In an effort to trim down my library for international shipment I looked over books I had not read for a long time. I decided to try to reread the ones I had some difficulty recalling. Dr. Epstein had two books on my selves since I purchased them in the late Ninety’s. The first was Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, was the second. I thought I might even review both, but upon reading both, felt one was enough. They are too similar to bother to differentiate.
Dr. Epstein’s background is to be commended. He is a highly educated man who is a practicing psychiatrist and is a contributing editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, who tries to blend western psychiatric practices with the meditation practices of Buddhism. His books attempt to explain the benefit of this mixture as well as promote Buddhism in general. I remember first reading these books and thinking this was groundbreaking. That such a mix of wisdom would indeed be beneficial and was long overdue and that Dr. Epstein was mixing them so very well. Having revisited Dr. Epstein’s work, as well as having a more mature perspective since first reading them, I have changed my mind.
While I agree with quiet a bit of what Dr. Epstein writes, his whole book can be summed up as one step forward, two steps back. The step forward is advocating meditation as a tool for maintaining and improving mental health. He makes strong cases for how and why this is. He pulls from Buddhist sources and his own experiences, case studies of his and others. The highlights of his book are those moments when he speaks of nothing but Buddhism, but stays away from too many fairytales, like when repeating what Zen Master Dogen had to say on our relationship with time. Dr. Epstein explains several Buddhist concepts very well, which I find to be the most helpful aspects of his book. Any intelligent person would be able to apply his descriptions to their own life experiences.
The two steps back are his use of western psychotherapy and the poor choice of case studies he uses as examples. I should say one and half steps back, because I do not wish to suggest that western psychotherapy has nothing to add to this conversation. However, Dr. Epstein makes strong use of past paradigms of the field. He uses Freud’s model of the human psyche, which has fallen by the way side for years now as science becomes more able to penetrate the mysteries of the mind. In the opening chapter he writes about being diagnosed in his college years with an ‘Oedipus complex’, which he takes seriously. In his defense I should repeat that these books were written in the ’90’s. It is reasonable to believe that Dr. Epstein’s views have changed since then.
The full step back is the use of his case studies and moments from his personal life. He had one patient he writes about named Lucy, who was an actress and was having trouble interacting with her voice instructor. Lucy feels that entering his workshop is like entering a ‘lions den’. Dr. Epstein believes that her past experiences witnessing her parents fighting is what is holding her back as an actress and singer. He tells her stories of how Tibetan pre-Buddhist deities were turned into protectors of Buddhism. He suggests that she view her father this way as well as her voice instructor, because she is transposing one on top of the other, and befriend the lion, by bringing ‘him some milk’. So, it is her father’s anger she witnessed as child that is interfering with her ability to act. It could be a lack of talent, but he didn’t suggest that.
Another part of that second step back is his personal stories, such as meeting a therapist named Ram Dass. Dr. Epstein meets with this eccentric man in an empty room and has a staring contest. Ram Dass never speaks to him the whole time regardless of what Epstein does, he just stares at him. This staring therapy Dr. Epstein undergoes fills him with all sorts of love and compassion and a feeling of being connected, which is all confirmed by Ram Dass when he asks Epstein, “Are you in there?” and then pointing to himself says, “I’m in here.” Which is promptly followed by ‘Far out.’ Far out indeed, perhaps too far out.
The biggest problem with this book is Dr. Epstein’s reliance on outdated western psychotherapeutic paradigms and the more esoteric, superfluous aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. There is certainly more to the human mind then Freud could divine in his day and while Dr. Epstein uses the work of several pioneering psychotherapist he neglects any data and information outside of his field. There is also more to Buddhism than Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism has become very popular in the west for political reasons, but it makes up a very small portion of the Buddhist world. Now it has become a lens through which many westerners view the Buddhist world, a view which is myopic and neglectful. I can not fault Dr. Epstein for the stance he takes in his book, he is a product of his field, both psychotherapy and Buddhism. If a person is so inclined to explore this view, then by all means read this book. However, if you after a more expansive and accurate view of the benefits of mediation, there are many more up to date sources.