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Thoughts Without a Thinker

Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective

By Mark Epstein
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein

Thoughts Without a Thinker (1995) describes the fundamental principles of the Buddhist tradition through a psychoanalytic lens. These blinks explain how meditation and mindfulness can soothe the mind, alleviate suffering and heal mental illness.

Key idea 1 of 8

Buddhism and psychoanalysis have a shared emphasis on common feelings.

In Buddhism, there is a famous image known as the Wheel of Life that represents the universe, or more precisely, existence itself. This wheel places desire, anger and delusion right at its center, represented by a green snake, a red rooster and a black hog, respectively, all of whom are biting each other’s tails.

The three animals, and the feelings they represent, are at the center of this wheel because together, desire, anger and delusion all prevent us from understanding our true selves. In other words, they keep us bound to the world. This is why they're known as the “three poisons” and are considered the root of all suffering.

But these ideas aren’t unique to Buddhism. In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Eros and Thanatos represent the same concepts as the snake and rooster in Buddhism. In fact, desire, symbolized by the snake, and anger, symbolized by the rooster, were among the first forces recognized by psychoanalysis.

Freud said that while Eros and Thanatos are innate to all humans, we repress them. He argued that it was this repression that formed the primary source of psychological suffering.

In Greek mythology, Eros is the god of love or, in Freud’s interpretation, the “life drive” that pushes us to procreate. Because of this connection, it’s sometimes seen as having sexual undertones. That makes it eerily like the Buddhist snake of desire, even though we know for certain that Freud wasn’t interested in Buddhism.

For Buddhists, however, desire is what keeps us striving for pleasant experiences, like love, and rejecting unpleasant ones, like suffering.

Meanwhile, Thanatos is defined in Greek mythology as the personification of death and, in Freud’s interpretation, it’s the “death drive” that explains the human penchant for anger. Freud argued that death is involved in every aspect of our psyches, producing anger deep within us.

He even said that the anger of others conjures thoughts of death, and that simply being yelled at by another person will cause us to think of death, which is why many of us so carefully avoid such confrontations.

Next, you’ll learn about the final animal, the black hog, and the delusion that it represents.

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