Review: Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (Epstein)

Epstein, Mark, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, Basic Books, New York, NY, 1995, xii + 242 pp., $22.00.

Reviewed by Arthur J. Deikman, MD

     "Thoughts Without a Thinker" compares the concepts and practices of psychoanalytically-based psychotherapy with those of Buddhism and shows their striking congruence. As an example, mindfulness meditation is similar to the practice of detached observation recommended by Freud. Epstein suggests that Western psychotherapy has a significant contribution to make to Buddhism, but that Buddhism goes beyond Western psychotherapy in its ability to assist the individual in recognizing the non-existent nature of "I", the self. Epstein regards the Buddhist negation of the "I"--achieved via mindfulness meditation -- to be the crowning contribution of Buddhism to psychotherapy because when the self is seen to be nonexistent, the human being is freed from narcissistic concerns -- the source of suffering. This latter step, the core of Buddha's teaching, is seen as an opportunity for final freedom.

     Being both a psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapist and a practicing Buddhist, Epstein is able to speak with sophistication and knowledge about each domain. His book is instructive and enables the reader to gain an appreciation for both the straightforward, non-esoteric character of Buddhist practice and the way it can enhance psychotherapy. Specifically, the clinical examples show the potential usefulness of mindfulness meditation in the psychotherapy of selected patients. These examples also bespeak a skilled practitioner whose Buddhist perspective is challenging and effective.

     However, despite these excellent qualities, the book suffers at times from being narrow and doctrinaire. For example, Epstein accepts uncritically the psychoanalytic postulate that the infant at the breast experiences a state of paradisacal oneness, "...that original feeling of infantile perfection". "We are all haunted by the lost perfection of the ego that contained everything." This dubious assumption--for which there is little or no evidence--is made the keystone of Epstein's conceptual bridge between East and West, explaining most of human motivation as an attempt to regain that narcissistic bliss. This could be true, but is unlikely. As any mother will testify, the infant spends a good deal of time being distressed from diapers, hunger, and indigestion. It sucks busily when hungry, but when hunger is quieted the infant sleeps. For those brief periods when it is neither distressed, feeding, or sleeping, it shows an active, exploratory interest in new stimuli. This behavior is not indicative of perfect oneness, of a state of bliss to which we would want to regain, such a wish being " of the most compelling unconscious wishes that we harbor."

     The issue is central because Epstein sees tat wish as responsible for the creation and maintenance of a false sense of self, for seeing the self and others " fixed, immobile, and permanent objects that can be possessed or controlled and that in some way contain a piece of that original security." There is no mention of the possibility that seeing the self and others as objects, as distinct entities, may be necessary for biological survival and thus have an evolutionary, functional origin rather than being regressive. Likewise, Epstein makes other simplistic and reductionistic equations: wisdom and compassion are declared to be the product of sublimated ego and object libido, respectively: "the chronic spiritual hunger" of Western culture is attributed to "inadequate childhood attention."

     Epstein's tone is certain: no questioning is present. Indeed, his citations are almost entirely of psychoanalytic authors or of Buddhist scriptures supporting his view. No mention is made of the views of other writers in the field of transpersonal psychotherapy, nor of articles challenging some of the psychoanalytic concepts he presents.

     The book focuses attention on the critical ontological issue of the nature of self. Epstein emphasizes that Buddha's teachings emphatically deny the existence of a self, a soul, a "true self", essence of self, universal mind, even Buddha-nature--nothing having actual rather than imaginary existence. Such beliefs are labeled "ignorance" and held to be responsible for human dissatisfaction and suffering. But there are many schools of Buddhism, depending on how Buddha's words are interpreted. Epstein presents what might be called a kind of purist Buddhism: there is no Big Mind, as in Zen, no True Self, as in Sufism, no Atman, as in Vedanta, no soul as in Christianity. "In the Buddhist view, a realized being has realized her own lack of true self." The reader may well ask, "Who realizes? What realizes?" Late in the book Epstein speaks of the self as an unnecessary metaphor for the process of knowing. But who or what "knows"? The "I" cannot be dismissed so easily. A Sufi saying is relevant: "I heard a voice whispering to me in the night saying, `There is no such thing as a voice whispering in the night.'"

     Epstein argues that the total absence or emptiness of the self is realized in the advanced phases of meditation. But Vedanta claims the same for Atman, Christians for the soul's relation to God, Zen for the experience of Big Mind, and the Sufis for the True Self. It is probable that they--and Buddhism--reflect aspects of a reality too complex and mulit-faceted to be encompassed by any one approach, set of techniques, or metaphysical framework.

     Thoughts Without A Thinker is useful in informing the reader in the ways that Buddhist theory and practice can enrich and expand the work of the psychotherapist. The perspective it presents is stimulating and provocative. Despite the problems noted, the book is worth reading by all those interested in the relationship of spiritual disciplines to psychotherapy, the psychotherapeutic application of mindfulness meditation, and the fundamental question of the nature of the self.

1) Indries Shah, Wisdom of the Idiots, (London: Octagon Press) 1971.

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