Deportment for the soul

Image by ADiamondFellFromTheSky
Image by ADiamondFellFromTheSky

He passed me the disc, about the size of a small dinner plate and quite heavy. My hands were full of things needing to go through to the kitchen. There was only one thing for it, I placed the disc on my head and walked through that way, thinking how the lessons learned when we are younger than we are today still have value and inordinately pleased with myself that I could still do it without effort..

My mother used to tell me about good posture when I was small and it was fun trying to walk around with piles of books balanced on my head. We had to do the same at dance class. We had it in school and in the gym too back then. For my mother, it was about deportment; the way a lady carries the body. For my teachers, the idea was that by developing balance we would be able better able to perform the movements that were required of us with grace and poise. Nowadays, it is simply about good posture and, hunched over a keyboard far too much of the time, I am grateful for those early lessons and still prefer a straight back.

Good posture stays with you. It is not something that you lose like the beauty of dewy skin or the lustre of youthful hair. Something of it remains. Even my great grandmother, her spine bent under the weight of almost ten decades, still held herself well. Those we deem elegant seem to have something in their carriage that stays noticeable for the rest of their lives too, even when the years have erased all outward sign of youth.

When I was fifteen, my grandfather gave me a copy of Dion Fortune’s Moon Magic. There is much to be learned from the psychological journey of the two protagonists and it is still one of my favourite and best-thumbed books. Being young and on the verge of womanhood, however,  one small phrase took my eye that had nothing to do with the story itself. “… the body should swing and balance from the waist and that is worth more in beauty than a slender line.”  I think this is true and it gives an impression of balance and grace.

We learn very early in our lives the mechanics of sitting, standing and walking and, once learned, we seldom give them another thought until we begin to suffer the consequences of what we failed to learn to do well. Then we get back-ache and have to learn anew, starting with the core muscles, as often as not. Yet the body is designed to both respond to and create those minute shifts and adjustments that are required in order to maintain perfect equilibrium. Until it knows a poised centre of balance, it cannot create it.

Our inner balance is very similar… we learn as children our techniques of how to deal with the world and though they may be perfectly serviceable for years to come, evolving as we grow, they may also come back to haunt us as emotional aches and pains. The accumulated effects of the years gradually throw the balance even further out and it may take going back to the beginning to put things right, through therapy or through the self examination we do when we seek to understand why. It is only in doing so that we begin to see the repetitive scenarios and reactions that have been there all along, but which themselves are no more than a symptom of something we learned awry  early in life. Once we find the starting point, we can begin too to straighten things out.

The spiritual life is little different. Spirituality does not necessarily mean religion, although religious faith should mean spirituality. The spiritual life is that very personal relationship we may each seek with whatever greater reality we come to know. We have all met those people who seem to radiate joy, no matter how hard their lives may be, no matter their age… they have a glowing beauty for which there seems no reason and they find a beauty in life that may seem to pass us by.  We may ask ourselves why here too. We absorb what we are taught as children and it serves us as children. As we grow, so do our thoughts and beliefs change and grow with us. There usually comes a point where we may feel spiritually off balance and start to examine those deep-seated beliefs, tracing them to back to their beginnings. We may find that the spiritual ‘muscles’ were never fully flexed, that we simply accepted what we were given because it worked for us then, but now the core needs some work and the source  does not seem to show us the Source we feel may be there.

Where can we look to find the answers to those questions we begin to ask, to find that poise and grace that comes from spiritual equilibrium? We need only look within. The questions we ask are unique to every one of us, the answers we seek are part of us all. It matters little if we give what we find there a Name and a Story… it is the essence of what lies at the heart of us that straightens the spiritual spine and brings back the balance.

Walking the line…

“… so fear was originally there to help us survive.”
“Yep… and with not many sabre-tooth tigers roaming the suburbs, we found other things to fear. And fear is intimately linked to how we judge people.”
“How so?”

It was one of those early morning conversations over coffee and from the nature of fear we had progressed to how we unconsciously judge the people that we meet. It is all very well to say that we should not judge…but we do. At least to a certain degree. Sitting in moral judgement upon someone’s actions is a slightly different matter, but we do seem to be programmed to make judgements about the people who arrive in our lives. It comes from the same primitive survival instinct as fear and is part of the same process. If a hunter comes face to face with another spear-wielding man, that snap judgement would be the deciding factor; does he run from a foe, throw his own spear, or welcome a fellow hunter to the chase?

stickman-310590_1280

Our need for such judgements may not be so acute these days, but the instinct remains. We just use it in a more abstract way. A new person arrives on the scene… a new colleague, perhaps… and an immediate reaction determines what we see as our best approach. How we judge them then determines, rightly or wrongly, what we expect of them too.

But how do we make that judgement? Against what measure are we holding them? We only have our own normality, our own world view, with which to work… and that, of necessity, becomes our median line. Some people will quickly climb high in our estimation, others will let us down.  People will either surpass our expectations or fall below them…and hopefully we can rejoice at the one and learn from the other.

The problem here is that if we let the uncontrolled ego have its way, by setting ourselves as the median line, we may also be setting ourselves in a position of unconscious superiority. If that happens, then everyone else starts at a disadvantage… the people we meet will start from a ‘lower’ place than that which the ego sees itself as occupying. This means that before anyone can begin to meet our expectations, they have a steep climb ahead of them before they can hope to meet us on an even playing field.

The higher our ego sets us on that scale, the lower are the chances of people fulfilling or exceeding our expectations. If someone does manage to climb above our median line, the chances are that the owner of a ‘superior’ ego, instead of applauding that success, will feel themselves weighed down by it… and look for ways in which they can bring that person back down to, or below, the median line of ‘normality’…at least in their own mind.

The ‘superior’ ego fears being overshadowed by the success of others and reacts to any inkling of such success with resentment and prejudice. The higher the other person is perceived to climb… and it may be no more than a perception… the more the ‘superior’ ego looks for them to fall. These are such destructive emotions that, while the other person continues with the normal ups and downs of life, embracing both successes and failures, the ‘superior’ ego finds itself on a slippery slope of its own creation.

We cannot abstain from judging altogether…it is an instinctive function of our safety mechanism. We should not have to lower our hopes for people either… for in trusting and hoping for their success we help ensure it. Imposing our expectations, though is a different matter… expectations breed disappointment.

Stickman, Handshake, Gun, Aiming, SmileWhat we can do is remember than our own median line is not a straight path, but meanders with every step we take, and we can fall or climb just as easily, and as often, as anyone else. No matter where we stand in terms of our social position, educational achievements, affiliations, beliefs or ethnicity, we are equal partners in the human family. Our median line should not be drawn by the ego, but from the one thing we all share… our humanity. We are each as fragile, as fallible, and as capable of reaching the heights as each other… and regardless of the judgements passed upon us, we share a gift of possibility that allows us to walk our own path.

Interpretations

cartoon Grammar

“ … the standard translation of one of the chief scriptures of China refers to the venerable Lao Tse as “the Old Boy”. This sounds comical to European ears, yet it is not so far removed from the words of another Scripture which has been fortunate enough to receive translation at the hands of those who reverenced it; “Except ye become as a little child.” I am not a sinologue, but I incline to the opinion that the translation “Eternal Child” would have been equally accurate and in better taste.” Dion Fortune

Dion Fortune’s comment in The Mystical Qabalah struck me when I first read it, more decades ago than I care to remember. Nothing unusual there, as what I learned from her teachings over the ensuing years has shaped and informed my thoughts and personal journey since my grandfather gave me that book when I was fifteen. I still have that same copy, with his own hand-written notes on the fly leaf and margins… a glimpse of his interpretation of the teachings he too had discovered in those pages. I don’t agree with all his notes, yet some proved invaluable in opening the doors of understanding; even the ones I didn’t accept… as they too shed a different light by which I could explore.

The book, and that passage in particular, came to mind the other day as I was discussing the question of translation with one of my students. We were talking about the Bible and the numerous historical translations from originals that have been lost. Now it is true that by collating all the oldest surviving documents, it seems that essentially what has come down through the past two millennia is fairly accurate to the original documents… and the faithful who copied the texts so laboriously would, one imagines, have done so with loving respect and attention to detail. But translation? That is a different matter.

How is it possible to have a literal translation when any translator can only use both the idiom of the language into which he translates, and his own emotional connection to both the subject and the choice of words?

I remember translating The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for my younger brother long ago. Translating the words themselves from French to English was easy. To make it read as beautifully as the original French was much harder and to capture the inner and hidden sense of the words, with all their nuances and association chains was nigh on impossible. The result may have evoked something of the original… and wasn’t a bad translation when I compared it years later to a professional one… but you could tell it was through my own eyes, heart and perspective that I had worked.

That’s the problem with translation and interpretation… the unconscious application of emotion, perspective and the bias of belief.

fingword

It is easy to get caught by an unconscious desire to glorify that which we love and vilify things we dislike or disagree with, choosing words with that intent, almost behind our own backs. Reading several translations of a particular passage, I was struck by a number of word choices that differed, translation to translation, shifting emphasis ever so slightly. Possibly it was just a personal interpretation, possibly a political one, depending on the body behind the edition. It is also easy to know the words of another language but, with the best and most impartial will in the world, to miss the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of colloquialisms that change as quickly as any other fashion.

We do it all the time, in small ways, telling of our day or experience, subconsciously choosing words that emphasise what we are trying to express beyond the words themselves… humour or pathos perhaps. We will use every conceivable nuance, expression or innuendo to get our own perspective across. It is a normal part of human communication after all. Yet were our words to be reported out of context, what exactly would others think we meant? They too would put their own interpretation on the words and before you know it a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ is chasing through people’s minds.

Many of us will not read ancient Greek or Latin ourselves and be obliged to rely on the good offices of those who can to understand, for example, some ancient text, but the mind is what needs to be engaged with any translated or reported words. The heart and discernment too. The symbolism of language itself is something of an art form and we are all skilled in its use and interpretation when we bring our whole being to bear.

FisherInscription

Words are symbols for meaning, no more and no less. While we are very good at interpreting that meaning face to face, reading the subtle shifts of expression, tone and body that bring them to life, with the written word we may take the meaning on face value through the eyes of the writer instead of questioning and being alert to other possible interpretations. We may disagree with each other on that interpretation, seen secondhand through our own eyes… and when the text in question holds meaning for us that can be a recipe for disaster. Wars have begun that way. Yet being willing to look behind the words, to the essence of meaning, without prejudice and with an open heart may point the way towards peace.

Lenses

Orion Nebula

“Religion is a matter of diet. You must choose what suits your spiritual digestion, I suppose.”

Naomi Jacob, ‘Four Generations’.

Growing up, I loved the stories that Naomi Jacob wrote about the Gollantz family. I am not Jewish, though some of my forefathers were. Reading Jacob’s books gave me an insight into part of my own family’s culture and recent history. One passage has come to mind a lot lately. Emmanuel, the lead character, is struggling to come to terms with pain and loss. Hannah Rosenfeldt, an old friend, tells him that he must learn to say, ‘The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’. Emmanuel cannot bring himself to say the second part, as he cannot bless a God who allows tragedy to happen. I was way too young to fully understand the stories, but this particular dialogue stuck, as some things do. There was an awful lot in that short passage and it reminds of a similar conversation with my grandfather.
I asked him why… how could the loving Father of whom we were taught in Sunday School permit so many horrible things to happen? It is a question most of us have asked. My grandfather was not a religious man, though he had a belief in the sentience of a Divine Light. These days, many would say he was ‘spiritual, not religious’. Even that would not be the entire truth, for he had walked some dark paths and his convictions were hard won. ‘Religion is a matter of diet. You must choose what suits your spiritual digestion…’ . He had tasted and had chosen. I was allowed to grow up with the same freedom, with an incredible cross-section of knowledge and experience from which to draw the raw ingredients of my own diet.
It was my grandfather who gave me the first hint of understanding… that we are too close to events in this human life to be able to see what purpose may be served by them. But that there is purpose, he was sure of. That hint came when he gave me my first microscope.
Mouse cells
Mouse cells
Looking through the eyepiece I found a strange world opening before me… blood cells, plant cells, the scales of the human hair, an insect’s wing. Peering at this magical world through the lens was a wonderful experience for a child… yet I realised there was no way for me to identify what I was seeing unless I already knew all their patterns and learned to understand them. I could see they were cells, but I was looking far too closely to see what they were part of. I could see them, but had no idea what they made.
Then Grandad built a telescope. A big one, with a lens the size of a dinner plate that he ground himself on a pedestal in his study. I remember it well; the black squared surface of the plinth, the pots of jewellers rouge, the steady motion that polished the glass…and while he worked he told me stories of gods and giants, of the fae and the otherworlds and the stories of the stars. He told me of radio waves… he had been a wireless operator in the army… and built me a Wimshurst machine to teach me about electricity. He showed me, from both the scientific and spiritual perspectives, how it was possible for different forms of matter and energy to occupy the same space. I had a fantastic education and did not know then just how lucky I was!
Wimshurst machine
Wimshurst machine
 
When the telescope was finished the whole affair was huge. Somewhere there is a picture of me standing with it… a great metal structure that captured the heavens for me to see. When elevated, it was much taller than me. We projected the sun’s image onto card; it was too bright to look at directly… and that was a lesson in itself. Some things are beyond the compass of our senses. We see only the effect, not the source. I saw the landscape of the moon and watched the stars wheel across the heavens, learning that much of what we saw through the lens was a past millennia old. Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away… the light we could see was that old. It had taken that long to reach us, so we were looking at the past! Yet time just was… wasn’t it?
Tycho supernova
Tycho supernova
 
It was odd too how similar the view through the two lenses were… microscope and telescope. How could we know that the heavens themselves were not simply the cells of a greater being we were too small to see? Something whose pattern we were too small to understand?
Then there was a time of loss, and that phrase I had learned stayed with me… The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away… Blessed be the name of the Lord. By this time my spiritual diet no longer included the confining thought of the orthodox Christianity we were taught at Sunday School, but the certainty of the One, by whatever name It is known, remained unshaken and unshakable.
I began to wonder if the lens through which I looked at events in my grief was too close? Or its purpose to big, too far away from my understanding? Was there some pattern that I was simply unable to see through the myopic vision of human eyes? Yet I do not believe that each step of our lives is foreordainedI believe in free will…in the gift of being able to choose our paths, gain understanding or make mistakes, learning from the experience of living. That makes a Divine Plan a little hard to reconcile at first glance. How can we have the freedom to choose and yet believe there is a Purpose to the events and circumstances of this life we live?
We need to step further back… away from our involvement with the heartaches of the mundane world and see from a different perspective. This conviction has grown over the decades as, from the hardest, the worst and most painful events of life I have seen much beauty unfold. From the loss or surrender of things to which I have clung, allowing them to define me by their habitual presence, I have found new directions, new doors opening before me. And I have watched this unfolding, this flowering of possibility, in others too.
Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula
We all face the heartaches and trials of life every day and we often do not understand the ‘why’. When we are facing that unscalable mountain that blocks our path, makes us change course and curse under our breath, how can we know it does not protect us from a lifeless desert or a valley of wild beasts? We can never know for sure, but we can learn how to plan a better route and to understand the landscape in which we find ourselves.
It is impossible to trace the beginning of a series of events with our ‘what ifs’…really trace them back to cause and effect. There is always another ‘what if’ even further from the moment. Nor can we see into a future unknown and know what will come of any given event. Events cascade, creating a domino effect of circumstance and possibility that disappears beyond the borders of our imagination into the unseen millennia to come.
Only a being vast enough to bring the lens to the right focus on time and space would be able to see the beginning and the end of the existence we know… and it would have to know our pattern, like that of the cells under the microscope, and understand what we are in order to see what we form as a whole.
Such a being we could only conceive of as god-like and as such infinite. Yet infinity means there are no boundaries, no borders… no alpha and omega, it would itself be both beginning and end, and yet endless. And if it is endless and All, then we and all we know must be of It. And perhaps It knows the Purpose in ways we cannot imagine.
Horsehead nebula
Horsehead nebula

The walking dead…

We had been engaged in one of those long existential debates, discussing life, death and the possibilities of what might come before and after. The debate had gone on for some time, discussion had gone deep and we had covered some serious stuff, including the changing perspective of the years, fuelled by my impending birthday and the universal fragility of life.

“You should make a video,” said my son.

For a moment, I was flattered, feeling that perhaps I had acquitted myself so well that he saw my thoughts as worthy of being shared. But that moment was a fleeting one… he took out his phone.

“What, now?”

“Yeah.”

“But I’m a mess…” Vanity is universal when faced with a lens. Or that’s my excuse.

“Well, I’d rather you were sort of natural anyway…” It all clicked into place then. So much for flattery.

“You mean, for when I die?” My health may be a bit unstable at present, but I’m certainly not planning on dying at the moment. He had the decency to look a tad embarrassed.

“Well, yes… but don’t feel obliged to die anytime soon…”

“Thanks…”

“…I haven’t given you permission yet.” This is true. As he is both my son and my employer, such an extended leave of absence requires his approval and he has made his feelings quite clear on the matter.

By this time, the camera is running and I face the immortalising lens with no make-up, haystack hair and wearing my oldest clothes. We continue the debate, though in a far more lighthearted manner. Even so, it feels odd. Bad enough being recorded, which I dislike at the best of times, but to know you are being filmed as a memory for when you are dead is quite a strange feeling.

One of the things we had been discussing was the value of remembering that physical life is finite. It is a concept that must be taken from rather abstract idea we generally live with and transformed into a practical application. It is not a morbid or depressing perspective, as some might think, but is actually liberating as it shifts the focus from the transient to the eternal.

With a conscious awareness of the inevitable ending of this phase of existence, life and every experience in it, good or bad, takes on a new depth and richness. Nothing is to be missed through inattention, every experience is to be savoured and appreciated, because there is an awareness, a backdrop to living, that constantly reminds you that each moment could be the last.

And, as the camera captured our laughter, I was getting a graphic lesson in bringing that concept into reality.

It begs the question of how we want to be remembered when we are no longer in the world. Do we want to leave a mark on society? Be missed? Create immortality through art or a legacy of scientific thought? Maybe our immortality comes through our bloodline… our children and their children? Or perhaps we wish only to be remembered with a smile.

But why should we want to be remembered at all? Perhaps it is the fear of utter annihilation. Or simply the ego, the personality we wear in life, programmed for its own survival, that  seeks to perpetuate itself… and cannot accept that life as we know it can carry on without us? No matter how well-known or well loved we are, unless we do leave some kind of concrete legacy to posterity, in a few generations we will be no more than an entry in a ledger or database somewhere.  And even that will one day disappear.

Whether we believe there is no more than this physical existence, or in the survival of the soul, we cannot escape the cycle or the recycling of life.  One thing is certain, in the physical universe, nothing is ever utterly lost. From plankton to planets, everything that comes into being will evolve and come to an end. Its component parts will be returned to whence they arose and become the building blocks of something new. Personally, I believe that also holds true of the soul. We do not need to seek immortality. We carry eternity within us.

Outside in

Image result for cat and lion mirror

It was odd. I look at this particular blogger’s page every day…and every day there is a reblog button. On every post. Except today. I clicked into the title, hoping that by going deeper, I would find what I was looking for. Nothing. I couldn’t understand it at all. There were, in fact, few of the usual options and I could not imagine what had prompted the blogger to make this particular piece unshareable. Or why I suddenly had to fill in a form to leave a comment. Or why, when the theme had not been changed, it should look so different.

They must, I decided, have been the victim of some online horror… trolls, ID theft, hackers… all sorts of scenarios began to roil around in my mind. I thought about my own online presence and its security and wondered if I ought to take the hint and tighten things up. I hoped my friend was okay. These things can be nasty and upsetting. Perhaps I should email to check?

In those few seconds, my reaction to the lack of a simple button was going a long way…and the possible causes and consequences were already starting to pile up in my mind and imagination. Until I realised what the problem was. Between clicking the link in the daily email and arriving at the site, somehow, I had been logged out of WordPress. There was nothing wrong with my friend’s page at all. What was wrong was how I was seeing it; as an ‘outsider’.

I was looking at the page in the same way as any casual visitor to a WordPress blog, if they had no account and therefore did not possess the magic password that admits them to the privileges of the ‘inner circle’. It was an interesting lesson. Because I remain logged in unless WP logs me out, it is a world I never see. Equally, there is a world unseen by non-account holders that contains much more than they would see or could know. They might get intimations of it… reading references to reblogging perhaps or seeing the ease with which the exchange of comments can flow, but it is a world to which they do not have the keys. For a moment, I had joined them, looking at my ‘world’ from the outside in and not only was the perspective strange, but it made me realise  how quickly I had accepted a different reality, becoming used to what I do know and forgetting that I haven’t always been ‘on the inside’.

It was obvious as soon as I realised. With any group, of any kind, those on the inside are privy to knowledge that the uninitiated cannot see clearly, even if there are clues of its presence. It doesn’t have to be anything of great importance… it can be as simple as showing the office newbie where to bang the coffee machine to get it to work…. but there is always some level of inner knowledge that brings a group together and binds the individual threads to a common centre.

We’re all aware that looking at someone else’s life from the outside in only shows us part of the picture…and not always a true one. Even though we know that we cannot see the whole story, we can forget it too. We may not see the tenderness of a father when we look at tattoos and bling…yet it may be there. We do not always see the hidden grief behind the outward smiles. As a species, we are not only adept at assuming masks, but we are pretty good at forgetting they might be there and react by forming an opinion based solely upon the surface; for reaction is instinctive, not considered, and springs from that basic fear that fuels our instinct for survival.

It seems even worse in some ways when you consider how often we judge ourselves in the same way. Even just looking at physical surfaces, how many of us feel we are the ‘wrong’ shape, size or style to fit the mould that others deem good? How much more confidence would we have if those comparisons were never made or thrust upon us?Instead of looking at ourselves from the inside out, we rely on the world to mirror ourselves back at us, accepting that incomplete image as the whole truth and basing our actions upon it. We learn to value ourselves by the reactions of others to the partial person they can see, instead of looking at ourselves as whole and unique, with inner depths not visible to those who see only a glimpse of our true selves.

We are not our reflections, we are ourselves. The world looks from the outside in and sees but a fragment of our being. We can learn to look from the inside out, privy to all our secret depths and gifts; knowing that for every weakness there is a strength that is ours alone and that we are more than the two-dimensional trigger of reaction seen by a passing stranger. And if we look deeper still, to the very core of being, we may find that we are more than we had ever thought.

Chalice

                                                 Expansion, sculpture by Paige Bradley

“Empty your mind… empty yourself…you are nothing and nowhere… just floating in the embrace of the universe…” It is a nice idea and one I have heard at the start of many a meditation… and in meditation, such a vision has a place. As a way of living, it is not particularly practical though. Someone has to walk the dog, take out the trash and clean the bathroom… and a person wafting through life being ‘nothing and nowhere’ is unlikely to be getting down and dirty with a scrubbing brush or chasing a recalcitrant hound across a muddy field.

It is such concepts that, for some, consign the whole idea of spirituality to the odd corners of life. It becomes a pastime, something to ‘do’ in spare moments or with a group. It isn’t reality, is it?

For many others though, it is just that… the most eminently practical way to live… not something to do, but something to Be.

But just how can you reconcile the nitty-gritty needs of everyday life with living a spiritual life? Especially when the daily grind seems to get in the way and haul you forcibly back from the Threshold you long to cross?

As a young mother with two small boys creating daily havoc and a longing to pursue my own spiritual studies, I read a chapter in ‘The Training and Work of an Initiate’ by Dion Fortune, one of the most respected esoteric teachers of the past century or so. She wrote of the Path of the Hearthfire and how each moment, each task, every dirty cup or grazed knee could be part of the bricks and mortar of a spiritual life. She explained, with her customary clarity, how every experience and every chore, if the attention is focussed and the intent conscious, becomes a rite… and is, therefore, a very real part of the spiritual journey. She wrote of the Unseen Guest for whom we may keep a place beside the hearthfire and, slowly, I began to understand.

Everything we do, learn or feel becomes part of the fabric of our being. Every choice we make takes us to another fork on that personal road and leaves its mark on who we are and who we will become. Our lives, our experience and our actions are a spiritual journey, whether we recognise it as such, or not. The only difference between those who walk a deliberately spiritual path, regardless of its name, and those who do not, lies in conscious choice, awareness and intent. Each of us may learn and grow without turning our backs on everyday life. All of us have the same rich vein of experience from which to extract alchemical gold.

There comes a point in most of our lives when we begin to question and may turn to whichever spiritual path seems to call us.  It is at this point we are also called to question the nature of the vessel we have formed from the gold of experience. ‘Know thyself’, phrased in innumerable ways, is a core tenet of the Mysteries, whatever path we choose.

We learn to see ourselves as a chalice, a vessel made from the raw materials of our personality and experience into which the wine of life has been poured. That vessel may be a thing of beauty… but is more likely to be a little skewed and battered. It may be jewelled with knowledge or made of an earthier clay. It matters little… we do not taste the vessel, it serves only to hold the wine.

There may come a moment when we wish to offer that vessel in dedication, to serve the Light we see.  To hold up that vessel and allow the Light to fill it… and to do so, the vessel must first be emptied. Many texts seem to teach that we must turn away from the world, ‘rise above’ our flawed humanity or become detached from the humdrum life. I do not believe that this is so.

Detachment is a cold thing, very different from the non-attachment that embraces all but is enslaved by none.

We are what we are… fully human, full of flaws and imperfect. Yet there is purpose to our imperfection for without it we could neither learn nor grow. Our imperfection is perfect in its design and mirrors something greater. To turn our backs on our humanity is to deny our nature and refuse the value of our unique experience upon this earth.

We craft the vessel from the sum of our experience, its light and its darkness, our gifts and our knowledge, bringing all that we are to its making. We offer our whole self willingly and with love…and such a dedication empties us of the fears and desires of the fragile and transient personality that thinks itself king. There is no ruler in unity.

To be no-thing but whole, to be now-here instead of nowhere… to be present and conscious within the universal embrace… empties the mind of who we think we should be… and allows us to be what we are.

Who says you can’t?

“Wanted: Experienced male window-dresser.

20+, full clean driving licence. Must be prepared to travel.”

Back in the days when one could advertise for precisely the staff member you wanted without the risk of appearing politically incorrect, that was the advert that caught my eye. To be fair, at just 16, with examination results still months away and no possibility of staying in education, I was looking at anything and everything, applying for jobs as varied as dental nurse and milkmaid. In spite of the expectations a Grammar School education might have raised, the family couldn’t afford for me to stay on at school. I needed a job. Any job. Even then, I was aware that probabilities were a numbers game; the more I applied for, the more chance I had of getting at least as far as an interview.

By this time, I had only a couple of months left at school… and so did everyone else leaving that year. I needed to get in early. Even so, “I can’t apply for that…what a pity.” “Why not?” Asked my mother. “You won’t get it, but you can always apply.” I wrote the letter, in spite of the fact I was an inexperienced female, far too young, who had never travelled and who would be ineligible for a driving licence for another two years. It couldn’t hurt. The letter was posted, along with the daily sheaf of others and promptly forgotten about. Until they called me in for interview.

I can even remember the brown, birds-eye tweed suit that I wore… nicely tailored but smelling of wet dog whenever it rained. I took a seat in the reception area with half a dozen professional and arty young men and felt ridiculous. They exchanged experiences, talking about their training and previous positions. I’d worked in a butcher’s after school since I was twelve. I shouldn’t have come.

I was the last to be shown to the office of the owner of the business. I’d done my research as best I could in those pre-internet days. He and his brother had started on the market stalls a couple of decades before and now owned several chains of menswear stores across the north and drove a Rolls Royce apiece. I felt very small and out of place as he faced me across the big desk and folded his hands. He looked at me in silence for a while. Me, the little brown mouse who wouldn’t say boo to the proverbial goose… I shrank inside, wishing fervently that I hadn’t been this stupid.

He read the advert out loud, pausing to look at me with raised brows with every requirement I failed to meet. Which was all of them. He smoothed the sheet of paper and pinned me with his eyes. “What have you got to say for yourself? Why should I hire you?”

I will never know where it came from or why… neither confidence nor arrogance were any part of the timid creature in tweed. To call me a mouse was unfair… mice have a certain amount of audacity.

I held out my hand… “Give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you.”

I spent the rest of the interview answering a barrage of questions and piling up sketch after sketch of fashion designs. He looked at the last one as I placed it on the pile. “I can’t offer you the job, I’m afraid.” It was no surprise really. Only getting an interview at all had been a surprise. I stood to leave. “But I’ll create one for you…”

I sat back down, open mouthed, as he outlined his plans. Then left the building on winged feet. I would work with the teams, train fully and travel alone to deal with the window crises in each shop as they arose. And for the next few years he worked my socks off… I ended up training the new window dressers as they came in… had a lot of fun and became a darned good window dresser.

So why the sudden memories? Well, I picked up a book of poetry from the shelf and read Keats for a while. John Keats is one of the best loved English poets and was a leading figure in the second generation of the Romantic movement. Almost everyone will recognise his work, even if they do not know its source.

Keats

So where’s the connection between one of the great poets and a schoolgirl luckier than she could imagine? Well, Keats was doing something he ‘shouldn’t’ too.

Born to the family of an ostler turned innkeeper and trained to become a surgeon, Keats’ passion lay in poetry. He should have been a doctor. He was, by all accounts, good at it. And anyway, he was way too young at that point to have anything to say that was worth reading. Great writers need to live before they can write… experiencing the world and its emotions, growing from childhood to adulthood and beyond. While all writers seem to start scribbling when young, there is a general acceptance that it is only in later life that the great œuvres will flow from their pen. It is a common dictum that one should not seriously write when ‘too young’… writers should have lived something to say.

Keats, acquiring his apothecary’s licence, quit medicine to write. Lacking a paying career, he struggled financially all his life, unaware, it seems, of the legacies left to him that would have eased his situation. In 1816 Leigh Hunt agreed to publish one of his poems in a magazine. Other works followed, securing Keats’ place in literary history. He died in 1821. Aged just 25. Far too young to be a ‘real’ poet… or so young writers are now told. About the same age as Wilfred Owen, in fact. Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing at 21.

So who says you ‘can’t’?

We live in a world of ‘ought to’, where expectations are piled upon us, if not by those closest to us, then by our society itself which sets the tram lines we conform to with little thought most of the time. The expectations of others, though, are not what holds us back. We choose to meet those expectations… or to try our best…or not, as the case may be.

We expect a certain normality of ourselves, often without realising that ‘normality’ is unique to each one of us. In effect, we accept the confines of barriers that no-one has actually imposed upon us, simply because we are aware of what we think we ‘ought’ to do and be. What truly holds us back are the constricting and limiting expectations that we draw around ourselves. We decide what we cannot do… yet it is only when we overstep those lines we have drawn in the sand that we find out what we can do.

For me, landing that job taught me more than just how to dress a window. It taught me to have confidence in my own instincts, to stand up for the things I thought were right, to defend a principle and most importantly, to believe I could do more than I believed and be things I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have often wondered if the academic route I ‘should’ have taken would have taught me half as much.

Next time you feel you can’t do something, don’t ask yourself, ‘why not’… just ask yourself, ‘who says?’ The answer is probably very close to hand…

Open wide

EKG-Green

To love and be loved… something that sits at the heart of every child. It is only as we grow that the accumulated disappointments, the rejections large and small, teach us to shield our hearts against being hurt again. We all get hurt as we grow… even the happiest childhood will carry the shadows of events, unnoticed and unintended perhaps, that have squeezed the little heart tightly. It may be no more than a ‘Not now’ from a busy parent engaged in something that is not safe for the child… with the best of intentions… but to the small person wanting to show that parent a caterpillar they found, it is a rejection. We all suffer them and learn, brick by brick, how to build a defensive barrier around our emotions.

We are taught that emotions have a time and place too. Some are socially acceptable. We can be calm or happy in public… as long as we are not too happy for other people’s comfort. Tears, however, should be a private affair and we learn to swallow them… hide them… except from those to whom we are close enough to let the mask slide. Romance is only acceptable in youngsters… old people may, perhaps, hold hands in public and draw an ‘awww’ from us… but heaven forbid that they have a proper cuddle or kiss. Even our own children see us as too old for ‘that sort of thing’.

Yet is it wrong to have emotions at any age… or merely to display them? For many that becomes an uncertain balance of suppression and repression. Is it wrong to weep for beauty…or for grief? No more so than to laugh out loud for sheer joy… yet both make many uncomfortable. Of course there is a need for self-control… we cannot be ruled by every emotion, displaying and acting upon them at every turn; the world would be untenable. A certain amount of appropriateness must be learned as we go, though our tendency as a society is to stifle all emotional displays.

For all of us there will come a moment when something starts picking away at the defensive walls we have built around our hearts. Something, or someone, will begin to breach our defences… and then we are faced with a choice. Do we let them in, knowing that we leave ourselves defenceless against possible heartache? Or do we shore up the walls with anything we can find to keep our vulnerability protected?

It isn’t always obvious, even to ourselves, how many ways we can find to strengthen the barricades of the heart. We can throw ourselves into a career, with perfectly legitimate goals, seeking security and the rewards of industry…the ‘things’ that distance us from the emotional depths. We might pursue a dream or a cause with a passion… and that passion is fuelled by the same source that we might lavish on a relationship…if we dared. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the dream, the cause or the career in themselves… on the contrary, we need those people who will focus and become the movers and shakers of society. Where it falls down is the ‘why’. Is the focus due to a pure intent to attain the goal, or is it being used to shield a vulnerability that dare not allow a chink of light into the inner fastness of the barricaded heart?

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

On any spiritual path, a path of consciousness, it is through the emotions that we begin to see a wider Love that it is possible to touch. We cannot do so whilst we are immured within the prison of our own fears. We have to live fully, embracing every part of our fragile, beautiful, vulnerable humanity before we can feel what lays both beyond and within us.

When we open ourselves wide to love, we open ourselves to every imaginable heartache as well as every conceivable joy. If we could hook our emotions up to a monitor as easily as we can the heart, for most of us the needle would trace a graph that looks remarkably like a heartbeat as life swings us between the two extremes with periods of quiescence in between. I don’t think that is coincidence… it means we are alive; fully alive, whole and living an emotional journey. That has to be better than flatlining ourselves through fear… don’t you think?