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Psychotherapy without the SelfReview - Psychotherapy without the Self
A Buddhist Perspective
by Mark Epstein
Yale University Press, 2007
Review by Laura Cook
Jul 1st 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 27)

In Psychotherapy Without the Self, Epstein attempts to bring Buddhist practice and western psychotherapy into dialogue. Over recent years psychotherapists have become increasingly interested in meditative practice. Similarly Buddhists have taken interest in western psychotherapeutic practice. Whilst this has been partially fruitful, Epstein suggests that there have been a number of problems, where eastern and western practitioners have a mutually misunderstood each other. In part, these misunderstandings have led western practitioners to be wary of meditative practice, perceiving dangers in the so-called 'egoless' state which it is thought to encourage. Epstein attempts to clarify the process of meditation, translating eastern philosophy into psychodynamic language in order to show its relevance for contemporary psychotherapeutic practice. He does not, however, fall into the trap of conceiving eastern thought as inherently 'better' -- a tendency which can be found in strands of transpersonal psychotherapy. Such figures as Stanislav Grof (see When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities By Stanislov Grof) tend to celebrate 'egolessness' as a state to be actively sought, or even induced with the use of psychotropic drugs. Epstein's primary targets are the following misapprehensions of Buddhist practice: a) that the idea of 'self' should be eliminated b) that one can 'transcend' one's emotions and engagement in the world, and c) that meditation provides gratification in the form of regression to an infantile narcissistic state.

Epstein points out that, with few exceptions, the psychoanalytic view of meditation has not substantially advanced beyond Freud's 1930 analysis of the 'oceanic feeling.' The experience of meditation continues to be equated with primitive, symbiotic union with the mother, prior to the differentiation between self and world. This pull towards narcissistic regression led Freud to formulate the hypothesis of the 'death instinct' which posits silent forces at work within the psyche towards the dissolution of the ego. As Epstein notes, this seemed to 'parallel his understanding of the Buddha's definition of nirvana (p. 9) However, what the Buddha sought to show was that rather than death or dissolution, the part of the meditative enterprise is to accept disintegration without falling apart. How are we then to understand this seemingly paradoxical stance? In the perceived similarity between the psychotic, undifferentiated narcissistic state, and the 'emptiness' fostered in meditative practice that is a source of concern for western practitioners. This wariness is evident in the caution that 'one has to be somebody, before one can become nobody' (p.97) in meditation. In other words, it is assumed that meditation and the sort of dissolution it invites should only be attempted by an individual with a robust, good-enough sense of self. Built in to this caution is the implicit assumption that meditation involves self-abnegation, and that there is a real 'loss' to be confronted. Quoting Gyatso, Epstein suggests that

Selflessness is not a case of something that existed in the past becoming non-existent; rather, this sort of 'self' is something that never did exist. What is needed is to identify as non-existent something that always was non-existent (p. 49)

Thus, when the self is examined in meditation, it is not eliminated, rather it is shown to be what it always has been. The concept of 'annata', or the idea of 'persisting individual nature' (p. 44) is destroyed through meditative insight. However, this is not a loss, nor do we need to dispute the everyday use of the term 'self'. What we do come to realize, however, is that we tend to give imbue the relational self an absolute status that it does not possess. This illusion of self as a fixed, potentially 'knowable' entity is reinforced by various therapeutic approaches which encourage us to invest a great deal of time in 'knowing ourselves', thus bolstering our own separateness. From a Buddhist perspective, we fail to tolerate disintegration and fall apart (as in psychosis) when we attach to the sense of emptiness that created by the dissolution of the self. In schizoid experience, for instance, there is an identification with emptiness as an innate quality. There is a need to identify something as existing in its own right, and since the self is revealed as dispersed in meditation this desire is transferred to egolessness, which comes to assume the position of a new absolute. However, in attaching to the emptiness left by the dissolution of self one implicitly continues to maintain the validity of the 'lost object.' Epstein counsels:

Let ego be ego; do not fall victim to either reification or repudiation, to either the emptiness or the grandiosity of the illusion of narcissism (p. 94)

Thus emptiness is a non-affirming negative, which is to say that something positive is not being substituted for the object of negation. Thus the experience of emptiness is always found in 'relation to a belief in an object's inherent existence' (p. 63). In the light of Epstein's argument, we might suggest that psychosis, with its prevailing sense of unreality, still reverberates with the loss of an object; but an object that was not there to be found. This is the point at which Freud's consideration of the 'oceanic feeling' stops. As he depicts it, 'freed' from the confines of the self, we dissolve into a 'oneness', a narcissistic regression which parallels the Freud characterizes psychotic states. However, for the Buddhist this emptiness is also transient, not an absolute.

Originally -- the various 'emptinesses' were needed to break through existence. But since there are no existents, what 'emptiness' is needed? (p. 61)

Epstein's book is in fact a collection of essays, between which there is a great deal of overlap. It may seem tiresome to be reminded of 'the true meaning of emptiness', however upon further reading, it seems that we can find the rationale for this structure as follows:

It is one thing to grasp the true meaning of emptiness; it is another to maintain it in the face of the onslaught of our psyches. As the Zen master Seung Sahn wrote to one of his students… 'Now you understand just-like-this. Understanding just-like-this is very easy; keeping just-like-this is very difficult.' The culmination of the path of insight is a constant and direct appreciation of this reality.' (p. 92)

In order to keep our understanding 'just-like-this' we must constantly be aware, in the midst of our theorizing, of both our tendency to substitute one absolute for another, and to imbue concepts such as 'ego' or 'self' with an absolute status that does not accord with our phenomenological experience.

© 2008 Laura Cook

Laura Cook is a research student at the University of East Anglia, and a trainee Integrative Psychotherapeutic Counselor.  Her research interests include philosophy of psychopathology, modernist literature and psychoanalysis.  She is the editor of Applying Wittgenstein by Rupert Read, forthcoming with Continuum Books.


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