The Big Picture (5) : A glass of silver wine

One of the ancient mystical traditions that has turned out to be startlingly modern is that of the Sufis. We may be familiar with Sufi thought in the form of its often quoted poetry, such as that of Rumi, or the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the ‘Astronomer-Poet of Persia’, whose work became widely-read in the west, following its translation by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859.

(900 words; a ten minute read)

The Sufis used the wine glass or wine jug as a subtle motif. The delicate glass may be filled with any liquid, but water or wine features in many of the teaching tales. We take such a vessel for granted, but it merits closer investigation…

The glass is fixed. If we try to insert something hard into it, like a stone, it will break. But if we pour a liquid into it, the result is harmonious. What actually happens? The liquid takes the shape of the glass, filling every cavity to such an extent that the two are practically the same… But we know they are not; the obliging liquid has taken on the shape and contours of the container into which it has been poured. If the wine were white and not red, it might be difficult to even know of its existence. The glass, though more ‘basic’ in its nature, is necessary for the wine to exist in a drinkable form. If the glass is finely made, it reveals the depths of beauty in the shimmering wine, and even allows reflections of the world back to itself.

Let’s imagine our wine is beyond ‘white’ and has a mercurial quality that makes it look silver…

(Above: the first edition of Fitzgerald’s ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’, from 1859, a book that introduced the western world to the mischief and subtleties of Sufi spiritual thought. Image Wikipedia, public domain)

Our silver wine not only fills the vessel, it also reflects the colours, lights and shadows of what flows through the glass from outside, but reversed. They become an imprint of each other, but the silver wine is fluid and flexible, whereas the glass is fixed and brittle.

If the glass is scratched or dirty, the light being reflected from within the vessel is less bright than it could be. But our silver wine still needs the holding power of the glass if it is to remain effective in the world of solid things. It is the glass which collects and transmits the light from the ‘outside’, giving the glassy material all its life, and the silver wine half its life.

In our continuing exploration of the nature of self, we can use this Sufi image to great effect, especially if we make it a bit more sophisticated. Let’s bring our glass alive… and give it feelings and the ability to react, making it it an engine of perception, reaction and response to the physical world.

Our new glass is evolved. It is made of the substance of the world, whereas our silver wine is from another place. To function in the world, the silver wine needs the cooperation of the glass, allowing its will to be guided by the sparkling liquid within.

Our new glass is imbued with the power of reaction, in the form of like and dislike to everything it experiences. The silver wine within the glass does not need to like or dislike; it is completely at peace with whatever happens, living in an ocean of wonder and reflecting it. But its life is now so closely mirrored with the glass, that it begins to absorb the reactions that the glass experiences to the outside world. It remains dutiful to the glass and its perceived world, but knows it could do much more for the glass than just receive and reflect its life. But the silver wine cannot function in the world of the glass without its container…

The only chance the silver wine now has for a greater life within the glass is for the outer vessel – the glass – to get to a point where it knows that it has tired of its reactions to the world and needs to get back to the limitless and unjaded level of life that is the silver wine’s inner vitality – a world the glass knew well when it was young and the silver wine had just been poured into it.

The glass represents the reactive life of the personality with its body, informed by its brain and will. The experience of the world passes through these and forms the life of something in the glass that is the mirror of the silver wine. This is the self, and it is only ever a lesser reflection of the shining inner liquid.

In mystical learning, we work to move the seat of the consciousness from the glass to the silver wine, quietening the reactive self, and allowing the consciousness to have dual centres, each used within its own realm.

We can take this exercise deeper by making it into a meditation. We first imagine that there are two worlds, one filled with light and fluidity, the others more bound by physical laws of form. We then imagine two streams of life meeting up, one as an inherited form being blown, beside a furnace, into a beautifully curved wine glass; the other becoming the finest silver wine and being poured into the beautiful glass. Together, they have the potential of perfection, but only the glass keeps the wine composite, whole and drinkable.

The analogy is ultimately limited, but contains some deeper symbols hidden in the story. At the right point these can speak directly to our own ‘silver wine’ triggering far-reaching events for both glass, wine… and the ultimate wine-lover.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, This is Part Five

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

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