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
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 "...one
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 "...as
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