The Big Picture (4) : a hammer of sorts

As children, we lose ourselves in play and the toys or games that give the play structure: a skipping rope, chalk to mark out a court, balls to kick and control… perhaps, now, a computer to enter a virtual world. As adults we inhabit a different world, and the entanglements of our earlier years may pay us a return visit…

(1400 words; a ten minute read)

The big red ball was heavy. It was a toy for a large dog, and we didn’t have one, so I felt justified. When you held it, there was strangeness to its mass, as though the density came from ‘another place’… Alien.

The only pet we had was a mangy old tom that my mum had rescued from an icy death one winter. I knew nothing of the world of dogs – my repeated requests for a collie falling on dad’s deaf ears… Looking back, I don’t blame him. I know, now, how much exercise those lovely creatures need… mind you, I t’s worth it.

Conceiving of the big red project had taken a while. The Norse legends, made modern in the context of an excellent book set in the sci-fantasy genre, had captivated me. I took the large meat skewer and set into into the middle of the glowing embers of the garden fire I’d been nurturing for the past hour. My personal ‘furnace’….

Both my parents were out… of course.

I watched the skewer glow red, then, slipping my dad’s ‘fix the underneath of the car’ gloves on, I picked up its curly end and approached the sold red rubber ball locked fast in its makeshift wooden cradle on the top of mum’s rockery.

There was an appalling hiss as the red-hot metal melted its way through the first two inches of dense, composite rubber. I had the good sense to avoid the life-diminishing fumes, and continued pushing. It soon became apparent that creating a passage through the exact centre of the giant dog ball was going to take several return visits to the fire… but, eventually, it was done, and I held it up to the sun in triumph, aligning the dark tunnel like a telescope.

I’d already constructed the rest of the kit. The new rope, bought from the local hardware shop as a scrap piece, was too large to fit through the hole, but perfect for the strength I would need. To get around that I had wound and tied a piece of string to its end so I could thread the smaller line through then pull the thicker length along the red ball’s axle tunnel.

The wooden handle – to attach to the end of the two feet of rope, was a masterpiece. Carved by hand from a tree branch with my large penknife, then formed into a finer shape with a borrowed hemispherical file from dad’s toolbox. I had finished it off with hours of sanding, using a borrowed sheet of fine grade paper. When I closed my hand around it, each of my clenched fingers slid into place perfectly.

I threaded the end of the rope through the hole in the middle of the handle and tied it off with the newly-learned knot, pulling the rope back into the upper part of the shaped hole so that it would not stand proud and interfere with the grip… and the all-important swing.

I took the mighty red ball in one hand and let it drop to the length of the rope. The impact jolted the handle, but I was ready. I still remember the smile as I swung the great weight round and round in the air over my head, so fast it began to swish and hum. Unexpectedly, my scorched tunnel had given my red beast a voice!

Nearly there… now I had to test it.

Raymond Barlow lived in a much older part of Ainsworth than we did, yet was a neighbour ‘over the back’ so to speak. The stone cottages were on the main road, but set back, and with huge rear gardens. At the far end of one of these, Raymond’s grandfather had made two wooden outbuildings with a tiny alley between and around the back of each. In a far corner, a solid wooden post was set into the ground, looking like it had stood there for millennia. My best friend and I used it for stone-throwing practice.

“Go on then, get it out!” he said, exasperated, when I arrived through the hole in the hedge that marked the terminus of the excellent secret path we had forged between the two houses; very painfully, for it was full of trees and shrubs with thorns and others pointed spikes.

I straightened my back and reached into the largest pocket of my anorak, pulling out the handle and letting the coiled structure reveal itself.

It was the first time I had ever seen him speechless. “Bloody hell,” he whispered.

Imitating what I hoped was a strong but silent god, I took a step towards the post, leaving perhaps ten feet of throwing distance. There, I began to whirl the red ball of destruction around at great speed. In a practiced end-move, I snapped the handle down and towards its target, feeling the impossibly dense projectile whistle closely past my head on its descending curve.

It hit the post so hard, it snapped the wood clean in two… I tried not to show my utter surprise… as delight filled me from the toes upwards.

“Bloody hell!’ Raymond shouted louder. We gazed at the severed spar. I stood and saluted.

“Let those who advance on Asgard beware!”

There was a new god in town. His name was Thor and he had a hammer that would shake your world… That far-away, but close to the heart kingdom could sleep a little safer that night.

—————————

It’s all completely true, yet here’s a story with a deeper meaning. This is the most powerful memory I can muster to illustrate the principle of identification. Identification is a process that affects and forms most of our lives. The young Stephen knew he wasn’t Thor, of course; but then no-one was. The difference between what he was doing then, and what he had done, before, was that his new hero (and many identifications are with heroes) was a figure with profound values.

The Norse Gods were good. They represented different aspects of us, though that was felt rather than understood at the time. In many ways, that fearful red ‘hammer’ was a ritual instrument, a thing forged and made, with the power of transformation gifted to of its worthy bearer…

The process of identification is one of the key areas where psychology and spirituality meet in entire agreement. What I identify with will change with time and circumstance, but it will be ‘me’.

The more carefree stages of childhood – if we are lucky enough to have a stable family background – will see identification fixed on positive things, even if they are fantasy. As we pass from being looked after to looking after ourselves, then others, the identifications can become either deeper in purpose or more negative – descending even to anxiety and illness. Much depends on that first decade of encounter with reality.

In each case, the identification is a process of becoming fixed upon something, and that something is a projected image from ourselves. Its source may be unconscious, but it’s at the heart of who we are…

Much of the work done by psychologists involves gaining the trust of those they treat so that they can take them on an internal journey where the ‘light’ of adult understanding can be thrown on the objects of fixation. The process is complete when the power is returned to the newly-balanced self, more intent on making its brighter face more powerful.

A modern mystery school’s focus is not treatment, but exploration. The mystery school will create such journeys in a landscape of the mind and emotions in a way that is safe, mentored and discussed. Group meetings will examine, often with roles being played, how the self is built from such images, and their component identifications.

Identification can be a bad or a good thing. It passes us from stage to stage of our self, as we mature from fantasy to (hopefully) reality. The young Thor becomes the student, who becomes the junior in an office, where he or she has to redefine his very existence before becoming proficient in his or her chosen adult role.

Only at the end of this, at a stage of maturity in our lives, do we come to question the entire process of identification. We notice that despite all the power being with us, the objects of our identification are difficult to change… What happens if we refuse to have an identity which is external to this now-powerful sense of self that I know is mine?

In the next part we will go deeper into where this quest leads, and to the help that may lie a short way along that path.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, this is Part Four.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

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

The Big Picture (3) : objects of desire

The word ‘object’ has many meanings; but none more mysterious and potentially wonderful as the meeting of spirituality with the findings of psychology’s Object Relations Theory…

(1400 words; a ten minute read)


Everything in our daily world comes from them; they are the highs and lows, the anguish and the triumphs, the misery and the joy… and above all else, the overwhelming violence of the world, permeated, occasionally, by the heroic kindness of someone selfless, someone who only wants to add a little love to the sad garden.

But it may not be entirely so…

Our world reflects our thoughts. Our thoughts are mainly habitual reactions to conditions, some are pleasurable but many induce a sense of anxiety, if not actual fear.

If we are fortunate, our inner relations are within a harmonic family – though this is by no means guaranteed. When we are older, we look back on our lives and sigh at what might have been, but also take some pride in what was.

Yet, through all of this, a sense of ‘I was there’ prevails. We can see the key decisions we made; can wince at the costly mistakes, and bask in the sometime triumph over adversity that we – often in concert with others – made happen.

We feel a pride in that accomplishment. The aspect of us that feels this pride is the self.

When the world of psychology came into existence in the early years of the last century, it caused quite a stir with its promise to accurately explore what it meant to be a self.

A ‘self’ is a permanent place of accumulated beliefs, views and and reactions that crystallised into a sense of ‘me-ness’ around the age of seven. One view, developed by Sigmund Freud and still used as a basis for much of modern psychology, is that our sense of self is threefold and divided into an energetic under layer – the id; an overbearing ‘should do’ layer – the superego; and a core of ‘conscious me’ stuck in the middle and attempting to mitigate between the wild, energetic and sexual creature and the overbearing tut-tutter that society might expect.

Anyone who tries to understand the world sees that our societies are also a response to the collective presence our psychologies – our selves. The individual adds their own psychological presence to the society in which they live. The pressures, norms, expectations and authoritarian tendencies of our societies can be a heavy burden throughout our lives.

We can retreat from the world, or we can face it with an intelligent and loving intent to react differently to it… or not react at all. By reducing our direct reactions to the world, we generate more power of self, and often find the world has changed, accordingly… which can be surprising, to say the least.

To live a life within a new ‘chamber of calmness’ is not to cut ourselves off. Rather, it requires the will to introduce a ‘catching gap’ between experience and reaction. In creating this, we begin to notice how powerful certain aspects of our lives are, and how difficult it is to control the reactions to them.

Sometimes, it is all we can do to watch this taking place. Any idea of control needs to be a secondary stage. Often, in watching deeply and not needing to react, the present reveals itself in a different way, perhaps not requiring our active participation at all… There is always a third force at work; the power of the ‘present’ helps us to recognise this, as we develop this side of our minds and hearts.

What we react to, and the way we react, became the subject of a new branch of psychology, beginning in the 1930s and extending to the present day. It is called Object Relations Theory. It developed from and extended Freud’s psychoanalytic theory into a more detailed view of how we visualise what affects us.

It also provides a shared space of understanding in which mysticism and psychology may meet and harmonise.

In 1975, physician turned psychiatrist Margaret Mahler wrote a radical and seminal work: ‘The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation’. The title surprised people – as it was meant to, implying that the physical birth of the body is not the same, nor synchronous, with the birth of the child in the sense of what will become the personality.

The personality develops from the mixture of experience and reaction. But the idea that the infant is simply a junior ‘us’, issuing automatically from the body, is wrong.

The psychological infant has to develop in parallel with the healthy body, but its development is of an entirely different order to the biology of cells. The essence of this – ultimately the goal of present day psychology – is the development of a strong and stable self. The goal of spirituality is to investigate the deeper mysteries of actually having a self.

Mahler showed that the infant exists, pre-birth, in a state of parallel life with the mother, knowing nothing else. This is bliss to the unborn soul. When birth occurs, the infant slowly discovers the sadness and dissatisfaction of separation, which is essential for its growth towards what Mahler called individuation.

It is important to grasp this; the unborn infant does not exist in a state of oneness with mother. It exists simply in a state of oneness… There is no knowledge, and no presence of anything but this.

In terms of the world’s myths and religions, we might reflect that, at this stage, the infant knows nothing of the father, though his contribution was the seed that found its place within the ‘ground’ of the mother, triggering the process of new life and contributing half its DNA.

Mother and child move from oneness to a separation in which the child must increasingly come to know the world as an ‘other’ from itself, in order to fulfil its needs. The oneness becomes, first, two tightly-coupled entities, then two separate beings. How well and harmoniously this is achieved shapes the rest of our lives. The physical side of this is obvious to us, but not the stages of the psychological progress. Mahler revealed this in detail, and analysed the criticality of each aspect of healthy physical, mental and emotional development.

Within Object Relations, the word ‘object’ is used to describe an ‘other’ – typically a person, and this is not meant derogatorily, it is simply a notation. Our world comes to be populated with ‘others’ as we develop an inner vocabulary of ‘types of other’. Within the mind, such objects are always seen as pictures, as images. These images can be rich, with all manner of sensory information attached.

Mother is the first ‘other’, and definitive. Each subsequent stage bears the imprint of the mother experience. Mystically, we can also equate Nature with mother, a model that implies that the life-force may come from somewhere else…

The child comes to recognise another object called Father. Though there is no consciousness of shared origin in the same sense as that of mother. Father becomes important, ideally, as role model for individuation – making our own way in the world.

So far, you may rightly ask what this has to do with mystical development of the self. The key is that the early infant, although not individuated, is in touch with the states of inner beauty and completeness that are also the goals of all spiritual quests. What the child cannot do is function in the world. This must be learned, and as it is achieved, the beautiful early states of essence are gradually lost in the stuff of outer life, though, as Wordsworth wrote, we come into this life ‘trailing clouds of glory’.

As a mature person, of whatever age, we have a strong sense of self. We know, to some degree, how to work the world. The early lessons of survival are long behind us, and their wisdom is embedded in our matrix of stored reactions. At a certain age, we may feel that the early vividness of the world is gone; that life and duty are making us dull.

When faced with this, we are at what we call in the Silent Eye, the ‘turning point’. We now have the chance to take all our worldly competence, our balanced ego, and embark on a search for those ‘clouds of glory’ that still inhabit our innermost spiritual rooms.

Next week, we will look at how we begin such a quest – among the ‘objects’ our life has gathered. We will examine the nature of the new world we encounter as this unravelling begins. We are not talking about becoming an infant, again. We are looking for adult experiences of the active imagination that will act as triggers for a vast and excitingly new state of Self. The ‘objects’ we already carry with us will provide the fuel…

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

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

The Art of Drowning

I’ve drowned before…

Drowning comes in the form of waves. Eventually, when your ability to fight back has gone, even the smallest wave can make the difference and take you beneath the surface to a place of the unknown.

Many years ago, I faced the inescapable collapse of the software business that we had spent eight years building from nothing. The business climate had nose-dived, and no-one was spending money in the sector that our products served. We went from healthy company to likely extinction in about four months. It seemed that nothing we could do would make a difference.

It was likely we’d end up with nothing. We were going to drown…

Nothing can be a potent idea, and more potent than we know. Facing the idea of nothing – of the removal of our normal world – is a truly sobering process.

The world seems to be drowning at the moment. Hospitals are drowning in the fight against Covid, with doctors and nurses working on seriously ill patients at a level of four or five times their previous maximum load. 

Compared to that, our own troubles should be trivial, but often aren’t.  If you can’t escape them, then they matter –  especially if someone else’s health or even life is in the balance. Not all problems are Covid related.

Two days ago, I was staring at the living pink tube of flesh that protrudes from the lower stomach of a person who survived ulcerative colitis via an operation that removed all of the lower intestines. Such operations require a ‘stoma’ – an aperture stretched into a tube (stomata), through the skin of the abdomen to the outside world from the digestive tract.

The most common forms involve the patient wearing a ‘stoma bag’. The bag replaces the bowel, and often the intestine, and must be emptied, manually, whenever needed. In the case of the ileostomy, which applied in this case, the waste matter is continuously produced by the body without the normal regulation of the intestine and bowel.

The person whose fleshy ‘stoma tube’ I was looking at is a ninety year old woman. She is my mother… Somewhat exhausted, I was wondering why my (untrained) third attempt to attach her stoma bag hadn’t survived for more than two hours.

Two days before that, I had been in an ambulance for the first time in my life, being ferried from Westmorland hospital to the larger Lancaster hospital for my mother to have a CT scan. She had fallen out of bed and landed on her lower back. Resistant to any form of medical treatment at the best of times, she had protested that it was ‘just a bruise’.

The morning after, we knew it was more than that and I drove her into the local Westmorland hospital, where the wonderful Urgent Care Team saw her rapidly, shook their heads and wheeled her off to “give her a rapid MOT”. This led to the rapid diagnosis of a fractured lower back, but, thankfully, not a pelvic injury. The bad news was that it needed a CT Scan at Lancaster Hospital to confirm, which might then lead us on to the specialist team at the Preston Spinal Unit.

An ambulance team were on their way. I was assured that my now-insufficient parking ticket would be overlooked, and mentally watched my car disappear in the distance as the ambulance crew took charge of us – mum now on a stretcher.

She had been staying with us for a few days of care and company to warm her spirits in these difficult and isolating times. Being heavily dependent on us for her health, this was within the brief of the current guidelines. Her vascular dementia has been getting worse, and we hoped that a weekend in Kendal would restore her spirits… and alleviate some of the paranoid fantasies (of theft of money and keepsakes by relatives, for example) that dementia sufferers, living alone, often face.

The ambulance staff were fabulous. They briefed me on how to not be separated to my mother and tagged her so everyone would know I was her official carer and allowed to enter Lancaster A+E alongside her trolley.

There was nothing I could do about it. I made sure we were liberally doused with hand gel and wearing surgical masks. Then I stayed with her, standing by the trolley, within the main A+E corridor.

After two hours, we were told that she could go up to the CT Scanner unit. A porter collected us, and, only fifteen minutes later, we had the results. She had fractured her ‘L3’ vertebra. This had been diagnosed by Westmorland, but needed the more powerful scanner to confirm. Treatment was not possible, but rest and painkillers would assist her body’s own recovery and bone-healing. It could have been much worse…

Fortunately the Preston team, having been sent the scans, confirmed they could add nothing to the diagnosis and the ‘rest and painkillers’ treatment.

My wife, Bernie, came for us at Lancaster…. It was nine in the evening on a day that had begun at ten in the morning.

But now a three day break with us had just become an indefinite period of residence, as there was no chance of her returning to the Bolton terraced house with its steep staircase… possibly ever. Mum has always been fiercely independent and we could imagine what this news would mean to her. But she was uncharacteristically accepting.

We settled her in as best we could. She slept well, exhausted by the events of the day. The following morning I helped her out of bed and she took some painfully slow steps around the bedroom. I helped her to the bathroom and was about to leave when she called out that her stoma bag had burst.

Her ileostomy operation was sixteen years ago. She nearly died from the colitis in the days leading up to it, the surgeon describing her chances as no better than 50:50. The family have been deeply grateful to the surgical team at the Royal Bolton Hospital for those extra years. The stoma is a small price to pay for continued life, and she has managed it on her own, with an occasional visit to the stoma team at Bolton.

But we had not reckoned with the effect of the dementia, combined with the shock of the fall and the spinal fracture. She had literally forgotten how to change her own ‘bag’. Fortunately, we had a box of the stoma supplies at our house for safekeeping. I sat her on the toilet seat and grabbed a pack… I would have to figure it out from the spoiled one now in front of me. I gently peeled it from her sore flesh.

I do not propose to dwell on details. I am the father of two boys and remember the more pungent details of their infant life with nappies. There is a difference between the peachy bottoms of babies and a ninety year old’s stomach, but it’s basically the same science at work.

At that moment, the dawning extent of our new situation was a point of drowning. They are characterised by the knowledge that you can do nothing about the overall nightmare. You just have to put one foot in front of the other and look for any help that might come your way.

Now, three days later, I am able to change a stoma so that it stays sealed, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Living in Kendal, Cumbria, we are three counties away from where she is medically registered, but, as she cannot go home, we have at least been able to register her with the local stoma clinic in Lancaster. Some help will be forthcoming, if only to teach me how to do the job properly. We have discussed the situation with her local Bolton doctor of thirty years – who has been very supportive, and advised us that my mother really needs 7×24 care.

It’s that external help that makes all the difference. You know that organised assistance is out there, but can’t access it until someone at the centre of things shows you how.

The experience took me back to the commercial nightmare, now so long ago. Then, three of our largest customers said they did not want us to go bust, and brought forward enough business for us to survive the cash flow crisis. We did; and eventually prospered for another fifteen years until it was time for me to hand over the reins and step away… to do something else, which turned out to be the Silent Eye.

Sometimes we’re not meant to see the logic, or even the pattern. But the rescue from drowning can be there, and not within the scope of our own minds. Small miracles do happen.

So, forgive me for not doing the next instalment of the ‘Big Picture‘ series. By next week, I should be more settled on this new ocean of ongoing uncertainty. I have no intention of drowning.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

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

The Big Picture (2) : a portrait of the archer

If we’re going to set off in search of the spiritual – as seen in humanity’s ‘internal pictures’, we need to have a more modern definition of what the ‘spiritual’ actually is…

Imagine we are reading a paragraph in an absorbing book – something like the image below. Normally, our brains would assemble a sequential stream of characters into recognised words, then meaning. The meaning would be gradually tuned as we read into the context of the whole.

Clever stuff… Our minds equip us well to interact with the information sources in our world – some of which could kill us, if wrongly interpreted: think of a traffic crossing. We have a life-imperative to protect our organic existence, but it does not mean that, beyond the needs and duties of this lifetime, it was ever truly our home.

Back to the paragraph in our book. Imagine if, instead of that sequential, character-by-character interpretation of the language, we looked at the set of words and suddenly sat back with surprise as the whole thing sprang into vivid life in front of us!

Now, everywhere we look, and from every angle, the deepest meaning of the text becomes vital; and with a force that simply leaves no room for it being wrong…

That’s what seeing with a ‘spiritual eye’ is like. The sense of ‘me and it’ is lost in a glorious, calm involvement with what had been the object of our vision – and this can be the whole world. What’s happened is the sudden and miraculous removal of the learned idea of a separate entity for me and it. Instead, there is a seamless and deeply personal absolute knowledge that we are seeing the truth of where we look.

The experience is completely real. It means the state we have entered is a higher one. By that, we mean that it came first… It is a parent of the state we are now in.

The state we normally live in, this lesser ‘ordinary’ consciousness where understanding comes through slow absorption of ideas, is the product of a natural process as we enter life and become in-volved with our new world.

It is essential that we do this; that we experience this biblical ‘fall’ into the denser world of organic matter. Why this is so is a much deeper answer, one requiring a more developed vocabulary for the shape of our existence. The brain cannot fully comprehend it, but it can string the bow… What happens next requires that we have an arrow.

Our personal power in life comes from having a strong ‘identity’ with ourselves… and this is a picture of self. This self, and its interactions with the world, are gradually assembled into a composite which solidifies with a psychological ‘whoosh’, somewhere around our seventh year of life. From then on, this ‘me’ becomes the core of how things are felt, and how we take things forward. It is the personality; but it is built on many, smaller units of ‘me’ that are part of a process of deeper involvement with the world.

The prenatal infant does not know itself to be separate from mother. But ask any mother and they will tell you the poignancy of knowing something that your body has ‘made’ will have to leave your warmth to achieve its life, separated. The mother knows the infant is not her, the infant does not… until, mirroring the deepest spiritual tales from our collective past, it is born, a stranger in a strange land.

Instantly, there is it and the world. The most beautiful state of Oneness, paradise, has been lost… And only the most magnificent human potential could justify that event.

Mother is there, of course. Her breast and her warmth are everything to the child, but they are not the exact match to her needs as when in the womb. There begins a process of not just separation, but of ‘lack’, especially orally when there is not enough milk for the infant’s hunger.

From these early events is formed a set of relationships with the new experience of independent life. The infant is always present to its experience, so everything is seen in a relationship to itself. The whole of the infant’s life will be patterned by these formative experiences.

One way of examining this development – which is mainly psychological – is the technique of ‘Object Relations’: one of the tools of modern psychology, and one that finds itself most closely allied with certain mystical schools – though not by intent. An understanding of Object Relations will help reveal the pictures formed during this first stage of our-selves.

We are not attempting regression, here. The goal is to unite the adult mind’s power with the early and potent feelings of being human. We do this because there is a correspondence between those early events and the patterns of experienced energy we find when can touch our own essence.

It is no accident that the ability to form good mental images – visualisation – has always been one of the key tools of spiritual development. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is most famous for his exposition of building living images of oneself ‘imitating Christ’. These techniques are truly ancient, and have been the tools of ‘priests’ throughout history. To get what we want and hopefully need, requires a ‘clear picture’ of the desired state, even if it is partial.

But there is a problem when it comes to visualising a higher spiritual state. The mind cannot conceive of something higher than itself. However, we can assemble a small armoury of self-tools certain to take us at least part of the way to the spiritual eye spoken of in the opening paragraphs. It’s time to make our arrow…

In the next few weeks, we can follow an overview of the Silent Eye’s method for:

  • Understanding the most important of the early pictures of self, and how they became the foundations of ‘us’.
  • Examining the aspects of ‘ancient wisdom’ that correlate most closely with the pictures.
  • Reconciling the adult and powerful self with the fears of the infant, experiencing a ‘washing away’ of that early anxiety, thus freeing the energy inherent in the early states that were so close to Oneness.
  • Finding the separate ‘faces’ of that Oneness, and forming a new picture of each, as the Sufis do, as Intimate Friends on our deeply personal path.

Equipped with the above, we truly notch our arrow into the taut and harmonic string of a mighty bow, and, standing tall, fire it into the heavens of our own sky.

We might even get an answer to this focussed message. But its nature may surprise us…

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

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

The Big Picture (1) : life and the image

We don’t live ‘in the world’… an outrageous thing to say, and yet it’s true. Well, if we don’t live in the world, where do we live?

We don’t live in the world; we live in a picture of the world… the ‘big picture’ of the blog’s title. If we actually lived in the world, we would go insane within a very short time in trying to process the near infinite information that the real world throws at us every second of the day. Nature has helped us with this; millions of years of evolution have honed and perfected this ‘signal processor’ that we call the brain.

Instead of losing our minds – itself a telling statement – we have evolved to have, at the pinnacle of our personal organisation, a sophisticated ‘summary engine’ that can be taught what’s important to us so that it can be extracted from the ‘flow’.

When we were children, staying alive was very important; as was staying close to ‘mother’, who protected us. The knowledge and methods of this stage of our lives are buried deep in our so-called ‘subconscious’, where they protect us by becoming ultra-fast reactions based on recognised patterns of events coming at us – like a hot coal that once burned us, or the initial taste of mother’s milk, our original food of life that went hand in hand with her deep and ‘most warm’ love.

The human being’s consciousness is made up almost entirely of reactions… and rightly so. In a potentially hostile universe, these reactions operate at lightning speed to protect and preserve us. They also give us fear, filling us with chemicals that speed up our reactive potential. They can also give us pleasure… to the point of addiction.

(Above: within us we have a kind of stage, where the events of our lives are turned into an ongoing story, a play. Image by the author)

Growing up to maturity in a stable way is not a trivial process. No wonder we value the stability of the bionic machine that protects us. That this reactive engine is the pinnacle of us is marginally untrue. We also have a strange other creature sitting high up there at the top of our personal organisation.

Reading this, you can, at any time, break away from these lines of language being interpreted by the equivalent of millions of lines of ‘brain code’ that sift and refine what the meaning is. You can break away from this information stream and ask yourself, ‘Mmm what do I think of this?’

The part of you that has this power of separate thought from the general engine of survival, pain and comfort is the self. The self is a very strange entity that arose in our internal experience once we had stabilised our survival. Essentially, the self was what survived in conscious memory from moment to moment within the sea of experience. We became attached to it, for it not only carried memories vital for survival, it also gave us a sense of worth. Because it was always there, we grew fond of it. With its help, we could take greater autonomy in our lives, choosing certain directions based, positively or negatively, on pleasure, pain or… even values.

Values are interesting. They dont feed us, they don’t frighten us, yet we have learned that they are important. Some humans don’t spend much time on values, but anyone brought up with love and affection is likely to have a small treasure-trove of culturally inherited values from their loving parents and those who have influenced them most strongly in their lives.

We might say we have an unusual instinct for the ‘good’, beyond any need for it to be linked to our survival… or even wellbeing.

Our higher levels of organisation – our minds – contain the most sophisticated abstract representations of our world and our selves. These representations are in the form of interior pictures. They may contain all the information our senses can provide, but they are still pictures. They are not the reality of the present. They are that reality seen through pieces of our history, as though through an evolved lens.

The nature of those pictures, and their relationship to any quest for the reality of our selves, is the subject of this series of posts. It’s a series I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I feel the time is right and appropriate to this felt sense of an ‘end of the age’. My belief is that things are indeed ending, but only to clear the way for the depths of human potential to be further revealed. Because of the way we are made, the real changes need to come from a psychological and spiritual perspective. Only an awareness of this dimension of ourselves will open up our possible future…

(Above: The Tree of Life, a representation of progressively higher levels of consciousness. Image by the author)

The idea of images being central to our mental and emotional existence is not a new one. Ancient systems of metaphysics used diagrams like the Tree of Life, above, to illustrate the relative place of the actual world and our consciousness within it. The lowest of the ten ‘spheres’, above, is Malkuth, which is the body and its raw awareness. But our composite consciousness of the world begins at the next higher level – the purple sphere of Yesod above it. One of the key meanings of Yesod is ‘The Image’.

The story of how our deeply personal ‘way of seeing’ developed is the story of how our experiences formed relationships between ‘me’ and the world. These started very simply, but powerfully, with the essential relationship between the infant and mother. In the first two years of life are to be found the essential lenses of our seeing that pattern the rest of our lives.

In the next part, we will examine this early state – not from a perspective of regression, but with a view to blending our early perceptions with the adult discrimination we now possess. The mixture can be a fiery one… But the flames of self-discovery can put an entirely new light on our habits, our fears, our joys and the potential for our consciousness to go much further than we currently envisage.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

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

A Day saved by a Church

I had meant to write a blog about Covid; about the way it is changing our world, and not just from a health perspective. Finishing on whether there is a dimension of spiritual (consciousness) development in what’s happening to our societies.

But…

But I’ve been up since 05:30 and had a day with my mother, a woman approaching 91 years whose vascular dementia has galloped along this past six months. If you’ve been there, or seen a relative or carer being ground down by the sheer effort and often futility of a day spent trying to ease their relative’s burden, then you’ll know what my face looks like, having just arrived home at seven in the evening.

The day began with our trip to the opticians – SpecSavers, in Bolton. Three years ago, mum’s sight had been diminishing rapidly, and we feared she was going blind. She had nearly died in hospital fifteen years prior and had an emergency ileostomy involving the removal of most of her lower intensities. She survived that, taking six months to convalesce and, finally, come home. One of her eyes was infected with MRSA during her stay in hospital, resulting in internal scarring. Her remaining good eye has been her lifeline.

Two years ago, she had a life-changing cataract operation, which restored a world of colour to her one eye. Sadly, this past few months, we feared that her days of sight were coming to an end, as the vision became blurred and she was unable to read.

The SpecSavers visit raised her spirits. There was good news: a ‘film’ had developed over the eye’s replacement lens, and this could be removed with laser treatment. She has been referred for a hospital visit to carry out the procedure. Hopefully, Covid permitting, she should be able to read, again, within three months.

Back home, she began a familiar litany: a family member was stealing all her money; and, worse, was now entering her home when she was out, to rearrange many of her personal effects, like her makeup. It’s awful, trying to find the right balance between what you know is the truth and attempting to refrain from confrontation. I will not go into details. Sufficient to say that fate smiled on my attempts to find objects that had been ‘stolen’. They were retrieved and placed before her astonished gaze. She even seemed close to retracting her accusations. The new sentiments may not survive the night, but it was good to see the ‘old mum’… albeit briefly.

I dashed to the nearby Morrisons to do her her weekly shopping, and we shared a final tea and cake before I left… but not for home.

We live near Kendal, in Cumbria. Mum is in the old family town of Bolton, in what was Lancashire. When I make a day trip to look after her, I try to make the best of the travel. The other ‘to-do’ before I could begin the journey home was some dental work in nearby Chorley, where we had retained our relationship from our days of living there.

Having a new ‘crown’ requires extensive drilling, and I wasn’t looking forward to it, even though the modern anaesthetics are wonderful. A difficult day was going to end painfully.

On the way back to the car from the dentist, mouth numb and only able to mumble, I passed the parish church on the A6 road. The icy path sparkled in the light as it curved up to the silhouette of the old church, framed against the fading light and emerging stars. It was a moment of perfect beauty, and the image captured it well. The uphill struggle of the day seemed mirrored in nature’s frosting of the frozen water on the curved stone.

So, instead of a consideration of Covid’s wider implications, this was my day. We live to fight another. But not too many like this one, please…

Dedicated to all those looking after dementia sufferers, and all those caring for other people, everywhere.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

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

Deepest Night

We are creatures of cycles; the smaller fitting within the increasingly larger. We may have little conception of the very largest, but the effects of that level of creation trickle down to remind us of our true natures…

(750 words, a five-minute read)

We live in cycles within cycles. Every day, we wake up to a period of brightness which is essentially the same experience as the last. Yet we do not see this ‘endless’ stream of days as being without structure. Our days fit, seven at at time, into weeks. Weeks fit into months, whose length has been played with by powerful rulers over the course of our various societies and civilisations. The ability to manipulate such months is limited by the fact that there is, finally, a physical barrier – the year – to remind us that some things are not subject to our whims, but objective in their nature – that is, they have their own being, outside of our mind’s attributions.

The absolutes are very special, because they were here before we were; and they remind us that they had a hand in our creation.

It is of great importance for us to collide with objective things. It reminds us that we are creatures and beings that have been created by our environment. There may have been other forces involved in that creation – even in its nurturing – but we can clearly see that we are evolved creatures possessing a potentially high degree of intelligence.

We can define intelligence in many ways. My two favourites are that intelligence is the ability to abstract a problem. This goes hand in hand with the other: to play ‘what if’ in the mind. The ability to ‘run the tape’ to see what might happen if we stay on the present course of action is, literally, a life-saver.

The year can be said to summarise the forces working with us to further this intelligence. In the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the Earth, there are four observable seasons, each with its different character and ability to generate the mysterious things we call emotions.

Emotions might be said to be a movement of energy within us, reminding us that we are not just cyclical biology and desires, we also are capable of experience related to invisible causes. With training, we can develop a certain control over the effects of emotions. We can use intelligence to question their effects, for example. They are often vivid, but sometimes destructive and weakening. We can learn, through our powers of self-observation and the intelligence of ‘what if’ to spot the good and bad patterns as they are arising, and before they overwhelm us and impel us to negative action.

The good emotions reflect their energy into our higher faculties. For example, they empower creativity. They are also used in gradual spiritual awakening, where the stale egoic cycles of experience are broken though…to find a fresh new world of the Self.

In all cycles there are peaks and troughs. We enjoy the green vitality of spring, before surrendering to the colourful decline of outward life known as the autumn. The rapidly declining light heralds the winter. Within this cycle, two days are of special importance. They are the Solstices – the longest and shortest days. In late June is the Summer Solstice. The 21st December 2020 marks the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day and the longest night.

But that longest night might just be the greatest gift of all, since it marks not only the switching of the light to increasing length and brightness, it also can also mark the emptying of our ordinary selves.

Perhaps you will joins us in the Silent Eye in taking your candle, unlit, into a real or imagined dark place and holding in your mind and heart an emptying of your self as the astronomical moment of the solstice arrives. Then light the candle and see that, although it is small in the darkness, its light travels out, unresisted, into the world.

Hold the thought that, because you have used this to empty yourself, you are now a vessel of consciousness which can be filled to its maximum potential.

With that, smile and go happily into your deepest night.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of personal being.

The City and the Stars (9 – End) : The most peaceful place in the world

The conclusion of the Silent Eye’s extended workshop to Orkney. A visit to the neighbouring island of Rousay. A sad disappointment and a wonderful surprise. (1300 words, a twelve-minute read)

(Above: a modern reconstruction of a Neolithic farmer felling a tree with a hand-made stone axe)

For our final day, we were off to the Island of Rousay..

I’ve written, elsewhere, about what it’s like to drive a car full of passengers, backwards, down a steep ramp towards a ferry which should be ‘down in the gloom, somewhere’… Then take a twenty-minute journey to a neighbouring island, only to do it all again and return at the end of a the day…

(Above: Looking back at the Orkney Mainland from Rousay)

On our previous trip to Orkney, in 2018, we had visited the island of Hoy, across the central Scapa Flow waterway.

(Above: the vastness of Scapa Flow, the central waterway of the Orkney archipelago)

It had provided a necessary contrast to the Orkney mainland, and reminded us how central was the constant presence of navigable water to the ancient peoples who lived here.

For this trip to Rousay, the ferry crossing was a shorter one, and the purpose of our visit was twofold: to examine a chambered tomb within what had been a Neolithic farming community; and to carry out a coastal walk to a ‘Broch’ – a peculiarly Scottish defensive structure that was often found at the heart of prosperous Iron Age settlements – usually close to the sea.


(Above: the information board for Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, a Neolithic sacred building)

The first of these was Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, built by Neolithic farmers over five thousand years ago, and uncovered thanks to the work of Walter Grant and Graham Callander (see image below).

In 1936, Walter Grant, a local whisky producer, and National Museum director Graham Callander dug into a mound of heather-covered stones to reveal Blackhammer. Inside they found human remains and objects possibly left as offerings to the dead. The chambered tomb was remarkably intact.

(Above: the mound into which Grant and Callander dug now forms the ‘dome’ of the tomb, just as it was in the 1930s. All original photos by the author)

Blackhammer is one of 15 such tombs on Rousay, and in use at the same time as the Ness of Brodgar sites now being excavated. There was an important difference, though – and that was why we wanted to visit.

(Above: the interior of Blackhammer from the virtual tour- see notes below)

Here on Rousay, the chambered tool served the needs of a simple farming community, and we felt it would allow us to understand their spiritual beliefs, which may have subtly differed from the ‘priestly’ community around Brodgar.

Excavations in the 1930s revealed two adult male skeletons, fragments of animal bone, a bone pin, a polished stone axe of plain grey-green stones and some Neolithic pottery. It is not known whether these were ‘grave goods’ buried with the body, or ceremonial objects used during burial rites.

The Blackhammer burial chamber has seven compartments and is cocooned within the heather-covered mound, less than a mile from the sea. Dry stone walling arranged in a herringbone pattern runs around its outer edge. The tomb’s construction was a massive undertaking for local farmers during the Neolithic period, when most of their time was spent providing food for their families. It reveals the important place that the community’s ancestors retained in daily life.

(Above: the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. Image from the information board)

The above schematic shows the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. The elements are: (1) Entrance Passage; (2) Blocking Stones; (3) A set of ‘stalled chambers’ for the remains of their ancestors; and (4) A later wall which may have been created following encroachment on the original tomb)

(Above a stone axehead and flint knife – the latter whitened by heat-treatment)

Sadly, when we got there, the site was closed… We knew the second of our visits would provide ample justification for the ferry ride, so I photographed the information boards, which have been used above to illustrate the site.

(Above: through the reinforced glass roof, the start of the interior passage)

We were able to clamber up the mound to peer down through the roof (above), giving some idea of what lay in the interior, but, other than the mound itself, that was it.

But then, on the way out, I noticed that the ‘closed’ sign had a QR code on it. If you’ve not used one of these before they are amazing things. They link to a website related to what you’re looking at, and sometimes even contain a virtual-reality tour.

We couldn’t get a phone signal at Blackhammer, and the rest of the day was full, so I forgot about it… Until I was writing this blog! What I hadn’t expected was that the online link would work with a photo of the QR code just as well as being there. Please try it!

(Above: If you point your phone’s camera at the above QR code (top right) it should open a new link and take you to an excellent virtual tour – from which the two images, below, are illustrations)

Given the above, I’m content to move on. What happened next was quite sublime…

(Above: By the small car park and a long way above the site, this sign entices you to make the effort!)

A few miles along the coast road of Rousay lies a historic site information board. You are here, says the small, red sign on the photo. But ‘here’ is a long way above the ocean, and Midhowe lies close to the sea. I wasn’t too excited. Covid had put paid to any chance of a visit to anything ‘with an enclosed interior’. We knew the risks when we arrived.

The sad thing was that, at the foot the cliff, perched above Eynhallow Sound – with its famous ‘roaring’ tidal race – are two of Rousay’s most spectacular ancient monuments.

Midhowe Chambered Cairn is among the largest Neolithic tombs in Orkney. It was built 5,400 years ago. Neighbouring Midhowe Broch was the centre of a much later Iron Age settlement between 200 BC and 100 AD… And this latter site was open.

We made a slow and careful descent of the steep path, each lost in our own thoughts. We had seen so much during the past few days. This day had a slightly surreal feeling to it…

(Above: the 1930 hanger was created to protect one of the world’s greatest archeological treasurers. It was closed, of course, and the wooden shutters were pushed to, but not all of them bolted…)

The vast hanger that houses the 33 metre Neolithic Cairn was closed and locked. The windows were shuttered, but not all the shutters were locked into place. With a gentle pull (later reversed to restore their original state), several were happy to open. For a moment, I was reminded of the church at Nigg, and Sue Vincent’s famous trick of standing on tiptoes and pointing the camera at the glass, to see what the camera might just capture. The windows here weren’t as high. I tried it and looked at the camera image. Even in the sunlight something was visible.

(Above: where there’s a will…)

Motivated by this, I repeated the exercise at three other windows around the perimeter of the hanger. The side windows revealed the long sides of the chambered tomb. I wondered if I dared hope the remaining side had an open wooden shutter…

(Above: the side wall of the cairn is revealed)

I confess to having a small chuckle when the final shutter opened. At first I could see nothing, as the bright afternoon sun was streaming in behind me. Then, with adjusted eyes, the entrance to the long cairn came into focus. I found that if I blocked the sunlight with my body, I got a clear image – as clear as the dusty windows would allow.

(Above: Ah, this is the entrance!)

The ‘stalled’ chambered cairn of Mid Howe is an impressive example of a type of drystone monument known as an ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ cairn. Its entrance passage leads to a long central chamber, divided by pairs of upright stone slabs into 12 ‘stalls’.

Midhowe was excavated in 1932-3, again by Callander and Grant, who found the remains of at least 25 human skeletons, plus stone tools, pottery, and animal bone. In the mid-1930s it was enclosed by its present protective stone-built hangar, allowing the whole cairn to be appreciated. The outer layer of decorative stonework has been arranged in a herringbone pattern to reproduce the likely original.

The hanger was built from local stone. Rousay resident Walter Grant, co-excavator of Blackhammer, and owner of the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall, paid for its construction and, afterwards, gave it to the nation.

(Above: zooming in through the glass, the chambers emerge, blurred. But the phone camera was doing its best!)

I left smiling. I wouldn’t be able to evaluate the photos until I got back to the hotel, but I knew they had been worth taking. Perhaps we would come back, one day and take a proper tour. For now, the Broch and its wonderful setting beckoned. It was, literally, next door – though the two structures were not related.

Leaving the Chambered Tomb, my gaze was drawn towards the beautiful stratified rocks that led down to the sea near the Broch. I knew I had to get down there before we left the site.

(Midhowe’s Broch – a two minute walk from the Chambered Tomb)

The thickness of the Broch’s walls tells you that this was a defensive structure. Created long after the Neolithic people who made the temples at the Ness of Brodgar, the Iron Age people who lived here would have known little of their forebears, except perhaps for their stories and legends.

(Above: the incredible thickness of the walls illustrates their protective purpose)

Set behind a rock-cut ditch and rampart, Midhowe Broch was the first and largest building of a small, well laid-out village. It may have been built by an extended family demonstrating their power and influence in the area. Although the site would have provided some protection against sporadic raiding, the inhabitants were farmers, like nearly everyone else at this time.

(Above: the division of the interior)

On a clear day you can see the matching Broch of Gurness across the water. Midhowe is one of nine brochs that stand sentinel over the narrow and dangerous stretch of water known as Eynhallow Sound.

(Above: the call of the sea…)

Leaving the Broch and looking towards the sea, I had the sense that this would be the right place to finalise this series of blogs on Scotland and Orkney. By creating two streams, one going back in time, the other forwards, I could end up here. There was something very special about this place.

(Above: the end of the land, start of the sea… and in the distance, the mysterious and deadly Eynhallow tidal flow)

As I dropped down the descending levels of the layers of rock. I had the desire to let go of all the facts, all the history… They were important, academically, but they were the past. The consciousness in the landscape, the ‘I’ of each of us, was now and was real. In the next second, it too would become old and replaced with the next sequential part of the eternal now. To have that continuity was a gift of Life and memory, but what mattered was the now. The past was subjective history, the future was potential. Only the now had absolute reality.

That sense of letting go felt very good. Within a few minutes I was crouched, balanced on a wet slab of ancient rock, within inches of the lapping sea.

It was one of those, literally, perfect moments… There aren’t too many in a lifetime. The others in our group had left me to my exploring and were on their way back up to the car park. I was quite alone in a now landscape. This beautiful place had created an intense feeling of peace and objectivity. I crouched down on the rocks to make a recording of something very special. You can’t record that level of peace, but you can try…

The moment is here in the video, if you’d like to share it. It may not work within WordPress, but let’s see. If not, the photo above will give some idea of the moment…

This is the last blog in the Pictish Trail and City of the Stars series.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your interests are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part 8. This is Part Nine, the final part.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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

The City and the Stars (8) : Longships

The traditional picture of the Vikings – looting, marauding, raping invaders – may not be entirely true of their time on Orkney, though they did rule this gentle archipelago with an iron fist for five hundred years… (1300 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: the glory of St Magnus (Viking) Cathedral, Kirkwall)

History can be complex. Patterns of events that fit in one situation may not, even from the same peoples, dovetail into another. To understand why Orkney’s history of these times is likely to have differed from what might be expected, we need to put ourselves in the minds of the Vikings and examine what Orkney represented to them.

(Above: one of the ancient religious stones)

The sophisticated stone-age race that built the Ness of Brodgar temple-complex and neighbouring stone circles had long gone from Orkney. But the Norsemen did not immediately fill the gap.

No-one knows if anyone did, though farming continued – but without the intense spiritual concentration of former times. During the late Iron Age and for at least 400 years, the dominant cultural force on Orkney was Pictish. It’s likely that they came north, expanding their successful base centred on Inverness. They ruled Orkney for almost as long as the Vikings did, after them. Orkney had its own Pictish Kings, but, though powerfully autonomous in the islands, they were subservient to Inverness in wider Pictish affairs.

In many ways, our own journey over this extended weekend had mirrored that of the Picts. But we had already covered their achievements and culture further south, and they are documented in the earlier blogs (see below). The much more ancient wonders of Orkney had been our focus here. But, now, the story of the Picts had come into view, again, if only in the way they were subsumed into the Viking future, here on Orkney. There seems to have been little warfare, so perhaps they co-existed for a long time, Eventually, the Viking tribes emerged as the stronger cultural force, in line with the expansion of the whole Norse culture, driven by the ambitious Kings of Norway.

In many ways, Orkney was already theirs…

(Above: the pulpit at St Magnus Cathedral)

The Vikings were, essentially, seafarers. They were brave and fearless warriors and mariners of great skill. From their native bases in Scandinavia, they expanded across the world, following oceans and river systems deep into Europe and along the northern and western edges of Britain. Whenever they made these western journeys, they had to sail past Orkney. Its gentle hills and safe harbours were a haven to them. It was a natural stopping point on their outward and return journeys; and there are records (and sagas) of Norwegian royalty being entertained on Orkney, by their Earls – a measure of how important this place was in Viking times.

I hadn’t realised that the Vikings built Christian cathedrals, or that they had Earls, like the English. But both were here in Orkney during the height of their power. It’s confusing when you first look at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, and the place which became their power base in the later years of their reign. The location of the Cathedral is co-existent with the Earl’s Palace and the Palace of the Bishops across the street. So your first reaction is why there was so much ‘British hierarchy’ so far north?

(Above: the ruin of the Earls’ Palace, opposite the Cathedral)

But it’s not. Both the Cathedral and the two palaces are from the period when the Vikings ruled Orkney, administering it under the control of their own, powerful Earls – often two at a time, which was the gravitational force that created St Magnus Cathedral.

(St Magnus Cathedral: the main East-West axis)

The story of how St Magnus Cathedral came to be, and came to be here, is one of internecine warfare and a touch of Viking opportunism.

In 1103 the Viking cousins Magnus Erlendson and Haakon Paulson succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney. At first all went well, but, by 1117, major disputes had arisen. It was agreed that these would be resolved by a meeting on the island of Egilsay on 16th April of that year. Rules of engagement were drawn up, the core of which was that each Earl would take only two ships.

Haakon arrived with six, overwhelming the honest Magnus, who, though threatened with his life, refused to give up his Earldom. Haakon ordered Magnus’ own cook, Lifolf, to kill his master with a meat cleaver blow to his head.

A cenotaph now stands on the spot where this happened. Magnus was buried at Birsay, in the north of the ‘mainland’. Birsay was the Viking Earl’s base at the time, from which they could watch the northern waters. Magnus’ fame and the horror and dishonour of his death meant prayers were said for his soul and pilgrims began to visit his grave. Miraculous cures were reported and soon the place assumed legendary status.

Earl Haakon, now politically secure, became worried by this notoriety and made a pilgrimage to Rome to stabilise his position with the Christian church. He seems to have been successful. He was succeeded as Earl by his son, Paul… and now the tale gets interesting…

(Above: Rognvald Kolson holding a model of the original Cathedral dedicated to his uncle)

Paul was deposed in 1135 by the murdered Magnus’ nephew Rognwald Kolson, who declared his uncle a saint and vowed to raise money from the farmers of Orkney to build a vast cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Durham masons – among the most skilled in Britain – were drafted in to supervise the design and construction. The new generation of Christian Bishops were a powerful force, and Rognwald Kolson, St Magnus’ nephew, made sure that the three buildings sat side by side. We can assume his political skills were as astute as his military prowess…

The cathedral was consecrated in 1150, when St Magnus’ remains were transferred from Birsay to a shrine in the east of the new church. The building was lengthened and extended in the next two centuries, and was completed to its present form in the 14th century.

Over the years that followed, it fell into disrepair – the Viking rule is not remembered here with fondness. But, in the past twenty years, extensive repair work has been carried out, which has made the St Magnus Cathedral more a more positive part of Orkney’s emotional future. It’s a very beautiful building, and a thriving centre of Kirkwall, which is a feature-rich place to visit.

Our time on Orkney was nearly over. We had one more day to explore, and we had chosen to leave the ‘Mainland’ for the first time and visit one of the neighbouring islands – Rousay. There, we knew, was an extensive defensive structure from the Iron Age. But first, we had to face a tense time on the ferry crossing!

The humorous and terrifying short ferry journey has already been written up as part of the parallel ‘incidentals’ blogs. The link is here.

The story of our final full day on Orkney and its visit to Rousay will be published on Thursday’s blog.

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, this is Part 8.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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