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Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (1995, BasicBooks, ISBN 0-465-03931-6) is a book by Mark Epstein, and it deals with the conception or image we have of ourselves — In other words, who we think we are. The book also takes into consideration Buddhism, (often only referred to as Eastern psychology, even its original psychology), and has a very central teaching of "letting go of the self" (self: atman, selflessness: anatta). Although the Buddhist teachings in this book are arguably well developed and holistic, some may perhaps find it easiest to relate to this as Mark Epstein describes himself: "A Western psychologist who uses Buddhist techniques."

Throughout the book, Epstein writes off our concept of self as "just an idea that we dream up while young". As time goes on, Epstein says, we become more and more attached to this idea, and try to protect it (see skandha), leading to all sorts of problems. Also: "Since it is just a fixed idea — and one made up by a child, no less — it cannot possibly be an accurate representation of an ever-changing human living from moment to moment. As such, while preserving this self-concept, we are in a constant battle to defend something which is indefensible."

So, he comes to a conclusion: "The issue here, of course, is that defending the indefensible is no way to be happy. Therefore, we should stop deceiving ourselves and really examine this issue."

He concludes that the solution to all this is: "to simply drop this ridiculous concept of 'who we are', and to start being what we are! Who we are is not a fixed image, but an ongoing story. It is not only new in this very moment, but will be new again, in the next moment."

It's not necessarily that we just "drop" or let go of this self; this self never did exist, so it is like seeing the self as nonexistent, a fiction, illusion or a delusion. For example, when we get our feelings hurt, or someone pushes our buttons, this is when the self is most "real." If we redirect our awareness to the self at those moments, we see that it is in flux, and we are freed from the pressures of narcissistic emotions. This self is something that never existed. This is what is meant by "thoughts without a thinker."

If you read Mark Epsteins book "Thoughts Without a Thinker" you may find that he carefully illustrates all the wrong views that commonly occur with beginning meditators, for example, "to simply drop this ridiculous concept of 'who we are'" is the action of disavowal. Listen to Epstein on this point, " A fourth common misconception... is the belief that egolessness is a developmental stage beyond the ego-that the ego must first exist and then be abandoned."

The mirror stage (Lacan) Edit

Within the annals of psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy Epstein's view is not new. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, possibly the most influential reinterpreter of Freud in France after Freud's death, offered a non-Buddhist explanation of the origin of the self in his 1941 essay translated into English as the 'Mirror Stage'. The core of this essay was formulated in lectures as early as 1936.

In this illuminating essay Lacan analyses the reaction of the infant who first sees his own body image in a looking-glass or mirror. Contrasting the infant's perceived apparent self-image with the psychic fragmentation that he attributed to the infant, Lacan concluded that each of us puts on ("assumes") something to function as a self to conform to the deceptive image that we see at this moment. Such a self is the person we hope others will take us for rather than our fragementations which render us so vulnerable.

The strength of his observation is that any infant with a mirror or looking-glass is seen to visibly startle at its own image. It may be argued that Lacan offers more sophistication to the infant at the same time as he refuses it.

If Lacan's vision is valid, then Epstein's theory fails to take into account the very real power of the 'validation' of the individual self provided by others, and especially of the primary caregivers, family members and benevolent authorities like teachers. Their constant and continuing use of such attributes as a personal name or nickname, of regular routines of care and concern, and behavioural expectations constantly reinforce the version of the self that every child must have to pass from the childhood to adult stage, where the cycle is repeated with fresh generations.

While there may be some sound good sense in the idea that we are not the one that our society says we are in terms of identity, Epstein's too-easy dismissal of the core and fundamental developmental influences makes his thesis that we can readily displace the notion of the self very much subject to questioning.

Were Epstein to consider the findings of psychoanalysis he might see that the persistence of the self, its innate conservatism, is fundamental to creating a reference point from which some partial change may be made without destroying the core of the self that was formed out of a need to survive.

Epstein's "theory" is based on experience of injured innocence, when the self concept is hurt at that time, and the person redirects awareness from "offending object to the mispercieve subject" it is this self that "breaks up under objective scrutiny" not the personality as a whole. The reason Mark writes about injured innocence is to free the individual of suffering created by naccistic attachment, which is the hardest concept to wrap your mind around.

Thoughts in search of a thinker (Bion) Edit

While designing his personal epistemology, which he felt indispensable in order to function as a practising psychoanalyst, the British psychiatrist Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897 – 1979) arrived at the idea that thoughts should be distinguished from the thinker who is ‘having’ them (Bion, 1962).
Thinking, in Bion’s view, is an apparatus to cope with thoughts, a development forced on the psyche by the pressure of thoughts, not the other way round. Psychopathology is thus understood as resulting from a breakdown a) in the development of thoughts, or b) in the development of the apparatus for dealing with them, or c) simultaneously in both. Thoughts, in Bion’s theory, are the product of a preconception and its frustration. The example he uses is the infant’s expectation of a breast, intersecting with a realisation of no breast available for satisfaction. If such frustration can be tolerated, this ‘no breast’ becomes internalised as a thought, which in turn contributes to development of the apparatus for thinking it.
In his later commentary to the original paper (Bion, 1967), this theory of thinking is associated with a phenomenon common in the consulting room that Bion has coined ‘attacks on linking’. The example given is based on an observable difference between the actual functioning of human sense organs and the nature of our ‘sensing’ in the mental realm. Bion points out that for smell, sight, etcetera, the human body is equipped with specifically specialised sense organs, where in psychic reality the sense organs apparently intuit every sort of sensation by the same apparatus: the mind. When a person hallucinates while listening to another person, he or she might say “I see what you mean”, but this does not necessarily indicate that he or she expresses understanding of what has been said; his or her statement may actually be literally 'true'. This kind of exchange must therefore be considered an evasion of or intolerance for frustration (the frustration of not understanding what the other person is trying to communicate) and therefore a destructive attack on the capacity to think.
A second example Bion uses to clarify the pragmatic implications of his theory, is the problem of thinking the infinite. He points out that the idea of the finite comes after the idea of infinitude. The sense that an infinite number of objects exists, intersects with frustrating physical or mental experiences a person has of him- or herself. The oceanic feeling of infinitude is then replaced by a sense that only a definite number of objects exist. This way a thought acquires a thinker.
To be sure, at the end of his commentary Bion warns against using ‘experience’ as an instrument for empirical verification or validation. That practice, customary in the philosophy of science, is critiqued by Bion as a neutralising manoeuvre against the sense of deep insecurity following every discovery: that further arrays of unsolved problems lie ahead. “Thoughts” in search of a thinker.

The following is a quote from a tape Bion recorded before a visit to Rome in 1977: "If a thought without a thinker comes along, it may be a stray thought, or it could be a thought with the owner's name and address on it, or it could be a wild thought. The problem is, what to do with it. Of course, if it is wild, one might try to domesticate it. If its owner's name and address are attached, it could be restored to its owner, or the owner could be told that you had it and he could collect it any time he felt inclined. Or, of course, you could purloin it and hope either the owner would forget it, or that he would not notice the theft, and you could keep the idea all to yourself."

Bion, W. R. (1962). “A Theory of Thinking.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 43, Parts 4-5.
Bion, W. R. (1967). Second thoughts : selected papers on psycho-analysis. London, Heinemann Medical.

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