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John Rowan: The Dialogical Self and the Transpersonal

Hermans et al (1992) conceptualized the self in terms of a dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous I-positions in the landscape of the mind.

A few years later a more elaborate formulation put it this way: “Dialogical Self Theory considers the self as a multiplicity of parts (voices, characters, positions) that have the potential of entertaining dialogical relationships with each other (…) the different parts of the self are not only involved in communicative interchange, they are also subjected to relative dominance, with some parts being more powerful or speaking with a louder voice than other parts (…) the dialogical self (…) is based on the assumption that the processes that are taking place between the different parts of the self are also taking place in the relationship between the individual and him- or herself. The self functions as a society” (Hermans, 2004, p. 13).

Dialogical Self Theory is grounded in narrative theory (Angus & McLeod, 2004; Bruner, 1990), the idea of which is that the stories we tell ourselves give meaning to and anticipate events, provide for action planning, consolidate our self-understanding, establish our characteristic range of emotions and goals, and guide our performance on the stage of the social world (Neimeyer, 2000). Stories contain various characters, each equivalent to a facet of self. Some of these characters are the authors of the stories, the self-as-subject (I) in James’ terms, others are talked about, and crresponded to the self-as-object (Me), others may comment on the stories told in this way, and so may occupy a meta-position which is self-reflexive (Dimaggio et al, 2004; Greenberg, 2002; Hermans, 2003; Hermans & Dimaggio, 2004a; Stiles, Osatuke, Glick & Mackay, 2004). 

Identity is not, therefore, based on the decisions of a central and omniscient ego but surfaces from the constant dialogue between aspects of the self given agent-like-qualities, which may be called voices (Stiles, 1999),  characters (Bruner, 1990)  subpersonalities (Rowan 1990), I-positions (Hermans, 2004), possible selves (Dunkel & Kerpelman 2006) or roles (Horowitz, 1987; Ryle & Kerr, 2002). Each one of them represents a point of view in relation to the others, for example, the loving voice of the father of a little girl may get replaced by a subservient voice typical of an application to a bank manager for a loan.

The different parts of a multiple self are involved in communicative interchange, which takes the form of a dialogue (Angus & McLeod, 2004b; Hermans, 1996; Lysaker & Lysaker, 2004) in which each voice may be in accord or discord with the other.  For example, a man may be divided, one I-position wishing to spend the weekend with his family and another wishing to get on to an urgent piece of work. The dialogical self is based on the assumption that we can profitably speak of processes that are taking place between the different parts of the self, or in the relationship between the individual and him- or herself.  The internal dialogue may take the form of a critical parent (Berne 1961) as against a nurturing parent, in trying to make a decision, such as for example to take the family to Disneyland.  The voice may come across as some aspect of myself (myself as a mediocre father, an enthusiastic bowls player, etc), or perhaps someone else who has the required characteristics. Or it may take the form of a persecutor, or a victim, or a rescuer (Karpman 1968) – or even a bystander (Clarkson 1992) - whatever character it may take to play the role, or, as we could also say, take over the I-position (Greenberg, 2002; Hermans, 1996; Hermans & Dimaggio, 2004). The meaning of events emerges from the form that the dialogue takes. Finally, some of the voices may be consistently submerged or surface only rarely (Bakhtin, 1927/1973; Leiman & Stiles, 2001; Hermans, 1996; Hermans & Dimaggio, 2004). For example, a strong character may be the dominant one in narratives and the weak and needy part surfaces with difficulty, which makes it impossible for the subject to ask for help and obtain it. 

The characters often assume positions that are different and contradictory. To give an impression of unity and integration an individual needs to develop self-reflexive points of view that take account of these differences and create self-narratives that explain them (“I’m a lazy employee, but I’d never do anything dishonest and I work for the Union”). There are various names for this self-observing point of view: reflexive function (Fonagy & Target, 1996), metacognitive or metarepresentative skills (Sperber, 2000; Semerari, Carcione, Dimaggio, Falcone, Nicolò, Procacci & Alleva, 2003), meta-position (a character, that is, which observes other characters’ actions, Hermans, 2003) and observing-I (Leiman & Stiles, 2001).

What is consistent in all this is a refusal to reify the I-positions, as is done in the theories of ego-states, subpersonalities, subselves and so forth.  We do not look upon them as homunculi inside the person, but as responses to a situation, and only valid within that situation.  We do not worry whether the same response may arise over and over again: we just deal with it in the moment.  This makes it much easier to let it transform and move on when that is indicated.  We do not envisage it as a fixed entity that may resist change, but as a momentary position that comes and goes.

Unfortunately, the dialogical self has often been conceptualized as on just one level, the same for everyone.  And this is quite justifiable in the everyday work of psychology, where the same assumption is generally made.  But if we are to do justice to the world of the transpersonal (the spiritual, the numinous, the sacred, the holy, the divine) we cannot rest content with this limitation (Rowan 2005).

This is particularly true when we come to the world of psychotherapy, where it is quite common to use ideas like I-positions (ego states, subpersonalities, subselves, alters, parts and so forth) in order to use methods like the empty chair.  It has been shown that empty-chair and two-chair work is very efficacious in working with unfinished business, both with other persons from the past or present, and also with subsystems within the person (Elliott et al 1998 on posttraumatic stress, Kellogg 2004 on variation of the system, Wolfe & Sigl 1998 on anxiety disorders).  

What has not been done, and what I intend to do in this paper, is to show how the transpersonal idea of levels and the more usual one-level use of I-positions and the like can work together to explore the transpersonal realms in a way that is particularly suitable for the work in psychotherapy.  This results in an expansion of the whole idea of I-positions.

The Transpersonal

In dealing with the transpersonal it seems helpful to use the model offered to us by Ken Wilber (2000), because this author refers specifically to psychotherapy.  He speaks of these levels particularly: Mental Ego (the most common everyday personality), Centaur (or authentic self, achieved through self-knowledge), Subtle Self (or soul), Causal Self (or spirit) and Nondual.  These are normally not thought of as I-positions or subpersonalities, but rather as expresssions of spirituality, and little attempt has been made in the past to personify them.  But it now seems as though it is possible to assume or pretend that they can be personified,  as we shall see in a moment.

In the present case, as can be seen in the relevant sections, much of my research was done on myself.  I involved other people, but some of the prime results were only to be found in my own consciousness.  Where possible I then checked my experience with others, as for example when I tested my own experience of the Subtle realm by joining a pagan circle and learning the discipline of the Four Directions, the eight great festivals and the holy circle and creating new ceremonies; or testing my mystical experience of the Causal Self, or what the Buddhists call kensho, by submitting myself to the judgement of the roshi at a retreat run by members of the Western Ch'an Federation.  Similarly, I put myself through an experience of Vipassana meditation at one of the Goenka retreats.

Experiences of subpersonalities are easier to come by, and I went to a number of workshops in this area, starting in 1972 and continuing throughout the 1970s.  This enabled much checking, both of my own internal world and of those of others in the groups, through two-chair and empty chair work, and psychodrama.  Psychodrama is of course one of the main sources of work with subpersonalities (Karp et al 1998).  Of course the literature here is extensive, as I made clear in my own book on subpersonalities (1990) which put together a very large body of work from sixteen different schools of psychotherapy, and also brought together data from psychology and arguments from philosophy.

More recently Avants & Margolin (2004) have also been arguing that the soul (or what they call the spiritual self-schema) can be treated as an I-position, and this approach can be very successful in the treatment of addiction.  It seems clear that the concept of a self-schema is becoming more popular now.

A whole well elaborated form of therapy, emerging from the Cognitive Behavioural tendency, has recently been launched by Jeffrey Young and his co-workers under the title of Schema Therapy: “Patients learn to conduct dialogues between their ‘schema side’ and their ‘healthy side’.  Adapting the Gestalt ‘empty chair’ technique, the therapist instructs patients to switch chairs as they play the two sides: In one chair they play the schema side, in the other they play the healthy side.”  (Young et al 2003, p.100)

Dialogical Self Research

Following on from my earlier investigations into subpersonalities and the transpersonal, I had pursued the idea that perhaps the different levels could speak to one another.  This was a sort of game, where I used two-chair work in a new way to explore various levels of consciousness.  Two-chair work is a very flexible way of working, as Kellogg (2004) has well explained, and is used by several different schools of therapy to resolve issues concerning conflicting subpersonalities or schemas.  It simply consists in setting up a dialogue between different parts of the person which are in conflict or which need to set up better relationships between them

In deciding whether these different levels of consciousness were accessible at will, I adopted a two-stage process.  The first stage is to access the state of consciousness through the appropriate kind of initiation.  In the case of the Mental Ego, this is the process of normal education, where we are initiated into the common beliefs of our culture.  In the case of the Authentic Self or Centaur, the method of initiation is mostly through the process of counselling or psychotherapy, or any other process which enables us to deal with our Shadow material.  At the end of such a process, we are able to drop most of our defences, as well as our neediness.  In the case of the Subtle Self, the most effective type of initiation seems to be through a group which uses ritual to access Subtle states of consciousness, and then encourages the person to study and explore further in a committed way.  In the case of the Causal self or spirit, the most useful path of initiation seems to be meditation.  Of course meditation is not just one thing: there are many forms of it; but they all seem able to lead into this state of consciousness, which is often described in the literature of mysticism (see Rowan 2005, Chapter 9).

Once one has had the initiation, sufficient to at least have had some glimpses of the level of consciousness involved, it is possible to access that level by remembering the times when one has had the genuine experience.  The general rule is: “States are free: stages have to be earned.”  In other words, it is relatively easy to access the state of consciousness, without necessarily having reached that stage of consciousness in any full or consistent way.

One of the key things about two-chair work is that the client has to enter fully and completely into both parts.  As Johnson (1986) has urged, there must be no sense of pretence about it.  So what happens if we set up a dialogue between the Mental Ego level of consciousness and the Centaur level?

My first effort in this direction was to set up a dialogue between that part  of myself that I labelled as the Mental Ego, and that other part of myself which I labelled as the Centaur (Wilber 2000) or authentic self.  Some interesting contrasts emerged, and after several revisions (derived from further movements around the research cycle) they came out as shown in Table 2:






Happy to play a role

Critiques the whole idea of roles

Wants to know other people's opinions

Not interested in mere opinions

Sees through other people's eyes

Sees through own eyes

Needs support all the time

Needs little support

Needs praise

Likes praise

Brought down by criticism

Meets criticism positively

The power is outside

The power is inside

The world is full of challenges

The world is full of opportunities

Crippled by failure

Energised by failure

Standards come from outside

Has internal gyroscope

Likes to follow the known path

Likes to be creative

Needs to be liked

Likes to be liked

Perception distorted by social needs

Clear perception

Prone to guilt, shame, anxiety

Self acceptance



Ego or close group centred

World centred

Fear of solitude

Like solitude

No peak experiences

Some peak experiences

Fearful of others

Respectful of others

No real intimacy

Capable of intimacy

Humour is often hostile

Humour is not hostile

Creativity is difficult

Creativity is easy

Conforms to culture

Can see through culture

Likes either-or thinking

Sees through either-or positions

Many internal splits

Few internal splits



Logic is Aristotelian and Boolean.  Single-valued logic

Vision-logic, dialectical logic, Hegelian logic

This seemed to make sense in terms of the other literature on the subject, some of which is summarised in Rowan & Jacobs (2002).  It felt as if I was on the right lines.  But of course it would be even better if it could be independently checked.  By coincidence, I was reading a book soon after, about Person-Centred Therapy, in which there was a chapter on empathy which made this point: “When we are in the Me self-state we see ourselves as objects.  In the statement ‘Something happened to me’, one sees oneself as the object of what happened.  In the I self-state, the self as agent is expressed in the statement ‘I did X’.  Here one sees oneself as the initiating actor.”  The author followed this with table 3:

TABLE 3: Difference in functioning in the two self-states



Socially defined self

Personally defined self

Behaviour guided by incorporated social standards

Goals set by own values

Morality defined by society

Morality based on personal values

Agenda for what has to be done set by 


Agenda set by self

Enables  problem solution according to social standards

New, creative solutions

Repository of social knowledge and expectations

Contains self-knowledge

Provides social viewpoint in line with assimilated social values, attitudes and interactions

Reacts creatively to 'me'.

Passive recipient or reactive self


Concerned with past and future

Experiencing the present

Focus on others

Focus on self

Lives in roles

Acts from present personal values

Negative feelings and distress occur as a result of judgement of others

Distress occurs as a result of not meeting own goals

Zimring (2001): p.92

It can be seen from the table how similar this set of contrasts is to the one which I had discovered.  This encouraged me to think that I was not alone, that my work had been independently validated by someone else in a remarkable way.  Fred Zimring is of course a well known member of the humanistic community, and before his death in 2000 went back and forth between the USA and his native country of Austria.  

So I proceeded with the next investigation, into the differences between the Centaur level and the Subtle level of consciousness (Wilber 2000) with greater confidence.  Indeed this procedure had been suggested before by Will Parfitt.  His (1990) book has on page 122 details of an exercise which is quite parallel to the one suggested here: of initiating a dialogue with one’s own soul.  And the classic book by Barbara Hannah (1981) tells us that one of the oldest documents of Ancient Egypt is the dialogue of a suicidal man with his soul.  When I tried it in my own case, and then in workshops, the results came out as shown in Table 4:






Clear perception


Likes boundaries

Not much interested in boundaries

Thinks in words, likes imagery

Thinks in imagery, suspicious of words

Uses dialectical way of thinking

Uses intuitive way of thinking

Can use symbols

Immersed in symbols

Interested in people

Interested in people, animals, plants…

The divine may be out there

The divine can be in here

Understanding is the most important thing

Imagination is the most important thing

Interested in knowing

Interested in not–knowing

Thoughtful compassion

Emotional compassion

Finds self in contrast to other

Finds self in other


Surrendered, inspired

Trees can be beautiful

Trees can be devas (nature spirits)

Has internal gyroscope

Has daimon (genius, angel, inner teacher)

Good at psychotherapy

Good at healing

In touch with the body

In touch with the subtle body

Has many skills

Waits for guidance

In touch with own authentic self

In touch with the divine

Steers clear of magic

Can use magic

Uses experiential knowing

Uses intuition

Creativity comes from inside

Creativity comes from outside inspiration

Ecstasy is personal

Ecstasy is divine

Clear about boundaries

Can allow boundaries to disappear

Not much interest in mythology

Steeped in mythology, fairy tales, etc

Sees what is visible

Sees what is invisible

Interested in bodymind energy

Interested in subtle energy

One participant in a workshop said:

My 'conversation' did not proceed fluently. At least as dialogue it did not. As a monologue it proceeded  apace. My authentic self, confident in its established position as the way to be was strong in its competence and advantages. My subtle self, while feeling that it should be more developed after all its years of Christian nurturing, found itself surprisingly mute and uncertain of who it was.

Comparing our experiences in pairs I had no problem in locating myself on the psychospiritual map and identifying the focus of my growth as translation within the level of the authentic self. The weak voice of my subtle self had surprised me as it had the Buddhist with whom I was comparing notes. Perhaps we were not as spiritually developed as we might have thought. 

This shows the paradox inherent in this sort of work.  On the one hand the task seems easy and straightforward, but on the other hand there may be unexpected difficulties and resistances.

I have not as yet come across anyone else who has repeated this work, so it stands on its own at the moment as an example of work in dialogical self research.  But I think that to anyone familiar with these states – and I have shared this chart with a number of such people – it does make sense and in fact is seen as quite illuminating and useful in working with such states of consciousness.

This emboldened me to proceed with the next stage, comparing the Subtle state of consciousness with the Causal (Wilber 2000).  Here we are dealing with more rarefied matters, which are outside the experience of many people, but I have found that many people have had glimpses of these realms, and such glimpses are very important in psychospiritual development (Anthony et al 1987).  When I investigated this contrast, it came out as shown in Table 5:




Fascinated by symbols

No interest in symbols

Concerned with gender

No concern with gender


Monotheistic or nontheistic

Juicy compassion

Constant clear compassion

Knows many techniques

Invents techniques as necessary

Deep linking with the other

No need for distinction between self and other

Interested in angels and auras

No interest in such things

Values diversity

Sees through distinction between unity and diversity

Fascinated by paradox

Paradox runs through everything

Values the third eye

Rises above the third eye

Focused on many beings

Focused on Being

Concern to build up resources

Infinite resources without concern

Creative approach to problems

No concept of a problem

Deeply identified with Nature

One with Nature

Can relate to trees as devas

Is all the trees in the world, and all the tree-cutters too, and the no-tree

Has compassion for the unfortunate

Has compassion for the unfortunate and for the fortunate

Wants the World Soul to be well and happy and free from suffering

Knows that the World Soul is already well and happy and free from suffering

Wants to save what was lost

No one has lost everything

Unafraid of what is alien

No fear because nothing is alien

Rejoices in the Many


Rejoices in the rich taste of all

There is nothing to taste, and no one to taste it.  Or perhaps there is just one taste.

Again we can look at the experience of a participant in a workshop designed to test this out:

The causal self includes the following characteristics: no interest in symbols, no interest in gender, sees through distinctions between unity and diversity, paradox runs through everything, one with nature, no fear because nothing is alien. It was the voice of this self that indulged its opportunity to speak. Full of discontent at being discounted and unappreciated and whose only consolation seemed to be biding its time until it would come into its own in eternity. I was both surprised and amused at the strength of feeling.

If I describe this as the result of research, what kind of research is this?  It obviously uses and builds on the process of meditation.  Meditation has been much studied, and the classics are Naranjo & Ornstein (1976), Goleman (1978) and perhaps LeShan (1989).  More recent thought and findings can be found in Welwood (2001) and Sheng Yen (2002).  Through meditation I come into contact with states of consciousness which at first I cannot hold on to at all: they are of the nature of glimpses or peak experiences (Maslow 1973).  But if I persevere, they become plateau experiences, which I can hold on to for a few minutes, or an hour or two.  And if I persevere further, they became states of consciousness which I can access at any time, because they have become part of me, fully owned and acknowledged as such.  This is the process described by Wilber (2000) as the standard process of psychospiritual development.  What I am doing here is to transcribe the results of such experiences, in line with our original research hypotheses, so that others can compare their own experiences and comment on their similarity or otherwise.  At a number of workshops now the participants have verified that the contrasts correspond with their experience.  This was not only at the level of verbal agreement, but at the level of action in the world, through practice sessions of counselling.

This encouraged me to persevere still further.  In my meditation I had been pursuing the causal state of consciousness for the ten years from 1991 to 2001, and seemed to have quite a good grasp of it, as checked out for example in the Ch’an Buddhist retreat mentioned earlier.  So in 2001 I set myself to explore the Nondual state of consciousness (Wilber 2000), which is supposed to succeed the Causal.   To my delight, this turned out to be a very productive move, and I quickly started to get the hang of the difference between this and the Causal.  And in 2004 I began to demonstrate work at this level in a psychotherapy context.  What emerged from all this was another set of contrasts, as can be seen in Table 6:




The Dance of Being

It’s not at the end of any continuum

No desires

No such thing as a desire

Eternal infinite selfing

Nothing needed

Not the peace of ignoring everything, but the peace of embracing everything

Who indeed?!

No need to get attached to Freedom, either



There is no portal!  I am already there!  I have always been already there!

Ecstasy doesn’t need an experiencer

The Clarity and the Mystery are one and the same

Not this, not that – and not NOT, either!

Steady breath of compassion

Not about altered states of consciousness – no one here to be conscious!


…Already given up long ago…

The Inner Light and the Inner Dark are one and the same

The brightness of the fog

Just this.  Just this.

Two onions and a piece of string

Of course I am God!  Of course I am not God!

What do you mean – "God"?

What ecstasy!

What ecstasy?

The Earth is empty!

What Earth?

It’s all here!  Nothing is missing!

Eleven fingers

No fear, because nothing is alien.

The sun in the mud

Compassion flows freely.

Blood runs uphill exploding

The centre is everywhere

What centre?

Can't explain it

Not the slightest need to explain it

I insist on the absence of categories

No need to insist on anything

No fear

No one to be afraid of anything

Thou Art That!


Meditation is the way

Meditation is a pile of dead leaves in the driveway

Paradox is an important key

Paradox, schmaradox!

Big Mind

Big Joke

The biggest prison of all

What prison?

It's all there!


At last!  It all makes sense

At last!  It all makes nonsense

Here we are going into territory which is little explored, and I have found few people ready to confirm or deny these contrasts.  Nevertheless, they were produced in the same way as the others, and have at least the merit of being checkable by other investigators.  

The conclusion to all this is that I have developed considerably as a researcher over the period of the research.  The work I am doing now is unique and goes into areas which others have not ventured into.  I feel humble and privileged to have been allowed to do so.

It  also now seems as though what I  have done links in with other work in the field of psychotherapy, and offers a way in which this other work could be developed.  these include, but are not restricted to:

  • The new and philosophically very interesting work of the dialogical school referred to earlier, as for example Hermans & Dimaggio (2004).
  • The assimilation model of William Stiles and his co-workers (Stiles et al 1992)
  • The very similar line taken by Honos-Webb and her colleagues (Honos-Webb et al 1999).
  • The somewhat similar approach of Osatuke at al (2005) which is now appearing.
  • The 3-S model of Avants & Margolin (2004) already mentioned.
  • The recent work in schema therapy of Jeffrey Young and his co-workers (Young et al 2003) with its very well worked out typology of possible schemas.
  • The whole growing field of narrative therapy (McLeod 1997) which encourages the personification of problems, often along the lines suggested by Michael White and David Epston (1990).
  • The dialectical and highly sophisticated work of David Yao-Fai Ho and his colleagues from China (2001) who speak of positioning, counterpositioning and repositoning.

None of these people seem to know about each other, and there is a great work of integration to be done if they are to learn from each other.  My own work seems to take all this work forward in a way which constitutes a significant and original contribution to knowledge.  But to ignore the whole question of levels is to live in Flatland, and at the moment virtually all of those working in this field are still living in Flatland.

With the dialogical approach of Hermans and his co-workers it builds upon the notion of a continuing dialogue going on within the person, which can be drawn upon and extended in therapy.  With the assimilation theory of Stiles and his colleagues it takes for granted that there is more than one system operating within the person, and that different selves emerge in different contexts at different time.  With the schema therapy of Young and his co-authors it assumes that it is always possible to set up dialogues between different self -schemas within the person.  With the work of White & Epston it encourages the use of stories which turn problems into persons.  With the work of Avants & Margolin it brings in the possibility of dialogue with the spiritual self-schema, otherwise known as the soul or the higher self, etc. 

However, my work lays more stress on the transpersonal than any of these.  It firmly asserts the possibility of contacting not only the subtle self (soul, etc.) but also the causal self, often known by such names as the All-Self, the shunyata, the Spirit.  As we have seen above, it is even possible to contact and have dialogues with the Nondual, and this goes considerably further than any previous approach to therapy.

So the work reported in the present document, particularly as brought together over the years since 1993, represents a more focused attempt to make real progress in the therapeutic field.  Following the research aims detailed earlier, it has taken the issues of dialogue and of the transpersonal forward into a number of publications now beginning to appear.

So what we have now is an approach to psychotherapy which relates to humanistic methods, and also to narrative methods, in a very direct way, but takes them on to an additional level of consciousness.  It relates to psychoanalysis by following the suggestion of Ken Wilber (1980) that there is not just one unconscious but five:  the ground unconscious, the archaic unconscious, the submergent unconscious, the embedded unconscious, and the emergent unconscious.  It is only the transpersonal approach that recognises and does justice to the emergent unconscious, yet if we want to do justice to the spiritual power of the unconscious we have to take all this into account.  It relates to cognitive-behavioural therapy by underlining and building on the recent discoveries in that discipline about mindfulness (Allen & Knight 2005) and about schemas (Young et al 2003) .  Mindfulness can take us into the realm of the transpersonal, and schemas can take us into the realm of subpersonalities.  What we have in the present document, therefore, has something to contribute in each of these existing areas of work.


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John Rowan

John Rowan started to work in the Transpersonal field in 1982.  His book 'The Transpersonal: Spirituality in Psychotherapy and Counselling' reached its second edition in 2005.  His book co-written with Michael Jacobs entitled 'The Therapist's Use of Self' argues that the transpersonal has a unique contribution to make in the therapy field, and in the book 'The Future of Training in Psychotherapy and Counselling' he argues that every training course should include a proper transpersonal section. He has been exploring the higher levels of mysticism since 2003, and has written several papers with detailed arguments which have been published. He has mounted transpersonal workshops in 25 countries, and is a regular contributor to EUROTAS conferences.   John is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. He has been meditating every morning since 1982, achieving kensho and other known landmarks of the practice. His latest book is ‘Personification’.

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