Showing posts with label Lakoff. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lakoff. Show all posts

08 January 2016

Image Schemas, Metaphor, and Thought.

Along The Yellow Brick Road
My understanding of myself and the world is quite strongly influenced by the writings of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. These two scholars are at the forefront of the idea of embodied cognition and between them have developed some of the basic terminology. In particular Mark Johnson explored some of the theoretical nuts and bolts of how we understand our world. The idea is that we structure our experience via what he calls the image schema. These can be represented by diagrams or content rich images or even propositional statements, but in practice they are more primitive than any of these. Schemas drawn from experience that can apply to other domains, particularly abstract domains, form the basis of metaphor.

In this essay I will outline three image schemas: path, link, and cycle, drawing primarily on a section in Mark Johnson (1987: 112-121). While there are many schemas and each of them might require a book in their own right to fully explore them, I found Johnson's outlines evocative and thought provoking. Using the path schema I will try to give a brief overview of the idea of image schemas and then add notes on link and cycle schemas, trying to show why this way of thinking is relevant to understanding thought itself. 


Some of the key early experiences we have as infants involve gaining control of our body. Moving our hands to where our eyes are looking, and moving our body from place to place for example. The path schema emerges from these kinds of experiences. Our body is in one place and we want to move it to another place. As we go from our starting point to our end point we traverse all the points in between, which form a path. Before we move we can project the path in imagination. If I plan to go down to the kitchen from my writing desk, there is a virtual path in my mind, based on my internal map of the house. Incidentally we now know these internal maps are stored in hexagonal arrays of neurons in the brain, called "grid cells". We literally locate ourselves on this internal map when we think about our location. The discovery earned the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Even more interesting is that in 2015 we discovered that the timing of when the grid cells are active also locates us in time (Kraus et al 2015).

Since we often travel with a purpose in mind, we experience paths as directional, though of course a path usually goes both ways (except in Ikea). This gives us the bare bones structure of the path schema. It consists of
  • A starting point or source and,
  • An end point of goal,
  • connected by contiguous intermediate points.
This kind of structure, which is well defined and yet simple, is a feature of image schemas. Each is well demarcated in this way. They must also be pervasive in experience and for that reason widely understood. The ubiquity of schemas is what underpins our effortless use of metaphors, and also our ability to understand the metaphors of a long dead language like Pāḷi. 

The path schema is important for how we understand time in the English speaking world. We experience time as a path with the past as source and the future as goal. We are traversing the intermediate points. We don't know the future yet because we haven't arrived there. We look back to the past. However, in some cultures time is experienced as though we are standing in a river looking downstream - i.e. we are standing still and it is the path that moves. The past is downstream, in front of us and moving away; we can see it because it has happened. The future is upstream, behind us moving towards us, we cannot see it because it has not happened yet. These are both valid ways of describing the experience of being in time. 

Central to the experience of time is entropy. The universe because less ordered over time and we intuitively understand this because experience of non-living objects tends to confirm it. If a cup falls and smashes we go from more ordered to less ordered. Living beings use energy to hold themselves in an highly ordered state while alive and then rapidly become more disordered at death. We have internalised this law of physics before we can speak. If we see the film of this event backwards it is immediately apparent that it is backwards. Time is a path from more order to less order. Theoretical time travel notwithstanding, this is how we experience it. 

A key observation from the above examples of experiences of paths is that the desire to be in a particular location is the purpose for following a path. And on arriving we feel our purpose for following the path has been achieved. Thus there is an identity between our starting point and the state of desire; and also between our final location and satisfied purpose. This relationship is not itself metaphorical. It is simply that the path schema fits both situations. And this gives rise to the possibility of metaphorical mappings. For example we can state the metaphor: PURPOSES ARE PHYSICAL GOALS. So we say of a successful actor that "they have arrived". We can also arrive at a conclusion, or follow a path to enlightenment. Because the path schema applies in both domains, we can use the language of one to describe the experience of the other. 

This metaphor is very important in Buddhism. For example, we talk about the "path to purity" (visuddhimagga) or the "Noble Eightfold Path" (āryāṣṭāṅgamārga). We use these kinds of metaphors from Iron Age India without any need to stop and decode the idea of a path to an abstract quality like "purity" or "awakening". We can do so because image schemas underpin how we structure experience independent of culture and language. This is why these metaphors transfer effortlessly from the dead languages of Iron Age to living languages. This is a good demonstration of just how important images schemas are. There are, of course, some Pāḷi or Sanskrit metaphors that we do not get or some that we use that ancient Indians might not have understood. For example, in July 2012, I discussed the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor that is so vital to how we understand psychology in the present and tried to show that it is absent from Pāḷi literature. This difference affects our ability to translate between the two times.

These metaphorical mappings are not arbitrary, but are constrained by the structure of the schemas we use and by the applicability of the schema to the domain. Another common use of the path schema in Buddhist thought is paying homage to the three jewels. We bow, or make the añjali gesture, towards a shrine, stūpa, or buddharūpa and metaphorically something traverses the path from us to the image. Our transmission of homage, or worship, or however we conceive of what we are offering, goes from us (starting point) to the shrine (end point) traversing all the contiguous points in-between. This helps us feel connected to the three jewels, though here we are also invoking the link schema which I will come to shortly.

Another important application of the path schema is for arguments. As Michael Palin said "An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definitite proposition." (Argument Sketch) Again the path schema fits. We have a start point (proposition not established, ignorance); an end point (proposition established, knowledge); and a contiguous series of connecting points (statements that are logically connected). And this enables us to use the important metaphor for discourse: AN ARGUMENT IS A JOURNEY. When making an argument we lay out our reasoning, one step at a time, trying to avoid being side-tracked, and arrive at a conclusion. The latter in Pāḷi is niṭṭhaṃ gacchati "arrive at a conclusion". Because an argument can be understood in terms of the path schema we can use the language of a journey following a path to talk about it. And because the path schema is ubiquitous and widely understood we don't have to explain our metaphor - it is immediately apparent to any English speaker, or Pāḷi speaker for that matter.

This overview of the path schema gives an idea of the basic features of any schema and how they underpin metaphors and other kinds of cognitive processes.

Link Schema

Like the path schema the link schema emerges from experience. The link schema is formed by our own relationships and the integrity of our body. When we grip an object in our hand we form a link between us and the object. A common action is that of binding two objects together. The schema here is precisely this: two or more objects, concrete or abstract, that are in contact within our experiential field. The most basic form of contact is physical adjacency, but we can also apply the schema to notional or abstract adjacency such as contiguous moments in time, or objects with shared characteristics. The caveat of "within our experiential field" is important in deciding what is intuitive and what is not. If the connection is not visible, or we should say sensible, to us then the possibility of linkage intuitively seems remote.

As social animals physically connecting with our social group is typically quite important even if it is formalised almost to the point of abstraction, as in a handshake. At the very least proximity to our social groups alone produces a sense of well-being. As infants we feel a sense of both physical and emotional connection to parents and other family members or carers. Separate an infant of any social animal (though perhaps not insects) from its mother and it feels a powerful anxiety. We come to see ourselves as bonded to members of our family and our circle of friends. We physically express our connection through hugs, kisses, touching, hold hands, and having sex, all of which also shape our experience of connection. As we grow older shared experiences form connections between unrelated individuals. A shared ordeal, such as a disaster, or a initiation ceremony, can create a life-long bond. The human experience is one in which we perceive ourselves as being at the centre of a web of an interwoven complex of concrete and abstract linkage: physical, spatial, abstract, notional, temporal. Everywhere we look we see and experience connections.

All of these metaphors for human connection—e.g. being BONDED by genetics or shared experience—are possible because the link schema applies in many domains and allows us to use the language of physical bonds metaphorically.

Ariel Glucklich has argued that a pervasive sense of interconnectedness is important for human beings. He sees it as the heart of the magical healing art of tantric wizards in Benares. In a passage I have cited many times, for example in Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness (27 June 2008), in which he says:
Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception... magical actions... constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any number of other events. (1997: 12)
We may also experience events as linked or contiguous in time. And this allows us to perceive temporally linked events as having a causal relationship. We experience memories as providing links between temporal events. Thus the link schema is very important in the concept of causality. As David Hume discovered, we never see an even which could be called "causality". We see a sequence of events and project the idea of causality onto those events. Although we don't see causality, we do experience it. The idea of causality emerges from our experience of gaining control of our eyes and beginning to direct our gaze; from gaining control of our limbs and directing., e.g. where they reach and what they grasp; and from experience our will as setting us in motion towards all kinds of goals. In other words we begin to experience ourselves as agents of cause and generalise from this experience that all events have causes.

The coherence of connections between sequences of events underlies the idea of the arrow of time. If we show a movie backwards it is immediately apparent that events are proceeding in the wrong temporal direction. A backwards sequence is not coherent with our expectations of how the world works based on experience. Non-living objects do not fly up into the air, for example, without the application of some force. The force itself ought to leave some sense impression that accompanies the action. So a broken cup does not fly back to the table and reassemble itself. Experientially this never happens. Our sense of what is coherent derives from everyday experience from the moment our minds start processing sense data (probably in the womb).

The link schema also places limits on what seems intuitive. For example in the phenomenon of quantum entanglement there appears to be actions that are related in time (i.e. that happen simultaneously) and causally (observing the quantum state of one of a pair of entangled particles causes the second to adopt a quantum state determined by the first), but which can be separated by arbitrarily large distances in space. The counter-intuitive nature of this proposition was summed up by Einstein's quip that it amounted to "spooky action at a distance". Unfortunately we seem to be stuck with spooky action at a distance at the nano-scale, despite the fact it is powerfully counter-intuitive.

More apposite to Buddhist readers I have pointed out that the Doctrine of Karma requires action at a temporal distance, i.e. events that are causally linked but separated in time, often by many years or even lifetimes. This situation is disallowed by the Doctrine of Pratītyasamutpāda or Dependent Arising and it counter-intuitive compared to experiences of causality and time. Around the time that the Abhidharma was being codified, a number of solutions to this problem were proposed including the Sarva-asti doctrine which argues that dharmas must always be existent and only sometimes active, and the Doctrine of Momentariness which argued the opposite, that dharmas are only briefly existent, but always active. Of course "existent" (astitā) as it was used by the ancient Indians doesn't apply since it always implies permanence, but neither does non-existence (nāstitā) since this would preclude us actually having experiences. It was Momentariness that won the argument in Buddhism, but I've also showed that it fails to account for the phenomenon that it purports to explain (see The Logic of Karma).

Pre-Classical Buddhist texts largely eschew the language of causation, even though this is emphasised in the received tradition. In fact the Buddhist texts propose another kind of link, one which is based on presence rather than sequence. The key word is paṭicca  (Skt pratītya), the etymology of which is "going (√i) back to (prati)" and we can read as "based on" or "dependent on". The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda is not a doctrine of causality at all but one in which arising is dependent on coexistence (sam-utpāda). The most apposite analogy for this is the requirement for foundations to support a wall, or walls to support the roof of a house. The foundations must exist before the walls can be erected, so we can can say that the foundations are a necessary condition for walls of the house, but the foundations do not cause the walls to go up. And this is the nature of conditionality also. 

Two kinds of abstract links are also very common. The first is shared characteristics, i.e. perceived links between objects of perception that have characteristics in common. Such links between perceived objects are what enable us to categorise perceptions and structure them into a comprehensible world. The subject of categorisation is covered in great depth in Lakoff (1987). Lakoff describes a philosophy of categorisation that draws on Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" amongst other sources. A category has a prototype, an image of the ideal member of the category defined by our experience of interacting with the world, and membership of the category is greater or less depending on the number of shared characteristics the object of perception shares.

The second is functional links. A functional link exists between objects or processes that are otherwise (potentially) unrelated if they work together to achieve a common goal. Level and fulcrum or wheel and axle do not fit into similar categories, but work together to form a useful mechanism.

Combinations of the link and path schemas are the basis of formal logic. A logical syllogism is a path in which propositions are linked by particular kinds of relations. Schemas emerge from experience thus even logic, usually thought of as a purely abstract process, is fundamentally embodied. Without the the experience of embodiment the structuring concepts used in logic would not make sense to us. Indeed, as Lakoff and Johnson (2003) repeatedly emphasise, virtually all abstract thought involves metaphors for which the source domain is our physical experience of the world, and the rationale for mapping one domain onto another rests in the applicability of image schemas that emerge from and structure experience. If we add the observations of Mercier & Sperber about the nature of reasoning then we see that Classical accounts of it were fundamentally and profoundly wrong. Making sense of experience is possible only when we consider the mind as embodied and how that embodiment contributes to the schemas that we use to make sense of the world.

The link schema really is pervasive and at the heart of how we orient ourselves in space and time, and how we perceive ourselves more generally. As social animals, connections define us. The link schema structures our perceptions of connections, shared features, and functional unities. It also enables us to make sense of notional connections such as causality or logical connectedness; making possible the notion of actions having consequences for example. The link schema also underlies our use of metaphor itself since in order to use metaphors we must understand the source domain and the target domain as having shared features which are isomorphic with the schema.


The final schema I want to explore in this essay is the cycle. The cycle schema is another pervasive aspect of experience. We experience many natural cycles such as the annual cycle with its seasons; the phases of the moon and with them the tides and also the menstrual cycle which seems to be related to the lunar cycle; the diurnal cycle; our heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. Cycles of emotional arousal (mediated by the sympathetic nervous system) and recovery. We also experience conventional cycles such as weeks and weekends, months, terms, semesters, meal times, the working or school day, and holidays. Conventional cycles can overlay natural cycles.

Cycles as schema can be represented as a circle, though this can be misleading. A circle is an image, with more content than a schema. In fact again we see that the cycle is related to both the link and path schemas. The cycle schema is a path, or a series of contiguous links, in which the beginning and end-points are contiguous. The simplest form of this is a closed loop, of which the circle is an ideal. The journey around the loop is typically in one direction, one must go forward to return to the point of origin.

However, we also experience cycles as having a climatic quality. We think of the annual cycle for example as having a nadir in winter to which we descend through autumn (or fall), and a zenith in summer to which we ascend through spring. In this case the simple circle doesn't suffice and we can instead imagine a sin wave. 

Relation between circle and sin wave
The animated image on the right shows the relationship between these two. In this climatic version of the schema we often think of the cycle as having distinct phases. Researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson described a cycle of human sexual response in terms of arousal, plateau, climax, and resolution. To some extent we can link this to the cycle of anticipation, seeking, reward, and satiation typically thought to underlie our responses to pleasurable sensations of all kinds. In this case we do have evidence from physiology that this experience is embodied in the form of the  different hormones and neurotransmitters that characterise the different phases of the reward system.

Mark Johnson insists that this climatic structure is not inherent to natural cycles like the annual cycle, that we project zenith and nadir onto the year (usually coinciding with mid-summer and mid-winter). I'm not so sure about this. Other cycles are built into this annual cycle which seem to me to undermine this claim. For example the length of the day and the average temperature also fluctuate cyclically because of the physics of the solar system. We're naturally more active in summer than we are in winter. These natural variations seem to me to contribute to the the experience of a climatic structure. 

Another image to which the cycle schema can be applied is the helix. Although the earth orbits the sun once per year and seems to return to the same spot each time, in fact the sun is in orbit around the galactic centre (the plane of the ecliptic is inclined by about 60º with respect to the plane of the sun's orbit ) and so the orbit of the earth describes a helix. In this sense a cycle is not simply a closed loop which always returns to its origin, but any cyclic phenomenon that recurs regularly or quasi-regularly.

Cycles constitute temporal boundaries for activities and tend to be rigid. Hence the persistence of the 60 seconds, 60 minutes, 24 hours, of the clock. Also the persistence of the seven day week. Apparently the Soviets tried to change this to five days and it was, according to Johnson, "disastrous". This system of time keeping goes all the way back to ancient Babylonia. 

The experience of cycles and the cycle schema may well explain why astrology continues to seem plausible to some people. The cyclic schema makes the idea of a relationship between those cycles we experience, between emotional states, or good and bad fortune, and the cycles of the observable planets. The planets were imagined to have agency and personality, especially they were seen as manifestation of gods (our names for the planets are the Latin names of Greco-Roman gods). The discovery of the true nature of the planets, of more and more remote planets not visible to the naked eye, of the precession of orbits, and the ambiguity in the definition of a planet have complicated the practice of astrology, though despite what some critics say, serious astrologers have tried to adapt to all this new information. However, there is no question that extremely remote lumps of rock or balls of gas orbiting the sun can affect our lives in the way that astrologers claim. They cannot.

Even with conventional cycles, such as the week we can experience a qualitative difference between the phases of the cycle. This is why despite 24/7 shopping many of us still feel differently about the different days of the week and the weekend. Again this difference is not inherent in the cycle - there is no inherent difference between Monday, Friday, or Sunday, but we experience them as being different. Such cycles can become so pervasive that they define the character of our experience.

The cycles that we live in are multiple, overlapping, and sequential. Many metaphors emerge from the applicability of cycles to experience, for example THE LIFE CYCLE IS A YEAR means we can talk about someone being a spring chicken, or being in their autumn years. The metaphor SITUATIONS ARE MARRIAGES is quite peculiar, but if I say that I'm in a new town, country or relationships and the "honeymoon period is over" you know what I mean (the underlying schema is related to the climatic cycle of novelty, familiarity, and indifference). A common metaphor in scholarship based on the climactic cycle schema is A SOCIETY IS A PERSON. Historians of the past we particularly fond of this one, seeing the phases of conception, birth, infancy, maturity and dotage as mirrored in civilisations: e.g. in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Some early WEIRD scholars of Buddhism mapped this scheme onto the emic categories hīnayāna, mahāyāna and vajrayāna, seeing in this a climatic cycle, with vajrayāna representing the inevitable decline of Buddhism as it aged and became senile, helped by the Victorian contempt for magical thinking, and the embrace of teleological thinking, the idea that everything has a purpose and moves inexorably towards a predetermined end. The latter underlies the apocalyptic and millennial ideas that Christians share with some Buddhists who are convinced that we must be in the end times. That Buddhism had died out in India only reinforced this notion. In fact Buddhism has gone through many climatic cycles phases of decline and renewal, often many overlapping phases at once, and the idea of an overall arc has long been shown to be nonsense. 

The Classical Theravāda commentator Buddhaghosa used the idea of niyāma or restriction to describe the cyclic nature of unseen processes like kamma and citta. Both kamma and citta are like the life-cycle of a plant, in that if one sows rice one reaps rice. He called this restriction bījaniyāma "the seed limit" and used it to analogically explain that kusala actions gave rise to kusala vipaka or phala (literally fruit). Similarly with akusala actions and akusala fruits. He expanded the metaphor by adding that just as the trees flowered and fruited in the right season (utu) so kamma and citta produced their results at the appropriate time, a principle he called utuniyāma "the seasonal limit". The restrictions on kamma and citta were called kammaniyāma and cittaniyāma respectively. Buddhaghosa's fifth example of the cyclic niyāma was the miracles which inevitably manifest at key points in the life cycle of a Buddha (conception, birth, enlightenment, teaching, dying), which he called dhammaniyāma "the nature limit" (as in, it is the nature of a Buddha that their life is accompanied by miracles). This system was distorted by early translators so that it seemed to described causality in the universe seen at different scales. This distortion was popularised by the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, and recently refined by Subhuti into a grand meta-narrative. Buddhaghosa had something quite different in mind.

India and Buddhism are famous for their cyclic eschatology, the course of the life of an individual and the universe itself are governed by climatic cycles. Although in truth our Buddhist eschatology is a hybrid of cyclic and lineage eschatologies (see my Taxonomy of Afterlife Beliefs). Without making an effort to abandon seeking sense pleasure as a means to happiness one is reborn time and again in circumstances that are dependent on how one has lived. And if one is able to abandon pleasure-seeking then one is not reborn, though in pre-classical Buddhism which rejected absolutes, nothing more could be said by way of clarification of what happened to a tathāgata after death. The question was unanswerable (avyākṛta). The Upaniṣads have a similar eschatology, the major difference being the means of achieving liberation (ātman vs anātman) and the destination (Brahman vs avyākṛta).


To summarise, an image schema emerges from our physical experience of the world, it is pervasive in experience and thus widely understood. It has a simple, well-defined structure. It can be represented by diagrams, but our use of it is not necessarily visual or diagrammatic. Isomorphism, a similarity of form, in different domains allows the image schema to apply to many domains. This wide applicability of a schema is what enables us to effortlessly use metaphors in which we describe one domain in terms of another. The source domain is usually experiential, but the target domain may be experiential, entirely abstract, or somewhere in-between. For example if we talk about the flow of money around an economy, then we are applying the metaphor MONEY IS A FLUID and this is possible because a fluid schema exists and there is some isomorphism between our experience of fluids and our experience of money that allows the schema to apply in both domains and allowing us to use the language of one to describe the language of the other.

There are many image schemas, Johnson mentions about 50 in his book and seems to place no limits on the possible number. Because all human beings have the same kinds of bodies and sensory processes we can say that schemas are not cultural, but part of our shared heritage. As we've seen, metaphors used in the ancient dead language Pāḷi are often immediately clear. If a Pāli text refers to "grasping an concept" or "following the path to enlightenment", we understand without having to do anything more than translate the words. The metaphor is effortlessly, immediately apparent to us because we also have an object schema and a path schema that allows the mapping. Indeed we have these very same metaphors in English. 

The necessity of isomorphism between source and target domains of a metaphor does places limits on how and where metaphors apply. For example, a wall is not a path. The experience of a wall typically lacks the structural features which would allow us to map the path schema onto it. An exception to this might be that some walls are think and have a path along their top, as in a castle wall. But more typically the wall is characterised by the barrier schema, related to force schemas, which are also discussed in Johnson (1987).

One of the important assumptions of this work is that what gets stored in the brain is not individual metaphors, but the image schemas themselves. What is missing, so far as I know, is evidence from neuroscience supporting the philosophy. The description of image schemas is compelling and has good deal of explanatory power but we have yet to see the neural correlates. In the case of spatial and temporal location we now know that this information is stored in the brain in a hexagonal array of neurons which literally map out the space around us. And since the neurons involves fire in a sequence we also use them to orient ourselves in time, a discovery that was announce in 2015. We also know a good deal about how the cycles of our body are mediated by the sympathetic nervous and endocrine systems.

In a forthcoming essay I will again dip into Johnson (1987). I'll look at metaphors related to the body and how the entailments of metaphors guide how we make inferences from experience. This is an important process in understanding the history of religious ideas. 



Glucklich, Ariel. (1997) The End of Magic. New York, Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Mark. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.

Kraus, Benjamin J. et al. During Running in Place, Grid Cells Integrate Elapsed Time and Distance Run. Neuron, 88(3), 578-589. DOI:

Lakoff, G., (1987) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.

Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. (2003) Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011) Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

04 December 2015

Why Killing is Wrong

One of my friends recently shared this picture on Facebook, the comment, "Why indeed?" The subject came up again a few days later with this Robert Fisk article about Syria in The Independent newspaper pointing out that our Prime Minster is openly lying in order to bolster the case for killing more people in the Middle East. The accompanying picture shows a protester holding a placard with the same text.

Having read George Lakoff (See Moral Metaphors) and Mark Johnson and thought about the psychology of religious belief, the answer to the question seemed obvious to me. I started typing an explanation of the process. That answer became this essay. The fact is that all nations sanction killing under special certain circumstances, so to say that "killing people is wrong" is an oversimplification. The placard is actually a bit misleading and a bit naive. The laws we follow do not make killing a blanket offence. In some cases we can, like our British Prime Minister, apparently be proud of killing or having commissioned the killing. This does raise the question of the morality of killing. My approach to this question will be to look at how morality works, the underlying concepts and metaphors that form the mechanism of moral decision making, and to show how they apply to the subject of killing.

Debt and Balance.

The rationale behind the prohibition on killing is related to the underlying metaphors involved in our concept of justice. Ancient law codes tend to enshrine the principles: So we get the infamous passage of the Bible which lays out the penalties for personal injury, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot". The rule occurs in a number of places: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21. The last adds, "show no pity". With regard to killing there are several other passages which legislate for a penalty of death: e.g. Genesis 9:6, Numbers 35:16, and 35:30. The Old Testament - the law book of a small tribe of wandering desert dwellers - seems to be in no doubt that killing a killer is precisely the right thing to do. It is also quite happy to recommend the killing of enemies to the point of inflicting genocide on them. Contracts and debts were so important in Vedic society that they had a special god, Mitra, to oversee them.

The idea appears to be that fear of the consequences will prevent the transgression in the first place. Though of course we know that people are pretty hopeless at thinking through the consequences of their actions in most cases. Even if they were good at it, actions always have unintended and unforeseen consequences. We also know that extreme punishments do not prevent crime, else Saudi Arabia would not be about to behead a group of its citizens.

The Biblical laws, such a huge influence on our own ideas of justice, can be understood in terms of obligations and debts (See Lakoff 1995). So what is the rationale? My understanding is that transgression metaphorically creates a debt, or at least is treated as though it creates a debt. And an important principle in most societies is that debts must be paid. In a society in which transgression invokes punishment in the form of inflicting injury on the transgressor, they will most likely try to hide their transgression and avoid paying the debt. The Biblical law code enshrines the idea that the easiest way to collect on the debt is to repay the debtor in kind: injure the injurer, kill the killer.

We also see justice in terms of a moral balance. A transgression such as murder is believed to create an imbalance in favour of the transgressor. Punishment removes any benefit the transgressor might accrue, it clears the debt and restores balance. We punish criminals so that they may "pay their debt to society". We also anthropomorphise justice as a woman carrying a set of weighing scales - the association of a just world with scales dates from ancient Egyptian times at least.

Our basic model of a just world involves the metaphors: TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT and DEBTS ARE WEIGHTS. The Jains see actions as causing the accumulation of dust that weighs down the soul and prevents it from achieving liberation. Metaphors of debt and balance go together well. A good accountant "balances" the books, by which we do not mean they perform a kind of physical juggling act, but that they equalise the credits and debits. As Mr Micawber says in David Copperfield,
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen, and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery."
Killing also places a burden on those who seek justice for the killing in the form of grief and the effort required to extract payment for the debt. The person who has been killed had potential - to live, to breed, to work, etc. That potential can now never be realised. So although killing the killer pays the debt (which is why it is not wrong in this logic), there is some debt that is unpayable. And because killing creates an unpayable debt we see it as particularly heinous. The metaphor TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT seems to go both ways, so that also some are also transgressions. An unpayable debt is a moral outrage. This is why sometimes, "hanging is too good for them."

Of course none of this algebra of morality is conscious. It's a black box, unconscious process that produces conscious conclusions associated with strong emotions that indicate to us that the thoughts we have in response are both salient and important, and thus we are highly motivated to act on them. The insight only emerges from a close analysis of the language used in talking about a just world.

The Politics of Morality and the Morality of Politics.

Beyond the basic insight that morality is an accounting exercise, there are two basic attitudes to debts that roughly correspond to the political divisions called left/right or progressive/conservative. For a conservative, paying back debts is especially important to their self-view and may over-ride other considerations. Thus in response to killing, many conservatives may be in favour of capital punishment, and going to war against enemies. Many progressives accept that moral debts can never be paid in full and live with this. It was progressives who introduced reform into the justice system, arguing, for example, for the need to rehabilitate criminals rather than simply punishing them. Progressives argue for humane treatment of prisoners and alternative forms of justice. All this with a view to creating a broader harmony. Just two days ago a conservative British government, aided by conservatives of the left (!), voted to extent the protracted war that we have been fighting in the Middle East for 14 years. The progressives of the left and right have been against the war from the beginning arguing that the second gulf war was illegal. Conservatives believe that bombs going off in Europe constitutes a debt that must be paid in kind. Never mind the fact that Europe started the war. or that Britain has accrued massive debts in that part of the world since 1915. Self-deception is an important aspect of morality, particularly amongst those who wield power.

In a progressive society we have come to accept that the Biblical injunction is too brutal. We have moved on from the simple equation in which the punishment for murder is execution, at least as far as our own citizens are concerned. When a judge passes sentence on a convicted criminal what they do is weigh the seriousness of the crime and consult the law to see what is considered to balance out that crime by the government of the day. Governments are able to adjust this balance. But it does mean that justice might look different for different classes of people: if two people, one an unemployed person and one a professional of some sort are convicted of theft, the two punishments may look different. The first may get a heavy fine and some sort of community service. The second may well lose their career, all their future earning potential as a professional and thus just being convicted is already a heavy blow to them and this is taken into account. Some argue that the punishment ought not to take into account these other factors. One of the things about justice is that the truism "justice must be seen to be done" is still important. 

The problem with this consequentialist view can be summarised in Mr Spock's famous Utilitarian catch-phrase: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As Mark Johnson (1987: 95) has pointed out this algebraic approach to justice, the "consequentialist" model of ethics, often sees the needs of the few sidelined completely. Spock's cliché does not take into account class and the historical attitudes of class. In a class system, as we have in the UK, some people weigh more than others in the moral balance. Particularly, the wealthy outweigh the poor. This is why the needs of the richest 1% dominate the needs of the 99% today: 1 billionaire outweighs 100 wage-slaves. Governments are increasingly members of the 1% and act to secure more for themselves and their peers, because they see their own needs as out-weighing the needs of the many.

In the UK we have an on-going crisis related to the precipitous drop in government revenue caused by the global financial crisis. The ideological response to this is to lower taxes for the wealthy (with the view to them using their retained wealth wisely) and cut services that are mainly used by the poor. The wealthy are seen by conservatives as morally worthy by mere virtue of being wealthy. Wealth is perceived as the reward of the just. Thus the wealthy are more weighty. This incidentally is also a step away from traditional Christian morality. Indeed it might be argued that those who feared that the collapse of Christianity would see the world slide into immorality, have seen their fears realised when it comes to the wealthy. It is assumed (by other wealthy people) that being morally worthy, the wealthy will use their wealth wisely. But they do not. They conspicuously consume with no higher purpose. They actively avoid paying into the community-chest through taxes, placing a higher burden on the poor. At the same time some of the wealthy seek the notoriety of public philanthropy instead of the anonymity of paying taxes. They give, but want adoration for doing what we all do. In this class based calculation, the poor are morally unworthy (by virtue of being poor) and thus cutting services that they use in order to lower the taxes on the wealthy is seen as a balanced policy by conservatives. They see this as fair. In this case the wealthy are few, but weighty. The poor are also few, but light. The majority in the middle only want their own wealth to remain stable and to be insulated from the risks of change. And in exchange for this they are willing to manage and administrate the empire of the wealthy.

We may have one person one vote, but when it comes to the policies actually enacted these are largely driven by the 1% and their perceived needs. Ironically, if we look at extreme political systems such as Stalinism or Maoism we also find a 1% who believe their needs outweigh the needs of the many and who organise their environment to ensure their needs, as they perceive them, are met at the expense of everyone else. The behaviour of the 1% may just be a constant in large scale societies. We certainly lack any effective narrative to counteract the current trend for the wealthy to get more wealthy at the expense of the poor. When they capture both the legislature and executive branches of government, we seem to lean back towards feudalism. Incidentally almost all businesses are run on feudal models of governance. And it is businessmen who have hijacked national governments.

More Calculations

When it comes to killing there is also a different weight attached to different people. There is a kind of algebra that we mentally perform. As well as the weights associated with class, we have different weights for different roles, for example, civilian, soldier, general, politician all have different weights. The UK and the USA apparently have no moral quandary using bombs to assassinate tribal leaders in Waziristan because they support our enemy, the Taliban. The Taliban are our enemy because they once offered succour to our other enemy, Al-Qaeda (even though it is now believed that the Taliban have severed all ties with Al-Qaeda). Ironically we once supported the proto-Taliban mujahideen in their fight against our other erstwhile enemy and sometime ally, Russia. So we are technically our own enemy now. If we kill twenty civilians to bomb one tribal leader, then our leaders calculate that justice is served, partly because they have decreed that no-one is a civilian in that part of the world . This may be true in the sense that they are all fighting for their land and resisting our illegal invasion and pathetic attempts to set up puppet governments. On the other hand gun-toting Americans suffering the latest mass-shooting ought to remember that the logic of their state is that armed individuals are enemy combatants, not civilians. What we don't do is target the leaders of the House of Saud who finance terrorism and Islamic State, and spread the extremist version of Islam that underpins terrorist ideology. In fact we do the opposite - we pay them huge bribes to buy our weaponry and support them with our military, even when they use the price of oil to hold us hostage. The algebra of this relationship is beyond my moral mathematics to solve.

With the modern study of societies and groups of people we can now see that behaviour is not simply the result of our own motivations and drives as the crude Freudian model suggests. How we behave is a product, sometimes wholly a product, of our environment. The people around us have a much stronger effect on us than we like to admit. Our myth is that we are all individuals, making our own decisions, determining our own fate. God gave us free will so we could misbehave (and what a mistake that turned out to be). The truth is that we're social animals and, for most of us, going along with the group is a survival strategy with tens of millions of years of successful history that is hard to argue against. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have shown that reasoning, that faculty we hold to be the highest virtue of the individual, doesn't even usually work in individuals. Across a wide range of tests and measures, individuals are hopeless at reasoning tasks, worse than random guessing. Reasoning seems to have evolved to help small groups make decisions and really only works in small groups. Of course for all these qualities and faculties there is a bell curve. A few individuals are naturally good at reasoning. Other's can learn to reason effectively as an individual. But even formal training is no guarantee of success. As Mercier and Sperber say, confirmation bias is a feature of reasoning, not a bug.

Morality or Justice have yet to catch up with these facts. The idea of freewill, and the interminable arguments over it, actually hampers progress in understanding human beings. Freewill is a legacy concept from Christianity, but also built into WEIRD notions of justice. But as we all know from experience none of us is completely free or completely constrained. At the very least we have obligations to our community that constrain our choices. In practice that community likely shapes most of our decisions. Many of the people in our prisons have mental illnesses or developmental problems that impair their ability to make good life choices, though short of a demonstrable inability to understand the consequences of one's actions, one still has to live with those choices. And being insane is no picnic even if we are free of societal expectations. However the notion of freewill continues to dominate the public debate, probably because it's what journalists understand or think we will understand. Social psychology is still almost inevitably trumped by that old fraud Freud.

The debt created by killing can be lessened or mitigated by circumstances. If I plan out killing someone that is weightier than if I kill on the spur of the moment. Killing on purpose is weightier than killing by accident. Killing because one was in fear of one's life, out of self-defence, may cancel out - the threat to your life may mean that the killing anticipates that debt. Killing when one is insane and unable to understand the consequences of one's action is not blameworthy in the eyes of the law, though many social conservatives consider that the insane should still be punished (for them a debt is a debt and must be paid). Killing in a war is to a person's credit - we celebrate our most efficient and effective killers. As I said, our British Prime Minister is quite proud of all the killing he is commissioning in the Middle East. David "Killer" Cameron seems to have a taste for ordering executions. 

However we are squeamish about mass killings. Fire bombing Dresden and killing tens of thousands of civilians (figures are disputed and were distorted at the time) was just about acceptable to the British, if not the Germans. Atomic bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians on the day and many more from cancer in the following generations is a more ambivalent subject. Some still claim it saved American lives and shortened the war and that this justified the use of atomics. This is yet another example of the utilitarian approach to ethics in which one weighs up consequences, it's just that in this case foreign lives are worth considerable less than domestic lives. A few hundred thousand Japanese  civilians are worth a lot less than say, ten thousand American soldiers. Others argue that the use of atomics was a "war crime" of the most heinous kind (because it created a massive unpayable debt).

This in-group/out-group distinction has always been important when it comes to killing. Prohibitions on killing seldom apply in the same way, or at all, to out-group people. Funnily enough we see the same behaviour in chimps. When the Gombe Stream group became too large a group of chimps split off and set up a range next door. The alpha male of the Gombe Stream Group, a large and unusually violent male (ironically) called Frodo by Jane Goodall, lead a series of raids on the splitters in which they were all killed. Human beings are not the only species that commit murder.

Every time, every single time, a government wants to justify killing its enemies it characterises them as inhuman. This makes it easier to justify killing them. And note that the present call to extend the illegal war in the Middle-East does portray the enemy as monsters who "must be stopped". And there is certainly some truth in this. European and US governments have created a number of monstrous dictators and organisations in the Middle East. But what about the states who arm and fund them? Are they not culpable also?

From Payback to Restoration and Redemption.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Christian myth connected with justice, is the redemption of sinners. Some members of society see criminals, even killers, as in need of redemption, rehabilitation. This goes beyond the simple idea of balancing out the crime with punishment. Part of the motivation here is that we acknowledge that our methods of punishment tend to produce more criminal behaviour: relative innocents who are sent to prison come out hardened by their intimate association with other criminals; many people commit crimes as a kind of career and prison does nothing to deter them. Punishment only seems to make the situation worse in the majority of cases. So there are lobby groups who try to get the government to implement rehabilitation programs, with limited success.

It is notable that since roughly 1971 the developed world's attitude to private debt has significantly shifted. Where pre-war the average person would have avoided going into debt, by the 1970s debt  in the form of credit cards and personal loans was being promoted to more or less every adult. We began to accumulate huge average levels of personal debt. At present household debt is roughly equal to the annual Gross Domestic Product of the nation and forecast to rise steeply. Business debt is much higher because banks are heavily indebted to each other, but non-finance sector business debt is also about equal to annual GDP. Currently private sector debt in the UK stands at about £6.5 trillion and GDP at £1.5 trillion. (See this chart). Given the applicable metaphors, this change in attitude to debt may have had a major impact on our ideas about morality, but I don't think this has been studied yet (I'd be very interested to know if it has). 

In recent times we have also developed more nuanced views about justice. For example we now distinguish between retributive justice and restorative justice. Both are still based on the balance metaphor, but employ different methods to achieve balance. Retributive justice, which I have so far focussed on, seeks to restore balance by inflicting suffering and humiliation on the one who has transgressed. Restorative justices aims to balance things out by forcing the transgressor to make a positive contribution to the victim and society. Whether this takes the form of community service, compensation payments, or reconciliation meetings, the aim is still to have the transgressor actively restore balance through their actions rather than being passive subjects of punishment. The underlying concepts and metaphors are the same.

As I have already mentioned, the whole system of identifying criminals and punishing them makes it virtually certain that people will always try to hide their misdeeds out of fear. Our idea of justice still largely consists of inflicting suffering and humiliation on wrong doers. We learn this as children - those who are caught breaking the rules are punished. So, don't get caught. We also Romanticise and idolise individuals who can break rules with impunity. In particular many of the "heroes" in our story telling are able to kill without consequence. Why would anyone come forward and confess to a crime knowing that they will suffer as a result? It is irrational to seek punishment. However, sometimes the guilt of committing the crime outweighs the fear of punishment. In this case we might say that guilt comes from an awareness of having created a debt and the knowledge that it must be paid. Guilt is the feeling we have when there is a moral imbalance. And it can override concerns for personal safety and make people confess to crimes even though they know that they are inviting injury on themselves. This must be coupled with a deep indoctrination that guilt requires punishment in order to restore the balance of a just world.

Last Words

So the slogan that sparked this essay has misconstrued the situation. Killing is not wrong per se. Some killing is emphatically right (in the eyes of the law). The problems is that unsanctioned killing creates a debt. The simplest way of repaying that debt is for the killer to die. That is why social conservatives want to kill killers. Not to show that killing is wrong, because it isn't always wrong, but to show that killing is a weighty debt and that all debts must be paid. Progressives see the conservatives here locked in combat with conservatives there and wonder where it will end.


Johnson, Mark. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.

13 June 2014

Spiritual II: Frames.

In order to better understand the word spiritual I want to try to look at it in terms of frames. George Lakoff defines frames as "mental structures that shape the way we see the world." (2004, p. xv). Frames unconsciously structure of our thoughts, our intentions, and our memories. We each have thousands of frames. We develop them partly through exploring our physical environment and partly through interacting with our social environment. So my frames will be similar to yours to the extent that our physical and social environments are similar. The resulting structures are encoded in physical structures in the brain.

Words are defined with respect to framesA word like "mother" doesn't just just refer to the woman who gave birth to us, but invokes the frames of all the attributes we associate with all mothers and mothering: birth, nurture, fertility, gestation and so on. But the particular associations are based on social conventions. When we use a word we automatically invoke frames associated with it.

"Don't think of an elephant" 

Most people can't see or hear this statement and help thinking of an elephant and associated images and ideas. The words we use in a discussion or debate are not neutral. Because of frames. There is an ongoing discussion over how to define Buddhism which is largely concerned with marketing. Typically the argument is quite one dimensional.
  • Buddhism is a religion and thus offers solutions to traditional religious problems, i.e. "Where did we come from?" or "What happens after we die?" or "Why is life unfair?"
  • Buddhism is a philosophy and concerned with traditional philosophical questions, i.e. "What is there?" or "What can we know about what is there?" or "What should we do in hypothetical situations?"
  • Buddhism is a way of life and concerned largely with moral questions, i.e. "How should we live?"
Frames also make it possible to sum up arguments in slogans. And it's against this background that I want to look at the word spiritual. What would it mean, for example, to say that Buddhism is a form of spirituality.

I've shown that spiritual is historically rooted in the Vitalist idea of the 'breath of life'. However, it's safe to say that spiritual invokes a large number of frames, of which 'breath of life' is now relatively unimportant. So if we say that we are spiritual beings, living spiritual lives, doing spiritual practices, from a spiritual tradition, in order to have spiritual experiences that culminate in a spiritual awakening, just what are we saying? What frames do we invoke? Obviously we can't deal with every detail of thousands of frames, so I want to cover some of the main ones.


In an exchange with me on one of his blogs Bhikkhu Sujato recently expressed the view that for him "spirituality" referred to wholeness and integration for example. I think that this frame comes from thinking of human beings as having three parts: body, mind, and soul. (Hence the bookshop classification). Soul, or spirit, completes the trilogy. The Catholic Encyclopedia argues this heretical tri-partite view of the human being is partly due to a clarification of the distinction between psychē and pneuma by St Paul:
"Body and soul come by natural generation; spirit is given to the regenerate Christian alone. Thus, the "newness of life", of which St. Paul speaks, was conceived by some as a superadded entity, a kind of oversoul sublimating the "natural man" into a higher species." (Catholic Encyclopedia sv Soul)
This is related, I think, to the Pentecost, which was originally a Jewish harvest festival. In the Book of Acts the followers of Jesus are assembled for the Pentecost Festival when something miraculous happens and in the famous line:
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Acts 2:4. (Bible Hub)
Here the New Testament Greek word translated as both "Ghost" and "Spirit" is pneuma (see previous essay for the etymology). People with bodies and souls were completed by the descent of pneuma into them. In this day and age where the two basic divisions of the person are mind and body, many people feel that something is missing. They feel that we are more than either mind or body, more than a combination of the two. And what is missing is spirit and part of the spiritual province. This feeling comes about because of a conviction about the truth of Vitalism. 

Wholeness might have another sense that derives from psychoanalysis. We all know that rather than having a single "will" we are in fact usually in a state of conflicting desires and urges that battle for our attention and often move us in unexpected directions (what Harold Bloom has mockingly called "the Hamlet Complex"). At worst we suffer from what early psychologists conceived of as schizo-phrenia 'a divided mind' (schizo is from Greek skhizein 'to split'). In the psychoanalytic view we integrate our disparate inner parts by gaining knowledge of our own unconscious.  This is achieved indirectly through analysis of dreams, slips of the tongue, associations and so on; or directly (in psychodynamic approaches) through introspection and confessional reporting of thoughts and emotions. Our unconscious is revealed through analysis of patterns over the long term.

Some Buddhists argue that meditation achieves this psychological goal of resolving psychological tensions without the need for introspection or analysis. However in the Buddhist process, outlined in the Spiral Path, integration (samādhi) precedes knowledge (jñāna) rather than the other way around.

Buddhists also divide the person up into parts: body, speech and mind; five skandhas, six elements. And we mostly do this to try to show that we are simply the sum of our parts. Unlike Christians who believe that we are more than the sum of our parts because we have an immaterial, immortal soul. Thus "wholeness" for Buddhists ought to have something of an empty ring to it. Yes, it is good to be a whole person, with our faculties intact and our will undivided, but there is nothing beyond that, nothing more. As the Buddha says to Bāhiya: "in the seen, only the seen". Some take this to be a reference to the Upaniṣadic teaching about the ātman as the seer behind the seeing as found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. As always Buddhists are keen to deny any kind of metaphysical self or soul. 


Sujato also says: “Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good.” This frame is linked with the metaphor GOOD IS UP/BAD IS DOWN, which itself has a number of entailments that I've already explored at some length with respect to religious language in my essay Metaphors and Materialism. This spatial metaphor is perhaps the most important in the context of spirit and spirituality.

If "ways of being" and "goods" can be higher and lower, then there is a hierarchy of being and goodness. Christians, following influence from Neoplatonism, refer to this hierarchy as the Great Chain of Being. Pure being is entirely immaterial, the realm of pure spirit, in later Buddhism the dharmakāya. Because it is a frame, we know transparently and unconsciously, that spirit, being immaterial is not weighed down by the earth, it naturally floats up (the Jains invoke precisely this metaphor in their version of the soul). Good spirits go UP to heaven to be with the Sky Father (in Biblical Greek 'Heaven' is ouranus = Ancient Greek Uranus, the Sky Father and husband of Gaia, the Earth Mother). 

The association of highest good with the highest way of being is important. In the Great Chain of Being, God is at the pinnacle: the highest being is infinitely good. In Buddhist cosmology the highest state of being is an absolute disconnection from the worlds in which one can be reborn, even the pleasant ones. One cannot say anything about the state of being of a Tathāgata after death; the post-mortem Tathāgata defies the very categories of being and non-being and even the most refined gods, in states of beings almost off the scale, cannot compare.

Kūkai had a great deal of difficulty getting his 9th century Māhāyānika colleagues to believe that the dharmakāya teaches, because in their view the dharmakāya is absolutely abstract and disconnected from realms of rebirth. This reality, lying beyond any kind of knowledge, is sometimes referred to using terminology drawn from German Idealist philosophy, such as "the Absolute," or "the Transcendental" (with capitals and the definite article). Later Buddhist philosophy swings between a transcendent ultimate reality and an immanent realisation of reality (though early Buddhism is not concerned with reality at all).

In this view it's axiomatic that rebirth is bad. Rebirth is what we are seeking to escape from. This means that the world one is born into cannot have any absolute value. All that seems valuable about the world is simply a product of our ignorance. The best things a spiritual person can do is renounce the world and focus on religious practices that temporarily take one higher in pursuit of a permanently higher state of being. As with many of forms of mind/body dualism, this detachment from the world does make us rather ineffective in the world. At a time when we see the environment being destroyed for example and need to mobilise feelings of engagement, Buddhism councils disengagement. Despite this some Buddhists are engaged in social and environmental projects. But this is a new departure for Buddhism, a product of Buddhist Modernism, and more Modernist than Buddhist. And given the consequences of disengagement it must be seen as a highly positive move, albeit not fully integrated yet.


The vertical spatial metaphor can work in another way. Above ground HIGHER IS MORE, but below ground DEEPER IS MORE/SHALLOWER IS LESS. Verticality is with reference to the (flat) surface of the earth. Early Buddhists used reductive analysis, i.e. they went deeper, to end the rumour of ātman and to show that human beings are simply the sum of their parts, though this includes physical (kāyika) and mental (cetasika) parts. There is no soul, spirit or anything resembling them lurking inside us as other religions would have us believe. Reflection on the skandhas is probably the representative practice for deconstructing satkāyadṛṣṭi (the idea of a true substance, aka 'personality view'), but the foundations of recollection (satipaṭṭhāna) or recollection of the elements  (dhātvanusati) perform a similar function.

Deeper also invokes psychoanalytic ideas. After Freud we understand that much of our thought goes on in an unconscious realm. We may delve into our own unconscious with difficulty, but at times shine light on it's workings in order to gain in-sight. In those areas of knowledge where a literal spirit was not entirely credible, this dark inner-world began to take it's place. Of course the fact that we have inner-lives was not lost on the pre-Freudian world. Harold Bloom has made much of the fact that Freud read Shakespeare incessantly and appeared to be jealous of the Bard's greater insights into the Human psyche, especially in the story of Hamlet (See the Freud Chapter in The Western Canon). But recall that the word psyche itself meant something like 'soul'. C. G. Jung also chose words from this domain, i.e. anima/animus in his account of our inner life. 

Michael Witzel has shown that Jung's ideas about a collective unconscious are less good at explaining common themes in myth than the idea that story telling is much older and more conservative than we thought possible. Widely dispersed people have the same stories because once they lived closer together and shared a common storyline. In Witzel's mythological scheme the "Laurasian" story arc involves a first generation of humans who are heroic and perform miraculous deeds aimed at benefiting human-kind rather than the gods. Again Prometheus is the archetype.

Freud, Romanticism and burgeoning Spiritualism (see below) made common cause. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell reminded us that the new Western story of a dark inner realm visited to gain truths that set us free or make us whole, was tapping into the re-occurring myth epitomised by Orpheus who defies the gods by journeying to Hades realm to reclaim his wife. We are intended to equate the psychological unconscious with the mythic underworld, and process of psycho. The implication being that we will find treasures in dark aspects of our own minds. Thus in psychoanalysis Vitalism found another dark corner in which it could continue to exist. Introspection became one of the chief tools gaining access to this "underworld". The Romantic hero explores their own depths like Orpheus seeking Eurydice.  

By the time Westerners dropped their early prejudices against heathen religion and came into more substantial contact with Buddhism, some Buddhists had come to a similar belief about their inner self. This theme is more apposite in the USA since it was there that Zen took root. In Europe Theravāda Buddhism, with it's strong emphasis on anattā,  was influential earlier and for longer. Zen can be problematic because it embraces tathāgatagarbha doctrine and in English expresses it in terms like "Original Mind" or "True Self" (with capitals). Without the sophisticated critique of tathāgatagarbha that is contained in Madhyamaka thought, and lacking in popular presentations of Zen (the kind that people dip rather than take seriously), it is easy to tip over into Vitalism without the help of psychoanalysis. The two combined make it almost inevitable.


The word spiritual also invokes the idea of sacredness, though these days "sacred" is a rather degraded idea despite attempts to rehabilitate it. Nothing is sacred any more. That said, for many people the loss of a sense of sacredness is a serious problem and they are busy trying to install Sacredness 2.0™. Very often the target domain for modern sacredness is "nature". Not the "red in tooth and claw" nature, but the more tranquil nature typically associated with the English countryside (a giant landscaped garden). Not wilderness, which can easily kill the unwary, but the tame versions of nature that are non-threatening and easily accessible. Old trees are sacred. Certain hills. Stone henge and other archaeological sites that are presumed to have been religious in nature are rebooted as modern sacred sites, even though no one really knows what makes them sacred.

We're not quite sure what sacredness means, but the tribal people our ancestors colonised put a lot of store by it. Our word taboo comes from the Pacific Islands (tapu in Māori). A tapu is a restriction placed on a person, place or object that prevents every day interactions and allows only specialised ritual interactions. Similarly sacredness puts the labelled thing outside the grasping of Utilitarianism and this can only be a good thing. The value associated with sacredness is nothing to do with money or utility. It's important in this banal age to be reminded that some things cannot be valued in economic terms. Often it is not nature per se that we value, but how we feel when we are in a natural as opposed to an artificial setting.

The sacred designation, if plausible, can help to protect "natural resources" (an economic term) from exploitation and destruction. Given the destructive effects of large scale industrialisation on the environment across the planet, it might not be a bad idea to extend the sense of sacredness to all living things. However invoking the sacred via the word "spiritual" is problematic because of the other associations, particularly with organised religion and paranormal hoaxes. By confusing sacredness, in terms of non-utilitarian values, with spirituality, we in fact make it a little more difficult to defend those values. 

For Buddhists the world accessible to the senses is not sacred. It's not until we get fed-up with the world and turn away from it that we are liberated. Thus for Buddhists something is sacred only to the extent that it points, and leads, away from the world. A stupa, for example, might be a sacred monument, but only because it reminds us of the Buddha who transcended the world. At the level of popular religion or superstition Buddhism is happy to acknowledge that sacred sites have some value, but they are not seen as a true refuge. We see this sentiment expressed for example in Dhammapada (188-189)
Many people seek refuge from fear;
In mountains, forests, gardens, trees and shrines 
This is not a secure refuge, not the ultimate refuge;
Going to this refuge, they aren't delivered from all misery.
Nature is not sacred in early Buddhist thought. So, as with engaged Buddhism, what we seem to be seeing is a new departure. A necessary, but quite a radical departure.


Spiritualism is a complex of ideas that particularly involve interacting with the spirits of the dead in the afterlife. The movement owes a great deal to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) which communicate his visions of the afterlife. In turn his version of the afterlife seems to owe a great deal to Dante. In fact Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, especially via art inspired by them, are two of the most influential religious works in the Western World.

Unfortunately spiritualism has always been rife with hoaxes. Early and prominent hoaxers were the Fox sisters who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, but one of them later confessed to having faked it. However, like the admission of the crop-circle hoaxers, the repeated exposure of fakery and fraud does not dampen enthusiasm for spiritualism. We want to believe that the dead are still with us, and not simply metaphorically.

Most of mediumship depends on a technique called cold reading. This skill can be extremely effective and yet entirely fake. One modern master of the technique is Derren Brown, who openly acknowledges that he is using cold reading techniques, but is able to seemingly evince information that he could not have access to except through psychic powers. It's possible to be entirely convincing to even a sceptical audience. (See e.g. this video explaining cold reading). Brown's performance in Messiah is a remarkable display of how to dupe an audience. 

One spin off from Spiritualism and its interaction with Eastern religion is the phenomenon of past life regression and mundane memories of past lives. Ancient Buddhist texts suggest that if we develop certain psychic powers through spending a lot of time in the fourth dhyāna, we ought to be able to remember past lives. This ability to remember past lives gradually declines in importance over time in Buddhist texts and is hardly mentioned in Mahāyāna texts. I've dealt with this aspect of spirituality in an earlier essay: Rebirth and the Scientific Method. So I won't dwell on it here. The Skeptic's Dictionary response to "research" into this field is a useful counterpoint. One very important point for Buddhists is that all this past-life research confirms the Hindu view of reincarnation, not the Buddhist view of rebirth. So we ought to be marshalling all our criticisms of it, not embracing it. It's spiritual in the best sense of the word, i.e. concerned with spirits and eternal souls.

The success of Spiritualism, despite the exposure of so many frauds, forms part of the background against which modern Buddhists assess the relevance of Buddhist ideas. Modern Buddhists are almost all converts from Christian societies, even if the converts themselves were not Christian. Beliefs like rebirth and universal fairness (karma), subtle bodies, and the life's breath (prāṇa) are easy to assimilate if we already believe in ghosts, communication with the spirits of the dead and the other phenomena associated with Spiritualism. In fact for some people it's almost as if the Enlightenment never happened. 


Certain relatively uncommon experiences are referred to as spiritual or mystical. These include so-called out-of-body experiences, or near death experiences and other experiences that seem to point to a clear mind/body dualism or more precisely to a consciousness that is able to exist independently of the body. This taps into the idea of the spirit as distinct from the body and thus points to a strong version of mind/body duality. Thomas Metzinger has decisively showed, in The Ego Tunnel, that the out-of-body experience is not what it seems. In fact a better explanation can be found in the way that the brain constructs our sense of self and how that process can breakdown. I've also dealt with this in Origin of the Idea of the Soul.

Another kind of experience often associated with meditation is important (though also associated with potent hallucinogens like LSD). It seems to have two poles. At one pole the subject-object distinction breaks down and leaves one with a sense of nothingness or no-thing-ness. In the traditional Hindu description there is just saccidānanda 'being, consciousness and bliss'. One is entirely disconnected from the world of sense experience, from mental activity as normally understood. There is no sense of self, nor of being located in space or time and thus no other, no world. In Buddhist terms experiences of this kind are referred to as the arūpa or formless dhyānas. At the other pole the subject-object distinction breaks down leaving one feeling connected to everything. One feels that one is the universe, that there are no distinctions between self and other. Again there is no sense of self, but one feels located everywhere in time and space, one feels one is the world. and the world is oneself. It is the feeling that "all is one". Both of these seem to have a profound impact on the person experiencing them and can radically alter one's perspective on everyday waking experience.

Almost inevitably the person who has this experience believes there is "more". More to life; more than meets the eye; "more than is dreamt of in your philosophy". And the "more" is spiritual. It can also be associated with the idea of a transcendental, ineffable reality. This hard-to-reach reality is higher, better, deeper, etc than everyday life. In fact compared to reality, everyday life is hardly worth living. Some people get a glimpse of this kind of experience and spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to there. This kind of story is high reminiscent of the story of the Holy Grail, particularly as it is outlined by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz in The Grail Legend. Often what Buddhists seek is the Holy Grail, the transformative experience that will leave them in a state of grace.

Visions of "higher" beings are also sought-after mystical experiences, especially if they are accompanied by a sense that the vision is more real than reality. Often visions are of human figures, anthropomorphisms of values we hold dear, or saints. Usually visions are culturally specific. Hindu's see Śiva, Viṣṇu or Kāli or one of the 33 million other deities; Christians see Christ, Mary or angels; Buddhists see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And so on. It's not unusual for Western convert Buddhists to see visions of Christ, simply because they grew up Christian and our culture is saturated with images of a Westernised Christ. We notice this with imagery, visions and icons take on the regional characteristics of the people they appear to. Monastics have often used extreme techniques to achieve such visions: starvation, sleep deprivation, extremes of heat and cold, flesh wounds (from self-flagellation) that become infected, and other painful austerities. Meditative techniques are a more humane way of approaching having a mystical experience, but still require considerable dedication to repetition and duration of practice.

What is interesting about mystical experiences is that the individual phenomena can now be reproduced in the laboratory using a variety of techniques that physically affect the brain (be it accidental damage, surgery, drugs or electro-magnetic stimulation). Thus the arrow of causality points from brain to experience. There is no doubt that the experiences are significant to those who have them, but also little doubt that the significance is imposed on the experience by the experiencer. Mystical experiences are not what they seem. On face value they are what the mystics have always said they are; but we can look beyond the face value now. And we see that the value we place on such experiences is a human value. And this is not to say that the experiences are not valuable or transformative. But they do not always mean what they are said to mean in a pre-scientific worldview.

Another caveat on discussing such experiences is that they are difficult to distinguish from hallucinations. An hallucination is when someone sees, hears, smells, tastes or feels things that don't exist outside their mind, but which nonetheless have a vivid realness about them and are mistaken for things which do exist. Hallucinations and spiritual experiences have very different valuations, but how we determine which is which may be entirely context dependent.  

In 2009 the Pew Research Group reported at about half of all Americans had had a "religious or mystical experience. This is more than double the number recorded in a 1976 Gallup Poll. In their analysis the bulk of the increase seems to come from Christians and those who regularly attend religious services, with as many of 70% of some evangelicals claiming some kind of experience and a clear correlation with frequency of attendance at a religious service. The level is also fairly high (30%) amongst unaffiliated religious people (SNBR?). About 18% of people with no religious inclinations report experiences of this time.

Mystical experiences are much more likely amongst people who expect to have them: people with strong religious beliefs, who regularly participate in religious activities. But even non-religious people appear to have mystical or religious experiences fairly commonly (one in five adults).  


In an essay like this, one can only touch on the main points of a complex argument. Clearly the frames that help to define the word spiritual are many and varied. Each of us works with thousands of frames. We can see that some of the main frames activated by the word spiritual involve a Vitalist worldview or mind/body dualism. There is a possible defence against this charge which is similar to the one that sparked this analysis. One may argue that even when, for example, the higher frame is invoked (along with the various associated metaphors like GOOD IS HIGHER) that one is not intending to invoke religious ideas from Christianity. However we don't have a lot of control over the frames we use. Frames structure our thoughts, but do so unconsciously. And even if we ourselves use words with more than average deliberation (and as a writer let me assure you that this is much more difficult than it might appear) we have no control over what happens in the minds of our readers/listeners.

The question of whether Buddhism is or is not a religion is moot, though if it is not a religion then what is it? The idea that Buddhism is spiritual or concerned with spirit is just wrong. Most of the main frames invoked by spiritual just don't fit very well if at all. In some cases, as in the revaluing of nature are helpful and in other cases not so much.

When Nixon went on TV and said "I am not a crook" it was probably the first time most people thought of  him in terms of being a crook. But from that time on, most people thought of Nixon as a crook. For the group of people who believe that Buddhism is not a religion, the statement "Buddhism is not a religion" only reinforces the Buddhism/religion connection in the minds of hearers because the word invokes the frame. As "spiritual but not religious" simply reinforces the connection between spiritual and religion. The desire to contradict an argument in yes/no terms is strong, but if one wants to define Buddhism in a certain way, then one can only use words that are consistent with that definition else the message is mixed.

People who invoke spiritual when referring to Buddhism probably do so because it's familiar. It taps into centuries of religious ideology. I see it rationalised in a variety of ways. But my view is that the choice of words lends advantages to certain sections of society. The next essay will shift the focus from how the word is used to who uses the word; the politics of spirituality. Who wins by linking Buddhism to the various spiritual frames? Who loses?


George Lakoff on frames and framing.