Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thoughts Without a Thinker

Some time ago, I was thinking about when was the happiest time in my life, and I realised the happiest time in my life was this time. A lot of things have led to this point, but an important help along the way has been reading (and re-reading) Going to Pieces without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein which I posted about recently.

Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective is an earlier book by Epstein. It is at once more Freudian than the later book (not a good point in my eyes) but also more systematically Buddhist. Indeed, the Buddhism notably improves the Freudian content. The book moves through three parts: (1) Buddha’s psychology of the mind, (2) meditation and (3) therapy. The first part deals with Buddhist taxonomy of the mind, the problems of desire, the false notions of self. The second discusses the benefits of meditation for proper understanding. The third explains how Buddhist notions give an end-point to therapy that the psychoanalytical tradition lacks. There are some striking observations about Western mentality and its difficulties.
Once one achieves a certain level of mindfulness, life becomes very different. (A philosophical blog has a useful post on the difference between mindfulness, metacognition and critical thinking.) No matter how long a road it was to getting there. Looking back, the effect of my own mystical experience in my mid-20s was to give a sense that other ways of feeling were possible. That there was an achievable alternative to how I normally felt, to my damaged self. But it wasn’t even close to a solution in itself. Similarly, the horrible time I had from about 1998 to 2002 had the effect of forcing me to confront and deal with things that, up to then, had merely been an "acceptable" level of psychic poison. Epstein is very good at helping to lose the fear of what one is, so one also loses the fear of what one is not. Thereby becoming comfortable with who one is, rather than barely knowing who one is.

As to the Freudian elements in Thoughts without a Thinker, a friend made the perspicacious observation to me that a parent’s treatment of the child can be a reaction to the child. Thus, a father is likely to be more distant to a gay son (who is different in perhaps unsettling ways) while a mother is likely to be closer to a (gay) son who is more like her than expected. This is a fundamental observation that psychoanalysts managed to miss for decades. Psychoanalysis is not based on careful scientific observation, which is why Freudianism has been dying as our genuine knowledge expands. Though, one of the strengths of Epstein’s book is that he makes it clear Freud was much more open-minded and perspicacious than his later followers (a common difficulty of thinkers and their followers). And, to be fair to Epstein, he very much sees Buddhist pyschology as a way of dealing with gaps in Freudian thinking:
Freud lamented ... that psychoanalysis was unable by itself to produce an ego strong and versatile enough to accomplish his therapeutic goals. By working directly with the metaphorical experience of self, meditation offers a complementary method of ego development, one that fills the gap that Freud was left struggling with (p.155).
Even so, it is noticeable the Freudian elements have definitely retreated as Epstein develops his presentation of psychology with a Buddhist perspective in his various books.

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