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Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy From A Buddhist Perspective

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  2,696 ratings  ·  145 reviews
Traditional distinctions between matters of the mind and matters of the spirit are increasingly being questioned, and people are searching for alternate perspectives on these issues. Thoughts Without a Thinker is a major contribution to today's exploding discussion of how Eastern spirituality can enhance Western psychology. In it, Mark Epstein argues that the contemplative ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published May 30th 1996 by Basic Books (first published 1995)
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4.08  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,696 ratings  ·  145 reviews

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Jul 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Flat out the most brilliant thing I have read in some time. I think it's a must-read for any serious meditator in the West. Whether or not you are interested in psychotherapy or not, Freud has left an indelible impression on our collective cultural consciousness, and no doubt most have some muddled sense of what the ego is, or what narcissism is , or even neurosis - and perhaps you have always had questions that point to your conceptual confusion like I did, such as - if one of the goals of psyc ...more
Steve Woods
While many years of therapy that involved delving back into a horrendous childhood and service in 3 wars helped me to identify the issues it did not help me to deal with them. The process of ego splitting that is the crucial point for both therapy and Buddhist practice just never happened for me. It would have been helpful if the therapists I had had contact with could have told me and shown me what we were aiming for.

A bit much to ask for, given the perceived wisdom prevailing during the 80's a
Apr 24, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I just reread this impressive book upon receiving it as a gift. It is well-written, intelligent, rigorous, and mercifully low on jargon (a trait that is rarely shared by either books on Buddhism or on psychoanalytic or psychodynamic theory). Epstein also avoids the often breathless tone writers often seem to fall into when describing the nearly miraculous effects they inevitably find when they integrate Buddhist meditative techniques and approaches into the psychotherapeutic process. Epstein pre ...more
Jared Hempel
Feb 08, 2015 rated it it was ok
This was a remarkably perplexing read. Why? On one hand, Epstein navigates the history and ethos of Buddhist philosophy with a rich clarity and writing style that truly carried me, effortlessly, across the pages. On the other hand, and in deep contrast, interspersed throughout at least every other page is Epstein's immense effort to bind Buddhism to Freudian psychodynamic theory. In doing so, the enjoyment of his perspective on Buddhist philosophy is countered by his insistence on returning to h ...more
Oct 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: i-feel-perpetual
Ok, so here I was, walking down the streets of Ghent, out to return some books to the library, was just doing my usual streetwalking routine, which is basically just walking through streets thinking about all these different lives passing me by, in these places that never look the same when I decide to turn around. The sun was shining here and there, showing me where I could be walking. Anyway.. then I had that obnoxious thought I often get about how so many people are always staring at their ph ...more
Jul 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: psychology
It's difficult to write a good book when your subject matter is abstruse. The author has done a wonderful job at elucidating the psychological aspects of Buddhism in a lucid prose, especially in explaining the counterintuitive and oft-misunderstood difficult concept of sunyata or emptiness.

For all those seeking an accessible, non mystic introduction to Buddhism could start here, you will not be thoroughly disappointed.
Aug 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow. It definitely is a scientific read, but that parallels between science and spirituality in this are astounding! So enlightening! From the details of observation, mindfulness, meditation, and simply breathing out and in, all the way through the significance -- religiously, personally, scientifically, mentally, and physically -- of confronting your past, your demons, your memories, your hatreds, your insecurities, and your hearts TRUE desires, I was blown away with mind-opening insights are s ...more
Francesca Marciano
Oct 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
Epstein makes a connection between Buddhist philosophy and psychotherapy, the Self versus the absence of the Self. The book shows how an ancient philosophy and the practice of meditation can fill the gaps that Freud and the western approach to therapy have failed to fill so far. or better even: how one discipline can actually help the other and create a seamless synergy. Recommended to thinkers and readers interested in this kind of practices.
Mar 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
A good book to revisit every few months. It draws a lot of parallels between Buddhism and psychotherapy. Don't read it for quick fix techniques or immediate go-dos or even learn how to meditate. You won't find anything that you can directly consume. In a way the book almost discourages readers to start/continue a meditation practice. You learn a lot about the nature of meditation - what to expect and the right reasons to do it. It dawns on you slowly that more mainstream culture, by its very nat ...more
Feb 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Read this years ago but now, upon re-reading, got a whole lot more out of it. Don't know if it's age or where I am in my practice at this point, but dang -- what a great synthesis of psychoanalytic and buddhistic thought. Especially drawn to the idea of "injured innocence" and my interest in victimhood v. vulnerability. On to re-read his next one.
Apr 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: buddhism, nonfiction
This is a great read for those who are unsure about the purpose/goals of meditation or otherwise find it challenging, while at the same time it avoids reading as too "new age-y." As a whole, the book seeks to harmonize Buddhist teachings with philosophies of western psychotherapy, and I found the whole thing interesting and valuable, but I would particularly recommend section II on meditation. Modern meditation apps like Buddhify lead many people to treat meditation as one more daily health prac ...more
Howard Mansfield
Oct 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
A brilliant book and the place to start reading Epstein's books.
Martin Hersey
Jan 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Therapy and Meditation

I liked that the writer talked about Freud in a positive way. I did not like the endless recounting of his case histories. I suggested my therapist read this book.
whereas i greatly appreciate the essential point of this book, i.e. show the connection points between western psychology and eastern zen buddhism, i think some of the points are forced and since epstein concentrates on freud's analytical nature, where people are "forced" into predetermined categories, much of the book does not ring true for this reader. however, let me quickly add that the points that do ring true are worth the reading of this book and i suspect i will read it a second time jus ...more
Rena Graham
Dec 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: buddhism, non-fiction
A friend gave me this book for my birthday last year after I threatened to borrow his dog-eared copy. I've read it once and have started it again. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in "deep Buddhism" or Buddhism that runs along the lines of the more transformative aspects available through advanced meditation. On a personal level, this book brought me great insight into experiences I've had on the cushion but had no "Western mind" correlation for. While I could acknowledge a change, a ...more
Jan 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Kort sagt noe av det smarteste jeg har lest; briljant fusjonering av vestens psykologi og Buddahs lære, på en måte som forsterker begge perspektiver og viser hvordan de kan - og må - sameksistere om en skal oppnå vekst. Som mange vel har erfart er det ikke bare bare å absorbere 'Østens' meditasjonspraksis og knips så er man i vater. Det vestlige sinn er annerledes og vi trenger vår psykologiske forståelse på våre hindre. Denne boken viser hvordan man kan slippe meditasjonen som verktøy til i ens ...more
Feb 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I found this book very interesting as it combines classical psychotherapy with Buddhism in interesting ways and did indeed leave me with at least some idea of what thoughts without a thinker feels like. The author is not dogmatic on either psychotherapy or Buddhism, though I always feel Buddhism and dogmatism should be an oxymoron, I keep meeting dogmatic Buddhists and am reminded of the Buddha's saying: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Anyone who tells you 'the path' is a phony...y ...more
Dec 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I expected this book to be an interpretation of the 'not-self' aspect of Buddhist philosophy in Western psychological terms, but instead it is about how psychotherapy 'works', its limitations, and how mindfulness techniques can fill in the gaps, and visa versa. Fascinating; the only problem is that now I want to read more about psychotherapy and Freud, and there just aren't enough hours in the day!
Stephen West
An interesting discussion of the similarities and compatibilities between Buddhist philosophy and psychotherapy and the ways that Buddhist philosophy can be integrated into psychotherapy. However, the emphasis on Freudian psychoanalysis made the book seem a little dated and some of the connections the author tried to draw between Buddhism and psychotherapy seemed a little strained.
Jul 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: buddhism-action
If you have any ties to public service, this is a must read! I would also consider this a positive read for those in caregiving roles for both children and other loved ones. A helpful and empathetic tool.
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book is great. Having been raised by buddhist leaning shrinks, it is in my language. It assumes a previous knowledge of psychotherapy, but I think it's half academic/ clinical text and half life advice for being a happier human. I recommend it to other thinkers.
Oct 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Complex Ideas Well Elucidated

The complex ideas to which I'm referring are simply the roadblocks the Western mind faces in comprehending the point of Eastern philosophy. As usual, Epstein
Aug 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This classic work on Buddhism and psychology, approaching the 25th anniversary of its 1995 initial publication, is a staple of bibliographies in the world of Buddhist literature, and its title is an often-cited phrase in dharma talks on the difficult concept of “no-self”. So, it was with a keen sense of anticipation, stoked by the many times I’d encountered this familiar phrase “thoughts without a thinker”, that I recently undertook to read at long last the famous book itself.

Even before opening
Jan 12, 2018 rated it liked it
So, I still have never finished Martin Esslin's The Theater of the Absurd , but a lot of the discussion of the spatially constrained "self" (as opposed to the concept of "self" as a temporally constrained set of processes) as ephemeral or false in this book really reminded me of Esslin's discussions and the thematic content of absurdist plays/existential philosophy. More than anything, I think this made me want to return to that.

To be clear, Epstein doesn't draw that line - he's not, broadly, i
Michael Bird
Nov 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Michael by: got it through a book club years ago and only read it now
Shelves: 2018
Wow. Hugely insightful and full of wisdom and experience. I got a huge amount from this book and I gleaned a great deal around the practice of taking meditation and a secular form of Buddhism into real life and how it mirrors a lot of psychotherapy and counselling.
I know it says it is clearly written but it does get a bit heavy at times and requires a lot of careful reading but it is worth it.
Fantastic first section on realms. Love how everything is taken metaphorically and that it assumes we ar
Nessy Dimitrova
I read this book thanks to Blinkist.

The key message in this book:

Both Buddhism and psychoanalysis can shed light on the ways human beings suffer. A major focus of both traditions is an attachment to the idea that a “self” exists, which, in many cases, is the root cause of mental illness. By practicing Buddhism, you can can find freedom from suffering and a sense of calm in your mind.

Actionable advice:

Allow yourself to feel pain.

The next time you feel sad, don’t try to push the feeling away or de
Apr 23, 2018 rated it liked it
This is definitely a book to come back to as I expect my mind and body was in the wrong place for it at the time, and I found it too scientific and not quite what I was looking for in order to attempt to try and quieten my mind down. I'm sure a re-read at a different time will be beneficial but I read this in the misery of a snowy late Feb/early March and it just wasn't the right time for me. Doing this review as a reminder to come back to it - and a "keep going, or come back" advisory for those ...more
Marin Jurgens
Nov 14, 2018 rated it liked it
“Thoughts Without a Thinker” offers a lot of provocative ideas but I personally didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Mark Epstein thoroughly explains any context the reader needs to understand the ideas he’s proposing but I wasn’t all that fond of his writing style. However, the overall context of the book is very intriguing, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s interested in western psychology and Buddhism.
Mar 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Exceptional but perhaps advanced reading on psychoanalysis and Buddhism

Epstein provides a unique voice blending his experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist with his extensive background in Buddhism and meditation. This book is somewhat in-depth and likely requires the reader to have at least basic familiarity with psychoanalytic theory and Buddhism in order to benefit from it.
More Mel
Sep 06, 2017 rated it liked it
The format is clear, but - myself - I am not a trained, schooled psychologist. I think this book is great for people who have a grasp on general psychotherapy technique and methodology and who want to apply a more mindful approach to the observation of a client.
I got the book to understand more about the interface between psychology and Buddhism/buddhist meditation.
I did not find that here, but the book is more than valid for the right reader.
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Mark Epstein, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including Thoughts without a Thinker, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart, Going on Being, Open to Desire and Psychotherapy without the Self. His newest work, The Trauma of Everyday Life, will be published in August of 2013 by Penguin Pr ...more
“We are all haunted by the lost perfection of the ego that contained everything, and we measure ourselves and our lovers against this standard. We search for a replica in external satisfactions, in food, comfort, sex, or success, but gradually learn, through the process of sublimation, that the best approximation of that lost feeling comes from creative acts that evoke states of being in which self-consciousness is temporarily relinquished. These are the states in which the artist, writer, scientist, or musician, like Freud’s da Vinci, dissolves into the act of creation.” 4 likes
“We reduce, concretize, or substantialize experiences or feelings, which are, in their very nature, fleeting or evanescent. In so doing, we define ourselves by our moods and by our thoughts. We do not just let ourselves be happy or sad, for instance; we must become a happy person or a sad one. This is the chronic tendency of the ignorant or deluded mind, to make “things” out of that which is no thing.” 4 likes
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