Neoplatonism, Proclus, the gods — and magick

The popular view of Neoplatonism is that it traffics in ineffables, yet Neoplatonism asserts that the cosmos is intelligible. A philosophy contending that absolutely everything is directly amenable to human understanding is actually extremely hands-on.

Take The One, for instance, the highest and most utterly transcendent principle of the Platonic system. Is The One effing about ineffably in some misty, removed dimension?

No. Because not only is The One the highest transcendent principle, it’s also the most prevalent and busy. Everything has to be ‘one’ or unified in order to have existence. Even the most transient of sub-atomic particles becomes one, for the tiniest fraction of a moment.

Diagram of Plotinus's philosophy.

Neoplatonism. A quick recap, according to Plotinus.

Yet isn’t this mere tautology? Isn’t The One merely a projection of the workings of the human mind or language onto material reality?

No. Because material reality itself manifestly creates unities. We have only to look around to see how the principle of Unity physically precedes existence and intelligibility – in our minds, yes, for sure, but also in material reality (which is what our culture traditionally places in opposition to mind). Things come into existence by becoming one, and once they are unified they become intelligible.

The One is everywhere and active, because everything has to participate in the nature of the One in order to exist. The subsequently derived ideals of Unity, Goodness and Beauty, therefore, are not to be discovered only in some transcendent realm or altered state; they are always and everywhere in the material world, because material things participate in their nature.

Platonic philosophers express differing views, of course. In Proclus (412-485 AD) we have the last great expression of the Neoplatonic tradition. Plato (428-347 BC) and Plotinus (205-270 AD) were in some respects quite open-ended in their approach, whereas Proclus seems to have been the sort of thinker who always felt compelled utterly to nail things down.

In Proclus’s day, Hellenism was in a terminal decline as Christianity took an ever greater hold. There had always been a degree of uncertainty over how the Hellenistic gods fitted with the Platonic cosmology. The gods presumably were not aspects of The One, else The One could not be unified, but if the gods did not abide at this supreme level, in what sense were they ‘divine’?

The solution that Proclus offered was possible, in part, because his views on matter were less critical than those of his predecessors. For Plotinus, in contrast, material reality is the level on which things become hopelessly screwed up. When the soul manifests in a physical body it is, according to Plotinus: ‘A thing fallen, chained, at first barred off from intelligence and living only by sensation… in a tomb or cavern pent’ (O’Brien 1964: 66).

A drawing of some guy's face.

For argument’s sake: Proclus.

Proclus, in contrast, was sensitive to a subtle paradox in the Platonic cosmology. Human existence is subject to a whole chain of cosmic causes, which includes The One, Intelligence, Soul and matter. Yet matter itself is not produced from participation in the middle terms of this chain.

In other words: human experience participates in Soul, which itself arises from participation in Intelligence, which in turn arises from participation in The One, yet matter does not require either Soul or Intelligence in order to be matter. Therefore, although matter is furthest in nature from The One, in another respect it remains close, in the sense that matter participates only in The One (i.e. it is unified), albeit to a much weaker extent than Intelligence and Soul. (See Balboa 2008: propositions 59 and 72.)

This idea, that matter need not be viewed as cut off from transcendent levels of being but, in its simplicity, that it still relates to the highest level of all, is what enabled Proclus to find a home for the gods – not on any particular level of reality, but on all of them.

Each level of reality is an image of the level above and preceding it. Thus, Intelligence (what we might describe as ‘Universal Impersonal Consciousness’) is but a pale image of the indescribably empty, concept-free and transcendent One. Likewise, Soul (which we might label ‘Qualitative Awareness’) is but a pale image of content-less Intelligence. The One is the ultimate nature of reality, and so, because each level is an image of this ultimate reality, each level has within it an image of The One, progressively more distorted as it descends.

Beneath The One, unity can be expressed only by multiplicity – i.e. only as qualities or natures separate from their possessor. The principle of unity finds expression on lower levels in a degraded image of itself: the principle of individuality. This is where Proclus situates the gods: ‘The Distinctive Character of Every Divine Order Constantly Traverses through All Secondary Natures, and Bestows Itself to all the subordinate (inferior) Genera of Beings’ (Balboa 2008: proposition 145). In other words, where there is a god (i.e. an image of The One having a certain individual character), then that character is expressed in all subsequent beings: souls, animals, plants and minerals.

For example, the sun is an image of The One, regarded as a deity in many cultures. The metal gold has an affinity with the sun by its colour. The sunflower and the heliotrope realise this affinity also, but in a manner peculiar to plants. At the animal level, the lion is regarded as a solar beast, due to the resemblance between the sun’s rays and his mane, but also the cockerel, who greets the sun each morning with his call. (See Chlup 2012: 130-1.) As Proclus puts it, quoting Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher who lived almost a thousand years earlier: ‘the All is full of The Gods.’

Evidently, participation in the gods is possible in a variety of ways, and a single being may participate in a variety of gods. Another consequence of this is that all beings participate in the divine through their own nature. In Proclus’s words: ‘All things pray according to their own station and sing hymns’ (cited in Chlup 2012: 130). The universe is sown with symbols of the divine, which enable us through contemplation and manipulation of them to enter into participation.

Proclus called this theurgy. Another description is magick. Take a book of magickal correspondences, such as Aleister Crowley’s 777 (Crowley 1973). It is nothing other than a catalogue of exactly the kind of affinities that Proclus is describing. It is these affinities that form the basis of any conceivable religious ritual or magickal act. And yet the relationships between the gods and the beings that participate in them are obviously not of the same type as those between the Platonic hypostases (i.e. between The One, Intellect and Soul), which produce the different levels of reality.

Through Proclus we arrive at the notion that although the image of The One is progressively degraded on each successive level of reality, nevertheless it offers an alternative network of relationships, of a symbolic rather than a productive kind, which are themselves an inbuilt feature of whatever level of reality they are found within, and which offer a convenient route back to the divine. ‘Convenient’ in the sense that each being can discover in its own nature the relevant symbols.

T-shirt slogan: 'My boss is a Jewish carpenter'.

Christianity: if you’re kinky for Jewish carpenters, you’re in luck.

The implications of this view are pragmatic and highly empowering. Contrast them with an eastern tradition such as Buddhism, which avows that everyday experience is meaningless or an illusion; or the western Christian view, which sanctions only a highly specific set of symbols and agencies as a valid route back to God.

Proclus’s worldview lost out to the prevailing Christian ideology, of course. It is fascinating to imagine how our culture would have been different if Hellenism and Neoplatonism had endured. And it is also tempting to speculate upon the various forms in which these traditions never really died out at all, but persist subtly into the present day.

References

Balboa, Juan F. (2008), trans. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Available from lulu.com, ID 2321337.

Chlup, Radek (2012). Proclus: an Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Crowley, Aleister (1973). 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.

O’Brien, Elmer (1964), ed. and trans. The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

On Retreat with Alan Chapman

I recently returned from the best spiritual retreat of my life. It was the most absorbing, supportive and productive period of practice. The retreat was taught by Alan Chapman, my friend and erstwhile magickal cohort, but before anyone concludes that my assessment is therefore biased, consider the admission it requires on my part: that whereas I have ineffectually fannied around for the past five years, Alan has created a teaching and a vocation that presents a joyful, revolutionary challenge to the spiritual orthodoxy.

Alan Chapman.

The guru, pictured snickering into his coffee after telling a knob joke.

Putting it frankly, Alan’s approach pisses all over Buddhism from a great height. My previous retreats were all Buddhist-based, with the attendant assumption that spiritual development demands confrontation with suffering, and that progress only occurs through intense effort. Alan’s teaching draws instead on Greek philosophy for its cosmology and methods. This is a genuine enlightenment tradition that originated in the West but, unfortunately, has not been properly understood or practised here in quite some time.

Here is how we practised it last week: we socialised; listened to Alan explain the teaching and its practice; took turns to engage in one-to-one Socratic dialogue with Alan; sat in formal practice approximately three times per day, for periods of up to 30 minutes; used a specific method for examining each other’s dreams, day-dreams and ‘random’ thoughts; ate nice food; went for relaxing walks and visited the pub.

By omitting the usual Buddhist lunacy of ‘noble silence’, last week acquired the flavour of a shared endeavour. I became absorbed not only in my own process, but also in the expression of that same process in my fellow retreatants. During the week people were indeed waking up.

Alan has formulated three classical stages of enlightenment. The first of these is awakening. This is the attainment of abiding non-dual awareness, a stage of insight sometimes described as ‘enlightenment’ by Buddhist teachers such as Daniel Ingram, or by Advaita teachers such as Tony Parsons. The second of Alan’s stages is liberation, which I will discuss in more detail later. The third is enlightenment, which Alan also refers to as ‘Returning to the Source’. There is a further refinement of understanding beyond this stage, but I do not currently have the personal experience to describe anything beyond liberation.

I will not be describing either Alan’s teachings or methods in any great detail. He is the one best-placed to do that. Instead, I will describe what happened to me during the week, the attitudes I adopted and the insights I received through exposure to the teaching.

I entered the retreat recognising that I was badly stuck. The last few years have been pretty tough. Yet on the basis of the weird and wonderful things that had happened during my magickal alliance with Alan, I was pretty confident that a breakthrough was likely.

As readers of this blog are aware, I love psychic and psychological stuff, and the breakthroughs expressed themselves primarily in these terms. This did not surprise me, but others were having very different experiences. Some were engaging with the process on an intellectual level, some on an emotional level. Others were having insights during the teaching, whilst they were fully conscious and awake. In my case, the insights arrived mostly when I was alone and asleep.

Alluring goddesses

On the first night I dreamt:

I was at a magickal moot where a group of women were taking on possession by goddesses. The women were attractive, and in some cases not wearing many clothes. After the ritual, there were all these expressions of divine femininity with which we could converse. Some were so alluring, they were intimidating. A voice introduced each goddess and explained her nature. As the introductions proceeded, the images became more abstract and the explanations included unpronounceable languages, or featured terms that could not be translated. The images were no longer like women at all, but were abstract designs featuring lines, or rips made in sheets of paper.

The retreat was so informal that the closest thing to it I have experienced is a magickal moot. And Alan was making for the retreat the kind of outrageous claims he used to make back in our magick-wrangling days. (Not that they failed to bear fruit.)

Diagram on a flipchart showing a Platonic cosmology.

The Platonic cosmology. You’ll have to come on a retreat to find out what it means…

Alan asserts that no effort is necessary for the process to advance. Paradoxically, the only thing to be done is to avoid the temptation to force or try to guide the process oneself, a sure-fire recipe for becoming stuck.

In the Platonic cosmology, the soul is in the process of perfecting itself and returning to its source in the One. During the retreat we were invited to explore what we really want. This exploration through questioning revealed how there are ultimate ideals for which everyone is longing, a longing that no one can remember ever being without. Our longing for goodness, wholeness and perfection entails that in some way we have known these already, and the soul is on a mission to return to them. In Western spiritual traditions, this longing, its source and its goal, is represented in the figure of ‘the Beloved’.

My dream on the first night seemed concerned with identifying the Beloved. At first, real women are assuming divine forms. But already there is progression into something new and unfamiliar: abstract forms and unfamiliar languages, which bypass the ‘allure’ and ‘intimidation’.

At home with Grimes

The next dream I recorded:

The singer Grimes is coming to the retreat centre. She will be staying in my room. We are a couple.

The Beloved is now a specific figure [1]. We have an established relationship and her arrival is imminent. There is a confidence in this dream, which might be arrogance or psychotic pride, if it were not that the longing is reciprocated by the Beloved. The retreat was enabling me to understand how the longing always already is reciprocated.

If Alan’s first big claim was that no effort is necessary, and all we had to do was allow the transmission of the teacher’s enlightenment to work on us, then the second was this: that suffering is not a necessary part of the process.

This is so contrary to what I have read and experienced in the past that it seemed too good to be true. But it turned out that it is true. Last week was the only retreat on which I experienced virtually no discomfort or suffering, yet it was the only retreat during which I attained a classical stage of the process. So-called ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’ or periods of ‘contraction’ are not inevitable phases of spiritual progress. Alan convinced me that it really is possible to have only fun whilst on retreat.

There was a whole session exploring what the ‘shitty bits’ in spiritual practice actually are. I will not rehearse it here, except to say the realisation that nailed it for me is how the expression of longing for the Beloved, which is the focus of the practice Alan teaches, is not dissimilar from the longing to be free from the desolation of a Dark Night. To experience one is actually to experience both. In a flash of insight, I could not envisage ever being stranded in a Dark Night again.

To be in love is to long for someone, even in their presence. And to be loved is to be longed for in return. The longing of the soul is at once its love for the Beloved, and the longing of the Beloved for ourselves. The assurance in the dream that Grimes’s love was mine was an expression of this. Only a misguided assumption that the longing signifies a deficit, or that persuasion is required to win someone who already loves us, could spoil the imminent wedding.

Me and Dave

The relationship with the Beloved came into more detailed focus in the next dream:

David Bowie visited. He played the guitar part from his song Fashion. ‘That sounds amazing,’ I thought. ‘It just pours naturally from him.’ The problem was that Bowie could interact only with other celebrities. It felt a bit shitty, but I pretended to be the comedian Vic Reeves, interviewing Bowie, in order to spend time talking with him. I might also have to pretend to be Bob Mortimer for a while, after being Vic, but this was not a disaster: Bowie was happily talking. This was the only situation that Bowie could deal with, and I was creating that situation, making him comfortable.

Waking, there was a blissful sensation in my heart that I had never before experienced, as if my heart were open to the world and something were radiating outwards. It was neither overwhelming nor uncomfortable, but somehow like a quietly flickering flame.

Chaotic-looking words and sketches on a flipchart.

Alan’s analysis of the ‘Bowie’ dream. Part of the technique includes drawing and writing out the dream.

The Beloved, effortlessly excellent, overflowing in the expression of Its goodness, appears in the guise of Bowie. The image of the Beloved seemed to be diversifying also in my co-retreatants’ dreams, encompassing hermaphrodites, transgendered individuals, and a septuagenarian in the costume of a sexy young woman.

Alan’s approach to dream divination is that the dream shows what is already the case. There is no guidance or instruction to be extracted from a dream. If we understand by means of the dream what is happening now, then that understanding takes effect. When Alan analysed my dream in the group, it became apparent how pretending to be a celebrity afforded the contact with Bowie. This might seem inauthentic, but rising up to Bowie’s level in the guise of Reeves was already proving successful. What the dream showed was that my assumption I would have to go on pretending was unfounded. It feels to me in the dream that I shall also have to pretend to be Bob Mortimer (Reeves’s comedy partner), yet this never actually happens. Instead I wake up to bliss.

Not my job

Understanding the dream did indeed appear to be enough to drop a false belief and allow the process to continue. The ‘Bowie’ dream came on Wednesday night, was analysed on Thursday, and the breakthrough into liberation had arrived when I woke on Friday. On the Thursday night I had two dreams, the first one before the breakthrough, the second after. The latter I shall perhaps save for a future article, but this was the former:

I was in a junior role at a fashion agency. The staff were giving cookery demonstrations and serving food to important customers. A young, gay guy, senior to me, was cooking. His boss, an immaculately coiffured black woman, looked on in controlled horror. ‘Who is coming to the next demonstration on Friday?’ someone asked. ‘Dior,’ said the woman. It was clear the young ‘chef’ would not be competent. I was so junior within the organisation that none of this had anything to do with me.

A fashion agency is certainly a place where I would be the least qualified to work. But within the agency, all the staff are incompetent at what they have chosen to pursue. This was not an anxiety dream, because of the pleasurable realisation at the end that none of it was my responsibility. Dior would come on Friday, regardless of anything I could do. Dior / Dios / Dieu / God is the One beside whom everyone is incompetent.

When I woke on Friday, for the first time in five years there was a change in the structure of consciousness. Before then, at the level of awakening, on looking into awareness there had been something that did not fit any category of the personal mind: it was not a thought, emotion, sensation or idea. Beside it, all categories and distinctions failed.

The problem I had struggled with for the past five years was how this ‘thing’, which was evidently what people have been describing for millennia as the experience of God, could have any relationship to me. The answer had seemed that our natures were distinct: God is ‘absolute’ (the same for all time, everywhere and to every being), whilst my awareness is ‘relative’ to this.

At awakening, God manifested as a radical nothingness transcending consciousness, on the threshold of which comprehension failed. But, last week, this changed in a totally unexpected way. What specifically had changed was the nature of my longing for God, the longing for the Beloved. Where, formerly, the sense of radical nothingness had appeared, as something impersonal and foreign from the nature of my being, in its place was now the longing. The longing itself had transformed into something impersonal and absolute. As such, there was no longer any distinction between my longing for God and God’s longing for me. This absolute love, a love in which loving is indistinguishable from being loved, meant that there were no longer two distinct natures. God and I were unified in a single awareness.

Alan Chapman and me.

Selfie with the guru.

I could not have dreamt in a million years that this was remotely possible. In subjective terms, it feels like my heart has expanded infinitely. But this infinite heart is God’s as much as mine. My heart is encompassed within the heart of God, even as God raises mine to the dimensions of Its heart.

Why had it taken five crappy years to come home to this? Alan had guided me to a place where I could understand. Sick of the apparent disconnect between my nature and God’s, I had decided that the disconnect was not real and had come to regard the experience of God as an appearance only, as merely a sensation. This was in effect a denial of the Beloved, an attempt prematurely to terminate the disconnect, rather than entering more deeply into relationship and resolving the seeming problem through genuine understanding.

Alan’s retreat returned my practice to the longing for the Beloved. In other words, it put me in touch again with my soul.

At the moment, I am still on honeymoon with this new phase. Alan has briefed me on the next set of seeming problems, which I will perhaps discuss here if or when they arise. For now, I am still trying to express this new understanding as fully as I can, and to the Buddhist framework I have used in the past to describe these experiences, I think I must finally say goodbye.

Footnote

[1] It is interesting how Grimes featured in a recent article on this blog, in connection with the figure of the Girl Genius. It looks to me now as if the appearance of the Girl Genius archetype foreshadowed the Beloved. The vision of the Girl Genius seems to describe the quest of the soul for the Beloved, and her relationship with duality now appears to be a naive description of liberation. Something seems to have been trying to help me out even further back than this. In August last year, an instruction arrived whilst meditating that I should dedicate myself to the goddess Psyche, who is – of course – a personification of the soul. My article ‘The Myth of Psyche and Eros’ was the result, but Apuleius’s allegory seems pretty trite alongside Plato.

An Apology for Meditation

A video interview with Bill Joslin recently appeared on the website Gnostic Media, in which Joslin shows how meditation causes harm through creating a type of psychosis in the meditator, and how meditation is a form of exploitation and mind-control.

Joslin’s views are closely-argued. He examines the nature of mind, self and perception in considerable detail. His arguments are likely to sow doubts even in the minds of experienced meditators, and to compound the opinions of those already opposed to spiritual practices.

However, his use of the term ‘psychosis’ is where we might begin to pick his arguments apart.

Mystical experience and psychotic episodes, in an ontological sense, are essentially identical. The primary difference between the two is that one returns to sanity relatively in tact [sic] after a mystical experience. (Joslin 2014, p. 27. Unless stated, all further page references are to this text.)

Yet what I understand by the term ‘psychosis’ is actually quite dissimilar, ontologically, from a mystical experience. Psychotic states are by definition problematic for the person experiencing them. On the frequent occasions that I have had the experience to which I believe Joslin is pointing with the expression ‘I am God’ (p. 26), it has always been overwhelmingly benign. For someone with a psychosis, however, the apparently identical realisation ‘I am God’ is often experienced as an onerous burden, likely to lead to a great deal of suffering. A psychosis is characterised by an irrepressible need to act upon the realisation; to regard it as an objective fact with necessary consequences.

Likewise, the mystical experience of a single mind in which all beings share (‘I am one with everything’ [p. 23]): the mystic experiences this as blissful and liberating, whereas the psychotic may be left struggling with the disturbing implication that everyone, therefore, can read her thoughts.

Joslin argues that the psychosis caused by meditation is mitigated because ‘[a] spiritual context for the experience provides a container for the experience ’ (p. 27). Yet if placing my experience in a spiritual context is what saves me from madness, it might be expected that placing his experience in a psychiatric context (i.e. knowing that he is ‘ill’) might prevent the symptoms of the psychotic person. But sadly, this is rarely the case.

In support of his argument that mystical experiences are psychotic, Joslin cites a paper by Caroline Brett. However, this paper does not advance the same conclusions as Joslin, because it highlights also some significant differences between mystical and psychotic states. For instance:

in psychosis there may be an objectivization of thoughts that leads to an ascription of externality or alien provenance; in mysticism a lack of identification with thoughts leads to freedom from blind reaction to their content. (Brett 2002, p. 336)

Therefore, according to Brett, mystical experiences are characterised by freedom from the effects of psychotic experiences. This is quite different from Joslin’s view that ‘the mechanics of meditation is [sic] geared directly toward the creation of psychotic states’ (p. 31).

The ‘lack of identification’ and ‘freedom’ highlighted by Brett suggest that something else is in play besides the structural similarities upon which Joslin’s argument is content to rest. This, I think, concerns the ‘self’, a term also used by Joslin in a manner that seems dubious.

First we create a ‘self’ then position the world related to this ‘self’.

Try it. Imaging a coffee cup. Now ask yourself where this coffee cup is with in [sic] the imagined landscape. It is somewhere in front of a point-of-view, a ‘self’. Without this ‘self’ the perception of the coffee cup is not possible. (p. 5)

For Joslin, self and perception are primary. They are given. Through the interplay of both comes awareness (p. 7).

For me, this genesis of the self in ‘a point of view’ seems to rely too much on a visual metaphor, and fails to encompass what is commonly meant by ‘self’.

If self originates in adopting a point-of-view then, regardless of what occupies the ‘field of vision’, self is essentially the same in everyone. But what is commonly understood by the term ‘self’ is that which is unique in each of us. In other words, my experience of my self right now feels like ‘me’; but my experience of having a point of view against my experience is something quite abstract, which (as such) would be the same for everyone. Joslin’s definition of self lacks the individuality and sense of direct experience on which the common usage of the term depends.

Suppose that rather than relying upon a visual analogy of viewing a teacup, we chose an olfactory analogy of smelling a rose. We ask ourselves the same question: ‘Where is the rose?’ But smell is not a sense suited to answer the question ‘where’. For all we know, it could be ourselves that we are smelling. What is there in this (or any other) perception to set a ‘me’ against it? How does the ‘point of view’ ever get constructed?

We must remember that, according to Joslin, there is no awareness (yet) that could help this process along. We are not yet aware of the smell, because we have to wait first for a ‘self’ to appear from adopting a position against the smell, and only thereby attaining awareness. Unless, perhaps, he is suggesting that somehow the self is always already present in perception. But in that case, his analogy is not the explanation of the origin of self that it pretends to be.

If we suppose instead that awareness is primary, and self proceeds from it, then all these difficulties evaporate.

Aware from the outset, certain things in my experience I identify with, and certain things I do not. This process of identification with aspects of awareness makes those aspects of awareness (bodily sensations, for example) feel like ‘me’. From its very beginning, then, self at once feels like ‘mine’ and, as such, is unique. It originates and maintains itself through an active process – identification. It is not stuck at the bottom of a chain, as in Joslin’s model, forced to labour in the production of awareness. Instead, self grows out of awareness and, in this way, enjoys a dynamic relationship with its experiences.

For Joslin, self is implicated in perception, which leads to awareness. Meditation undoes self, thereby undoing (or ‘corrupting’ [p. 31]) both perception and awareness.

For me, self grows out of awareness through a process of identification. Meditation undoes self, thereby undoing identification and expanding awareness beyond self.

An image from the interview.

The YouTube edition of Jan Irvin’s interview with Bill Joslin.

Because Joslin views self as a given component in perception and awareness, it is understandable that he takes a grave view of meditation. But my view is that he gravely underestimates the individuality, flexibility and freedom implicit in the notion of self. If I am wrong, then considering the many years I have been practising meditation, I can only wonder that I can still function.

There is much in Joslin’s arguments with which I do not disagree – for instance, his comment (in the interview) that awakening experiences are not that big a deal. Granted, teachers have and continue to use meditation as a means of exploiting students and, I think, will continue to do so. But this problem, and its solutions, seem to me an ethical rather than an epistemological issue. If meditation is a swindle, should we not focus our energies on the swindlers rather than the scam?

The spiritual scene is far less black-and-white than Joslin paints it. In the interview, he talks as if meditation affected all students in the same way. Given his model of the self, I can see why he tends towards this attitude. Yet, of course, everyone is different. People react divergently even to similar experiences.

Some students will indeed fall victim to manipulative teachers. Some will have experiences that will cause them to crash and burn. Some will practise meditation for years, with never a sniff of anything extraordinary. Some will have their lives radically changed by it for the better, yet even among these there will be vast differences in opinion and understanding.

The reason is that every self reacts differently to its own undoing. It does so, because it can. Whereas Joslin’s view implies that there is only one ‘correct’ relationship between the self and awareness, actually all sorts of relationships are possible, because awareness is not dependent upon self.

Contrary to what he would have us believe, exploring the boundaries of self through meditation is to exercise and develop the self’s intrinsic freedom.

References

Bill Joslin (2014), Presentation accompanying on-line interview: ‘Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense’, http://dbgak.net/Presentation.pdf. (Accessed July, 2014.)

Caroline Brett (2002), ‘Psychotic and Mystical States of Being: Connections and Distinctions’, Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology (vol. 9, no. 4), pp. 321-341.

The Cult of the Girl Genius

From the corner of my mind’s eye, I began to notice figures that shared a certain characteristic: the girl genius.

She is a young woman or a girl, gifted with prodigious abilities. Her recent visitations culminated in a dream.

Portraits of Hit Girl, Grimes and Velma.

Avatars of the girl genius: Hit Girl, Grimes and Velma Dinkley.

I was performing on stage, part of her band. Before the show, she led me backstage to demonstrate how it was all worked out. It was all so simple, yet hugely inspiring. All hers, and yet she gave it so freely it felt like it were mine.

The performance began. As she played electric guitar, next to her was a tall, black receptacle into which – I understood – fell all the wonders and miracles generated by her playing.

She is an archetype, but perhaps one less common within our culture. Trying to piece together what her manifestation might mean, I considered some of the forms in which she had appeared, some of the people and characters who had played for me her avatars.

First, the musician Grimes (aka Claire Elise Boucher). What I have heard of her music strikes me as an intriguing mix of cuteness and darkness. Before Grimes there was Björk, and before Björk, Kate Bush, but both have since matured as individuals in ways that have muted their reflection of the girl genius.

Grimes carries the archetype in its emotional mode, whereas Velma Dinkley, from the Scooby Doo cartoons, is a manifestation of its more intellectual register. A ‘geek’ is the point at which the numinosity of the girl genius has faded so low, it enters the phenomenal world. The girl genius can appear as a geek, but no geek is the girl genius. She is always concerned with wisdom rather than cleverness.

The character Hit Girl from the movie Kick-Ass is another manifestation, this time played out on the physical plane. The controversy caused by this character arises from her combination of girlish sweetness, psychosis and extreme sadism. In this register, the manifestation of the archetype is contradictory and monstrous, a reminder of how archetypes can indeed become dangerous, the closer they approach physical reality.

I could feel the presence of the girl genius in the background of my awareness, where the perceptible fades into inexpressibility, but it seemed that only intentional effort would bring her into fuller focus, so I banished a space, lit incense and a candle, made a sigil for her and then visualised it, and requested an audience.

The vision

She appeared as a female youth dressed in chainmail and armour, with long blonde hair and a sword in her right hand, a halo about her head.

At her feet played two younger siblings, a girl-child and a boy. All three delight in each other’s company, especially the children, who take turns casting upon one another the shape of a beast or lion. The girl-child makes of the boy a lion, then the boy-child makes a lion of her. Meanwhile, the girl genius watches over both, enjoying their play.

Then the girl genius puts on the habit of a hermit (although her slight physique and blonde hair remain apparent), and she journeys leftwards across the vision space, into darker lands, until she stands before an uncrossable lake of black, turbid water.

In the lake resides a giant frog-monster, which she conjures to the surface. This is supposed to be a battle, an ordeal, but the girl genius leaps onto the head of the monster as it rears up for a fight, and before it can submerge she has ridden it across to the other shore of the lake. The monster is affronted and furious, but can do nothing.

On the other side of the lake she takes up residence in the dark and builds a machine that generates mist. Witches are attracted into the mist, but inside they cannot navigate. The machine extracts their magickal powers and they cannot escape.

Equilateral triangle with a cross from its base, topped with a circle, and short, perpendicular lines from the triangle's other sides.

Sigil of the girl genius.

A super-witch presides over this enterprise, in league with the girl genius. The super-witch takes the witches’ powers for herself, but it is not long before the girl genius tires of this arrangement. One day, she walks away, taking nothing. The super-witch remains, but she does not understand the machine and was only ever interested in the power she stole.

Meanwhile, the girl genius journeys back to the world of light. She assumes the form of a male youth, slightly older than herself. Then she becomes a mature woman. She continues in this way, swapping from female to male, ensuring that she acquires experience of every stage of life: girl, boy, girl genius, heroic male, mother, father, crone and wise old hermit.

Then she takes her original form and builds another machine. This one issues flashes and bangs so bright and loud it shocks the user out of the world. The dazzling inner brightness it creates enables people to detach from their problems.

But the effects of this machine are more profound than at first appears because, later in their lives, its users experience strange ‘slits’, like gaping mouths, opening in the fabric of reality. The slits appear in all kinds of places, assume all manner of shapes, and the user steps into whichever of these they choose.

The slits lead to another universe, a soothing, quiet, purple-pink realm, where users go to take a complete break from reality. The machine tackles human problems in both a short and long-term sense: it makes people feel better, but it also gives them a place they can go whenever they feel the need.

Nothing at all is changed by being in this place, but it is an other place, and offers an opportunity for reflection away from reality itself.

Here, the vision ended.

Her meaning

Its most vivid aspect was the image of the girl genius with her siblings, which seemed to hint at the relationship of the archetype to duality. It reminded me of two highly dualistic images from the tarot: The Chariot and The Devil.

The Chariot and The Devil (tarot cards), alongside an image of the girl genius and her siblings.

Ways of dealing with duality: the tarot and the girl genius.

In The Devil we see duality as stasis: the male and female demons are enslaved in fixed and separate identities. Whereas in The Chariot, the driver harnesses and balances the competing pull of opposites in the service of forward motion.

The girl genius, meanwhile, is guardian of a more immersive attitude. In their play, her siblings take turns at embodying the beast, without remaining stuck in this identity, yet also without the burden of assuming control.

Blonde female youth in armour bearing a sword.

The vision of the girl genius as St. Joan.

For the girl genius, the beast holds no fear. Confronting the beast means becoming the beast. For her, this is literally ‘child’s play’.

I am a middle-aged male, whereas the girl genius is youthful and female. This vision of otherness performs for me the role of the anima, a Jungian term for an archetypal personification of the unconscious, which takes the form of a woman for a man, and the form of a man for a woman.

Hit Girl, Velma and Grimes had manifested certain aspects of this figure, but the vision reveals a deeper level. The girl in chainmail, bearing a sword, recalls St. Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431), who was perhaps the fullest expression in a human life of the girl genius archetype.

St. Joan was a warrior and military strategist, but she was also a visionary, motivated by overwhelming feelings of religious devotion. Joan’s life and legend expresses the girl genius on the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual levels.

After noticing her cultural manifestations, in the vision she revealed herself at this deeper level. Her otherness operates not only as a symbol, but is also the means by which she calls me onwards. The girl genius is the free engagement with life on all its levels. She is the exercise of our talents, completely and without fear.

My Jungian Shadow Exposed by a Shamanistic Theravadan Monk

I recently attended a workshop in a local church entitled ‘You and Your Shadow’, presented by Amaranatho, a Therevadan monk. The promise of some Jungian experiential work, combined with a dose of dharma in a friendly Anglican setting was too much to resist.

Amaranatho trained in the Thai forest tradition, and spent ten years at Amaravarti Monastery near Hemel Hempstead. This is an organisation that has aimed to import traditions directly from Thai Buddhist culture into the UK. Its monks and nuns wear traditional robes, do not carry money, practise celibacy, and subsist entirely on donations.

He no longer resides at Amaravarti, but Amaranatho has continued to practise in this tradition by living as an alms mendicant. He does not charge a fee for his teaching, but accepts donations of money and food. (Never mind the cash, I felt absurdly chuffed when he accepted the food.)

After his arrival at the venue, we had lunch from the shared food we had brought. 11:30am is a bit early for me, but Amaranatho observes the traditional rules of eating only breakfast and a main meal before noon. I once followed this same timetable, during a Goenka vipassana retreat. I found it possible to adapt pretty quickly, but I imagine that combining it with a daily western lifestyle is a pain in the arse.

The Venerable Amaranatho.

‘Explore, Play, Love.’ Strap-line of the Venerable Amaranatho.

The cultural gap felt a little awkward at first. Firstly, there was the absurdly early lunch; secondly, Amaranatho had to explain that we were obliged to stand back whilst he helped himself to the buffet first. For sure, we received a Pali blessing from him in return, but the western secular mindset does not take easily to the prospect of granting clerics priority access to the pies.

In Thai culture, monks might still be regarded as warriors on the front-line against human suffering; here, ‘scrounging parasites’ seems a more likely epithet, if anyone were impolite enough to voice it. But at least Amaranatho’s restricted dietary regime ensured there were plenty of Jaffa cakes left.

Yet, as the day wore on, the stuff that really mattered came to the fore.

What struck me about Amaranatho was his persona. He’s known as ‘the playful monk’, and indeed seems prone to erupt into deep, genuine laughter at moments of insight. Despite the robes, his mannerisms and vocalisations are western. He is gentle and sensitive in his personal interactions. But there is an underlying edginess about him, an anger, a ferocity, that I particularly warmed to.

Some stuff kicked off in the workshop, and although it felt as if he were gauging very sensitively where people were at, and where they might be ready to go, he was nevertheless quite tough in pushing us towards a sense of our limits, at least. I learnt enough from the workshop to realise that what I’m picking out here says at least as much about me as it does about him, but what I found fascinating was how I felt quite safe and supported in the presence of someone who – just below the surface – also seemed quite ferocious.

It was particularly interesting to see him reacting to the surroundings of the workshop: a chapel inside the church, with all the paraphernalia of altar, icons, crucifix, bibles and stained glass. These things are a technology, Amaranatho explained. (I’m paraphrasing.) And their function is to amplify exactly the stuff we’re working with.

I had never thought of it that way before, but it was suddenly quite obvious. The trappings of religious traditions are indeed tools for relative expression of the absolute. A crucifix, for example, ‘steps down’, decreases the uncontainable voltage of the Christ, which is itself the realisation of the undying in a human form, the human destroyed yet resurrected through its identity with the undying.

Who would have thought a crucifix does that? But it really does. And more, because by being manifested as an artefact, it then attracts our personal projections, drawing them out from the psyche like iron filings to a magnet.

This is Jungian territory, of course. What the workshop offered was a chance to taste this directly: the sense in which psychical reality is made of our own projections, reflected back at us from external symbols.

The day built to a climax whereby we had, through several careful phases, each produced a drawing of a creature than embodied some of our projections. Amaranatho led us through an exercise in which we identified, swapped, tried on, or wore for a while some of these creatures. It was electrifying, and I could have played like this all day!

Cat-sphinx-Bastet cat creature.

A creature. A projection from my shadow.

When one of the drawings was taken away and given to someone else, or when we were asked to justify our ownership by embodying the creature, the intensity of my emotional reactions seemed a sure sign we were dealing with something beyond the literal situation. I was playing with and questioning the meaning of myself.

Our guide, the monk, seemed incredibly sure in this territory. It was a delight to watch him feeling his way deftly into the participants, judging the type of challenges to deal them from the pack of projections at his disposal.

In a western occult context, I would probably have approached the creatures as ‘spirits’. Indeed, I felt a little concerned at the end that these hyper-charged entities were just left lying around, or would be carried home and unceremoniously binned, rather than banished or honoured in some way. But, hey. Another day, another paradigm.

The synthesis of psychology, spiritual exploration and magickal practice that Amaranatho embodied for me in the workshop I found highly inspiring. It was like working with a shaman; someone with genuine spiritual experience, but also someone deliberately in the overlap between traditions, positioned between them as a gifted translator.

A Vague Apparition

In Occult Experiments in the Home (the book), I relate a story of how, meditating one evening, I heard a woman’s voice saying I’m done! I’m done! which was so clear it broke my concentration.

I immediately felt that this experience could mean that someone I knew had died. But I mentioned it no one because, at the time, my partner’s mother was seriously ill . However, I noted it in my diary.

The next day at work it was announced that a member of staff had died the previous evening, but this person was male and alive at the time I heard the voice. In the days that followed my partner’s mother made a good recovery, so I thought no more about it.

Snapshot of page from my journal.

The entry in my journal.

Around this time a letter arrived at the building where I lived, addressed to ‘Mrs G.’. No one of that name lived in the building. There was no return address on the envelope, so after a few days I opened it and returned it to the sender. It emerged that Mrs. G., the addressee, it was the sister of Ms M., an elderly woman who lived in the flat below mine. It was a letter of condolence.

Only by this accidental route did I discover that Ms M., my neighbour, had died. Ms M. was a very private person, but she had recently asked if she could call on me for help if she needed it. I was very happy to keep an eye on her. (I suspected at the time that she was scared of collapsing in her home and not being found.) In the book my account of this incident ended as follows:

I’ll probably never know the exact date and time at which Ms M. passed away in hospital, but the date on the letter suggested it would have been on or close to the day I heard the voice… Ms M.’s bedroom was directly below the room in which I was meditating. (Barford 2010: 76)

I have recently been reading books that discuss ‘crisis apparitions’. I was intrigued by how the Society for Psychical Research decided to impose an arbitrary limit of 12 hours around the time of a person’s death, so that an apparition of that person experienced either 12 hours before or after their death was considered a crisis apparition (i.e. the apparition of a living person) rather than as an apparition of the dead (Peach 1991: 45).

Into what category of apparition did my experience of the voice fall – if any? Was Ms. M dead or alive at the time I heard the voice? As quite a few years have passed since the incident, I decided it was perhaps time to dig a little deeper.

The entry in my journal was written on February 14th, 2007, and states that the voice was experienced at 6pm on February 12th. The journal entry seems to have been triggered by the coincidence between the voice (reported in my journal as sounding like my partner’s mother) and the death of the male staff member at work. An entry dated February 25th reports my discovery that Ms. M had died, after I had opened the letter. It also notes that the letter itself was dated February 17th, prompting my conclusion that Ms. M must have died close to the experience of the voice.

Last week I went to the register office for a copy of Ms. M’s death certificate. It revealed that Ms. M died on the 15th. She was alive at the time I heard the voice, and would be alive for another three days.

So – where does this leave us? In cases of ‘crisis apparitions’ is there really anything causal at work? Or is it just that we have an unrelated sequence of experiences or events on which it is possible to hang a certain narrative structure?

A misty form that looks like the outline of a person.

An apparition. Has it a causal basis, or is it just the interpretation of mist?

In this case, a voice was unexpectedly heard, and was later (re-)attributed to someone who happened to live nearby and happened to die roughly around the same time. Considering that Ms. M died three days after the voice was experienced, and that the voice was not recognised as hers at the time but ‘identified’ only in retrospect, it seems that the null hypothesis has probably won the day.

And yet… the cause of death on the certificate offers a fillip: it states that Ms. M suffered a heart attack (myocardial infarction) on the 12th. The day on which the voice was heard could have coincided with the last day that she was conscious, but whether 6pm coincides with her last moment is beyond the limits I would consider it appropriate to research.

Am I irrationally stretching my preferred narrative across all available hooks? I am enabled to do so, to a certain extent, because (as the SPR researchers seemed to recognise with their 12-hour fudge zone) ‘death’ and ‘crisis’ are malleable terms.

Commonly, and ultimately in this case, an apparition is a subjective experience, which can only be shared by putting it into some kind of narrative. Like all our most intimate experiences, it can mean only what we decide to say about it, unless we say nothing at all. But who is there that seriously believes the most intimate experiences in our lives should be regarded as the least meaningful?

References

Barford, Duncan (2010). Occult Experiments in the Home: Personal Explorations of Magick and the Paranormal. London: Aeon Books.

Peach, Emily (1991). Things that Go Bump in the Night: How to Investigate and Challenge Ghostly Experiences. London: Aquarian Press.

When Mindfulness Attacks: Thoughts on the Application of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

In the early 90s I was following a course in meditation at a Buddhist centre and volunteering at the mental health day centre. One evening, our meditation teacher gave us leaflets for a drop-in class and asked us to distribute them around our places of work. When I told him where I was volunteering he asked me instead to take away any leaflets that might already be there.

The view back then tended to be that meditation classes often attracted people for whom they were unsuitable. It was assumed that mental health issues and mindfulness did not mix. But today the consensus has turned full circle. Around the same time my meditation teacher was trying to discourage people with mental health issues from his classes, Jon Kabat-Zin was writing his now hugely popular books on mindfulness, and developing his course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). And very soon thereafter, based in part on Kabat-Zinn’s work, Zindel Segal and Mark Williams established Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), an evidence-based treatment for the prevention of depression. For certain categories of people with mental health issues, at least, meditation was not only proposed as a suitable aid in treatment, there was now empirical evidence to support its efficacy.

In the UK, 2004, MBCT was recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), and five years later awarded ‘key priority’ status. ‘Of the treatments specifically designed to reduce relapse,’ NICE concluded, ‘group-based mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has the strongest evidence base with evidence that it is likely to be effective in people who have experienced three or more depressive episodes’ (NICE, 2010).

This means that MBCT currently has a green light to be rolled out through the UK National Health Service as a treatment for preventing relapses in people who have experienced multiple bouts of depression. In other words, meditation is now regarded by the NHS as a favoured treatment for certain forms of depression.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn, pioneer of the idea that everyday stuff can be made better through meditation.

The number of NHS Trusts actually delivering MBCT programmes is small at present, but this seems set to escalate. One of my local trusts runs MBCT treatment groups and a MBCT training. In the summer I attended one of their public dayschools, to check out what it was all about. MBCT courses are secular in their outlook, although the basic techniques being taught are based on Buddhist teachings. The dayschool was a series of talks by Buddhist scholar John Peacock, exploring the Buddhist roots of MBCT practices through taking a close look at the original meanings of the Sanskrit and Pali terms used in the Buddha’s teachings.

It was great stuff, but I was probably a little more au fait with the Buddhist terminology than the language of MBCT itself, so I made a point of chatting with the other delegates during breaks to find out who they were and what they were doing. The vast majority were MBCT trainees or practitioners, most already employed within the NHS. The MBCT training demands prior qualifications in the mental health field, and that applicants demonstrate a pre-existing client base to whom they can deliver MBCT once qualified. I was also intrigued to learn that the key people training the trainees were drawn from the local Buddhist community rather than the NHS. Among them, the same guy who – back in the 90s – had asked me to remove his leaflets from the day centre.

It began to dawn on me that MBCT is set to take off in the UK due to economic factors alone. Firstly, MBCT is an eight-week self-help programme delivered to groups of patients, which means it is dirt cheap when compared to most other forms of intervention. The NHS will no doubt leap at the chance to implement something that is relatively inexpensive and proven to be effective. Secondly, there is a whole community of people already expert in these techniques – i.e. Western Buddhists – most likely grateful for an opportunity to monetize and develop something they would be doing anyway.

Of course, I am sceptical of MBCT. Two decades ago, when the meditation teacher asked me to remove those leaflets, it was not from any lack of compassion. He knew that meditation increases awareness, and if unpleasant mental processes are taking place in our minds, meditation will only increase awareness of them. This may not always be helpful. And this has certainly been my own experience of meditation.

Reading up in more detail on the theory and structure of the MBCT programme, I confess that I was hoping to find some holes through which I could pick it apart. Instead I discovered what seems to me, as an experienced meditator, a solid and well-designed programme for establishing an effective personal practice: posture, concentration, insight, sitting practice, mindful movement, and techniques for carrying over formal practice into everyday awareness – all of these are covered. The flaw in MBCT, however, seems to be that although it works very well for making our situation better, it may not provide enough support for when ‘better’ is no longer good enough.

Towards the end of her schematic definition of MBCT, Rebecca Crane writes:

Teasdale (1999) makes the distinction between metacognitive knowledge (knowing that thoughts are not always accurate) and metacognitive insight (directly experiencing thoughts as events in the field of awareness). The suggestion is that the practice of mindfulness develops metacognitive insight, which has more potency in terms of enabling a skilful disengagement from ruminative thinking patterns and difficult emotional experience. (Crane, 2009: 152)

In other words, MBCT equips us with an ability to identify negative contents of our mind as precisely that – as negative contents. However, by equipping us with the ability to recognise thought itself as a mental event, what if subsequently thought itself (rather than just its contents) begins to appear as negative?

Growing awareness of the form of experience (that which all experiences have in common beyond their contents) can lead to a growing awareness that this ‘form’, too, can be problematic. The way that experience itself – as MBCT teaches us – is transient, devoid of any discernible centre, and unable to satisfy us in itself, can present as a problem. Experience from this perspective can begin to seem meaningless or confusing, or else the mind’s habitual inability to accept the nature of experience can become experienced, in itself, as tiresome and inauthentic. Turning to the form of experience as a means of gaining perspective on these contents will no longer help us, but will merely compound the impression, because the contents of our experience have now become our perception of the form of experience, and so the form of experience is now the source of our problem, no longer offering a handle on our suffering, but only seeming to dig us deeper into a more tormenting awareness of what it means to be human.

This is what non-secular mystics and yogis have described as ‘the Dark Night of the Soul’. There is currently no equivalent term among MBCT practitioners for this, but they may soon need to find one! If and by the time the Dark Night presents itself to an MBCT client, the eight-week course will probably be long over. Because of the way that MBCT is delivered as a classroom programme, anyone who ran into difficulties before the end would likely just cease attendance, or be judged as not having been suitable for the programme in the first place. In either case, someone who is experiencing merely a deepening of the skills they have been taught could be left dangling with no further guidance in a state at least as unpleasant as that in which they started.

Willoughby Britton

Willoughby Britton giving a presentation on the adverse effects of meditation. http://vimeo.com/18819660

Only the most determined practitioners will realise under their own steam that the practice itself has become the source of their current difficulties, and – instead of giving up and perhaps thereby remaining in those difficulties – will figure out that the only way out is through.

The recent research of Willoughby Britton into the negative effects of meditation is salient in this regard. At the Buddhist Geeks Conference in 2011 she commented:

Meditation comes out of contemplative religious contexts where the goal is – however you want to call it – liberation, awakening, enlightenment; some kind of radical transformation of consciousness. So I don’t think that it would be surprising to hypothesize that if you practice meditation, it will actually produce some of the consequences that it was designed to produce: a radical transformation of consciousness. But a lot of people are very surprised when their consciousness starts to change, because that’s not what they signed up for. They signed up for stress reduction. (Cited in Williamson, 2011).

As Britton suggests, the secular emphasis of MBCT may prove ultimately to be its blind spot. Despite the protests of so-called ‘secular’ Buddhists, Buddhism is a religion. What all religions share is a specific view about the way things are. Secularism and science tend to regard these views as ‘assumptions’ and will strive instead to avoid them. But genuine religious traditions – such as Buddhism – will also include practices and techniques for arriving at a direct experience of the truth of their view of the way things are.

Most people troubled by depression are vulnerable to and troubled by quite specific issues that can have proximate and apparent causes. Although meditation will indeed help us approach these issues differently, by giving us a greater insight into the way the mind actually works, this is also providing us with a whole new domain of experience – a new domain that will in turn present its own new set of challenges and issues.

There is no way that MBCT will not continue to grow and spread. It is too effective and too cheap, with too many people able and willing to teach it capably and inspire others to regular practice. My hope is that it helps the vulnerable client group for whom it is currently intended, and that longer-term research will be conducted to ascertain that it does.

On the basis of personal experience, I cannot shake my suspicion that the real value of MBCT is not as a way out from personal depression, but as a way into deep and universal dissatisfaction.

References

Crane, Rebecca (2009). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Distinctive Features. Hove: Routledge.

NICE (2010). Guideline on the Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults: Guideline 90. Accessed October, 2013.

Williamson, L.J. (2011). Willoughby Britton at the Buddhist Geeks Conference, on the Problem with Meditation. Accessed October, 2013.