Author: Epstein, Mark
Publisher: Broadway Books, 2002
Reviewed By: Kathy Knowlton, Ph.D., Vol 26 (2), p. 64
Mark Epstein's books deal with the meeting of the Eastern traditions of Buddhism and vipassana meditation practice with the Western traditions of psychoanalytic psychology and psychoanalytically-informed clinical practice. Thoughts Without A Thinker (Epstein, 1995) introduces his signature use of himself and his clients to give examples of the compatibilities, even synergies, between the traditions. Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart (Epstein, 1998) has the strongest self-help flavor on his bookshelf. The first alludes strongly to Bion, the second to Winicott. Open to Desire (Epstein, 2005) tackles the foundational issue of desire dealt with so differently by the traditions he is, I think successfully, integrating. I would love to see that volume reviewed by someone more equipped than I to assess what may be highly original thinking. Going On Being (Epstein, 2001) takes on reconciling Winnicott's insight about the signifigance of the title experience with Buddhist practice aimed at achieving "no self".
Epstein writes well. Going on Being is an enjoyable, involving read. You could take it on vacation and not wonder about your inability to stop working. Ironically, his very qualities of deftness and clarity may take away from the impression he makes as a scholar. What he presents is so well-mastered and aptly exemplified that the clinician reader does not have to work hard to understand what he is saying. He aims well for an intelligent lay audience and amply deserves his popularity. Nonetheless, I think Epstein deserves greater attention as a theorist. He has the ability to explicate psychoanalytic insights in all their Jamesian "thickness." And he goes the step further into suprising territory. Going On Being shows both strengths.
The quotation before the table of contents is Winnicott's: "The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates." Though Epstein makes clear his earliest intellectual identification is with Buddhism, his book is essentially an exploration of what Winnicott meant, using the material of the author's own psychological memoir. By the time he says that the title phrase imples "a stream of unimpeded awareness, ever evolving, yet with continuity, uniqueness, and integrity," (p. 31) you are acquainted with colorfully presented examples of his ways of impeding his own awareness, e.g. by seeking premature closure with a physically failing teacher or avoiding eye contact with an early therapist. He does not interpret such instances of defensiveness in psychoanalytic terms. The word "defense" may not appear in the book, and he does explain Buddhist psychological terms, such as "emptiness", but this explicit attention to the Eastern is balanced nicely by the Westernness and accessibility of his clinical and autobiographical anecdotes.
The analytic thinkers most in evidence are Bion and Winnicott. At times their ideas take focus in the context of meditation, as they have for the author. For instance, he talks about his growing understanding of "mindfulness" early in his meditation practice and its coherence with Winnicott's notions:
In noticing the mind's reactivity, I was learning to work with my caretaker self. All the habits and patterns that I had evolved to protect myself from the world came out in meditation. The simple act of trying to rest my awareness on the breath allowed me to see them in vivid color. As I became less reactive to my own reactivity, I started to peer nto myself more. (p. 78)
Epstein's neurosis, his symptoms, his improvement, all have the quality as portrayed of being undramatic, so that while he reveals himself candidly, there is nothing shocking or overwhelming, nor anything gut-wrenchingly transformative about following his progress from overcerebral kid to openhearted man. Intimate without being a tell-all, the book does show repeatedly how small moments and daily activities are the workshop of therapy, so that, for example, years after insights about fear of intimacy one may still catch oneself calling a delicious interpersonal encounter "dessert" rather than "an appetizer". If you have clients who are reading this book to find out what to expect from therapy, they and you are likely to be well-served.
How well Epstein deals with clinically relevant matters deserves mention in part because the exigesis of Buddhist thought may make the stronger first impression. If he emphasized anything here, it is such things as "the four noble truths", "the middle way", and "emptiness"; but the explanations are unforced, like intelligent often funny conversation, the kind one might be able to have with somebody both deeply informed and patient with ignorance. The book will reward any interest whatever in Buddhism. It may capture you even without such an interest.
One reason for that power to engage is the step into "unexpected territory" to which I alluded earlier. Going On Being makes a unique contribution to the Western clinical literature on the topic of joy. I am aware of very little writing connecting joy developmentally to clinical work (Kast, 1994). Epstein not only makes accessible the Buddhist explanation of the importance and basicness of positive affects, he argues convincingly for joy as a consequence of going on being. His pivotal example is a detailed retelling of the Buddha's discovery, or rather recovery, of the path to enlightenment as a memory of infantile going on being. With this example he simultaneously glosses a piece of Buddhist lore and gives evidence for the necessity of a positively-tinged consciousness in mental health. There is much to savor in this Midrash-like filling out of the Buddha story which brings it within useful reach by the skilled application of psychoanalytic insight. One need not agree with details of the Buddhist psychology to grasp the importance of what he has written: how might it impact our clinical practice to take seriously the fundamental importance of joy?
This contribution connects his work to another context worth acknowledging, the coming together of psychoanalytic psychology and spiritual thinking. Epstein evokes this context from the outset. His Freud story (there is always a Freud story, after all) is not about any absence of "oceanic feeling", but about Freud's acknowledgement to Binswanger that "spirit is everything." I have not mentioned this spiritual aspect till now, because it is quite lighthanded throughout the text. I include it here to give a nod to his intellectual honesty and to provide yet another reason you might read his book. I recommend it as nourishing food for thought whether your taste be for Buddhist, psychoanalytic or spiritual substance.