The predator within

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“Don’t worry…”  “It’s probably nothing…” “I’m probably just being daft but…”  How often do we hear words like these, keeping a bright smile firmly glued to immobile faces as fear strides in and starts clawing at our entrails? We recognise fear at those moments, we know its name. It is uncompromising, blatant, uncaring of our fragile mask of polite pretence. We want to act, do something… yet nine times out of ten we are shackled by circumstance, powerless to do anything at all except sit and wait, hoping, praying that the fear is groundless.

There are the fears we call worry that stalk us, like feline predators, silent and sure footed, circling ever closer while we are frozen, eyes locked on those of the beast, waiting for attrition to render us helpless, prey to our own imaginings and anticipation.

Sometimes it feels like we are being slowly gnawed, nibbled away from the ground up while we are chained in a dungeon of other fears… all our attention on the teeth that bite, not seeing that the chains we believe hold us are illusions, wisps of smoke born of unnamed terrors we refuse to look at.

Fear, in all its guises, is a dreadful thing to feel.

Of course, it has its uses. Fear was a very early part of our evolution and served to keep us alive in a hostile world. It still does… though we may not be running from a sabre-toothed tiger, we are beset by physical dangers we barely even notice, being so conditioned to care by our fears at an early age. We don’t consciously fear crossing a quiet, village road… but we still check for the truck that could squash us.

We are very conscious of the ‘big’ fears… and are acutely aware of those which are ‘lesser’, though they may not feel that way when they have you in their grip. They do not have to be reasonable to be painful and punishing. Anyone who saw Jaws when it first came out will probably have thought twice about sea bathing regardless of the fact that the chances of being a victim of a shark attack are one in 11.5 million, whereas one in ten thousand will die of flu, which we regard as a misery rather than a danger.

Fear can be useful in keeping us alive. It is, after all, what evolution designed it to do…protect us from danger. With our complicated lives, however, those primal fears have mutated and gone underground, taking us by stealth like an assassin in the darkness of our minds and emotions; silent, deadly and with little warning or chance of escape. We are conditioned by our own inner ninja.

These fears are more insidious, very difficult to pin down and understand; elusive shape-shifters that are so good at changing their outward appearance that they can be as difficult to see as the wind… we see them only by their effects, when they ruffle our branches or slam our doors. They clothe themselves in other guises, pretending to be things they are not… a fear of flying that is more likely the fear of crashing, a fear of dentists that may be the dread of pain, helpless at the hands of another… and they are just the simple ones.

What of the fear of death? Do we fear death itself… or what might come after? Is it the fear of hellfire, or the loss of our own identity… the ‘who will I be if I am not I’? The fear of commitment that may be the fear of losing control… or of being left alone again. The loss of status, things acquired that show who and what we are… yet mask the true fear that we are not. The layers of fear are so intertwined with our individual experience that they may be impossible for another to unravel completely, triggered as they are by unique combinations of events and experiences. Rather like making a cake. The same basic ingredients, varied infinitely by proportion, skill and the inclusion of flavourings.

It is said there are only five basic fears: extinction, loss of autonomy, separation, mutilation and ego-death… and that all can be attributed to one or the other, or a combination of these. When you think about it, in spite of our seeming multitude of fears, they all fit within these frames. The thing is, we seldom do really think about our fears, we react to them, allowing them to lead us blindly, often preferring to accept the apparent fear than to look beyond to the true root cause. In their purely physical terms they are easily understood, justifiable in the evolutionary attempt to secure survival. Yet they are far more insidious at the emotional levels.

Extinction… worse than just dying; ceasing to be. It is, from the level of our consciousness, unthinkable. Autonomy… powerlessness… to be restricted, subject to the will of a force beyond our control. Separation… utter aloneness, abandonment, exclusion… no longer a person. Mutilation… the loss of self-image through physical, emotional or social damage. Ego death… shame, dissolution of the image we build for  and of ourselves… leaving us unfit, unworthy, unloved. These fears, unrecognised, unseen, affect almost every corner of our lives, shaping our actions and interactions.

When you look at them from this angle, all the emotional fears lead back to one thing… the way we see ourselves. Yet, just as the fear that makes us run from a predator can save our lives, or pain alert us to a potential problem that needs to be addressed, so can these quiet, insidious fears be used to show a way forward. Our fears may stop us falling off a cliff top, but they may also hold us back when adventure beckons. Every good sword has two edges.

Our fears give us something to learn from. They are signposts that we can read, following their trail and finding their lair. As with many things the fear itself may be far more intimidating than the cause, bigger in appearance than in actuality. A mouse wearing giant boots and leaving a false trail.  Finding the mouse can be the beginning of an adventure, a voyage of discovery. Unravelling the tangled web we may face our fears, one by one, measuring ourselves against mouse or monster, and finally learning to see who we really are… and who we might become.

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Are we there yet?… Sue Vincent

This week, I will be sharing again a little about the people behind the Silent Eye…

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My grandfather gave me his annotated copy of the Mystical Qabalah by Dion Fortune when I was fifteen. “This is the only magical book that you will ever need,” he told me. “But you’ll fill a good many bookshelves before you get there.” He was right. It was all in that first book; but learning is a spiral and you have to come back to the same point over and over again, bringing new knowledge and understanding each time before you can really see what lies in your hand.

I was born in Yorkshire into a family that was about as spiritually eclectic as you can get. The various members were Jewish / Buddhist / Methodist (but High Church for special occasions), with one grandfather who taught me very early about the Qabalistic Tree of Life, the other a Spiritualist minister and one grandmother a noted psychic, like her mother before her. I attended the Zion Baptist Sunday School with my Hindu and Moslem friends and that pretty much completed the picture. So, throughout my childhood, a lot of things were thrown into the melting pot.

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Everyone, it seemed, celebrated the convergences rather than the differences between their chosen paths and everything was treated as possible. I grew up simply accepting the spiritual journey, encouraged to find my own path forward, not encountering religious or spiritual prejudice until I was much older. There was never any question of there not being a greater reality, it simply was. So was the journey; that meant growing up in the understanding that you hold responsibility for every thought, word and action… not in fear of some celestial tally-keeper; you, your Self hold the scales… and when you look through the eyes of the soul, there is nowhere to hide… it is between your soul and the One.

In outward respects, life was perfectly normal, with me getting into as many scrapes, as much mischief and making at least as many mistakes as any other youngster. Little has changed there, then, except the age… There was nothing, as far as I knew, any different; my family was the same as any other, it was only in much later years I saw how incredibly lucky I had been to have that particular education; educing rather than dictating, letting me stub my toes and learn through experience how I could grow and what I could believe. Nothing was imposed, nothing dismissed with contempt or disbelief; ideas were greeted with an open mind and the acceptance of possibility. I was given a rich education in mythology, folklore and symbolism… and that too I simply accepted at the time as ‘normal’.

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I delved into ‘low magic’… divination, numerology and such through my teens… in fact, all the fragmentary systems you could ‘do’ rather than ‘be’, with the overconfident abandon and incomprehension of youth, while reading all I could find on the Tree of Life, the Qabalah and the magical path. Even now I marvel at the quality of the material available in my family at a time when such books were very hard to find. Then I went back to the Mystical Qabalah and read it again. This time, the dots began to join up. I put aside the ‘doing’, stopped playing with spirituality and started to learn.

For the next ten years, I studied alone, trying to apply the learning to my life. I learned as much from meditation and dreams as from waking. I moved to France, married a musician who had been raised a Catholic and was a member of AMORC, a Rosicrucian order; over the years I added some of their perspective to the store. My mother-in-law was a Martinist and from her I learned about esoteric Christianity. There was the intellectual accumulation of knowledge and a philosophical intent to put it all into practice, but knowing how, finding the keys, would only come with time and living.

In my late twenties, I had what I can only describe here as a life-changing experience that brought the reality of the inner world to vivid life for me. About that time too, I had planned on joining an esoteric school, feeling the need for structure and discipline as well as spiritual companionship, but was clearly shown I should wait, learning to live in the world first. A chapter in one of Dion Fortune’s books, The Training and Work of an Initiate, speaks of serving the Hearthfire; I read it, wept, and resolved to wait.

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We had moved back to England and, although the outer life revolved around the family, the inner life had become very intense too. It was a period of deep commitment, for want of a better phrase and the two separate halves of my life seemed to meld until I realised there was no separation. There never had been, but I had been too blind to see.

It was some fifteen years later when my sons were grown, that I decided once again to apply to a school. Browsing the internet, I read an address by the Director of Studies of the Servants of the Light, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. The article was called, “To Serve the Light” and in an echo of that day fifteen years earlier, I sat with tears streaming but this time felt I had come home. I commend that lecture to any seeker, no matter what Path you follow.

My years with the Servants of the Light were both a personal joy and a steep learning curve. Much of the theory I had already found in my own studies and meditations, but the discipline, structure and camaraderie were as new as the perspectives and techniques that bring the teachings to life. I felt the connection to others within the school, and to that greater family of those who serve the Light. I knew without a doubt I was in the right place at that time.

Many threads fan out from that moment. It was at a SOL gathering I first met Steve Tanham, albeit briefly. At that same gathering several things happened that would change the expected course of my life and I met a woman who became both a sister of the soul and a teacher who walked with me on a path she herself had taken long ago.

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In 2012 it became plain that my place was with the new school, the Silent Eye… and the rest, as they say, is history. But, of course, the journey continues.

“Are we there yet?”

Well, no. I don’t think we ever are. The longer you walk the path of the seeker, the more you see that there is to unfold, until one day you realise that ‘there’ was already ‘here’… waiting for you to open your eyes and heart. And then off you go again, exploring another curve of the spiral of life, armed with perhaps a little more knowledge, a little more understanding… just enough to highlight the wider horizon that is waiting to be Known.

Spirit y’all? – Stuart France

This week, I will be sharing again a little about the people behind the Silent Eye… this is Stuart’s journey…

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‘Our own journey is entirely imaginary: that is its strength.’

– Louis Ferdinand Celine.

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I grew up in a religiously tolerant family which knew a thing or two about love and faith. Nan left the Catholic Church to marry Gramps and their eldest son, Uncle Geoff, my mum’s little brother eventually rejoined the Catholic Church in order to marry Aunty Cath, which meant that when we went to spend holidays with Little Geoff and Janet and Mandy we went to their Church with them which was Catholic, and when Little Geoff, Janet and Mandy came to spend the holidays with us they came to our church which was Church of England. It didn’t seem odd to do this and it came as something of a shock to realise that in olden times people had lost their lives for less.

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Anyhow, I eventually grew suspicious of a Church which required me to stand and proclaim my belief in something that is seemingly physically impossible and so I ceased frequenting on Sun Day’s, although, I still liked to ‘rock up’ around Christmas time to sing Carols, and even at the height of my teens I could be found attending Midnight Mass of a Christmas Eve.

My Religious Knowledge teacher at senior school was a good sort, Mr Whalley by name. He taught that all religious systems essentially referred to the same ‘thing’ which he called Spirit, and he stressed the personal nature of the contact which could be enjoyed with this thing. I liked the stories too, and not just the Christian ones. I liked all the stories because it felt like they were trying to tell me something, if I would only listen… It wasn’t though an immediately obvious thing and it wasn’t historical either because it went beyond history, although I liked historical stories too. I would have liked to study Religious Knowledge at ‘O’ Level but the selections were not set up right, so I couldn’t.

I suppose, really, I came to spirituality through literature and philosophy which I studied to degree level. One shouldn’t really be putting pen to paper unless one has something communal and good to impart and philosophy, properly, is the ‘Love of Wisdom’.

The Spirit is infinitely wise…

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Knowing that, though, is a lot easier than living it… so, really, my spiritual education was only just beginning when I joined and studied with a series of Spiritual Schools. First, OBOD, The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which teaches love for the Spirit of Nature, then, AMORC, The Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, which teaches love for the Spirit of Mysticism, and finally, SOL, Servants of the Light which teaches love for the Spirit of Magic.

Can anyone conceive a well lived life without a love and reverence for the spirit of nature, and the inherent magic, and mystery of existence in some form or another?

I know I can’t.

I don’t think it is necessary to belong to a Spiritual School in order to be spiritual, quite the contrary, because life itself can be regarded as a school of the Spirit, which of course it is, but joining a Spiritual School can certainly help because what these schools really teach is a series of techniques which enable us to access our natural abilities in order to attune with the spiritual dimension of the world around us in a meaningful and productive way.

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Our School, the Silent Eye, in that respect, is no different from any of the others, we just have a different set of techniques and, perhaps, a slightly more modern approach.

‘The easiest way to approach spirituality is through stories, they are common to every tradition on earth and rather than demand belief all they ask is a willing suspension of disbelief…’
– The Initiate.

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…Y’all come back now… you hear?

My Spiritual Journey by Steve Tanham

This week, I will be sharing again a little about the people behind the Silent Eye, starting with its founder, Steve Tanham:

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Sue has asked Stuart and I to record, in an interview style, our individual spiritual histories. Here’s my offering:

I was born in May 1954. I came into the world (with the help of my mother and a good midwife), in a terraced house belonging to my grandparents in a working-class district of Bolton. I had the good fortune to be born into a Rosicrucian family. My father had come across an advert for AMORC (one of the best-known Rosicrucian Schools) in a magazine he was reading while waiting at a railway station. He was on his way to carry out his basic training at an army camp. Later, he became the spiritual beacon of our family, and my mother married him, largely, she claims, because he was “different” from other men in this respect.

I was enrolled into AMORC’s Junior Order of Torchbearers as a child, and loved the gentle introduction to the Mysteries that they offered. There was no hint of indoctrination in those early lessons (nor since) and the gradient of teaching was very gentle – perhaps too gentle.

Fast forward twenty years and I joined the local “Lodge” of AMORC, in Manchester, of which Dad had been a founding member. I served diligently and, a few years later, became one of the youngest Masters of the local body. The word “master” here corresponds to the use of “Magus” in a magical lodge, and relates to work undertaken rather than spiritual superiority.

diggingdog 266I was first married in 1980. Our two sons were born in the mid-80s and I took a decade off from mystical service to be as active a dad as my busy corporate life allowed. Something in me changed during that period. I became conscious just how much the expectations of being a good son and successor to my father had featured in my earlier involvement with AMORC. I had been dutiful, yes, but had I acted from the perspective of my own soul? No. So, when I re-joined AMORC in 1999 I was determined to approach it from an individual perspective, rather than doing the “expected thing”.

Today, I would recognise that as a breaking free from one aspect of the Superego, but, back then, it came as a growing realisation of the need to find my own path – which is an equally valid way of describing it. That drive, that search for a personal path, became quite dominant and often led me to lonely places. It was only much later, and reading works by such writers as Kishnamurti, that I realised the significance of what I had done. We often have to cross deserts alone . . .

Through the early years of this century I continued to work with AMORC, again becoming Master of the local Lodge (it was actually what AMORC calls a “Chapter”) and going on to become a Regional Monitor and then Grand Councillor for the North of England. Looking back on this period I can see both the spiritual and egoic patterns of my life evolving, as they have to, in a lifetime that contains an unfolding quest of this nature. I often cringe as I revisit the ego-based decisions that accompanied this period in my life. I was enjoying considerable commercial success at work and took that to indicate a cross-life ability to deal with everything in the same way. Looking back, I became insensitive to the many cries for a more gentle approach as I pushed by own “business-like” agenda through AMORC, aided by others who felt the same way. Some of this was necessary, but much of it showed a lack of real spiritual development, and also compassion. The period was also characterised by the pursuit of mystical knowledge, which I mistook for depth. Some very hard lessons lay ahead . . .

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I retired from AMORC in 2006, shortly after I met Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, the Director of Studies of the Servants of the Light (SOL) and her husband Michael, who ran the administration systems using manual techniques. I remember the grim day on which my father, hearing the news that I had resigned from AMORC, remarked, bitterly, that I had become the “master of surprises”. The wound lingers, but, from where I now look back on those days, I would not have changed that decision.

I had become fascinated by the magical Qabalah and its use of the Tree of Life. To this day, I believe strongly in the power of the right symbol to help teach – and teaching had, by then, already become my passion. I wanted to study with (and assist), an organisation with a genuine lineage back to the time of the Golden Dawn. I was looking for what I saw as an authentic “Englishness” – something that would take me deeper into my own landscape and geographic spiritual heritage. The seven years I spent with SOL were richly rewarding on both sides. Dolores taught me many things, and she, Michael and I shared triumphs and crises together, as I helped bring SOL’s administrative systems into the digital age and put its operating finances back on an even keel. I was not alone in this work, many other lovely people gave their time and efforts to help.

What I learned most from Dolores was the sheer beauty and power of ritual. More than that, I learned how freely we can use ritual, if such innovation is applied with respect for the powers one is dealing with. These powers are not “external” to the human mind. They are directly related to how we engender a change of consciousness in a group, opening a door for the Higher to enter the prepared space; and the prepared people. Towards the end of my time at SOL, I undertook the creation of two annual workshops, using the innovative formula of a single (new) story, told in a number of ritual dramas over a weekend. These workshops were known as Alchemy I and II. Despite being unsure that I could pull this off, I wanted to do this so that SOL members could count on a continuation of the School’s excellent dramatic and ritualistic workshops at a time when the former architects of such events had moved on to other things.

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Dolores and I worked very closely on these, and the results are a living part of me today. I remember what I think of as my “graduation” from her ritualistic nurturing, when, during Alchemy II, arm in arm, we left the temple room in Great Hucklow after one of the main ritual dramas and she turned to me, smiled and said, “Well, they don’t come any better than that.”

Alongside my Qabalistic studies another thread was developing in me, marked by a desire to break away from historical symbolic systems and to find or develop something entirely “modern”. This implied no lack of respect for Qabalistic work, I simply felt that the underlying truths could also be told in a different way. I had studied Gurdjieff as a lone student, since I couldn’t find a school near enough. I was deeply attracted to Gurdjieff’s no-nonsense approach, and the fact that he saw spiritual development as something that should take place during each moment and not be relegated to a remote meditation period. For me, he was also the first person to point out the destructive effect the personality (ego) has on spiritual development, and the importance of countering this, before anything else could be attempted. Many people have had individual “peak” experiences, only to lose their effects shortly afterwards due to the power of habitual responses from the entrenched personality. Gurdjieff did not teach that the personality was a bad thing, simply that it had to be harnessed to the Will of the developed Essence – the personal part of Being that is the deepest layer of our Soul.

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Having come across the original use of the enneagram in Gurdjieff’s work, I was increasingly fascinated by the impact of those who had developed from a Gurdjieffian base and used the principles of esoteric psychology, in conjunction with the enneagram, to tell of the journey of the Soul. With great sadness, I left SOL in 2012 to pursue this, and thus was born the Silent Eye School. I had approached Sue Vincent to work with me as a mystical artist to create what I thought would be a new Tarot deck (really an Oracle, since we were not using the Tree of Life as a basis). She graciously agreed but then found herself drawn to the greater quest and joined me as a founding Director in 2012.

I considered it inappropriate for the new School to be a ‘daughter school’ of SOL, since the symbolic bases were so different. The Silent Eye had to sink or swim on its own merits. Dolores and I agreed to keep closely in touch as the new School began its life.

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I brought with me what I had earned; and took nothing else. A handful of people from our old SOL Lodge in Manchester joined me and I introduced them to Sue, in her new role. Stuart France has since joined us as a fellow Director of the School; and that completes our “triad”.

By founding the Silent Eye we knew we were asking for a process of “rapid personal evolution’ and that it would work on each of us in different ways, according to our strengths and weaknesses. We could not condone teaching what we had not experienced for ourselves. The Silent Eye is focussed on a model derived from a synthesis of esoteric psychology and an inheritance from our former “magical” world. We have therefore, in many ways created the “magical enneagram” – the title of a book I am currently beginning to write.

What we teach is what we have become. It is based on the premise that we are born in contact with our Being – our true home. Life necessarily separates us from being, since we have to learn to be independent in the world. This outer growth via separation develops the Ego or Personality by a process of Reaction. That complex of fear and reaction becomes the pattern of our lives, even if it is well hidden. But Being is ever waiting for us to call it back into our lives, and our Souls are the intermediary to make that happen. I believe the soul to be the vehicle for our experiences in life – that the substance of that experience conditions the outer layer of the soul, which must be washed clean in order for the clarity of its depths to reveal the “lost horizon” of Being from whence it came.

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Looking back on my life to date, it has really comprised two major stages, separated by a ‘turning point’. The first stage, which contained all my outward successes, was really about the word ‘More’. The second stage, which came much more recently, is described by the word ‘Less’. The secrets of the inner life are revealed by a reduction in what we carry, what we wear, what we look through. These are metaphorical rather than literal, though they can be both.

Either way, to be true to your real self, you need to take away that which prevents it shining into the world. It already shines – we can never diminish it, but we can clean and polish the glass in the windows . . .Less is most certainly more.

Are we qualified to teach anyone else? That’s a very good question, in the sense that perhaps, ultimately, we have to take responsibility for our own spiritual education. But, we can, as a School, offer a method and companionship. Methods have an inbuilt danger in that they, too, can become mechanical, whereas a self-found path should always be in the “now” and filled with the emerging vitality of Being. Perhaps the best definition of the Silent Eye is that it seeks to be a Companion along the way, there to converse, to cajole and, above all, to be a friend. The method of distance learning, supplemented by workshops, is the best one we know to achieve this in a manner that is affordable. We are a not-for-profit organisation; we exist to teach and share, and we put a lot of our own resources into that work to supplement the meagre resources of the School.

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I have been told by my treasured colleagues, Sue and Stuart, that I am, essentially, a storyteller. I have always tried to use the mechanism of story-telling in my presentations and in the way I teach. I am passionate about how things are taught; and the Silent Eye’s three year distance learning programme is based on a continuous story – really a guided journey of the soul – to which is added the theory sections which accompany each month’s lesson. I am happy with that label. A good story, well told and brought to life, has been a human tradition around the communal hearth-fire for as long as people have gathered under the stars and looked up.

So if you’ll pass me that jug of ale, I’ll compose myself, draw a deep breath and begin . . .

Making waves

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I’ll do it.” I found myself with empty hands as my son took over, concern for my dodgy back making him move the heavy sack of soil. There will be many things he cannot help with as we begin to edge the pond with flowers, but this he could manage and, knowing that I would struggle, took matters into his own hands. It was a small thing, but it shows an awareness of the problems faced by others and a willingness to do something about it.

Just as the pebble that is tossed into a pool will create a wide circle of ripples, so do tiny acts of kindness and consideration add up, producing a cumulative effect far greater than the sum of its parts.

It is the small gestures that make a difference, just as it is from seemingly insignificant events or simplest of phrases from which understanding may be born. It doesn’t matter where you hear them, or read them… the right words may spark a train of thought that will unfold like a forest from scattered seed. It may take no more than a moment, or it may take a lifetime… sometimes the transmutation of knowledge into understanding is a very long process as it waits for more threads to settle into place… like the flower that may only grow in the shade of the forest floor, beneath a canopy of ancient oaks.

Everything we do or say is the cause of an effect. Good or bad, the consequences of every moment may be far-reaching. We never know just how far the story that begins in this moment may reach, nor do we know what other strands of life may be interwoven with them.

‘How can anything I do really make a difference?’ We have probably all asked ourselves that question when faced with global events and concerns. Alone, few of us carry enough weight on the world stage to change anything, yet we are all drops in an infinite ocean and, when we move together, the weight of the wave can carry all before it.

Little miracles

“It’s a wild violet. A bit scruffy… it has lost a petal… but still…” The tiny purple flower peeked out from between the stones we had piled up at the base of the weigela to cocoon the roots that had sprouted from its stem in the old raised bed.
“Where did it come from?”
“It self-seeded…”
“That’s amazing…”

My son, with his nascent interest in gardening, has a lot to learn and is learning fast. Every day, the garden offers new miracles, details that would pass unseen as part of the bigger picture of spring to anyone not inspecting each plant minutely and daily. Growth points and leaf buds are being monitored, unexpected colours are appearing and the mysteries of Nature are revealing themselves to eyes full of wonder.

Tiny,  scale-like leaves top each little branch of the heather, crowning last year’s faded flowers with pink and vibrant green. A clematis catches hold of the branches of the climbing rose, wrapping its fragile stems around the green wood, pulling itself higher every day. Spires of tulips, their outer leaves wrapped tightly around the inner to protect the half-formed bud, begin to unfurl as the flower grows towards the sun.

Bud casings swell and slowly burst open as the baby leaves they contain seek their freedom. Folded, pleated…Nature’s origami… finding their way into the light.

But it is the roses that really fascinate my son. He planted a host of bare-rooted specimens in the autumn… lifeless, dead-seeming wood that is now coming to life. He watches the growth buds turn from brown to pink, green and red before the new growth emerges… leaves and stems that are not merely green, but deep red, hot pink and lime.

He already had some mature roses too, that I pruned severely either when they were moved or disturbed last autumn. My son was concerned that they would look bare… even though I had shown him that I cut the branches above an almost invisible growth point. He has been amazed at how the sparse branches are filling out, completely covered with new shoots.

I am taking great delight in his wonder, as it is reminding me to see and appreciate the miracles happening just outside the door, instead of just knowing that they are there. And, as we tour the garden every day, we are seeing life in action.

Every growing thing is a channel for an invisible but determined life-force.  Watching the garden grow, it seems that how much of that force can be channelled is determined by the natural form of the plant. A rose, for example, that is pruned, thus diminishing its natural form, will put out many new shoots to replace the one that is cut as if to compensate and provide a vessel for the unstoppable influx of life.

One of the old roses did not survive being transplanted. Even its skeletal remains, as the dead wood  begins to decay, is a vessel for life. Insects, fungi and algae have moved in to colonise the vacated form. Life, observed my son,  always seems to find a way. When you consider the innumerable life-forms on the planet and the almost infinite number of ways they can reproduce and replicate themselves, there is no arguing that statement.

It begs the question, though… is life-force itself an infinite or a finite thing? If infinite, where does it come from? Is it in a constant state of cosmic recycling or is it being continually replenished as it is spent? If finite, is every life on the planet simply part of the planetary being? An exuberant expression of earth’s inner life? Either way, the artistry that creates the incalculable diversity of forms can only be a source of amazement.

I thought about how much money local authorities spend on municipal parks and flower beds… planting trees, covering roundabouts in floral designs and generally creating green spaces. With budgets so tight that essential services often suffer, you might think that landscaping might come low down the list of priorities, and yet we continue to make space for nature within our urban developments. Perhaps it is a very deep-seated need that is being acknowledged by the town planners.

Watching the tender, fragile leaflets and stems burgeoning in a suburban garden has opened a doorway to a vast realm of wonder. The sense of connection, of being part of a single stream of life, is acute and beautiful. The sense of kinship with every other living thing in existence, on this world and beyond, becomes unshakeable. And the knowledge that, with or without us, life will find a way is rather comforting. Watching the garden grow brings home the human part in a vast dance of life, where we are but one of myriad dancers. And that we have the capacity to be conscious of that can only be seen as a gift.

A silver cord

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As soon as I was considered old enough to wander alone… a ridiculously young age by today’s standards… I would knock on the doors of the various elderly relatives that lived within a stone’s throw of home or school. Their doors opened onto another era that to my young eyes qualified as the ‘olden days’. There would inevitably be a cup of tea; none of your new-fangled tea bags or ‘gnats water’, but the rich mahogany brew that seethed in perpetuity beside the flames of the range. If I was lucky and timed it right, there would be a slab of fruit cake topped with a slice of tangy cheese or perhaps a curd tart, or we might toast a teacake in front of the fire on the toasting fork and I would sit and listen, fascinated as the old ones spoke of their lives.

Between my great-grandparents and their siblings, I was lucky to have a window on a bygone world, yet it was a window with a heart and a voice… and it told stories. I heard tales of the long hours in Victorian mills where they had worked as ‘bairns nobbut as big as thee, lass.’ Of how their schooling had to fit around their working day and of the dreadful accidents and conditions in which children had worked within living memory… this memory, the one that paused to take a sip of their tea before leaning back to continue. I heard too of first dances and maypoles and Christmas stockings that were rich if they held an orange. Of traditions and forgotten legends… and of wars and national rejoicing and mourning. I learned history in a way no book or museum could teach.

Sometimes we went over to Castleford to see my maternal grandmother’s family. Not so many mills there… but I would seek out Great Uncle John on his allotment filled with dahlias and he would tell me some of the lore of the coal mines and of the pit ponies who lived their lives in the darkness of the mines, even then. The last working colliery horse was brought out in 1999. I heard him tell how dangerous the job still was, for man and beast and saw with my own eyes the coal dust embedded in his pores that was never to leave him… it had filled his lungs too.

And when, as was inevitable, their ranks gradually thinned, I attended their funerals, paid my respects to them, one by one, laid out on the parlour table in their coffins. The families gathered. I was a child, but there was no thought back then of protecting children from the reality of birth and death. I was ten when I helped deliver my little brother. The women gathered…these were women’s mysteries, a domestic magic of sisterhood that took no thought for age or youth.

Contrary to the opinion of many today, I don’t think for a minute that it did me any harm to be part of that. Far from it. I not only learned history, I learned to value people and their individual stories. I learned that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into a time and place where I was allowed to go to school and learn for a few hours a day and then be free to play, to be well fed and warm and sleep in a bed on my own instead of with half a dozen others. So I learned gratitude too.

mill lass

It was only many years later that I realised I had learned something else; the old ones had enjoyed sharing their stories. They had enjoyed the company. Most of them were old, infirm and seldom left the house any more… in short, I realised that many of them were probably lonely and glad of a visit from the blonde urchin who usually had to remind them whose daughter or granddaughter she was. It didn’t matter… I drank in their words with the dark tea.

I was reminded of all this when I read an article on loneliness and its negative effects on both personal health and well-being and its greater impact on society, employability and even survival. Further research highlighted some of the links between loneliness and poverty. It makes interesting reading and raises a lot of questions.

Our society is so much richer than the world that our grandparents and great grandparents knew. To our children, even the era of our parents fits the term ‘olden days’… a far off memory of an almost unrecognisable civilisation. While technology and the sciences have advanced by leaps and bounds and our daily lives are full of gadgetry even the science fiction writers might have dismissed as far-fetched, some things have not changed for the better.

We are a mobile society and in search or upward mobility we have moved away from the towns and villages where our families have lived for generations. Families are spread across the globe in a more fragmented way than ever before in history… individual family units break down and separate with tragic regularity and relationships seem to bear the heading ‘disposable’ all too often.

I remember years ago a TV ad campaign encouraging people to check on elderly neighbours, offer to run errands, bring food or get the house ready for winter. It highlighted the isolation that can come with age and marked me enough to stay with me all these years. Back then I lived at the heart of a large and close-knit extended family… it was never something I thought could happen to me. But the world has changed and it could happen to any of us.

The support network that would once have honoured our old ones and cared for them has foundered in very many cases and, between that, the reduction in relative income and the very gadgetry we may fall back upon in solitude to fill the silence, we become an increasingly isolated society on a human level, while ironically being able to stay in instant touch with the virtual world and family members in the furthest reaches of the globe.

And we are losing the stories… the human thread that is woven through our lives from past to future. Our TVs and computers flicker in colour and capture our attention… We might even be watching programmes on history. But once our attention is captured, we don’t sit and listen to each other very often, even to those we might live with, let alone the elderly who ‘take so long and repeat themselves so much…’ Yet theirs are the only eye-witness accounts of our history that we will ever hear first-hand; theirs the silver thread in the tapestry.

There is the well-known concept of the silver cord that connects body to soul in life, remaining in place until death, just as the severing of the umbilical cord signals our entry into life. I have to wonder how much of the richness of life we are losing in our isolation from each other… how much our children… and we could learn… and how much nourishment the heart could draw from the silver thread of story woven by our ancestors… even those who still walk amongst us.

The value of fluff…

Any journey has to start somewhere…and the only place you can start is at the beginning. For each of us, the spiritual journey will look very different… but at some point along the way, we all encounter what is known in esoteric circles as fluff.

I was always going to end up what my sons call ‘weird’. I was lucky, being born into a family where the term ‘spiritually eclectic’ was the understatement of the century. I was encouraged to question and learn from a wide extended family and, when the time was right, venture out into the unknown and find my own direction.

Between them, my family seemed to cover most spiritual and religious bases. One set of grandparents were a minister and psychic in the Spiritualist Church who, recognising nascent weirdness, wanted me trained as a medium. My other grandfather was a magician. Not the kind who pulls rabbits out of hats, but one who follows the magical path and learns to live by its tenets. His study, forbidden to most, but a place of delight for his small, curious granddaughter, was, had I but known it, a fully equipped ritual space. To me, it was just a magical place where wonderful things lined the walls. Strange diagrams, Egyptian gods, intriguing symbols… and a black mirror, the surface of which became a portal to a land where the rules of reality were other than those I knew.

It was this magical path that spoke to me. As a teenager, taking my first uninformed and tentative solo steps, I read everything on the subject that I could find. My grandfather’s books, the few rare volumes the local library could provide, odd tomes picked up in dusty shops and anything I could persuade the reference library to disgorge from the deepest, darkest vaults.

You soon learn which writers have something to say and which are simply riding the waves of curiosity. There has always been a market for books on magic; the majority are simply fictional or sensational. Some fictional works, written by those who have lived and worked with the magical systems, use storytelling as a way to explain and illustrate spiritual and magical concepts in action. Most of it, however, is written with little practical knowledge, often with one eye on entertainment and the other on the royalty cheque. Beyond fiction and sensationalism, though, there is a core of writers who genuinely walk the path and whose work may point you in the right direction. Sometimes, that direction is not what you first think it to be.

In any area of study, garnering knowledge via the intellect is an empty pursuit unless it is put to work. Until it is used, there can be no real understanding of its wider implications and true value. You may read as many books on plants and soil types as you wish, but you will not become a gardener or understand the beauty of encouraging a plant to grow, until you put your hands in the soil. For many who begin on the esoteric path, knowledge itself can be a trap. Magical systems and correspondences make a fascinating study and can occupy the whole attention until you forget why you began in the first place.

Looking for practical applications of what I was learning, I realised that, without joining a school… for which I was still too young… there was little I could do.  So, faute de mieux, like many who are drawn to this path, especially as youngsters, it was the readily accessible things… like tarot, palmistry and numerology… with which I started.

And… at least as I first began to use these applications… they were spiritual fluff.

‘Fluff’ is a derogatory term for those things which, although often rooted in something much deeper, are either being glossed over and played with like bright, shiny toys or are being used with neither desire nor intent to delve into their deeper meaning. Many such things are widely known only in their degenerate and superficial forms and, as such, are dismissed as having no value. Even fluff, though, may serve a purpose.

By my mid-teens I was reading palms, working with numbers and reading the cards. It was never about fortune-telling, even then. I had at least grasped that much. For me, they offered windows into human nature, including my own. It did not take long, however, for the gaps in knowledge and understanding to start letting in the light.

Hands have always fascinated me and this extra dimension of observation offered a real insight… but it was also the first area where I learned that the insights you gain may not be what you expect. Mention palmistry, and many will hold out their hands, expecting an instant reading of their future. Offer a character reading and you soon realise that, no matter what you say, people will only hear what they choose. Palmistry was the first to be discarded.

Numerology was another excellent way of beginning to understand character and also the relationships between numbers. It was a good introduction to working with their symbolism and correspondences too. But it did not take long before frustration set in… I wanted to understand why the numbers had their meanings, where they came from and what they had to teach about a life greater than that of one human being. That too was discarded.

When you buy your first Tarot, it usually comes with a little booklet giving basic meanings. Your first ‘spread’ will doubtless ask a fairly predictable question, relating to some current issue. The answers can be surprisingly revealing and helpful, but even here, there was a sense of frustration. I did not believe that I could ‘magically’ choose the cards to give me the ‘right’ answer… nor did they choose themselves. I soon arrived at the conclusion that I was missing something.

And this was where the fluff became useful. Frustrated by the limitations of what I had learned, I sought to understand what value these practices might truly hold…and where they could lead.

Palmistry rehabilitated itself for me, though I never took it up again, when I learned that physicians use hands in diagnosis. In the West, this is limited to things like colour, temperature and anomalies of the nails, but in both China and India, the lines themselves are used. It had also taught me how blinkered we can be regarding our own self-image and how impossible it is to change what we refuse to see.

For me, the Qabalah held the keys to unlocking a deeper use for the Tarot and the beginning of a more profound understanding of numbers. The cards have never been discarded, but I use them for a very different purpose these days, as gateways to the subconscious and their images form part of a map of existence. Numerology I think must be a degenerate form of gematria; both are based upon the fact that in many ancient languages, letters also have a numerical value. But, where numerology skims the surface and holds a mirror up to life, gematria seeks to elucidate those hidden and inner meanings pertaining to Life.

The frustration of fluff and the desire for understanding that it engendered set my feet firmly on a path that continues to evolve.  Looking back at my inexperienced self, I would shake my head in despair, except for one thing… fluff served me well. Without its limitations, my journey would have been much poorer and my spiritual landscape would look very different.

Some of the things we encounter are, undoubtedly, no more than fluff… far too light and insubstantial to hold meaning in and of themselves. Even so, we should not dismiss them as being of no value. For some, they may represent the first step to climb a personal Everest and a journey that will last a whole life long.

 

A horseshoe nail…

Horse's eye

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

That old rhyme has a lot to say. It is usually interpreted as being an admonition to pay attention to the small details from which cascade larger events and possibilities. The implication is that if a small thing is overlooked through lack of attention or laziness, then we may wreak havoc with the outcome of whatever we attempt… either individually or in the larger arena of life.

I thought of this rhyme after a comment was made about the pointlessness of an individual life. It reminded me of conversations with my sons when they were younger, where we established that without their presence in the world, it would not just be my life, but the whole of existence that would be changed. Ineradicably altered. What if we are the horseshoe nail?

I remember discussing with them the effects of their subtraction from existence. All the ‘what ifs’ that shower from that point of erasure. If they were not, then perhaps ten generations in the future the man who changes the fate of the planet would not be born, the cure for cancer not found… how can we tell? The branches of any family tree spread wide and in only a few generations its scions may be far from the original root. Were any one of us subtracted from the great mosaic of life it would not only change the world now, but for all the future yet to come.

Which is all very well, and theoretically interesting, but that doesn’t help the person sitting alone, day after day and wondering why they cling to a life that may seem to be without meaning.

Yet who can know how much difference a single life may make? We don’t always know how our friends really feel, as most have a public face that can hide a great deal and the word of affection, that bit of care, might be more meaningful that we can see. We cannot tell if a casual word of praise or encouragement, a much-needed shoulder or a friendly smile may change the day for another. Nor can we know how hard that day has been, or how many other hard days have preceded it… how tired, lonely, desperate or despairing a stranger may feel. There is no feedback, no report card that says, ‘you saved a life today’… yet it may be true. We can never know.

Even the apparently negative actions of others may be the catalyst for change, the tipping point that galvanises us to address injustice, learn empathy and compassion… so many possibilities flower from each moment and each life and we gather our own lives from that garden.

The life we share is a shared life, the actions of each of us cascade like a domino race across the face of time. Every life has its place, its purpose and its value. Even if we cannot always see it.