Several years ago, Stuart and I braved the bitter, biting winds of January to visit the Church of St Oswald at Lythe. There were, a friend had told us, stones…carved stones that we would want to see…and that trip had been all about the stones as we drove through England, did a Welsh border raid and up into Scotland discovering Albion. We were frozen, tired and hungry and barely did the church justice, so it was wonderful to know that our first stop on the Whitby workshop would be St Oswald’s.
I knew the way and recognised the church and its parking spot with no problem. In spite of the same backdrop of winter skies, the church looked different; both Stuart and I remembered the tower as simply square…minus the squat little spire that was added a century ago. Which was odd, especially as, looking back at the photos we had taken at the time, they are almost identical to the ones I took that day.
It was, however, considerably warmer so this time we would be able to explore outside the church, as well as within. There has been a church here for at least eleven hundred years, with the original wooden building being replaced by stone eight hundred years ago. The churchyard was once an important burial ground for the invading Vikings, whose adoption of Christianity did not divorce them from their ancestral faith, but added a new layer to an already rich and ancient mythology.
The churchyard no longer holds signs of the Viking burials, but, perched upon its wind-blasted clifftop above the sea, it is still an interesting place to wander. Many of the headstones are carved with anchors and other maritime symbols, acknowledging the role of the sea in the lives and faith of the locals for so many generations. You can understand, when you know those cold and stormy waters, why those who sailed and fished there have always invoked the protection of higher powers, since long before Christianity came to the north.
Beside the porch is a memorial to the men of the parish who served and lost their lives in war. The stone is carved around with the symbols of the instruments of the crucifixion, which seems appropriate, for the suffering of these men and that of their families as they waited for news must have seemed like torture.
Behind the church, looking out across the bay towards the once-great Abbey of Whitby is the ornate Victorian monument to the Buchannan family, who were linked by marriage to the Cholmleys who had built the seventeenth-century house beside the Abbey that now houses a museum. Each face of the memorial bears a scene of the Christ in relief and it is a fabulous testament to the craft of the stonemason who carved it.
But what we had really come to revisit was inside the church and, although I was determined to take notice this time of the church itself, there were the old stones inside…
There is more to a Silent Eye workshop than a simple wander in the landscape, but although the shape of the weekend may be carefully crafted, much of what happens next comes from the intent of those who attend. Working as a group, the shared journey amplifies the experience as we learn from and with each other. If we do not always go into great detail about how such a workshop ‘works’, it is because you really have to be there and be part of the alchemy, to feel the full effects.
Steve, who organised the Whitby workshop, has told how we gathered on the Friday for lunch and to talk about the themes for the weekend. On the slip of paper I pulled from the bag that was passed around the table, the four words given spoke to me on several levels. My immediate reaction was to identify them as pertaining to a point on the enneagram; those of us there who are part of the Silent Eye had the advantage of recognising their origin.
The enneagram is a symbol best known as a psychological tool but it can also provide a window on the inner and spiritual life, which is how it is used within the school. The nine points of the enneagram illustrate the nine major personality types. We are none of us just one ‘type’, but are, each of us, a unique mixture of all of them, with one being dominant. Within each type are levels of function, encapsulating the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ aspects of how that type can…and will… interact with the world. The system is simple enough on the surface, but gets more complex the deeper you go, with each type being influenced by its secondary type, as well as its sub-type… and with each one of them functioning on different levels.
I know that with just these nine basic ingredients in my cupboard, I can make any number of different cakes, cookies, pies and puddings, biscuits and buns. Within each type of ingredient, there are sub-types… I could, for instance, use butter, margarine, lard or oil. Demerara, white or powdered sugar. Any of the hundreds of available spices…
What comes out of the oven depends upon the proportions, quality and quantities of what goes into the mixing bowl, how each ingredient is treated and the process I use to combine them. A lemon meringue is a very different experience from, say, a pancake, a scone or an apple pie. I could make any or all of them from those basic ingredients. None is better than another. All will be delicious if cooked to the highest standard… though personal taste may say otherwise… and all, even the best, have their negative side in their calorie content.
So, although the chains of four words that we each picked from the bag may, or may not, have pertained to the predominant lens through which we see and interact with the world, they were all relevant to all of us and, as the weekend progressed, we would each learn from the others as we explored their meaning.
The words I chose were indolence, procrastination, action, love. They illustrate an evolving process. For me, they were immediately relevant. I have never mastered the art of indolence…pure laziness does not sit well with me. Even when I am still and silent, it is an active stillness… a conscious choice with which I am engaged.
Procrastination, on the other hand, I have mastered. I can be hugely and genuinely busy… far too busy to begin the things I know I ought to be doing… especially if they are likely to be unpleasant or upset the status quo. And, like indolence, that is a fear reaction. Fear of change… of shifting the balance… of possibly making a situation worse…of failure…or even of facing an uncomfortable truth. There are any number of fears hidden behind the pleasant veil of procrastination.
Action is what we choose when the tipping point is reached… when we step, deliberately, from one pan of the scales to the other. From resisting to embracing life in all its glorious, complicated messiness. We move towards love… and, as we do so, it reaches out to us.
A string of words, randomly chosen yet wholly pertinent… and, because we gave them our attention, applying them to our lives in a way that allowed us to focus on aspects of self we had, perhaps, ignored or simply not seen, any of them would have given us the keys to a shadowed part of our being. By looking within we can explore a wider horizon.
Later that weekend, at Whitby Abbey, we would be asked to find a location that symbolised the essence of those four words for each of us. The symbolism inherent in any place once held sacred can speak to us, regardless of the path we follow.
I chose the Crossing, where the vertical aisle meets the two ‘arms’ of the transepts. It is, in many ways, the heart of a church. The cruciform shape echoes that of the crucifix and the heart of the crucified would have rested above it.
For indolence, it symbolised all the possibilities that were there for the choosing… and the choice made to embrace none of them. For procrastination, it was the perfect illustration of its fear and uncertainty; what happens when you leave the place where you stand? Have you made the right choice? What if you get it wrong? Better not to move at all…
By choosing action, you move, take one of the paths offered… actually get somewhere, even if it wasn’t where you thought you might go. And by moving, you leave the space empty for something else to come in… and what comes as you embrace life is light and love.
Gary continues to share his experiences on the recent weekend workshop in North Yorkshire:
The last time I visited Whitby Abbey I was a boy. I recall little of it. Just that I was bored. Of course, I have been to Whitby many times since, often with my father who had business there. He would leave me for an hour or so to wander and once I recall taking my oil paints to paint the harbor. I was last there just a few years ago with my parents, ex-partner and daughter. I do like Whitby!
I must say that the abbey ruins are fairly impressive but I felt no atmosphere or energies. It seemed a dead ruin to me. A stark reminder of other times. As we pondered aspects of the Abbey in the context of the spiritual prompts of the weekend, my sense was of the skeletal remains of something erected to the glory of man rather than the glory of God. What was left reminded me of what Asteroth has called the ‘horny matter of experience’ – essentially, the structure that we build through life to protect ourselves, shut out the inner and act out our public outer selves. The spiritual activities that took place in the Abbey are no more and, for me anyway, have left no energy ripple in time that I could pick up. In considering this analogy, I was reminded of how we act out roles, how we have our sensitivities dulled by our experience of life, and how we often lose sight of the true spiritual nature of self.
It’s a winter’s tale, so best told in warm snippets…
With a weekend workshop carefully envisaged, there’s always a moment where that mental and emotional picture becomes ‘invested’ with life. These old English words contain a wealth of linguistic depth so easily passed over in modern usage.
After months of refining the stages, and a preparatory visit, the latest of our ‘Landscape workshops’ was beginning in the far north of Yorkshire, to the east of the North York National Park – the coastline from Whitby to Saltburn and inland of the vast and wild hills of the moors.
Whenever possible, we meet for a light lunch and to gather to discuss the purpose and plan for the weekend. This sets the scene for what follows and invites everyone to play their part.
December is cold, especially here, so we had arranged to meet at the Barn Owl Cafe just off the A174 coast road from Whitby. Bernie and I had visited Staithes on our scoping trip in October. We knew that the Barn Owl would be easy to find, and that its renowned warmth and hospitality would be welcome after the long journeys here.
I was early. I’m a stickler for that. But I was delighted to find the last of the companions for the weekend pulling in at the gravel car park with me. We left the cold of the exterior to find the owners had provided us with a large circular table; perfect for the planned soup and sandwiches, and also ideal to lay out the maps and handouts. The rest of the group were already seated, chatting and enjoying hot drinks.
I had managed to condense the weekend’s busy itinerary into a ‘single pager’ which Misti the cat is now sitting on as I write (pic above)… You can see it’s well thumbed and has survived the weekend’s downpours – and frequent origami before being stuffed back into coat pockets.
An hour later, the company had been provided with maps; summary descriptions of the main locations; and an expectation of a busy but fun two and a half days. We were keen to begin. The right level of preparation is important to deliver a robust ‘skeleton’ – lots of coffee stops, for example, to counter the expected freezing temperatures of the Whitby coast.
But it’s also important to leave room for the ‘entry of magic’. These are spiritually focussed weekends, but not in a conventional sense. What we look for is the special quality of experience that can happen when a group of people work together towards a common goal. I think of this as ‘a pocket left open for magic’. It’s not provided consciously by the group; and certainly not by the planning. It’s filled by the ‘spirit of the moment’: a feeling with which many will be familiar. When this happens, the ‘air’ around us changes as though we had stepped into a world that runs parallel to our everyday one.
This kind of magic is very real.
Stuart France, one of my fellow Directors of the Silent Eye, has written a post on this blog about this recently.
Next, we spoke about the ‘heart of the matter’ – the psychological and spiritual basis of the weekend. The selection of Whitby was based upon an event from the distant year AD 664, known as the Synod of Whitby. This took place in an age when British Christianity had two flavours: the older Celtic Christian faith brought over from Ireland via Iona and Lindisfarne, and the newer Roman faith inspired by the work of Augustine.
Our workshop was subtitled: In the footsteps of St Cedd. The central character of our deliberations was the man who became St Cedd. Raised by the Celtic Christian monks on Lindisfarne, Bishop Cedd was a renowned spiritual and intellectual authority in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria – ruled by the powerful Anglo-Saxon King Oswiu (Anglicised later as Oswald).
Under various pressures, the King hosted the Synod of 664 at the newly established Abbey of Whitby and arrange for the Abbess (later St Hild) to chair the process. Bishop (later Saint) Cedd was appointed to be what we would call today, the ‘Facilitator’. In so doing, Cedd had to use all his personal skills to mediate a solution to two central issues: the way the monks cut their hair (the tonsure); and the way the date of Easter was calculated.
The first sounds trivial to us. The second was profoundly important as Easter was and is the most important date in the Christian calendar.
King Oswiu was a Celtic Christian, his wife a Roman Christian… and thereby lies a familial tale for which there is not sufficient space in this post.
In the end, the King decided for the Roman faith and Cedd had to bear witness to what he knew would be the death of a tradition in which he had been raised and loved. The poignancy and spiritual nature of this task was the backbone of our deliberations for the weekend.
There are obvious parallels to our own times, here…
Just before leaving the Barn Owl Cafe, we asked each person to select a folded piece of paper from a small cloth bag containing nine of them. When unfolded, each had before them four words.
In my case the words were:
Mysterious and seemingly contradictory, they contained the personal seed-thoughts of an inner journey that would mirror the outer locations. More will be said on this in future posts.
There are challenges to running this kind of outdoor event in December; chief of which is the shortness of the days. As soon as we’d finished our lunch, it was time to visit a very special local church at Lythe, a village just to the north of Whitby. But to tell that requires a full blog, so I will return to the story of our visit to St Oswald’s church in the next post.
With the light fading on our short December day, we drove back up the A171 to carry out an important task – to construct the movements!
Runswick Bay is one of the most beautiful of the coves between Whitby and Saltburn. The ebbing tide had left us a wide swathe of beach to allow our work. Sadly, the beach cafe was closed for the winter so a coffee would have to wait. What we were about to do would be an important part of our undertakings at each further location…
The idea of a set of movements to accompany the ‘pocket left open for magic’ is not new. One of the giants of the past from whom we derive many of the Silent Eye’s principles is Gurdjieff – a philosopher from the early years of the last century who gave the world a system that became known as the Fourth Way. Gurdjieff was from Armenia and his upbringing had made him a skilled musician and dancer. To assist with the absorption of the spiritual side of his teachings, he developed a set of unusual dances or ‘movements’.
The three of us who run the Silent Eye have been looking at the creation of a set of simple set-movements to be carried out, wordlessly, to establish a place of working in the outdoors. This was our chance to let the moment ‘speak’ and guide us…
Almost as soon as we started, we were blessed with the birth of a set of movements that perfectly reflected not only the nature, but the historical and traditional basis we had selected for our Whitby-centred workshop.
We put it in our pockets and took it with us for the weekend…
Fish and chips beckoned. How could we come to Whitby and not do so! An early night and we were ready for what the morning would bring.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.
This weekend, I attended the Silent Eye Keys of Heaven weekend workshop in the Whitby area of Yorkshire. Of this much more later…..
However, the penultimate stop of the weekend was the church in Lastingham and a visit to its beautiful crypt. The remains of St. Cedd are supposed to be buried just to the right of the altar under the small church and there are a number of old carved stones to view.
On approaching the church, I could feel it. Energy! Once inside the church, I could feel it pulsating strongly and I remarked to one of my colleagues – it’s like a heartbeat! Down inside the crypt, the heartbeat was strong and regular. To sit there and silently experience the energy pulsating was I think possibly the highlight of the weekend – possibly along with the Sticky Toffee Pudding with masses of custard I had experienced the evening before….or perhaps the dance of the Foxes in Whitby. These weekends often have many highlights and magical – WOW moments that I genuinely believe are magical that spontaneously happen when a group of like-minded souls get together.
There was supposed to be a meteor shower. The moon would not be bright enough to drown the display of cascading stars with its light and the skies over the village are but gently lit. The light pollution here is perhaps as minimal as you will find close to the homes of a densely populated land.
It seems odd speaking of light of any kind as a pollutant. This, however, is not a natural phenomenon, but the fabricated, sulphurous pall that hangs over our habitations. It is a paltry imitation of the light of the heavens that, by a strange irony, prevents us seeing the sky. The delicacy of the stars is drowned by the glow of the city. The greater the volume of our invention, the less we see the source of our inspiration.
I stand at the back door, staring into the night, pondering. The dog patrols the garden, checking for the intrusion of stray cats and nocturnal mammals. Her focus is on the ground, protecting the perimeter she has designated as her own. Yesterday a fat fox ran across my path; the woods and fields around the house are teeming with wildlife. Beyond the fence shadows flit through the darkness… yet Ani ignores them. Her attention is fixed on that which she calls her own.
The sky is overcast; the thick blanket of cloud hides any trace of night, reflecting back only the projected and sickly orange of the earthly radiance. There will be no shooting star tonight. Beyond the clouds I know the light shines with its own purity, unaffected by our risible imitation. Streaks of light will traverse the heavens whether I see them or not. The gold of the sun will robe the moon in silver with that nightly alchemy we forget. The moon sheds no light, it is a celestial mirror, merely reflecting and limited by its own nature.
I see the old adage of the Mysteries played out around me… ‘as above, so below’ and realise that I stand in a hall of magical mirrors. Each aspect of the scene around me reflects aspects of a wider life. The dog seeks only to guard her own, just as we cling to our familiar beliefs, secular or spiritual. She knows there is a world beyond the fence… walks within it daily… yet this tiny patch of earth is where she patrols ceaselessly, watching her borders and repelling intrusion. We too hold to the familiar, even when we know it is an incomplete reflection… even when we have seen that there is a greater reality beyond… and we too repel anything we believe may intrude upon the safe familiarity of the known.
We have seen those we call the Lightbringers… those great Teachers who have walked the paths of history… and our recognition of their inner Light gave rise to emulation. Faith was illuminated by their presence… religious movements sprang from our quest for understanding of the wider life they sought to show us…yet would those Teachers now recognise their own teachings, clouded as they are by centuries of human politics? I wonder how much of what we are taught is now only the reflection of artificial light on the belly of an overcast sky… and what that fabricated glow might hide from vision.
The light, however, is real. Whether captured within the glass of an incandescent bulb, or making pictures on a screen… we are only fooling ourselves if we think we create it. We have bent it to our will and service, created the means to display it…but light itself is itself… pervading every aspect of our lives by its presence or apparent absence.
And yet… we would not have sought flame without the knowledge of light. Without seeing it cast its rays upon the earth and realising its central role in our existence. We would exist in perpetual darkness … or rather, we would not, for without the life-giving rays of the sun there would be no life on earth. It is hardly surprising that we have sought to harness this most precious of gifts. Whether by need or greed mankind has sought to steal fire from heaven and turn it to his own service, and in his use of the enslaved light has veiled his own vision of the stars.
There are, however, those Prometheans who seek another kind of fire, beyond the spectrum of visible light; an inner sun that eradicates the darkness of doubt with perfect flame. They see beyond the clouds, beyond the reflected pall of earthly light to the heavens beyond. They come from all faiths and none, seeking only to see that nameless, formless light within which they live, move and have their being. They seldom burn with blinding passion that sets them ablaze on the world stage, but shed a gentle, quite radiance as they move through the shadows of the world, their footsteps illuminating the lives of those they touch. They do not grasp or seek to harness the light, but to serve it … and thus, the flame they carry is not stolen, but a grace.
The problem with living in a downstairs flat is that there is no upstairs. This may sound obvious, but when you have lived in a house almost all your life, with an upstairs, you tend to forget. Many times I have grabbed my camera to head for the upstairs windows, only to realise that the couple who live up there might, possibly, object to me barging in unannounced every sunset and dawn.
My home is on a roughly east-west axis. Just sufficiently ‘off’ to mean that in summer, I can watch the sun rise from my pillow without needing to move. In winter I see the dawn through the garden doors that are, inevitably, already open for the dog.
Sunsets are a bit more problematic. The curve of the houses in my street and the rooftops opposite my kitchen window block most of my view. I get only the spreading colours as the light fades… which is where the upstairs would have come in handy. A little more height and I could see so much.
Yet, as I stood on the doorstep tonight, watching vivid pink and gold soften the sky, I realised how lucky I am to be able to watch the day begin and end, in glowing colours or beneath a pall of roiling clouds, every single day. City dwellers seldom see much of the skyline and, when work takes me early into town, I miss the dawn as it hides behind the rooftops.
It may be natural to wish for things that are seen, but just out of reach or it may be the way we are conditioned by our society from the earliest age to aspire to ‘something more’. ‘The grass is always greener’ and all that… But all that happens is that in looking beyond what is to what could be, we shift our focus away from the moment in which we stand and fail to appreciate what it offers. Not only that, but we create dissatisfaction for ourselves, a pressure for change for the sake of change and the stress of always chasing an illusive and elusive ‘something’ that we hope will be better than what we have. How often do we truly look at what we have in gratitude, not with some indefinable yearning?
Does it really matter that I see ‘only’ a sky suffused with colour and not the whole sunset? I could change that… a walk to the fields would give me an unobscured view, but it would take time and effort… a commitment and an active choice. Wishing alone will not get me from here to there… but I need do nothing at all to be here and now.
Every day is different, every dawn and dusk offers new wonders… and it does not matter at all where I am or where I stand. It matters only that I look up and see it as it happens.