Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 58, Issue 3, pp 748–769 | Cite as

‘I Do Not Exist’: Pathologies of Self Among Western Buddhists

  • Judith Pickering
Original Paper


This paper presents a clinical case involving a patient suffering ‘depersonalisation’ who had a psychotic episode at a Buddhist retreat. Recent writing on possible psychological risks of meditation has discussed problems of depersonalisation associated with misunderstandings of the Buddhist conception of non-self (anātman) and emptiness (śūnyatā). Drawing on the work of Winnicott and Bion, this article helps us to realise some of what is at stake in the failure to achieve and maintain an effective sense of self. What does Buddhist talk of non-self really mean? What conditions enable a creatively engaged and meaningful relational life, a sense of aliveness, human flourishing and a capacity for alterity?


Depersonalisation Derealisation Non-self (anātmanEmptiness (śūnyatāSelf Alterity Nihilism Jung Bion Lévinas Winnicott 



I acknowledge invaluable contributions from participants at the original presentation at the Centro Incontri Umani in Ascona in July 2017, and in particular to Geoffrey Samuel for on-going critique and encouragement.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Judith Pickering
    • 1
  1. 1.CamperdownAustralia

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