Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (1995, BasicBooks, ISBN 0465039316) 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.”
The mirror stage (Lacan)
Within the annals of psychoanalyticaly 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 rahter 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.