Never West…

I’ve always loved maps…

I can remember, when a child, being bought a fold-out schematic of a town with streets, main roads, a river, a hill and a railway line. It was just a layout – a map – but I had lots of my own cars, a model train and some small figures of the right scale to populate the town with activity.

“Where are you?” my mother asked, shortly after I became joyfully lost in the richly-featured landscape on the carpet. I looked up, puzzled by the question. I picked up a plastic farmer and offered it to her.

“Are you there or here?” she asked. My mother was always good at making you think…

I can’t remember what my reply was – probably just to keep holding out the plastic farmer.

I grew up with a love of walking and cycling… and maps. I would spend my own pocket money to get a walkers’ map of my favourite places so I could pore over them, imagining, with increasing accuracy, what the landscape would look like. It never occurred to me to ask why north was at the top of the map. I knew from my spinning globe of the planet that the north-pole was at the top of the world, so, of course, all maps would be oriented with north as the top.

But it’s not always been so…

Understanding where we are in the world is fundamental to our survival.. and our sanity. It has psychological implications, too – most of them subconsciously acted on. Our brains are specially ‘wired’ to provide us with a continuously changing ‘map’ of where we are – usually relative to safety or ‘the known’.

Have you ever awoken from a disturbing dream and not known where you were for a second or two? It’s can be frightening; and gives us an insight into why our children cry when faced with the same or similar experiences. A dream has taken them out of the ‘familiar’ and they fear what is new, especially, as in the dream state, when rational thinking is unavailable.

The need for that ‘place of safety’ is hard-wired into our brain’s cognitive mechanisms. In so-called primitive mankind, the place of safety was a physical thing: a cave, or a dwelling in a sturdy tree, perhaps. It’s taken us thousands of years to become happy with the idea that we are somewhere safe (for example, staying in a hotel), rather than the actual location of the home.

Perhaps, seeing this, we become more sympathetic to those who lose their homes through economic or political upheaval. There are likely to be many more homeless people as the present Corvid-19 crisis works its way through our societies.

We are almost unique in trying to share the directions to home with others. The only other species with this is the honey bee. Insect species, like ants, leave chemical trails, but they don’t try to communicate through a language of place. Just us and the bees…

Humans have a long history of creating maps. The oldest examples discovered on cave walls are 14,000 years old. During that time, maps have been drawn, etched or scratched on stone, paper and, now, screened on computer devices – particularly portable ones, like phones and tablets.

(Above: This famous 1973 shot of the Earth, done by an astronaut who was upside down, was actually taken with south at the top. NASA decided to flip it to a normal north-up orientation before its release. Image NASA)

If we were to examine the Earth from space, we would immediately see how difficult it is to identity north. Unless you are long way from the Earth, there are no visual clues, apart from the point of a theoretically huge pencil around which the Earth rotates – the physical (geographic) ‘North Pole’. But this is not the same as the ‘north’ reading on that little pocket device the boy holding the plastic farmer would have got. The two would have been close, but not identical, as the vast and surging currents in the Earth’s iron core creates fluctuations in the magnetic field that swings the little needle on a magnetic compass.

The compass has been an essential part of the story of maps. It’s interesting that its inventors, the Han Dynasty in China (2nd century BCE to 1st century CE), used compasses that pointed to what we now view as south. South was the direction taken by the naturally occurring lodestone used in these early instruments. In ancient China, the ‘top’ of the map was therefore south.

Christian maps from the time of the Crusades were known as Mappa Mundi. East was at the top, towards the Garden of Eden and with Jerusalem in the centre – the geographic focus of their ‘holy wars’.

(Above: the Hereford Mappa Mundi, with Jerusalem and the east, at the top of the map, Source Wikipedia, Public Domain)

In ancient Egypt, the ‘top’ of the world was east – the position of the sunrise. The Islamic empire placed south at the top, like China. Most of the Islamic population lived north of Mecca, so it was natural to ‘look up’ to the south.

The west was left out of this history. The place to which humanity ‘looked up’ – the top of the map – was never west. So-called Pagan culture was and is closely aligned with all four cardinal directions, and the west is traditionally the point where the day ends, and mindful humans reflect and later sleep to renew. It also marks the end of the force of life (Solar), for that day, and by inference, eventually, the end of life.

It seems no-one wanted to ‘look up’ to the place where the Sun set.

Governments and their military forces have always been interested in maps. Battles are not always won with good maps, but they are certainly lost with bad ones. Google now dominates the world of computer maps, though there are alternatives. Google acquired a private company named Keyhole, who had US military backing to refine and develop the technology that became Google Maps. It’s a powerful product, and most of us have used it in one form or another. Google’s model with all its ‘Apps’ is to give them away and make revenue by selling your location and preferences to its advertisers. The financial cost is low, but it takes us into potentially murky waters. The average person knows little about what really happens with such data, nor who has access to it. Google recently fought a protracted revolt by its own employees, who considered its mapping developments were in danger of breaching the company’s famous ‘Do No Harm’ ethic…

Apple is the other big Tech player in this field. Apple’s business model is to charge more for premium devices but then guarantee to protect the user’s data. Apple did not back down on this – even when heavily pressured by the US government who wanted a ‘back-door’ into its primary security features for ‘anti-terrorism’ purposes. Many of my friends switched to Apple at that point and now view it as the only ‘safe haven’ for their information.

I use products from both sides of this divide. I like Google’s email and and spreadsheet products. But I use them only on Apple technology, then, at least, I have the tested integrity of its privacy promises. Google’s entire model is web-based, so their applications are not hosted in the device; only the browser is.

But the world is changing fast, as illustrated by Google and Apple now working together in the Covid-19 arena to provide a user-secure, distributed framework for ‘contact tracing’. Interestingly, the French government, one of the first to take this up, immediately demanded that the private user data be made available to their authorities. Both companies refused and the demand was eventually withdrawn. Even non-authoritarian societies struggle with these complex issues of privacy vs policing.

Science, like maps, doesn’t give us hard and fast answers. It provides a better-than-last-time fit of what might be happening, knowing that this iteration, too, isn’t perfect. For politicians to quote that they are being ‘led by the science’, as though that were a binary truth or falsehood, is a lie to an unknowing public.

Maps have become far more potent and powerful things. A map is a world. A map allows us to see a whole. A map invites us in… In many ways, it takes three ‘faces’ to make it work. The first is the nature of what is being mapped; the second is the style of representation, for example, figurative or actual.

We need to become the third face in the success of the map. We should enter into all these things, mindfully, knowing that commerce exploits without morals, that insular politics always leads to Fascism, and that the silent and caring voice of the majority cannot stay silent while our civilisation morally burns.

My mother, who now has dementia, wouldn’t understand the answer, but if she asked the boy-become-man studying the larger map of today’s political world the same question about where he was on that map, I might respond that he had to quickly outgrow the plastic farmer – the replica human – and become the fully empowered and fully responsible human by putting the small figure to one side, standing up and looking down at the whole map. If we don’t, then our star may set in the unsung west and humanity become a footnote in Great Nature’s experiments with Life.

That western horizon of our map is just around the corner… If we love the light, then we had better start running towards the ‘east’, and now.

(Opening picture: author-created overlay of two images from Pixabay. Originators: Skease and Philim1310)

©Stephen Tanham

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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The Old One and the Gatekeeper

Part One

The Old One crested the rise in the road and turned to look back at the land he had loved. If all went to plan, it would be the last time he saw his home.

The breeze that should have been summer-warm was cold and frigid, yet carried the warm stink of corruption. He could no longer breathe its air. He had to leave; had to find a new home for the few years that remained. The low nature of man had triumphed. Now, only nature, herself, could return the rotted civilisation to the country’s soil and make it fit for fresh seeds.

Ahead of him the final barrier to his exile loomed in the near darkness. The old tower that guarded entry and exit along the western road spanned the track, its heavy wooden gate lowered to forbid the unbidden. High up in a recess in the black stone, a single light burned. Had he been seen? The skin on the back of his head began its familiar sensation of ripples in the sand, as though an incoming tide was patterning his mind, as in the paintings he had seen of beaches…

There was no escaping the onset; in the other world, he was being eaten by the way, the path, the track… In the other world; the one that flowed over and alongside this seemingly fixed and rigid one. The one that was more real than this land of rocks could ever be.

Ahead of me a lamp in one of the high windows burns. The thought would not leave, the rippling scalp remained. Its signature was on this moment. There would be no escape from the payment demanded.

Before he could cross the short distance to the gatekeeper’s door, the heavy portal opened and a kindly face – at least as old as his – peered out, straining to see in the half-light.

“Is it you?” the voice croaked at his approach.

The Old One was startled… and began to laugh at the sentiment. Is it me, indeed?, he mused, tripping over an unseen stone by the roadside and landing in the dust at the other’s feet.

“It would appear to be me… arrived in all my diminishing glory.”

The Gatekeeper smiled down at him, extending his hand to a man he did not know, but had wanted to all his life. The Old One took it, grateful, and they came face to face.

“I saw you once, passing through the royal courts. You’re the Royal Archivist, yes?”

“I was…” The Old One replied, returning the gentle fire in the other’s eyes. Glad to be with a man he hoped would not only understand but become a friend. “Now I am nothing… and hope to stay that way…”

The Gatekeeper nodded. “Many now leave the realm by this west gate. Have no fear. My respect for you is as great as my thirst for your knowledge of the Way.” He looked down, embarrassed at what he was about to say. But the old eyes blazed with fire and resolution.

“I will give you food and shelter and in return I ask that you teach me a little of that understanding.”

“You cannot teach understanding,” the Old One said. “But I will pass to you some knowledge and we will see if you can begin the Way… for those whose first steps are firm may find the Way teaches them.”

The Gatekeeper nodded and they climbed the wooden stairs together – slowly, for the four legs had seen younger days…

——-

The warm fire smouldered in the grate. The wooden bowls contained only crumbs – and few at that. Before them, the two wooden goblets of huangjiu, the local yellow wine, lay untouched; to be savoured during the discourse to come. The Gatekeeper’s eyes were fixed on the Old One, but he said nothing to his guest, who appeared to be sleeping in his chair.

“I am not asleep,” the Old One remarked, eventually. “I am listening to the Way, and how it will approach the task of leaving you something meaningful.”

The Gatekeeper bowed and remained silent.

“Do you remember how I fell over the rock in the road?” The Old One smiled at the memory.

The Gatekeeper shook with mirth. “Solid things, rocks…”

The Old One’s head nodded. “More sense to go around it, had I seen it at all!”

The Gatekeeper was seized with a sudden depth of understanding. “And you speak, not just of that rock, perhaps Lǎoshī!”

The teacher smiled at the use of the formal name. “Good. The Way is a flow, it does not resist, for to resist is to increase the ‘me and it’ : the opposition of the situation. Action belongs to The Way, and so, in any situation, it will seek the flow by which the resistance is made small…When we are aligned with The Way, then we become it, in action – which is its own fulfilment.”

The Gatekeeper bowed his head, again, understanding. He was silent for a while, while the Old One watched. Then he asked, “How do I come to know The Way, Lǎoshī?”

“You must talk with it, Gatekeeper.” said the Old One. “You must read its thoughts and let them guide the changes in your life.”

“And how will I read those thoughts, Lǎoshī?”

“You will consult a book of its wisdom, and in that way become a Man of Calling.”

“And where will I find this book, Lǎoshī?”

“When you wake in the morning, you will find it waiting for you… Now drink your yellow wine and sleep.”

“And what will you be doing, while I sleep, Lǎoshī?”

“I will be writing the book!” said the Old One, furrowing his brows in mock anger.


When he awoke in the morning, the Gatekeeper found what became known as the Dao Book of the Way (Dao De Jing) on his table. There was no sign of his guest, whose last action was inaction – leaving no trace. No-one ever met Lao Tzu, (literally, the ‘Old One’), again, though many, including Confucius, had known and respected him.

In the next few posts, we will explore Lao Tzu’s astonishing legacy, beginning with some of the fundamental principles that informed his view of life, the universe and the meaning of ‘meaning”.

We will also look at the second such ‘book’ of ancient Chinese wisdom, the more familiar ‘I Ching’ – Book of Changes, and consider the process and power of divination using such treasure-chests of wisdom.

We’re all going to need access to wisdom in the coming years of turmoil – much as Lao Tzu did in the face of a collapsing society whose values had become meaningless.

30 April 2020

©Stephen Tanham

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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Wisdom Breathes Out?

(Above: the sculpture to commemorate the executed members of the Resistance in Arras, Northern France)

We seem to be wrestling with the recognition that an age is coming to an end, and that strange forms are filling the world with casual madness, behaving as though nothing hangs over, us; no piper calling for the line to the clifftop.

The word ‘wisdom’ is to be used cautiously. It is subjective. One person’s wisdom is another’s folly. And yet, looking back on a series of events, we can clearly see where something was ‘wise’. Perhaps we don’t see as clearly where something was unwise? Maybe we don’t feel good if our opinions were part of something that led downhill… we’ve all been there.

Wisdom implies a developed sense of consequence. The ‘wise’ woman or man has enough information to have formed a mental and emotional model of what happens in a given set of circumstances. They can play, with some success, the game of consequence, running events forward in their heads (and often hearts) to see what the pattern of results would be.

Emotions can run away with us. We can wilfully turn away from that small voice of learned consequence to embrace the rush of something wonderful, knowing that it has the potential for chaos, but makes us feel good at the time – especially when our lives are hard and we can see the opulence of others. To lash out is satisfying if you live in a state of constant struggle. These states can be, and are, exploited by those who can spend vast sums getting into our minds…

Information can be facts or opinion. The entire history of science has been a struggle to establish facts – repeatable, dependable… and sometimes ‘boring’ – but only because the truth is becoming complex; and black and white may be fun to as revenge, but deadly when exploited by those who know their own wealth was built on the most subtle of decisions. But facts are the basis of truth, though the finer levels of truth involve a state of mind in which there is another kind of knowledge – or perhaps ‘presence’ would be a better term.

One fact is that we live in a complex world. A world so evolved in its social and political systems that solutions to societal or economic problems are, themselves, necessarily difficult. Ascending populist politicians are keen to present themselves as ‘disruptors’. Their ‘unique’ insight into tangled and emotive situations is popular with supporters when they pronounce that something should be smashed to make way for that which is self-evidently more vital.

Like the best lies, there is some truth in that. Throughout mankind’s comparatively short history, the idea of necessary destruction has haunted us. The ancient Hindu civilisation even codified this phase of a society’s changes by allocating it a god – Shiva, partnered by Vishnu, the preserver on the opposite side of the sentiment. The two were not at war, but rather Janus-like faces of the essential processes of ‘development’.

All these things are at the heart of how mankind thinks and feels about itself at present. No-one would deny that we are living through a period of ever faster change. The sense that no-one is really driving the bus is everywhere, just as it would be in a stock market at times of market ‘peaks’ when traders know that things have gone too far, and instability is about to wreak its consequence, but the first to lose their nerve will lose face and money if their caution is premature.

We have little idea how much of our society, our world, is build on confidence. Tumbling confidence snowballs like an avalanche. The landscape looks very different when the work of the falling ice and snow is finished…

An important part of any society is the idea that there are ‘elders’ of that civilisation. Elders, in this context, can be political or specialist. Either way, they will have gained this status through being wise in what they do. We could characterise the present stage of western politics by saying that we suffer from a lack of elders – at least elders in power.

Elders in a specialist sense are those who are genuinely experts; the kind of people you would expect a parliamentary enquiry to summon to assist. Their knowledge would be wide and their wisdom greater. Their approach would be characterised by an absence of self-interest, a sense of them having glimpsed another world, one in which the act of selflessness was inherent for the greater good.

There are pressures in modern society that have resulted in us facing new challenges, some of which are severe and from which we may not recover. In the opening paragraphs, we looked at how wisdom is based upon the mixture of knowledge and experience – leading to a developed sense of consequence. The societal structures that support these in a healthy society collapse if the fundamental respect for truth is eroded. For the first time, we face a barrage of populist opinion eager to rubbish facts as ‘fake news’. The consequences of this are dire, and may take whole generations to correct.

The way we communicate has also changed. The online world has given our children limitless access to the apparent glitter of ‘celebrity’, a world where you can be famous for simply being famous. This vacuous layer of society distracts from the real and important issues into which each new generation needs to be carefully inducted – if they are to contribute to the age to come with their fresh viewpoints and, eventually, mature wisdom. The world of celebrity, like that of media, is owned by billionaires who have their own agenda for how society should develop.

I’ve written, elsewhere, about the corrosive effect of social media when it encourages people to seek out the virtual company of those of like opinion. The ‘echo-chamber’ is well documented, and is the very opposite of that which fosters wisdom; in which the open exchange of views and experience is central to societal maturity.

We face many challenges, but the human species has proved resilient in the past. Let us hope that there is still enough wisdom extant in the planet to engender a spirit of unity to face what lies ahead.

As individuals and families, we need to look to our own values and invest, selflessly, in that which is true and that which endures in that truth.

Either way, our future is going to look very different.

©Stephen Tanham

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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Voices in the Mist (1)

We had never been to the First World War monuments and graves in northern France. As a young man, I considered them part of a national mindset that glorified war. But, over the decades, that view was moderated and I realised that such places are the result of something much deeper in the national psyche.

And not just national. Like a vast whirlpool, WW1 drew in polarising forces from across the world as the British Commonwealth and its allies faced the might of the armies of Wilhelm, the last Kaiser and Emperor of Prussia. The opening picture is from the deeply moving Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge – to which the second post in this series will be dedicated.

But the first part of our journey was the road up the hill from the small town of Amblain St. Nazaire to the French monument of Notre Dame de Lorette. As we climbed the hill the mist thickened. It was fitting weather to come face to face with a part of France that has been the focus of such intense emotion and international remembrance.

(Above: Notre Dame de Lorette Basilica with its lines of war graves is only part of this hilltop cemetery)

Notre Dame de Lorette is the name of the French Military Cemetery on top of the ridge which was the scene of so much conflict and death in the ‘Great War’. The name applies to the ridge, the basilica and the French national cemetery building. The hump-backed ridge stands nearly 170 metres above the surrounding land and the nearby town of Arras, which I wrote about in the last blog. This hill and Vimy ridge are the most dominant features of this otherwise flat part of northern France.

(Above: It would be hard to describe how cold the freezing mist was…but the sense of ‘rightness’ was complete – the cold horror of what happened along this ridge, and what happens when mankind forgets the power of the dark side of our nature)

Two buildings appear on the left-hand side of the road as you approach the cemetery. First the basilica of Notre Dame de Lorette, then, behind it, a tall tower, known as the Lantern Tower. They form an odd pair… until you stand in the space between them and something dramatic happens.

This part of the ridge has long been consecrated ground. Centuries ago, it was the site of a miraculous cure and gained the name of Notre Dame de Lorette because of the association of the miracle with the Virgin Mary. The present building is really a basilica built in the Romano-Byzantine style but retained the name of ‘chapel’ to honour the older tradition. It is unusual in that the small altar of the chapel is located outside the building at the entrance to the east door. The Notre Dame de Lorette statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus stands next to the main altar inside the chapel.

Sadly, the basilica was closed for maintenance during our visit, so we had to be content with a tour of the exterior and the space between chapel and tower. But this did give us time to consider several of the beautiful inscriptions on the walls of both buildings.

(Above: the twin stone date markers flank the approach to the ‘chapel’ (really Basilica) of Notre Dame de Lorette)
(Above: up close, the Basilica is much larger than it looks on the approach. Sadly, it was closed for maintenance on the day we visited..)

Between the Chapel/Basilica and its associated tower is what can only be described as vast ‘plain’ paved in the same sandstone as the entrance walkway. Nearer the chapel, but dividing the two structures is what appears to be mausoleum which draws the eye from both in a way reminiscent of Egyptian temples..

(Above: the proximity of chapel to ‘mausoleum’ belies the relationship to the lantern tower, which is only appreciated when you look the other way…)

The ‘red plain’ – whose symbolism is later obvious, but not immediately grasped, is a completely flat surface and draws the eye outside of a human frame of reference and into the ‘spiritual’ world, beyond. Before turning to look at the tower, a larger context needs to be held in the mind and heart: that given on the side of the basilica in the photo below. Bearing in mind its religious link with the Virgin Mary; no stranger, herself, to suffering…

(Above: the engraved message from the eternal self fighting to stay sane in a world of seemingly endless violence)

My French is limited, but Sue has lent a hand: “To thee who from the heart of pain gave birth to Holy Hope, to thee this temple born of tears… Offered by the women of France…”

It just gets to you… In the freezing fog, with tears in my eyes, having grasped some of the import of the inscription and with my un-gloved hands hurting with cold while I held the camera, I turned, in order to look across the ‘red plain’ to grasp the importance of the Lantern Tower. But my eyes were captured by the ‘mausoleum’ building next to where I was standing.

(The ‘mausoleum’ reveals itself as something more…)

The significance of the supposed mausoleum becomes apparent at this point. The sheathed crossed-swords of valour are stationed outside this portico, whose purpose is solely to house the external altar of the ‘Mother Mary’. The relationship is to the words written on the facing walls of the ‘chapel’.

(Above: the twin swords of valour are sheathed in the stone)
(Above: Finally, the eyes are drawn to the Lantern Tower in the near-distance)

The Lantern Tower has, as its name suggests, a light at the top. Louis Cordonnier designed it to revolve five times each minute, once darkness falls… It’s a very poignant monument, and sits 150 feet high, above what is already the highest point on the ridge. The Lantern Tower was inaugurated in August 1925. Until recently, the 200 internal steps could be climbed by visitors, but the viewing gallery at the top has been closed for security reasons.

(Above: the Lantern Tower – light from a dramatic structure…)

The light from the Lantern Tower can be seen for 45 miles – encompassing all the local battlefields at the time of WW1. The base of the tower is a 25 metre square which frames a crypt containing the remains of 6,000 soldiers and a chapel of rest.

A container for relics was placed in the tower in April 1955. It contains soil and ashes from the concentration camps of World War II.

But the left-hand side of the road does not encompass the whole of the monument. Across the way, and only opened in 2014, is a vivid reminder of the horrors of war, and a moving memorial to all those who died in WW1. The French government decided that a monument of total inclusion was appropriate. This means that the names of the fallen among the ‘enemy’ were included in the monument’s role to the casualties of WW1.

(Above: the first of the alphabetic panels in the ‘Round Monument’ : L’Anneau de la Memoire

Such an inclusive approach may be our only hope to prevent such catastrophes in the future: to regard all people involved in wars as victims, and thereby point back along the chain of causality to the real causes… ego, power and bullying in human nature.

The name of Wilfred Owen, one of the most celebrated of the ‘war poets’, who died one week before the end of WW1.

Written on the entrance to the circular monument is written this:

“The 580,000 names are listed in alphabetical order, without distinction between rank or nationality, former enemies and friends side by side……. This memorial was erected in a peaceful Europe in memory of a terrible tragedy which devastated a generation of young men, who for the most part could read and write.

L’Anneau de la Memoire”

“Who for the most part could read and write…” a poignant and telling end to the dedication to an entire generation.

Our time had run out. We were due in Calais in a few hours. But we had found out that, nearby, was another major memorial site: that of the Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge – the site of one of the major battles of WW1. We decided to steal some time and make the short journey.

It was to be one of the best decisions we could have made… and brought us face to face with what I’ve come to think of as one of the most dramatic of monumental sculptures in the world.

The Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge. See Part Two of this series.

To be concluded in Part Two.

©Stephen Tanham

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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The Sun, the Lion and the Ashes

(Above: The beautifully restored town of Arras in northern France)

We are in northern France, visiting relatives that were only re-discovered three years ago, after an eighty years gap… My paternal grandmother was the youngest sister of an elder brother (also Stephen) who survived the horrors of WW1, married a French girl and eventually settled near Calais.

(Above: North-West France, with Arras highlighted bottom right)

When France was overrun, the Nazis wouldn’t allow Stephen to take his family back to England and, eventually, contact was lost… He escaped arrest because his adopted craft of running a local bakery – which his wife’s family had taught him, was a ‘protected’ occupation and so, apart from being watched, periodically, he was left alone.

His frequent assistance to the Resistance went undetected, or his fate would have been very different…

Today there are two branches of our once-lost family: one in Calais (the Duffys – after my great uncle) and the other in Lille (the Bertaloots) near the Belgian border. For the first few days of our trip, we are staying with the family in Lille. Nearby is the small city of Arras, an ancient Roman town whose last-century history is dominated by the First World War. The damage to the town, and the magnificent reconstruction undertaken by the local people faced with the devastation of their home is the basis and the inspiration for this post.

We; the Tanhams, the Duffys (Stephen’s surname) of Calais and the Berteloots of Lille have become good friends – indicated by the fact that these lovely people have taken two days off work to show us around a couple of the places we asked to see.

(Above: Late January afternoon in Arras)

Returning to WW1, the ‘Battle of Arras’ was fought in May 1917, as a joint operation between general Haig – at odds with his Prime Minster, Lloyd George – and the senior French commander, General Neville. The French forces dominated this part of the war’s front and it was Haig’s job to support them.

The French plans proved over-ambitious and Haig’s forces suffered heavy casualties for little gain, though four divisions of the Canadian army combined to take the important Vimy ridge. The nearby town of Arras was largely destroyed during the shelling.

Following the Armistice in November 1919, hostilities ceased and the battered French citizens set about the huge task of rebuilding their city…

(Above: Arras as it looked after the devastation of WW1. From a photo in the town hall. There was nothing I could do to escape the reflection in the glass!)

I found the photos of the post-war ruins poignant and relevant to current British politics.

Recently, the same people who drove the ‘Brexit’ process turned their backs at the opening session while a dignified European Parliament looked on in disbelief. The same people, still funded by the EU, now want to have London’s Big Ben strike out the chimes of Britain’s official ‘leaving date’ at the end of January in a show of jingoistic pride… one could hardly write a novel to match the recent events, but we would be unwise to consider this fantasy… nightmare, maybe.

For me and people like me, they have created a similar devastation in the minds and hearts of the half of Britain’s population who wished to remain part of the united Europe that emerged from the ashes of blitzed London and shelled Arras.

(Above: a Canadian sculpture representing a country’s sorrow after war)

Fascism is innate in human nature. The school bully is a fascist, recruiting the weak and unthinking to a cause of personal glory which elevates his or her ego above any common cause of progress. By doing this, he finally exists… However, the emotionally settled child, perhaps growing up in a good family, knows that their existence must be balanced with the needs of a wider circle of caring humans.

What is little considered is that the dictator-fascist is only a school bully… and that sustained courage will unseat them.

(Above: the restored town hall of Arras)

Arras emerged from its ashes when its people rejected the devastation bequeathed to them by the madness of privileged ego. Everyone came together to rebuild the town; and the collective consciousness of that town recreated the ‘extravagant gothic’ style of each house and shop, street by street.

(Above: inside the restored town hall of Arras)

A little-known fact is that, from the 17th century, it was obligatory for anyone building a new house in Arras to submit a copy of the plans to the town hall. It was the possession of these plans that enabled Arras to emerge, accurately, from the devastation of the war that exploded like a volcano around it, to reconstruct what it had been… Its past, with all its art and tolerance was documented.

(Above: the mother figure – The female Elder – at the Vimy Ridge monument to WW1 Canadian soldiers. She stares down at her empty womb…)

The process of war via fascism – all war and all fascism – is, for me, perfectly symbolised by the nearby Vimy Ridge monument. This startling sculpture by Canadian artist Walter S. Allward rises high above the ridge-line at Vimy – a place where eleven thousand Canadian soldiers were killed in order for the ridge to be taken back from the Germans.

(Above: the father-figure – the Elder – rakes his skin in anguish)

I intend to write a post dedicated to this moving monument and reveal some of its intricately-wrought emotional detail. For now, here is a glimpse of two of the figures that are revealed when you pass through the anguish of the parents and into the actuality of the war as it happened before their loss…

(Above: the process of war; its participants and victims. The downward facing side of the Vimy Ridge monument – the subject of a future post)

To conclude, let’s go back to the title of the blog: The Sun, the Lion and the Ashes.

(Above: the Lion has always been one half of the story of Arras)
(Above: the sun-symbol of Louis XIV – part of the identity of all the towns in this region of France. This example is from the Vaubon-designed Citadel at Lille)

We can all find ourselves the wrong side of how we think things should be. The views above are my own and do not necessarily represent anyone else in the Silent Eye School. What is important is how we react to the ‘ashes’ of our perceived world. If, like the people of Arras, we have ‘documented’ what be believe to be vital in our world, we will be able to begin again in the new circumstances secure in the knowledge that we brought the best of it with us.

©️Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye school of consciousness, a distance-learning teaching organisation that operates on a not-for-profit basis to help people deepen their life experiences without fluff and with personal supervision. You can find out more about the Silent Eye by clicking here.

Standing on Plastic (1): eco-bricks and suburbia

(Above: Standing on a nearly ready EcoBrick)

I’m standing on a plastic bottle, and, for once, I’m not trying to crush it for disposal so that it won’t fill up the bin–or even the recycling box. What I’m doing is testing it for weight-bearing density.

My bottle, which used to contain four pints of milk, is jam-packed with thin pieces of cut-up plastic, such as wrappers, carrier bags, the outer layers of couriered online-order packages… and a thousand other things for which plastic is essential…

But, such plastic in the wrong place is, as we’re all realising, deadly.

Many, larger-scale plastics are recyclable and so can be put into local centres. This milk bottle is, too. But this blog is not about the bottle, it’s about the bottle as container for the compressed contents – three weeks’ worth of non-recyclable plastic wrappings.

Most of our packaging and food wrapping materials – such as those used for toffee and chocolate – are not recyclable. Singly, each of these feels small – almost not worth worrying about. But start to collect them to fill a plastic bottle and you’ll be surprised how quickly they accumulate.

Sadly, being light, they are most likely to find themselves loose in the landscape, and then the oceans, where, as we now know, they become part of the marine life food chain and eventually enter our children’s brains… Soon, all our brains, and others part of our bodies, will be directly polluted by micro-plastic. No-one knows what the long term effects will be; but we know they will be harmful… possible even fatal to our species. You can’t take an antibiotic for plastic poisoning.

Plastic is a new material in the history of life on Earth. Our slowly evolved natural defences are good at dealing with molecular structures that have been around a long time. Plastic hasn’t… it’s a complex set of molecules derived from oil and it’s new to our biological defences.

(Above: Take a wooden ‘plunger’…)

The bottle I’m standing on is an ‘EcoBrick’, a term invented by the South American creator of the device – Susanna Heisse. Horrified at the level of plastic waste around her home near Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. She came up with the idea of using plastic bottles stuffed with non-recyclable other plastic as a building material.

The EcoBricks have to be clean and filled with clean, non-organic material. Once sealed, organic waste would generate methane gas, which could explode the ‘brick’. In addition, EcoBricks need to be stuffed so that an adult could stand on them without deformation to the repurposed bottle, as in my picture.

It’s important to use some brightly coloured plastic at the bottom of the stuffed bottle, because that lets the base of the brick be identified if one construction project comes to an end and, say, a wall has to be demolished and reused.

Once these conditions are met the bricks are used either horizontally as true brick substitutes, or vertically for cavity insulation – which they are very suited to. But this is a technology in its infancy…

Initially, Susanna Heisse built a simple wall, layering the stuffed bottles horizontally, with mud-based mortar on top of each layer. The local community picked up the idea and many similarly poor regions of the world began to investigate the potential for using EcoBricks as building materials.

(Above: and compress it as hard as you can)

But what about families in western suburbia? Are we really likely to have local projects to which we can contribute our efforts?

There are several dimensions to the problem of plastic disposal. The fundamental one is that our societies have fostered an attitude of ‘someone else can deal with this problem better than I can’. That, alone, produces an approach where its someone else’s problem. We could argue that in a society that was functioning for the good of all we could expect this, but the big drawback is it takes us – our shared consciousness – away from the problem – from the cutting edge of why our world is filling up with waste plastic…

Equally significantly, our trust that the ‘commercial’ disposal of our plastic waste will be carried out with care for the environment can be misplaced. As the headlines have shown us, small bits of ‘rubbish’ become part of larger batches commercially sold on. Many of them become part of a huge load dropped onto the open pit of a cargo ship; and then…

Do these end up somewhere that is sensitive to the wishes of those of us who recycled them at the local unit? How many of us would bet on this? Very few, I suspect. We are content with the ‘should have been’ situation that removes us from the problem; someone’s else’s problem.

Only now it doesn’t. Now, the plastic is coming back into the food chain and it is the problem of our developing children…

Sadly, I have to report that I can find nowhere local to take my EcoBricks… I will continue looking, but this has prompted other, and deeper, deliberations.

I may simply have not looked hard enough, but I think we may be missing the point. EcoBricks were developed in a poor part of South America. The greatest take-up has been in countries like South Africa, where projects in poverty-stricken townships have used musical carnivals to be the centre of clean up and restore projects involving them. The difference between them and, say the UK, is that they need to do it…

Will this stop me making my EcoBricks? No…

Every time I roll that washed chocolate wrapper, or cut-up sections of an old plastic bag to stuff them in the latest bottle, I know I’m doing something important… and that’s not just the act of packing the EcoBrick. The important part is the consciousness of the waste, and the determination that we in the prosperous west should be bringing local technology to all of this. I want to own this problem and fix it!

Remember the ‘Back to the Future’ films?

The bit where the time-travelling car needed refuelling and the professor hunted around the street for some rubbish, tipping it into the hyper-recycling unit, before hitting 88 miles per hour and saving the day…

We don’t have skateboarding Martys… or do we? To our children and their children the tyrants who stood in the way of solving these problems will be held up as examples of a (literally) dying age.

So, I’ll go on making my EcoBricks. It will keep me focussed on the need for a solution. Maybe a future government will create a working ‘corridor’ to the needy parts of the world. More likely, some engineering genius will develop a home machine that ‘bakes’ plastic into a universal raw material.

And who knows, when the PortaFusion Recycler Mark I comes along, I might still be here, with my garage full of plastic bricks, at the front of the queue. I hope to see you there…

In the meantime, I’ll keep researching and writing up that search. Please contribute here or on Carol’s blog from the Retired? No one told me! website.

Some useful links about EcoBricks. Warning, some may be commercial:

The GEA, Global Ecobrick Alliance – https://www.ecobricks.org/circular/

Ecotricity: https://www.ecotricity.co.uk/news/news-archive/2019/what-is-an-ecobrick

Earthship Biotecture: https://www.earthshipglobal.com/

UK Facebook Page for EcoBricks UK: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ecobricksUK/

©Stephen Tanham

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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The Whirlpool

Underlying image by Gordon Johnson on Pixabay

It begins with a feeling… A feeling that something has fallen: like a vital bridge being destroyed.

As it develops, you sense the landscape being stretched, allowing forms of life alien to your own to enter the world.

And then you become conscious that there is a velocity, here – that we are all going somewhere we didn’t ask for. After a while you realise that the world is not only changing, but is being buffeted from the same place…

That place is the centre. The place from which the tearing winds are coming.

Soon, the low roar, the dull moaning, gain strength. They become a voice… and there is anger; an anger that won’t go away, like a wild beast dying.

By the time you see that, the whole world is moving, beginning to spin, tearing loose from everything you thought was fixed and, and… ‘of the elders’.

It’s too late… is it too late to do anything?

The riven world is full of creatures, creatures gloating that their views have triumphed against the overburdened weight of the controls that kept the world from breaking up, from spinning, from feeding that dreadful centre.

You look again at the place from which the noise is coming; only you can’t see it any more. It’s gone… spinning, faster and faster, it has become a vertical pit into which everything is being sucked – a whirlpool of hate.

You look at the far edge of the red whirlpool and see millions of people staring back at you – only they’re staring back at all of you and they’re screaming and shouting and laughing as the edge of the red water washes them faster and faster into more energetic screaming and shouting.

They are the opposite of what you believe yourself to be, and they generate the strongest of emotions in you… until you realise that this emotion, too, is hatred, and that your loathing of the hateful creatures is adding to the red spinning that now sucks in you, as well as them.

Fighting despair, you raise your gaze to look beyond the descending red waters and see – far away and behind the forces of the vortex, dotted here and there – a set of people whose eyes are not red, who are not shouting… not even speaking. No energy flows from them into the redness, though you can see and feel their pain. There is a different way to react… or maybe, not to react at all, simply to hold the good that was, so much of which is being sucked, like wreckage, into the red whirlpool.

The new knowing lodges in your heart. It breaks the force of the red gravity that had pulled you nearer the centre of that dreadful noise. You are moving backwards on the boiling waters, holding the eyes of the others who are holding yours… do not feed it, they whisper, gently.

It is calm, now. The dreadful vortex has gone, taking much of what you loved with it. But the waters that remain are the same waters that gave rise to a new world, long ago. The energy of renewal can begin its work.

The world is washed with its tears, but there is hope. There is no choice, now – you must be an elder, even if you are young… especially if you are young.