the person who is dying and for the loved ones watching helplessly the indignities of walking into a vacuum.

  • How to Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries by Deepak Chopra -- Two questions are frequently asked. "Is there a God? If so, what is God?" In keeping with the philosopher Karl Jaspers you may say, "There is no God, for there is only the universe, and the universe is God." Or, in synchrony with Immanuel Kant, you may be awed by the enormity of a starry night in which time and space seem to become interchangeable, forming a spectacular tapestry. There you realize that the earth is only one minute portion of the mystic galaxy; you pause and exclaim: "Ah, there must be God."

    For Chopra, all these questions about God are difficult to answer unless one concedes the existence of another reality radically different from the one we commonly experience with our five senses. It is a simple conviction that there is something much greater than the human dimension. Chopra provides an eloquent argument about the limitations of the human mind, and how to go beyond thinking to find God.

  • A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong -- Secular spirituality has outstripped its conceptual basis. A breakthrough in the spiritual arena can be made possible only by a backward leap, that is, by a returning to faith. But that is only possible if the religions emphasizes to their original source -- the tenets of love, forgiveness, compassion, fairness, etc. Armstrong is discouraged (as others are) as she notes a central motif in those three Abrahamic religions: a personal meeting between God and man, wherein God relates by means of dialogue. We are adamant in overly personalizing God, whom we insist must talk to us in the way that humans talk rather than in more enigmatic ways. She says, "Rabbis, priests, and Sufis [should] have warned me not to expect to experience [God] as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary process of rational thought."

    In fact rabbis, priests and Sufi were to provide a matrix in the form of religions for us to believe in God. For most of us it is difficult to believe in isolation. If you say, "I believe in one God" and then step back and reflect on what you just uttered, suggests Peter Berger, at least three problems present themselves: "Who is the 'I' that is affirming faith? What does 'believe' mean in the context? Who is the 'one God' in whom belief is being affirmed? Not many individuals can survive this line of inquiry by themselves. That is where organized religion has a role. Not "I" but only "we" can believe in God. We are all wired for God, like we all have a television set, but we need to connect to a cable company to receive the programs. Religion plays such a central role, for it is the natural ground in which spirituality develops. Religion may also be conceived as an underground river of wisdom any individual well can tap into it and, in spite of its potential impediments, it still provides the only cohesive articulation of human experience and frames our lives.

    Let me stop here. Like poets I dare be just so clear and no clearer.

    Favorite films?

  • From Here to Eternity
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Au Revoir les Enfants
  • The Postman
  • Talk to Her

    Favorite music?

  • The Beatles
  • Elton John
  • Simon and Garfunkel
  • Bob Dylan
  • Cat Stevens
  • Edith Piaf
  • Erzurum Barlari
  • Charlotte Church

    Classics, such as:

  • Brahms's Hungarian Dances
  • Chopin's Nocturnes
  • Bach's Cantatas
  • Beethoven's Adagios
  • Handel's Messiah
  • Mozart's everything!

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
    A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin.

    For a young person in America, the conflicts in the Balkans involving the Serbians vs. Albanians, Muslims, and Macedonians; conflicts in North Africa and in Cyprus, in the Middle East, involving -- Israel vs. Palestinians, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and conflicts in Greece vs. Turks, all other big and little kingdoms -- Kuwait, Qadar, Yemen, Saudi Arabia etc., must seem totally confusing. Anyone who frustratedly wonders how did all this get out of hand in the last few decades could learn a great deal from this book. The peace that the author refers to is related to the one established after World War I, and the dismantling of the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire, which contained all these countries, as well as Bulgaria, Crimea, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, etc. at its height, in the 16th century.

    The Western powers (primarily England, France, and later the United States) carved out of the Ottoman Empire numerous tribal governments, which were based on the politics of oil. These powers established an independent Israel within a sea of Arab nations through mass immigration of East European Jews, forced displacement of natives, and they set the stage of a chronic conflict. The seeds of the recent Islam vs. U.S. hostilities were sown by that "Peace Agreement," which as the author rightly describes, ended all possibility of peace. Even Churchill, who was mainly responsible for dismantling the Ottoman Empire, later on regretted his decision by saying that this was a major historical mistake.

    Here, we are all preoccupied and anxious about having a rather diffuse and determined enemy, with whom one cannot negotiate peace, as "Islamism," inherent in Islam, has been unleashed. Neither the change of regime in Iraq nor an establishment of a Palestine State will bring peace. In fact there will never be a peace; rather, there will continue a chronic state of guerilla warfare of extremist Muslims, covertly supported by the rest, against the infidels -- Westerners. The West forced Islam to define its identity in negating Judeo-Christian values.

    Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special to you?

  • Fyodor Dostoevski: I like Dostoevski's in-depth development of characters. You end up knowing them better than the real people in your life.

  • Thomas Pynchon: Pynchon's obscure "gravitas." He forces you to meditative reading.

  • Leo Tolstoy: Tolstoy's weaving of personal stories into historical events. You are swept up with the events, as you cannot tell the fiction from the real.

  • Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov's rich texture of language. It is like having your favorite drink or dessert in your mouth and letting it linger.

    What are your favorite books to give as gifts?

  • Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

  • Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter W. Benjamin

  • Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen

  • Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado

  • To a Dancing God: Notes of a Spiritual Traveler by Sam Keen

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  • About the Writer
    *T. Byram Karasu, M.D. Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    In Our Other Stores
    * Signed, First Editions by T. Byram Karasu, M.D.
    *Psychotherapy for Depression, 1990
    *Wisdom in the Practice of Psychotherapy, 1992
    *Deconstruction of Psychotherapy, 1996
    *The Psychotherapist's Interventions, 1998
    *The Psychotherapist as Healer, 2001
    *The Art of Serenity, 2003
    *The Art of Marriage Maintenance, 2005
    *The Spirit of Happiness, 2006
    *Of God and Madness: A Historical Novel, 2006
    Photo by Richard Corman