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.


Bill Joslin (2014), Presentation accompanying on-line interview: ‘Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense’, (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?


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.

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.


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.

The Semiotics of Transpersonal Experiences

The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is perhaps best known for his semiotics (or ‘theory of signs’). For Peirce, meaning arises through the formation of relationships between the elements of a sign, providing a spectrum of infinitely nuanced kinds of meaning. The elements of a sign, according to Peirce, are the sign itself (i.e. its material form, also referred to as the ‘sign-vehicle’, in order to avoid confusion); the object that it signifies (regardless of whether this is abstract, hypothetical, or something available to perception); and the interpretant.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce in 1875.

It is this latter element that gives Peirce’s theory its uniqueness and strength. The interpretant is the effect upon a person by the object via the sign. If this sounds tautological, to a certain extent it is. Indeed, Peirce points out that the interpretant itself is actually another sign, with its very own object and (potentially) a subsequent interpretant. This explains why one thought always tends to lead to yet another. To give a more concrete example, it also describes how a strange shape in the sky can act as a sign-vehicle, creating an interpretant in a witness in the form of a shout of ‘Aliens!’, which in turn – as a new sign-vehicle in itself – causes everyone in the street to look upwards, etc., etc. Peirce’s semiotics enables us to see that meaning is an indeterminate, potentially endless process. What is also crucial here, however, is the notion of signs having effects, of meaning as an embodiment, a manifestation, a change wrought upon someone by their coming into some type of relationship with a sign-vehicle.

Peirce’s theory is an important contribution to the history of ideas. I thoroughly recommend it. But I am about to mix it up with other models and riff off of it something rotten, and I would not wish anyone to confuse what follows with anything that Peirce himself wrote.

Recently, the Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has turned his mind to what he calls ‘Integral Semiotics’ (Wilber, 2013). This is an interesting project that situates meaning itself within Wilber’s model of all phenomena, that gloriously baggy and inclusive amalgamation of quadrants, stages, states, levels and lines. Although Wilber seems to accomplish his stated task of describing the ‘Kosmic address’ of many different types of signs and referents, it seemed to me that all the types of signs he discusses are signs in the same way, even though they occupy different positions within his model and point to different objects.

By combining Peirce’s theory of the sign with Wilber’s model of the states of human consciousness, it seems possible to formulate and situate not simply a range of different signs and referents, a range of different meanings, but also a range of fundamentally different processes by which meaning is made.

The first three of these are common in everyday cognition, and are those most frequently described in the works of Peirce himself.


an icon of Jesus Christ

Example of an icon, which signifies Jesus because it looks like (a particular image of) Jesus.

First, we have the simplest form of sign, which Peirce named an icon. The icon signifies its object by virtue of the fact that it appears in some respect the same as its object. For example, a portrait signifies its subject to the extent that it visually resembles its subject. Because icons are so close in their perceptual manifestation to their object, they are perilously close to literalism. For instance, a gesture we might make to signify ‘milking a cow’ is likely to be almost the same as actually milking a cow; or the sound of a peacock that we might imitate in order to signify ‘peacock’ might be accurate enough to be virtually indistinguishable from the sound of the peacock itself. (As these examples suggest, not all icons are visual.)

The icon is so simple that it occurs spontaneously and prolifically in nature. There are many instances of plants or animals making use of certain colours, shapes or sounds to pass themselves off as something other than what they are. By looking or sounding or smelling like something else, they create an effect upon other animals as if that something else were actually present. For example: those yellow and black-striped midges, which look like wasps, but are actually harmless. This colouring may be unwilled or unconscious on the midge’s part, but it has nevertheless effected change upon the world through an appearance that creates the impression of the immediate presence of the thing initiated by the appearance. Example: someone scared of wasps ends up running away instead from a midge.



Example of an index: footprints in the sand, signifying presence and passage.

Peirce’s second type of sign is the index, which is slightly more sophisticated in that it signifies not what is immediately present, but what may be elsewhere, or which has not yet come to be. The classic example of an index are footprints in the sand, indicating the presence of another person on the desert island. The footprints do not look like the person; they do not resemble the person in any way. An index is, instead, an existential marker. In the absence of the object itself, the index signifies its presence, nevertheless, elsewhere in space or time. An arrow on a motorway sign is another classic index, signifying that although the turning is not here, nevertheless it exists further down the road.

Indices, too, are simple enough to arise in nature. Causality is often sufficient to lay down indices. For example, back in my schooldays, we all knew that a cirque or morraine is a sure index of the passage of a glacier in the distant past. It requires even less expertise to recognise a large thundercloud as a future-oriented index to a storm that is not here now, but will be soon.


Signs take a quantum leap at Peirce’s next stage, the symbol. These do not arise in nature, but seem to be associated with consciousness. Imagine if the only signs at our disposal were things that resembled their objects, or things that pointed to where or when their objects were. If that were the case, we would not be able to imagine it being a case – or be able to imagine anything very much at all.

The most prevalent instance of a symbol is the word. A word looks nothing like its object (except for the word ‘word’, which does indeed look identical to a word). And a word has no causal or existential connection with its object (unless we lend credence to the superstitious saying, ‘Speak of the Devil and he will appear’).

Earlier, we mentioned Peirce’s notion of the interpretant – the effect of the sign upon the person who encounters it. In the case of the icon, the effect is the impact of something perceptually similar to the object. In the case of the index, the effect is the impact of an existential trace of the object. In the case of the symbol, however, the effect is the impact of culture: the influence within us of a consensus that the sign-vehicle refers to the object. In other words, a symbol points to its object because we know that is what it points to. We know, because we have been taught.

These three varieties of sign are Peirce’s fundamental types, but they equip us with some profound and powerful ideas. Yet it is important not to over-simplify this model, because ‘pure’ examples of these types of signs are actually quite elusive. Take the arrow by the roadside, for instance. Although footprints and thunderclouds may arise in nature, arrows do not. It is only a human convention that decrees that arrows signify motion in a particular direction. In other words, many of our so-called ‘indices’ actually have a distinct aroma of ‘symbol’ wafting from them. Likewise, the so-called ‘icons’ on our computer desktops. Sure, they are a visual representation of their object, but that object is something quite abstract, so it is actually a symbol doing most of the icon’s work.

Signs occur in nature – or rather we can read as signs certain processes within nature. Some might argue, for instance, that DNA works as a kind of naturally occurring symbol, but – in my opinion – this is pushing the idea too far. As soon as we reach the threshold of a symbol, it seems there has to be a mind involved. Activity on a physical level, no matter how complex, will not fit the bill. Living organisms can evolve to resemble other things, and physical process can put down traces of themselves – both of these without needing anyone to be around to recognise them as such – but for us to describe these processes as constituting an ‘icon’ or ‘index’ then there has to be a mind to which this analogy occurs. To see a tiger’s tracks, or the red colouring of an insect, yet to think ‘this is a sign’, is a symbolic process. In order for any kind of symbol to get off the ground, there needs to be a mind in which the sign-vehicle (‘tiger track’, ‘red marking’) and its object (the concept of ‘icon’ or ‘index’) can be brought into conjunction. A symbol has an effect only where there is a mind.


The Greek letter and symbol ‘pi’, which has no relationship to the value 3.1415… except for the convention that it does.

I am purposely avoiding the idea that it needs to be a human mind, because it seems possible to teach animals and to program machines to recognise and use symbols. Research with chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins and other species, suggests that some non-humans are capable of understanding and using symbols. What is less clear, however, is whether animals are capable of the creative use of signs that comes so naturally to humans even in early childhood.

Peirce regarded meaning primarily in terms of its effect, so it might have seemed to him justified to regard a computer as a symbol-using entity, because of the way the machine’s software can change in response to the contingencies it has been programmed to recognise. But again, the symbolic inventiveness that comes naturally to humans, giving us notions such as ‘humour’, ‘lucidity’ or ‘style’, still seems very challenging to replicate in a cybernetic context.

We cannot rule out revolutionary breakthroughs in computer science and animal linguistics, but we might still harbour an impression that signs – symbols, especially – demarcate an arena that is peculiarly human. The home we make for ourselves on this planet, in which we feel uniquely comfortable, is a world furnished largely with signs.

Signs and the growth of the psyche

A working definition of mind that I find useful is ‘that which connects us to our experience’. It is a definition put to use quite frequently in the field of psychoanalysis. Freud was the first to suggest that trauma is what happens when extreme experiences impact upon us, without us having the necessary mental equipment to process them (Freud, 1920: 275). An experience the mind is unable to represent simply tends to re-occur in the same form, over and over. Post-traumatic stress disorder might be conceived of as the re-enactment in the body of experiences the mind has failed to contain. To the extent we have a sense of owning and understanding our experience, the mind has processed the experience into thoughts, feelings, memories, knowledge or ideas. A damaged or undeveloped mind is one that lacks this capacity. On the other hand, as Michael Eigen suggests (paraphrasing Wilfred Bion), ‘a central task of humankind is to grow a psyche capable of sustaining the evolution of new places of interaction of diverse terms of experience’ (Eigen, 2005: 58). In other words, the most healthy and developed mind is the one that is capable of making all sorts of links with experience in as many different registers as possible.

We saw earlier how icons and indices are types of sign with precursors in the natural world. A symbol, however, possess no perceptual or causal linkage between its sign-vehicle and its object. It stands for something only because there is a cultural convention that that is what it stands for. The only entity currently known to be capable of linking an experience to an idea through a cultural convention, is the human mind. Once we leave behind the domain of ‘natural’ icons and indices for the realm of the symbol, we have entered the mental realm. It is now no longer the material configuration of the sign-vehicle, nor its existential relationship to the object, which determines exclusively the process through which meaning arises. At this level onwards it is the operations of the mind that determine how meaning is produced. The function of the mind is to link experiences to awareness by building new structures to contain them – words, perceptual images, memories, thoughts, etc. The more developed the mind, the greater its repertoire of structures, and the greater its awareness of these as structures, and of its own activities as a process.

This last point addresses a difficulty in defining the mind as that which represents or links experiences. Who or what does it represent them for and to? It is in response to this conundrum that Buddhist psychology distinguishes itself from the Western view, and regards mind simply as a sense (the sense that enables us to discern ‘inner’ processes, such as feelings, thoughts, etc.) rather than as an irrefutable subject, the Cartesian ego, to whom our experience is offered.

The sense of being someone, the sense of owning or mastering our experience and the representations thrown up by ‘our’ mind, is itself simply another one of those structures the mind uses to link with and process experience. The impression that ‘this right now’ is ‘something happening to someone’ is a structure with immense utility as a survival mechanism, thrown up by the mind in response to experience, perhaps even acquired innately through blind Darwinian selection processes.

Despite appearances to the contrary, occasioned by poor levels of understanding both within and between science and religion, Darwinian selection and the teachings of the world’s great spiritual traditions are capable of sitting happily side-by-side. The practices of esoteric traditions – such as meditation, prayer, the cultivation of compassion and selflessness, etc. – were specifically designed to expose the sense of self as a mental structure (a notion that science has little argument with), and to open the way to transpersonal states of consciousness.

These are experiences that arise when ‘the sense of self as a mental structure’ ceases to be an idea (which is itself an instance of a mental structure) but becomes instead a direct, lived experience. A useful analogy is the way that many of us reach a point when losing our virginity ceases to be an idea and becomes a direct experience. Our ideas may have described or prepared us for this experience, but otherwise they will bear little comparison. When transpersonal experiences arise, the mind will most likely offer up further mental structures to represent these experiences. The transpersonal experience is integrated by the mind’s creation of a structure to link it with. At first, such experiences may seem singular and outlandish. With time and repetition, they tend to settle into recognisable registers. These form the basis for new modes of apprehending experience, new ways of making meaning from the reality in which the mind finds itself, a reality in which it grows towards recognising its own processes as processes, rather than as the possession of a self somehow apart from experience.


I would suggest that the first of these transpersonal registers is the vision. It is similar to the symbol, but differs in a crucial respect. Whereas a symbol allows linkage of a sign-vehicle to its object through cultural convention, the vision invents a convention of its own.

The means of inventing a convention may vary. Usually, some form of imaginative activity will be involved. Fundamentally, a visionary uses his or her imagination to link concepts in novel or different ways from the consensus. In computer science, for example, the inventors of the graphical user interface are now lauded as ‘visionaries’. What they accomplished was a work of imagination, conceiving new metaphors that could be applied to communicating with computers. They replaced the previous idea of ‘commanding’ the computer with a new metaphor of a desktop-like ‘space’, on which data – represented as ‘objects’ – could be picked up, moved around and worked upon.

Another example of a vision, from the field of art, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the infamous signed urinal banned from the exhibition to which he submitted it in 1917. It is visionary because Fountain left behind the idea of art as artefact and opened up a new arena in which found objects, concepts, or the context of an object could all be understood as art. Formerly the consensus was that art consisted of objects made by trained artists. But to understand what Fountain signifies, as a work of art, then the consensus that art = artefact must be set aside. In this sense, it surpasses a symbol and fulfils the criteria of a vision.

'Fountain' by Marcel Duchamp

‘Fountain’ (1917) by Marcel Duchamp. Once, a vision. Now, a symbol.

However, visions are vulnerable to reincorporation by the consensus they override. Duchamp’s Fountain functions now as a symbol for modern art in general. Likewise, the innovations of computer pioneers are adopted as the universal platform on which future developments are built. A vision that is commonly understood is useful as a means of describing what a vision is, but the point at which it becomes readily comprehensible is where it has already lost its unique aspect. A vision that is easily understandable is one already digested by the consensus and which therefore symbolises something, rather than gesturing towards the new or unknown.

The prophetic books of William Blake, on the other hand, have retained their visionary significance over the course of two hundred years. These are a series of illustrated poems that dramatise Blake’s spiritual ideas through a cast of mythological characters. These figures, the conflicts they enact, the principles they embody, are the products of Blake’s imagination, described by some as amounting to a ‘personal mythos’. The way Blake interprets experience is still widely at odds with the modern consensus, although in some respects he is closer to it than he was to that of the times through which he lived. Certainly, it is possible to read Blake’s characters as symbolic manifestations of various psychological principles and processes, but the only source for understanding them on their own terms is still Blake.

The Four Zoas

Blake’s depiction of the relationship between the Four Zoas in ‘Milton: a Poem’.

If we consider Blake’s prophetic books in comparison with other works in the epic tradition, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost, these re-work mythological themes and figures from the established traditions of Christianity and classical antiquity. The imagination of Dante and Milton enables them to transform these themes into something unique, yet they abide very much in a relationship to the traditions within which they positioned themselves. Blake’s work, although of smaller scope in many regards, is greater in others, because of the way he imagines ‘from the bottom up’. Instead of placing himself inside a tradition and looking out from it upon experience, he attempts instead to build a new tradition of his own, and in the process thoroughly re-imagines the world.

But a word of caution is in order. In a vision, the consensus is re-imagined in order to allow new meaning to flow. Yet there are two other possibilities that may only produce the appearance of this: (1) that the consensus is not being re-imagined but bypassed, in which case the product will be nonsense; or (2) that the consensus is being denied, or that one simply lacks the mental equipment to hold to the consensus in the first place, in which case the product will be madness or stupidity. True visionaries are often accused of all of these. So too, unfortunately, are people who are simply nutty or dim. We must try to decide wisely in each case which we are dealing with.


In the same way that the vision might be described as a (non-consensual) version of the symbol, so our next species of transpersonal sign, the synchronicity, might be introduced as a transcendent version of the index.

The sign-vehicle of an index, it will be remembered, stands in an existential or causal relationship to its object. So too the sign-vehicle of the synchronicity, except it signifies its object in a non-causal manner.

The classic example of a synchronicity is the one used by Carl Jung to introduce the concept. A hyper-rational female patient was relating to him a dream concerning a golden scarab beetle (a symbol of rebirth). Jung opened the window, and a golden beetle flew into the room at this exact moment, of a species that was the closest thing to a scarab the climate of Switzerland allows. According to Jung, this blew his patient’s mind. A psychological rebirth ensued in which she was able to let down her hyper-rational defences.

Cetonia aurata

Cetonia aurata. Jung’s ‘golden scarab’.

Jung’s definition of synchronicity is ‘an acausal connecting principle’. Jung is suggesting that the dream of the golden scarab was truly connected with the arrival of the beetle through the window. Not causally, of course, because dreams cannot cause beetles to appear; but nevertheless linked in a real sense. What this ‘real sense’ is would seem to have to do with meaning. In a synchronicity, it is as if meaning is the basis for things to happen in the world, rather than – as seems more usual – happenings in the world supplying the basis for meaning.

Whereas the sign-vehicle of an index points to a specific phenomenon within the world, what gives a synchronicity its unique sense is an impression that the world in a general sense is pointing back at us. Jung’s patient, as does the subject of every synchronicity, regardless of its particular content, experiences the sensation that the universe is sending them a personal message. ‘Look how what is most personal, private and innermost to you,’ the universe says, ‘is here affirmed by me; I, who ordinarily seems outermost and indifferent.’ A synchronicity is a form of signification that demonstrates how the flow of meaning between sign-vehicle and object is not necessarily one-way. The object of the sign here speaks back to us through the sign-vehicle; the dream is verbalised, a golden beetle manifests in the consulting-room, and an actual rebirth takes place.

Synchronicities can arise in many contexts – for example: psychotherapy, religious practices – or in none. The synchronicity is especially strongly associated with magick. When a magickian performs a ritual, it is a synchronicity in which the result manifests, because a magickal ritual usually has no causal efficacy to produce a result. A magickian, or anyone else who experiences a synchronicity, is someone who has broken through to a certain level of meaning, someone who has succeeded in creating a certain type of sign.

The common factor in these experiences seems to be a certain re-focusing of consciousness. Personal messages from the universe are directed only at those who are open to receiving them. This re-focussing of consciousness might be described in terms similar to the ‘bracketing’ or epoché proposed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), in which we aim to engage with only and exactly what we experience, ‘bracketing out’ any ideas or assumptions as to the validity or actuality of experience, or any reactions to it. This is a means of apprehending the mind that also forms the backbone of the technique of vipassana meditation, and other perspective-altering meditative techniques.

To recap: a symbol requires mind, because only a mind provides the cultural consensus that can map arbitrary sign-vehicles onto objects. To go beyond the symbol therefore requires usage of the mind in non-consensual ways. To have a vision, consensus is modified by imagination or other means. To experience a synchronicity, meaning is shifted into the register of an experience rather than an idea.


Our final species of sign (‘final’ in the sense that I have not encountered anything beyond it, or heard reports that there is such a thing) is the koan. It is somewhat like an icon, in the sense that an icon presents a picture or sensory analogue of its object. Yet whereas the icon possesses a form adequate to the task of representing its object, the koan draws attention instead to its manifest inadequacy.

The best-known example of a koan is that attributed to Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768): ‘You know the sound of two hands clapping; tell me, what is the sound of one hand?’ The sign embodied by the words ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ is our koan in this instance. Because it is not possible to clap with only one hand, the sign produces a sense of paradox or confusion. Instead of conveying or clarifying a meaning, it halts the process of signification.

But this is only the prelude of the semiotic operation of the koan. In Buddhist traditions – particularly Zen – koans are used as a teaching tool for creating in students ‘the great doubt’ and leading them to satori, an experience more commonly translated by the term ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’. Just as visions and synchronicities convey us to particular transpersonal states, so does the koan. Its domain of operation is the full-blown spiritual experience, the non-dual state of consciousness.

It is mistaken to assume a koan has no meaning. The confusion that arises on encountering the koan is not to be taken for its intention or meaning either, but as part of the means by which it signifies. The sense of confusion, stupidity or nonsensicality arises because the sign-vehicle fails or refuses to point to a recognisable object, for in the domain of non-dual experience there is no distinction between subject and object.

Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku

Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, representing Bodhidarma.

Within non-dual awareness it is evident that the apparent distinction between subject and object rests on the assumption of a difference that cannot be found within the experience, except as the harbouring of an assumption. Whereas, in a synchronicity, meaning is apprehended as itself an experience – rather than somehow sitting outside of or transcending experience – and by this means the universe itself ‘speaks’ to us, in a koan this process is taken a step even further. Meaning itself is exposed as resting upon an illusion of separation between sign-vehicle and object. In actuality, there is no qualitative difference between them to be found within the experience of meaning. Once this is realised, the basis of meaning therefore falls away.

From this perspective we can see how a koan works, even if we have not personally encountered non-dual states of awareness. By presenting us with a sign that fails or refuses to point to an object (‘the sound of one hand clapping), the koan provides a dualistic taster of non-duality, in which it is not that signs fail to signify (Zen masters are still fully capable of thought and speech), but in which the basis of meaning itself is whisked away and exposed as neither transcendent nor non-transcendent.

The perplexity we feel on encountering a koan is the effect of bringing to bear on it our dualistic expectations of meanings. Concluding that it does not mean anything, or that it is okay for it to mean whatever it means, are nevertheless attempts to pin it with a dualistic meaning. The actual intention of the koan is to deliver us to a state where there is no separation between signs and meanings. When this lack of separation is realised, the ‘sound’ of one hand clapping is indeed recognised.

Two hands clap because, being two, they can be brought into opposition, just as sign-vehicle and object can be brought into opposition to make meaning. But, as Peirce himself suggested, the effect of a sign, its interpretant or meaning, is not transcendental; it is itself another sign. So there is no meaning apart from signs, nor signs apart from meanings – they are all, at root, the same thing.

Other koans work the same way, and all koans point at the same object – or rather, the same object that is neither an object nor not an object. For example, another classic koan: ‘Where is this?’

Ordinarily, this would be taken to mean ‘Where am I?’ – that is, ‘What is the physical location in space of my body?’ In which case, the answer would be any label we can give to that location. But once we explore its meaning more deeply, we start to feel unsettled by what the ‘this’ in ‘Where is this?’ can really mean. What is ‘this’? Presumably it is the experience we are having right now. So the koan begins to take on the meaning of ‘Where is experience?’ Surely the experience is in my mind. Is the answer not, therefore, ‘In my mind?’ But where is ‘my mind’? In my brain, presumably. If I pause and check, it might even feel like it is indeed inside my head. Maybe that is the answer: ‘Inside my head’. But then, where is the feeling that ‘this’ is inside my head? Presumably that is inside my head too – in which case, what is the difference between ‘this’ (experience) and the place where ‘this’ is (in my experience)? It is starting to look as if they are the same. But how can that be…?

If we can work with the confusion, rather than recoiling from it or reacting against it; if we can see past the koan’s everyday meaning, and let its nonsensicality seep deeply into us, finally we are led to a place where we experience directly that ‘this’ (our experience) has neither none nor any specific location, nor any claim to separation from the sense of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ that arises as a sensation within it. And by grasping the senselessness of the koan we suddenly wake up to the undefiled knowledge of exactly and precisely ‘where this is’.


Eigen, Michael (2005). Psychic Deadness (London: Karnac).

Freud, Sigmund (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In: The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 11 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).

Jung, Carl (1952). Synchronicity: an Acausal Connecting Principle. In: The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969).

Wilber, Ken (2013). Integral Semiotics. Accessed September, 2013.

The Myth of Psyche and Eros

There seem to be many esoteric wonders lurking beneath the surface of the myth of Psyche and Eros. First related by the Roman novelist Apuleius (c.125-c.180) in The Golden Ass, the standard interpretation is that the soul (Psyche) must undergo trials and tribulations in order to be purged and made divine.

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss (c. 1787).

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (c. 1787).

I think there is much more detail to be harvested from it than this. The myth seems to be a discussion of the relationship between our mind (and/or soul) and our desire. It seems to assert that the human soul realises its divinity only through close union with desire. Here is my attempt at a full summary and interpretation.

Psyche, despite being mortal, is worshipped for her beauty as a goddess.
The psyche is immaterial and intangible, like a god. Unlike a god, however, it is mortal. This combination of mortality and divinity makes the psyche uniquely, wondrously beautiful.
Aphrodite, angered, sends her son Eros to bring Psyche down a peg by causing her to fall in love with an unworthy man.
Unlike a god, the psyche is subject to desire. Desire for inappropriate objects is the perennial flaw that can prevent the psyche from enjoying communion with the divine.
Psyche attracts no mortal suitors, because she is regarded as divine. Her father consults an oracle who declares she must be left on a mountain-rock and married to a snake-like monster. She accepts her destiny and makes her way to the rock.
Desire can be the ruin of the psyche, but without it there is isolation and misery. The punitive voice of conscience suggests falsely that this is the only way.
The West Wind wafts Psyche away to an exquisite, beautiful house. A voice tells her that all this is hers. There is wonderful food, music and singing. She goes to bed and the unseen owner of the voice comes to her and makes love to her. This goes on for many days and nights.
If desire is prevented outwardly then it can turn inward, offering the consolations of fantasy, reverie and artistic creativity. We may not recognise this as the exercise of our desire, even though we enjoy it and live with it intimately.
Psyche’s lover warns her that her sisters are searching for her, but she must ignore their cries. Distraught, Psyche seduces her lover into allowing her sisters to visit.
The ties to external reality are strong. Our natural state is to be moving always between inner and outer reality, never comfortable being in only one of them.
She shows her sisters the house and its entertainments. She gives them gold and jewels. The sisters are envious and want to know who her lover is. She makes up a story about a handsome youth. The sisters bemoan their own imperfect husbands and their lot in life. Back home, they hide the jewels and pretend not to have seen Psyche. They plot to kill her.
The life of the mind is individual and unique. Its products can be shared, but not that life itself. No one can take our inner world from us. Some people (especially those of an authoritarian cast) are driven mad with envy and impotence when confronted with this truth.
Psyche’s lover warns her of the plot and reveals she is pregnant. If she keeps the baby a secret, it will be born divine. Otherwise it will be born mortal.
Our inner world is a site where something – everything – is always about to come forth. Once we define this, it assumes a form and becomes transitory and mortal. The ‘divine baby’ is the infinite, inexpressible potential of the mind itself.
Her lover later warns her that her sisters are on the war-path again. She must exercise self-control and not let them in.
As we have already seen, the ties to the external world are strong. It would be inhuman to ignore them altogether.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Abduction of Psyche (1895).

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Abduction of Psyche (1895).

The sisters force and charm their way into the house and start asking about Psyche’s lover. She tells them he is a middle-aged businessman. The sisters begin to suspect her lover is a god, and are driven into paroxysms of envy at the thought she might give birth to a divine child.
The objects of our desire and fantasy are always changing, never consistent, never truly knowable. That is what is so wonderful about them – but it drives the sisters nuts!
When they call again they tell Psyche they know her lover is a monstrous dragon who is planning to kill her after she gives birth.
People following their own desires are often confronted with this argument that they are being led to destruction. It may be true, but here we know that the sisters are not motivated by Psyche’s best interests.
Devastated, Psyche submits to their argument. The sisters persuade her to keep a razor and a lamp in the bedroom. She is to cast the light of the lamp onto her lover when he returns, then cut off his head with the razor.
Reasonable doubt destroys the peace of the inner world. Desire is to be killed off, flooding it with the light of analysis and slicing it up with the knife of rationality.
Her lover returns. They have sex. He sleeps. She raises the lamp and sees him, and is entranced by his wonderful beauty. He is – of course – Eros! (aka Cupid) Examining his arrows, she pricks herself and falls in love with him.
Rationality, properly exercised, need not kill desire. Rather, it enables us to perceive our desire more clearly and realise its mystery and beauty…
A drop of oil lands on Eros. He wakes, realises what has happened, and flies away.
… unless we take rationality too far! If our desire looses too much of its mystery, it is wounded and takes flight.
Psyche meets Pan, with Echo. Pan advises Psyche not to pine away, but to make prayers to Eros to fix her broken heart. Psyche ignores Pan’s advice.
Pan and Echo represent (respectively) excess and self-abandonment. These are the left and right-hand paths by which Psyche could restore her relationship to her desire, but she ignores them both and takes her own route.
Psyche goes to the house of one of her sisters, tells her about Eros and how he has abandoned her, but she also tells the sister that now Eros wishes to marry her (the sister) instead. The sister immediately leaves her own husband, jumps off the mountain-rock (expecting to be wafted away by Eros) and is killed. Psyche then tells the same story to her other sister, with the same result.
We cannot give away our desires to others. We have sole responsibility for living them out and bringing them into reality. No one else can do it for us. It is as if Psyche destroys her sisters (representing the demands of external reality) in order to prove this to herself.
Psyche wanders, searching for Eros. He, meanwhile, lies suffering from the wound caused by the lamp oil.
It is a metaphysical wound, which is why the suffering seems so out of proportion. Metaphysical wounds can really hurt, despite what we might prefer to believe. The wound is that our desire has become known to us, and we feel we cannot live with what has been exposed.
Aphrodite hears that Eros, her son, has fallen for Psyche and is incensed. She berates him and resolves that Psyche must be the one to administer his punishment by destroying his bow and arrows and cutting off his hair.
Indeed, Psyche has the power to destroy Eros, by recognising him for what he is. Aphrodite is savvy enough to recognise that Psyche can hurt Eros far more than she.
Psyche enters a temple of Ceres where the goddess warns her that Aphrodite is on her case. Psyche pleads to remain, but Ceres casts her out.
Aphrodite is the power of delusion. Ceres is Nature. Even in the bosom of the natural world, there is no escape from the mightier power of delusion.
She enters another temple and prays to Juno, but Juno also casts her out (because, she says, it would be unlawful to harbour another person’s slave).
Juno is urbane, civil life. This arena is certainly no sanctuary from delusion either (as Juno proves by spinning the Law to suit her own agenda).
Psyche decides the only option is to submit herself to Aphrodite, so she makes her way to heaven.
The only way to deal with our delusions is to own and confront them. Psyche’s delusion is that she can live free from desire, even as she is in love with him.
Aphrodite seizes Psyche and leaves her to be tortured by her handmaidens, Sollicito and Tristie (Melancholy and Sorrow).
On a visual level this looks like plain and boring lesbian sadomasochism, but on an internal level it represents the onset of depression, which sets in when we begin to consider our own inner flaws.
They rough her up, then throw a pile of mixed seeds onto the floor, which she must sort.
After depression, mania.
She despairs, but then some humble ants come in, recognise her as Eros’s wife, and sort the seeds. Aphrodite guesses she has not completed the task by herself.
The psyche has its own resources that unconsciously seek to heal itself. At times we may have lost grip of our true identity, we may have problems we cannot bear even to think about or attempt to resolve, and yet there are natural forces within us already gently at work fixing them.
The next day Aphrodite orders her to collect golden wool from some fierce sheep. Instead, Psyche resolves to throw herself into the river, but one of the reeds dissuades her and explains how the golden wool can be found clinging to foliage. Aphrodite, again, is unimpressed.
A reed bends with the water current, and shows Psyche how she can do something similar, avoiding a head-on conflict that she would probably not survive, but obtaining her goal nonetheless by going with the flow.
The next day Aphrodite sends her to a high mountain for a jug of the icy stream-water that plummets down from there into Styx and Cocytus. She despairs at the danger, but an eagle comes to her aid and collects the water. On her return, Aphrodite accuses her of being a witch.
Emotions can pull us down into despair; the eagle represents the part of us that can recognise this and remain detached in order to attain the goal. Psyche is a ‘witch’ to the extent that she uses the powers of the ant, reed and eagle without identifying with them.
Next, Aphrodite sends Psyche to Proserpine in Hades, for a box of cosmetics. Psyche, terrified of venturing into Hell, makes for a high tower, intending to throw herself off.
When Psyche sets her mind on doing away with herself, something else always springs to her aid. Psyche does not make the mistake of believing she owns her inner world. When times are tough she instinctively puts ‘herself’ into the background and allows something stronger than herself to come forward.
Edward Burne-Jones, Cupid Delivering Psyche (c. 1867).

Edward Burne-Jones, Cupid Delivering Psyche (c. 1867).

The tower gives her a list of directions and instructions on how to negotiate Hades. Psyche fulfils them all, except the injunction not to peek inside the box. She does so in the hope that the divine cosmetics might make her more beautiful to Eros.
It is important never to accept or seek comfort in Hades. To be – or to try to be – comfortable in Hell is to make it one’s home; to become insane. Psyche does not make this mistake, but she does make the mistake of failing to recognise that her beauty comes from being mortal, not from appearing to be divine.
Out of the box comes the sleep of Hades. It overpowers Psyche and she lays down motionless like a corpse.
By trying to turn ourselves into something we are not, we die to ourselves. We become a zombie-like shell.
Eros has recovered and comes to find her. He puts the sleep back in the box; he rouses her with the prick of one of his arrows. Then he departs.
Pure desire, pure love, is not fake and therefore never misses its mark.
While Psyche returns the box to Aphrodite, Eros petitions Zeus, who agrees to the union with Psyche, because it will moderate Eros’s behaviour.
Zeus is the god who restores harmony, so for Eros to petition Zeus is to seek the balance whereby Psyche and Eros can exist in harmony and regulate each other. The psyche moderates the blind, amorphousness of our desire, but our desire is what gives the psyche its vitality and direction.
He reassures Aphrodite that the union is not unequal by giving Psyche a cup of ambrosia to drink, at which point she becomes immortal.
The psyche does possess divine status, but – evidently – only through its union with desire. A psyche not animated by love, therefore, is mortal, not divine. This makes Psyche a very different kind of goddess from Aphrodite, who embodies the overwhelming power of irrational, irresistible attraction. The sexual passion represented by Aphrodite reduces us all to the same. But Psyche represents the individual made unique by his or her desire.
Psyche and Eros have a daughter, whom they name Hedone (Pleasure).
When the psyche and desire are in union, then the result is joy.