Representation and Meaning

A recent trivial experience prompts this post.  It has come about because of a movement in my mind linking recent posts here: about the fate of Buddha-in-the-park (Altruism); about confidence to speak to others (Discussion Groups); and about the vague, murky and fuzzy nature of ‘felt sense’ (Thinking and Feeling at the edge).

It happened when I came across this image on the SBUK site:        green-blue-header

For a moment it mystified me, then I experienced something like recognition and my fingers almost twitched to pick a chess-piece (pawn) by its little round head, then I thought “It’s supposed to be a seated buddha-figure”.

Then I grinned, because I saw a comically-stylised condom.  I confess that my mind then toyed with the juxtaposition of the words “Freely Given Retreats……” and what the last image represented for me – a condom. The condom stayed in the foreground, where the other images or meanings jostled for second and third place on the podium of my mind.

A tinge of guilt crept into my thought-process as I chewed over my responses to the little green-blue-white image.  I imagined what might be the reaction of the trustees of Freely Given Retreats (not a happy one?) to my suggesting that others might see the image as I’ve seen it.  And I wondered if people on retreat have ever seen it or discussed it thus, in the context of ambivalence.  It’s definitely my experience that Buddhists are rather sanctimonious about such matters, and don’t encourage talk about sex, especially about its funny side…….

I’m posting this because it’s popped up in my life, it interests and intrigues me, and I thought it might encourage others to think about – and read about – representation and meaning, both of which are in the Middle Way site somewhere (see ‘Desire, Meaning and Belief’….), and which I’m going to read again now I’ve finished this.

I’m also aware that it may add another strand of representation and meaning to your perception of me, and I’m interested to know about that, if anyone is able to share it, and wants to.

About Peter Goble

I am an Englishman aged 77 years, married with 3 adult children. I am retired from professional life which was in mental health and teaching. I have been a (sort of) practising (sort of) Buddhist for about 30 years, and was active in the hospice sector, and more recently served as a Buddhist chaplain specialising (sort of) in mental health. My wife and I now live in north-western France (Normandy).

23 thoughts on “Representation and Meaning

  1. An example of ambiguity, certainly, Peter, and that meaning doesn’t reside in the symbol itself, but in the body of the person who finds meaning in it. However, I’m not sure that it says anything about you that wouldn’t also apply to a lot of other people!

  2. Hi Peter, what an interesting combination of thoughts. I often see images in a different way, than the way they are supposed to be seen. Clouds can be shaped like solid things for example, when I know they are a mass of swirling energy and far from solid, I expect we’ve all done that.
    I have been listening to Eugene Gendlin on Utube, while I wait for his book on Focusing to arrive. I remember one pivotal experience during a counselling session, which I have not found words to explain, even to myself, perhaps focusing will help, not that I need to find words, because whatever it was that happened, changed me.
    I gather from some something he said that he is a theist, am I correct?
    On the subject of altruism, we humans are caring , we have to be, for our infants to survive, while they are vulnerable during their early years. We are becoming more caring globally, although listening to the news would have us think otherwise sometimes, violence is decreasing too. StatisticsI learnt from a television programme!
    nb. I think the artist you referred to is Grayson Perry, I also listened to his Reith lectures.

    1. I think these words of yours are very telling: they tell about the “felt sense” that Gendlin places at the heart of his teaching about what is at the heart of our experience, of your experience:

      “I remember one pivotal experience…. which I have not found words to explain, even to myself, perhaps focusing will help, not that I need to find words, because whatever it was that happened, changed me.”

      My only other comment might be that, although some of us may like to formulate an explanation for ‘what happens’, to do so may be less than helpful because no explanation can ever fully satisfy our need to understand, or make a good fit with the experience and the change; and perhaps because an explanation sets itself – and us – up as an expectation that we might somehow replicate the circumstances , with the same ‘result’. This, in my experience, leads to disappointment and frustration.

      So focusing is unlikely, I think, to help you find words for the process (if that’s what you meant, I may be wrong), although the book will help you make the space you need to make to allow it to move through you, unhindered by words, concepts, ideas, assumptions and other detritus of the kind I’ve accumulated over the years.

      Thanks for jogging my memory about Grayson Perry. I thought he sounded a bit anxious during his lectures, I can’t say I blame him, it’s a great responsibility he took on.

      As for our capacity for care: when you say “we have to” (be caring of our vulnerable offspring), I take it that you mean that they are less likely to survive if we don’t (or can’t). I agree with that. If, by saying “we have to” you mean that we’re following some explicit internal injunction to care – like “Thou shalt love…….. and thy neighbour as thyself”, then I respectfully disagree. I cared for our children when they were young because I could, and wanted to. I didn’t need to articulate a reason for wanting to, I just wanted to (feed them, wash them, hold them, kiss them, restrain them from harm,teach them etc).

      There were occasionally/frequently times when my wanting to care for them waned slightly (like when I was tired or doing something I thought was presently needing my attention more than a child who wanted a biscuit). But the default position was wanting to care for them, and it kicked in enough for them to survive to maturity and relative independence of our parental support.

      I think the practice of caring switched over (not very smoothly or in unmodified form) to the nursing work that occupied fifty-odd years of my life. I nursed because I could and wanted to. Any compassion was a by-product of my engagement with sundry others in relationship, and arose from our reciprocal engagement, as steam rises when a hot iron is plunged into a bucket of water. This is why I get irked by injunctions to “be compassionate”, “generate compassion” or “show compassion”. It’s a bit like saying to people “create air by breathing”.

      I’ll be interested in your thoughts, Norma.

  3. Hi Peter,

    It seems that the meaning behind a representation comes from our own biases and experiences, and this is a good example. The image that you are discussing here is, of course, just a white line that forms a symmetrical pattern – on a green background. Any meaning is then imposed by the viewer, and informed by their experience. It can only represent a Buddha if you have seen a Buddha, otherwise it might just represent a person sitting cross legged (possibly the intention of the artist). But it does not need to represent either of these. I could not see a condom to start with and the image that came to me was of the teat of a babies bottle, which caused me to reflect that if I had used the former then I would not have spent the last couple of years washing the latter.

    This also makes me think about the religious imagery that is often found on food items, which, I think is the same psychological effect as seeing images in clouds and optical illusions in general.


  4. Hi Peter
    I think where you find sanctimoniousness (and pompousness), you’re also likely to find dogma and intolerance of ambiguity. Humour in all its incongruity can often pose a healthy challenge to this intolerance and that’s why I feel your Migglism idea as an alternative name for Middle Way Philosophy is really interesting. A reminder not to take it (and ourselves) too seriously.

    1. Hello, the cartoon made me smile, how wonderful our imaginations can be.
      It added a light hearted tone to our threads, as Barry writes, humour can prevent too much seriousness creeping in.
      The damage to the sculpture was an expression of creativity gone wrong, perhaps the only way the person knew how to show his contempt for the beautiful, which he may never have been given the chance to appreciate? It is all conjecture on my part. My initial response, had been my work spoilt, would be anger, how ungrateful etc. then I would calm down and think it through more carefully. It is fine to be angry as long as it melts into a more postive feeling, because I think repressed anger causes self harm, in physical or mental ways, What do you think?
      In reply to your comment Peter, I did choose my words mistakenly, when I said ‘we have to be’ I didn’t mean to use it as an imperative, but was thinking more like – we are intuitively caring and also we are genetically geared up to care, from birds tirelessly feeding their young, crocodiles watching over their young to humans.
      You’re right, I do need not to find words for the experience I had many decades ago, but I would welcome the chance to open up space through which thoughts and feelings can flow freely, whether or not I achieve that, is perhaps doubtful, but I’ll try it.
      Being told to be ‘caring’ doesn’t do much good I agree, we have to want to be.
      Sometimes, I talk from experience, we are too bogged down and stuck in a rut of feeling ‘dead’ as Ruby Wax puts it. She was interviewed on Hard Talk ‘ recently and was very good at explaining her studies on mental health and the working of the brain.
      Time to go to the dentisit, to have a crown fitted!

      1. Thanks, Norma, for your full reply. All you say gives me endless cause for further thought, but perhaps not comment, as I recognise that I am ‘on something of a roll’ at present, which is the obverse of the trough of depression that overcomes me periodically, and can be a little disabling in its own way.

        I will remark on what you report Ruby Wax to have commented on re “feeling dead”. Feeling dead is, of course, exactly what Gendlin describes as a ‘felt sense’. Feeling dead is not an absence of feeling, it is a remarkable intensification of feeling that intrudes on awareness and insists on being attended to. It repays loving attention with change that affirms life and being. Words are unnecessary, as is “understanding”. Embodied meaning can be ‘known’, but not – perhaps – ‘understood’. I’m reminded here of the Christian reference to ‘the love that passeth all understanding’, which says much the same.


    2. Well, Barry, you’re a right/reet miggler in my book 🙂

      I have my doubts about migglism going anywhere as a ‘handle’, though, except amongst ourselves. It might gain currency if we found a way to broadcast it, perhaps as an anthem, set to a catchy tune.

      Perhaps you or Norma or some other presentationally talented types could work something up – a short poem set to lively music? “Wombles of Wimbledon” comes to mind as an example (and that shows my age although I was probably in my 40s when I heard it).

      And we could incorporate it into mild interjections like “Miggling bad luck!” or “Not miggling likely!”, although these have the whiff of hoary old desperation, think you miggling not?

      I wrote elsewhere that “-isms” in general have something dusty and old-fashioned about them, like the smell of suburban libraries or wet wallpaper.

      I know it’s a fad, and will quickly date, but the trend now seems to be to minimally-vowelled consonantal groupings like Flickr, Tumblr. So maybe mggl or migglr might have a run for its money……..but I’m already out of breath from miggling around with this nonsense 🙂

      1. Hi Peter, I like your nonsense, let’s miggle along merrily with Barry, if he agrees and has time to compose a ditty? I used to visit Wimbledon Common quite often with my dog, when I lived nearby with the children in the 1970s!
        I think I have some understanding about what you mean, when you’re ‘on a roll’, it sort of takes over, the other side of the coin as you say. Focusing, the book, arrived this morning, I’ll read it slowly. Perhaps I know more about what is meant by felt sense, than I thought I did at first.
        I have signed up for the disussion on the 8th. Dec. some serious study of Robert’s articles is ahead of me.

  5. Hi Peter,

    ‘Perhaps you or Norma or some other presentationally talented types could work something up…’ I don’t see why you should be excluded here. Your posts are always poetic and inventive, here’s an example from the same post as the above quote:

    ‘I wrote elsewhere that “-isms” in general have something dusty and old-fashioned about them, like the smell of suburban libraries or wet wallpaper.’ ‘The smell of suburban libraries’! This is pure poetry.

    Peter and Norma, my understanding of Norma’s statement that ‘we have to be’ caring was in evolutionary, not moral/ ethical, terms. I suspect that as a species of animal, we would not have evolved as we have if we did not have a large impulse to care for others. My ‘pet’ corn snake, Wilson, does not care for me or anybody else – not even from his own species, and so a snake has not had to evolve ‘altruism’ or ’empathy’ in order to evolve into a snake – yet it is as suitably evolved as we are (perhaps more?), only it has not ‘had to be’ caring during that evolutionary process.


  6. Why don’t we write something together? A kind of collective dialectical exploratory poem of what Miggling is with a question and answer pattern where anyone can chip in? Here’s a start, I’m off on holiday in a couple of days for a month so I won’t be able to contribute to the site as much as I’d like to but I look forward to chatting online to you all again soon.

    What is this Miggling business?
    What is it that you do?
    It all sounds rather silly
    Iggle Miggle Woo?

    I like the ambiguity
    Not taking it too seriously
    This helps me steer clear
    Of fixed points of view

    But what of objectivity?
    Isn’t that tied up with certainty
    Not if it’s incremental
    Think ‘more’ instead of ‘true’

    All this left brain / right brain stuff
    Then isn’t that old hat?
    But If it were up to Iain McGilchrist
    We would revisit that

    Ok, there’s facts and values
    An ought can’t make an is
    Our philosophical foundations
    Are built on top of this.

    But everything we do or say
    Cannot be so dissected
    Cognition and emotion
    Are intimately connected

    I say this all provisionally
    I know I may not know
    But I do to a degree feel confident
    And justified that’s so

    That all sounds fairly plausible
    If somewhat, well.. obtuse
    But the question I have to ask myself
    Is it of any use?

    1. Stirring stuff, Barry, and a brilliant suggestion.

      I’m going to keep my powder dry and my poetic muse on a tight leash for a while…………

      ……..but my inner Chaucer/Dante/Goethe/Whitman/Tennyson/Plath is stirring his/her thighs and preparing to slouch to Bethlehem to be born (as sextuplets, it seems).

      Peter 🙂

    2. We used to do all sorts of things
      We vaguely thought were good
      But weren’t quite clear what made them so:
      Was it just lust? Or God?

      But now we have a clearer sense:
      It’s all to do with balance.
      We work at the conditions best
      By seeking the apparent.

      When we sit down to meditate
      We neither tense nor loaf.
      We stretch the ego and submit
      To neither angst nor sloth.

      Am I getting into the spirit here Barry?

      1. You certainly are, Robert!

        So tell me how is art objective?
        Not just opinion or convention
        Isn’t it simply all subjective?
        With ample dollops of pretension?

  7. Thanks for this interesting perspective. I’d not considered an ‘evolutionary imperative’ or biological ‘have-to’, but I can see what you mean. Thanks also for your generous words about poetry. I think Barry is already tuning up his guitar…….

    A tentative suggestions follows, and I’ll put it as delicately as I can. It’s subject to your agreement, of course.

    I wonder if/how Winston might be persuaded to consider serving as ‘patron’ (or perhaps ‘petron’) of the Middle Way Society? Of course his ‘petronage’ would be characterised by role-oblivion on his part, but that wouldn’t diminish his wriggly-miggly significance for me, and the miggle-discourse might be enriched and enlivened by new concepts derived from his life story like brumation and the wholly dispassionate consumption of stunned rats (I don’t know if Winston does this, and his diet is none of my business anyway) 🙂

  8. Errm….

    Yes! I eat cow,
    and I am not proud,
    These two lines, I do confess-
    are Kurt Cobain’s – Not Mine.

    Intolerant of the intolerant?
    The beaver builds his damn.
    Waters rise, pressure high
    that beaver is a sham!

    1. “You migglers seem a rowdy crowd!
      You argue, cuss, and laugh out loud,
      You seldom chant or bend a knee
      Before a gilded effigy!”

      “So what’s your miggling point?” they frown:
      “Look! All you need’s been handed down
      From sage to sage without a break!
      Just get it down you. Piece of cake!”

      1. “We bake our own”, the migglers croon.
        “Desire to meaning spoon by spoon
        We blend with soft belief, and soon
        The world will sing this lovely tune!”

  9. The Happy Wanderer.

    I love to go a miggle- ing
    Along my neural tracks,
    From left to right, criss crossing
    No dogma breaks my back.

    Miggling, a metaphor, the way we like to think,
    No dualism here, we are not divided,
    We decide, before we reach the brink,
    To find a better way, integration provided.

    I wish you a happy holiday Barry.

  10. This really has been so much fun
    It makes me want to giggle
    The way we’re embodying meaning
    To this wacky word called miggle

    You won’t find it in the dictionary yet
    It’s not been “represented”
    but as a holiday gift for me
    It’s already been presented

    Thank you!

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