email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
Maximizing Effectiveness in Dynamic Psychotherapy Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy101 Healing StoriesA Clinician's Guide to Legal Issues in PsychotherapyA Map of the MindA Primer for Beginning PsychotherapyACT With LoveActive Treatment of DepressionAffect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of SelfAlready FreeBad TherapyBecoming an Effective PsychotherapistBefore ForgivingBeing a Brain-Wise TherapistBetrayed as BoysBeyond Evidence-Based PsychotherapyBeyond MadnessBeyond PostmodernismBinge No MoreBiofeedback for the BrainBipolar DisorderBody PsychotherapyBoundaries and Boundary Violations in PsychoanalysisBrain Change TherapyBrain Science and Psychological DisordersBrain-Based Therapy with AdultsBrain-Based Therapy with Children and AdolescentsBrief Adolescent Therapy Homework PlannerBrief Child Therapy Homework PlannerBrief Therapy Homework PlannerBuffy the Vampire Slayer and PhilosophyBuilding on BionCare of the PsycheCase Studies in DepressionCaught in the NetChild and Adolescent Treatment for Social Work PracticeChoosing an Online TherapistChronic DepressionClinical Dilemmas in PsychotherapyClinical Handbook of Psychological DisordersClinical Intuition in PsychotherapyClinical Pearls of WisdomCo-Creating ChangeCognitive Therapy for Challenging ProblemsCompassionConfessions of a Former ChildConfidential RelationshipsConfidentiality and Mental HealthConfidingContemplative Psychotherapy EssentialsControlConversations About Psychology and Sexual OrientationCoping with BPDCouch FictionCounseling in GenderlandCounseling with Choice TheoryCouple SkillsCrazy for YouCreating a Life of Meaning and CompassionCreating HysteriaCritical Issues in PsychotherapyCrucial Choices, Crucial ChangesDeafness In MindDecoding the Ethics CodeDeconstructing PsychotherapyDeep Brain StimulationDemystifying TherapyDepression 101Depression in ContextDialogues on DifferenceDissociative ChildrenDo-It-Yourself Eye Movement Techniques for Emotional HealingE-TherapyEarly WarningEncountering the Sacred in PsychotherapyEnergy Psychology InteractiveErrant SelvesEssays on Philosophical CounselingEssentials of Wais-III AssessmentEthically Challenged ProfessionsEthics and Values in PsychotherapyEthics in Plain EnglishEthics in Psychotherapy and CounselingExpectationExploring the Self through PhotographyExpressing EmotionFacing Human SufferingFairbairn's Object Relations Theory in the Clinical SettingFamily TherapyFavorite Counseling and Therapy Homework AssignmentsFear of IntimacyFlourishingFolie a DeuxForms of Intersubjectivity in Infant Reasearch and Adult TreatmentFoundations of Ethical Practice, Research, and Teaching in PsychologyFreud and the Question of PseudoscienceFrom Morality to Mental HealthFundamentals of Psychoanalytic TechniqueGenes on the CouchGod & TherapyHalf Empty, Half FullHandbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology for TherapistsHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHandbook of Evidence-Based Therapies for Children and AdolescentsHealing the Heart and Mind with MindfulnessHeinz KohutHelping Children Cope With Disasters and TerrorismHigh RiskHistory of PsychotherapyHow Clients Make Therapy WorkHow Psychotherapists DevelopHow to Fail As a TherapistHow to Go to TherapyHypnosis for Inner Conflict ResolutionHypnosis for Smoking CessationI Never Promised You a Rose GardenIf Only I Had KnownIn Others' EyesIn SessionIn Therapy We TrustIn Treatment: Season 1Incorporating Spirituality in Counseling and PsychotherapyInside the SessionInside TherapyIs Long-Term Therapy Unethical?Issues in Philosophical CounselingIt's Not as Bad as It SeemsItís Your HourLearning from Our MistakesLearning Supportive PsychotherapyLetters to a Young TherapistLife CoachingLogotherapy and Existential AnalysisLove's ExecutionerMadness and DemocracyMaking the Big LeapMan's Search for MeaningMetaphoria: Metaphor and Guided Metaphor for Psychotherapy and HealingMind GamesMindfulness and AcceptanceMindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for DepressionMindworks: An Introduction to NLPMockingbird YearsMoments of EngagementMomma and the Meaning of LifeMotivational Interviewing: Preparing People For ChangeMulticulturalism and the Therapeutic ProcessMultifamily Groups in the Treatment of Severe Psychiatric DisordersNarrative PracticeOn the CouchOne Nation Under TherapyOur Inner WorldOur Last Great IllusionOutsider ArtOvercoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and BehaviorsOverexposedPathways to SpiritualityPersonality and PsychotherapyPhilosophical CounselingPhilosophical Counselling and the UnconsciousPhilosophical Issues in Counseling and PsychotherapyPhilosophical PracticePhilosophy and PsychotherapyPhilosophy for Counselling and PsychotherapyPhilosophy PracticePhilosophy's Role in Counseling and PsychotherapyPillar of SaltPlan BPlato, Not Prozac!Polarities of ExperiencesPower GamesPractical Psychoanalysis for Therapists and PatientsPrinciples and Practice of Sex TherapyPsychologists Defying the CrowdPsychology, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis, and the Politics of Human RelationshipsPsychosis in the FamilyPsychotherapyPsychotherapyPsychotherapy and ConfidentialityPsychotherapy As PraxisPsychotherapy for Children and AdolescentsPsychotherapy for Personality DisordersPsychotherapy Is Worth ItPsychotherapy Isn't What You ThinkPsychotherapy with Adolescent Girls and Young WomenPsychotherapy with Children and AdolescentsPsychotherapy without the SelfPsychotherapy, American Culture, and Social PolicyRapid Cognitive TherapyRational Emotive Behavior TherapyRational Emotive Behavior TherapyRationality and the Pursuit of HappinessRebuilding Shattered LivesReclaiming Our ChildrenRecovery OptionsRelationalityRent Two Films and Let's Talk in the MorningSaving the Modern SoulScience and Pseudoscience in Clinical PsychologySecond-order Change in PsychotherapySelf-Compassion in PsychotherapySelf-Determination Theory in the ClinicSelf-Disclosure in Psychotherapy and RecoverySerious ShoppingSex, Therapy, and KidsSexual Orientation and Psychodynamic PsychotherapySigns of SafetySoul Murder RevisitedStaring at the SunStraight to JesusStrangers to OurselvesSubjective Experience and the Logic of the OtherTaking America Off DrugsTales of PsychotherapyTales of UnknowingTalk is Not EnoughTalking Cures and Placebo EffectsTelling SecretsThe Behavioral Medicine Treatment PlannerThe Body in PsychotherapyThe Brief Couples Therapy Homework Planner with DiskThe Case Formulation Approach to Cognitive-Behavior TherapyThe Challenge for Psychoanalysis and PsychotherapyThe Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Clinical Child Documentation SourcebookThe Clinical Documentation SourcebookThe Complete Adult Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Couch and the TreeThe Couples Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Crucible of ExperienceThe Cure of SoulsThe Death of PsychotherapyThe Education of Mrs. BemisThe Ethical Treatment of DepressionThe Ethics of PsychoanalysisThe Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Gift of TherapyThe Great Psychotherapy Debate: The Evidence for What Makes Psychotherapy Work The Healing JourneyThe Heart & Soul of ChangeThe Heroic ClientThe Husbands and Wives ClubThe Love CureThe Making of a TherapistThe Mindful TherapistThe Mirror Crack'dThe Mummy at the Dining Room TableThe Neuroscience of PsychotherapyThe Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social BrainThe New Rational TherapyThe Older Adult Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Other Side of DesireThe Pastoral Counseling Treatment PlannerThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Pornographer's GriefThe Portable CoachThe Portable Ethicist for Mental Health Professionals The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday LifeThe Problem of EvilThe Problem with Cognitive Behavioural TherapyThe Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender RoleThe Psychotherapy Documentation PrimerThe Psychotherapy Documentation PrimerThe Psychotherapy of HopeThe Real World Guide to Psychotherapy PracticeThe Schopenhauer CureThe Sex Lives of TeenagersThe Talking CureThe Therapeutic "Aha!"The Therapist's Guide to PsychopharmacologyThe Therapist's Guide to Psychopharmacology, Revised EditionThe Therapist's Ultimate Solution BookThe Trauma of Everyday LifeThe UnsayableThe Way of the JournalTheory and Practice of Brief TherapyTherapy with ChildrenTherapy's DelusionsTheraScribe 3.0 for WindowsTheraScribe 4.0Thinking about ThinkingThinking for CliniciansThinking for CliniciansThoughts Without a ThinkerThriveToward a Psychology of AwakeningTracking Mental Health OutcomesTrauma, Truth and ReconciliationTreating Attachment DisordersTreatment for Chronic DepressionTreatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety DisordersUnderstanding Child MolestersUnspeakable Truths and Happy EndingsWhat the Buddha FeltWhat Works for Whom?What Works for Whom? Second EditionWhen the Body SpeaksWhispers from the EastWise TherapyWittgenstein and PsychotherapyWorking MindsWoulda, Coulda, ShouldaWriting About PatientsYoga Skills for Therapists:Yoga Therapy
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.