Thoughts Without a Thinker Summary — Unearned Wisdom

Mark Epstein makes the case that what is missing from psychoanalysis is Buddhism, that the two are complementary. Psychoanalysis is a reversion to the past, but a study of the past, while necessary, can be infinite and ineffective.

There must be a focus on the present, this is the idea of mindfulness in Buddhism. It is in removing ourselves from the past and the future, that we can bring ourselves to focus on the present, and that is what we need to do. But doing so requires us to change our philosophy about ourselves. We need to think of ourselves, not as separate individuals but as connected to everything around us. We must eliminate our ego but eliminating the ego does not require us to eliminate our idea of the “self”, but rather to think of our ego as something that is dynamic and constantly changing.

In Buddhist countries, the Wheel of Life is used to teach about the idea of karma (merit) — the notion that your actions in this life will determine the type of rebirth you will have in the next. Harming others leads to rebirth in Hell Realms, indulging the passions to rebirth in the Animal Realms, giving to others (especially monks and monasteries), to more comfortable human births or rebirths in God Realms.

As long as beings are driven by greed, hatred, and delusion — forces represented by a pig, a snake, and a rooster trying to devour one another — they will stay ignorant of their own Buddha-nature, ignorant of the transitory and unsatisfactory nature of the world, and bound the Wheel of Life.

In psychology, there is a way to understand the Wheel of Life concept less literally. Each realm is not a specific place but a metaphor for psychological states, and the entire wheel a representation of neurotic suffering. Buddhism teaches that it is our fear of experiencing ourselves directly that creates suffering. This is similar to what Freud believed — he said that we must have the courage to pay attention to the phenomena of our illness, and that our illness should not seem to us contemptible, but become an enemy worthy of our mettle, a piece of our personality. This paves the way for reconciliation with the repressed material that is appearing through our symptom.

To become liberated from the Wheel of Life does not mean escape, it means clear perception of oneself, and of the full range of human experience. We gain the possibility of transforming suffering by changing how we relate to it. Enlightenment can only be won by becoming a lamp to yourself.

Things aren’t what they seem, but they are not otherwise.

Lankavatura Sutra said, “Deeds exist, but no doer can be found.”

The emphasis on the absence of a specific, substantive agent is the most distinctive aspect of Buddhist psychological thought. It is the realization that transforms our experience of the Wheel of Life.

The Four Noble Truths

1. Humiliation

Birth is suffering, decay is suffering, disease is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering, to be united with the unpleasant is suffering, to be separated from the pleasant is suffering, not to get what one desires is suffering. In brief the five aggregates of attachment (the basis for the human personality) are suffering.

The Buddha then discusses the illusion of the ego.

All worry about the self is vain; the ego is like a mirage, and all the tribulations that touch it will pass away. They will vanish like a nightmare when the sleeper awakes. He who has awakened is freed from fear; he has become Buddha; he knows the vanity of all his cares, his ambitions, and also of his pains.

He then gives an example of a man who, when taking a bath, steps upon a wet rope and imagines it is a snake. He will be overcome with horror and will shake from fear, expecting the worst. What a relief he will experience when he realizes that the rope is no snake. And that the cause of his fear was his own error, ignorance, and illusion. If the true nature of the rope is recognized, his tranquility will come back to him, he will feel relieved, joyful, and happy. This is the state of mind of one who recognizes that there is no self, and the cause of all his trouble and vanities is a shadow or a dream.

Birth, old age, sickness, and death are distasteful not only because they are painful but because they are humiliating. They violate our self-regard and insult our narcissism. Freud recognized that the inability to tolerate unpleasant truths about oneself was essential to narcissism. The Buddha’s teachings make this observation the basis of his psychology.

We all have this tendency; we do not want to admit our lack of substance to ourselves. Instead, we strive to project an image of perfection or self-sufficiency. The paradox is that to the extent that we do this, we are estranged from ourselves and are not real. Our narcissism ensures that we keep the truth about ourselves hidden.

The cause of suffering is craving or thirst. The Buddha describes two types of craving. The first is for sense pleasures. The second is craving for existence and nonexistence, it is what psychologists would call a narcissistic craving — the thirst for a fixed image of self as something or nothing. And the two types of cravings are inextricably linked.

Ignorance is portrayed in The Wheel of Life as the black hog. Ignorance means misapprehension, it means thinking there is a sense of solidity in persons or things when no such thing exists. Because of our craving, we want things to be understandable. We substantialize experiences which are by nature fleeting. In doing this, we define ourselves by our moods and thoughts. We do not let ourselves be sad or happy. 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 which is no things. The Buddha said that his mind spontaneously attained “unconditional freedom” when he saw his craving clearly, unconditioned by his own greed, hatred, or ignorance.


The end of suffering can be achieved not through unconditional love that could alleviate their sense of unworthiness, and not through capturing some imagined perfection, but through the unconditional freedom of the enlightened mind.

“What, now, is the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering?” asked the Buddha. “It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and abandonment, liberation and detachment from it.”

This is a radical suggestion, the Buddha is saying that you can isolate forces of craving in your own mind and become both liberated from them and unattached to them merely from seeing that craving for what it is.

The psychoanalysts say that instinctual drives (erotic, aggressive, narcissistic) are inborn and inescapable. We must reconcile ourselves to this. The closest that psychoanalysts have come to addressing the mental transformation found in Buddhism is through sublimation, which as Freud proposed that sexual energy cannot be cut off but can be replaced by energy for a higher aim, and perhaps one that is no longer sexual. Sublimation was the possibility of escape from the impossible infantile wishful impulses, according to Freud.

4. Nowhere Standing

The search for happiness through sense pleasures is low, common, and unprofitable, and the search for happiness through denial or asceticism is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable. Dissolving the sense of self in pleasurable experiences did not relieve suffering, nor did giving free reign to the emotions. Attacking the body and subjecting the self also did not relieve suffering, not did trying to deny the emotions. Buddha taught that the correct approach was in between these two approaches.

It required the alignment of eight specific factors of mind and behavior: understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. When these factors were properly established, taught the Buddha, they constituted the Path to Cessation.

Originally published at on February 19, 2020.



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