We don’t live ‘in the world’… an outrageous thing to say, and yet it’s true. Well, if we don’t live in the world, where do we live?
We don’t live in the world; we live in a picture of the world… the ‘big picture’ of the blog’s title. If we actually lived in the world, we would go insane within a very short time in trying to process the near infinite information that the real world throws at us every second of the day. Nature has helped us with this; millions of years of evolution have honed and perfected this ‘signal processor’ that we call the brain.
Instead of losing our minds – itself a telling statement – we have evolved to have, at the pinnacle of our personal organisation, a sophisticated ‘summary engine’ that can be taught what’s important to us so that it can be extracted from the ‘flow’.
When we were children, staying alive was very important; as was staying close to ‘mother’, who protected us. The knowledge and methods of this stage of our lives are buried deep in our so-called ‘subconscious’, where they protect us by becoming ultra-fast reactions based on recognised patterns of events coming at us – like a hot coal that once burned us, or the initial taste of mother’s milk, our original food of life that went hand in hand with her deep and ‘most warm’ love.
The human being’s consciousness is made up almost entirely of reactions… and rightly so. In a potentially hostile universe, these reactions operate at lightning speed to protect and preserve us. They also give us fear, filling us with chemicals that speed up our reactive potential. They can also give us pleasure… to the point of addiction.
Growing up to maturity in a stable way is not a trivial process. No wonder we value the stability of the bionic machine that protects us. That this reactive engine is the pinnacle of us is marginally untrue. We also have a strange other creature sitting high up there at the top of our personal organisation.
Reading this, you can, at any time, break away from these lines of language being interpreted by the equivalent of millions of lines of ‘brain code’ that sift and refine what the meaning is. You can break away from this information stream and ask yourself, ‘Mmm what do I think of this?’
The part of you that has this power of separate thought from the general engine of survival, pain and comfort is the self. The self is a very strange entity that arose in our internal experience once we had stabilised our survival. Essentially, the self was what survived in conscious memory from moment to moment within the sea of experience. We became attached to it, for it not only carried memories vital for survival, it also gave us a sense of worth. Because it was always there, we grew fond of it. With its help, we could take greater autonomy in our lives, choosing certain directions based, positively or negatively, on pleasure, pain or… even values.
Values are interesting. They dont feed us, they don’t frighten us, yet we have learned that they are important. Some humans don’t spend much time on values, but anyone brought up with love and affection is likely to have a small treasure-trove of culturally inherited values from their loving parents and those who have influenced them most strongly in their lives.
We might say we have an unusual instinct for the ‘good’, beyond any need for it to be linked to our survival… or even wellbeing.
Our higher levels of organisation – our minds – contain the most sophisticated abstract representations of our world and our selves. These representations are in the form of interior pictures. They may contain all the information our senses can provide, but they are still pictures. They are not the reality of the present. They are that reality seen through pieces of our history, as though through an evolved lens.
The nature of those pictures, and their relationship to any quest for the reality of our selves, is the subject of this series of posts. It’s a series I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I feel the time is right and appropriate to this felt sense of an ‘end of the age’. My belief is that things are indeed ending, but only to clear the way for the depths of human potential to be further revealed. Because of the way we are made, the real changes need to come from a psychological and spiritual perspective. Only an awareness of this dimension of ourselves will open up our possible future…
The idea of images being central to our mental and emotional existence is not a new one. Ancient systems of metaphysics used diagrams like the Tree of Life, above, to illustrate the relative place of the actual world and our consciousness within it. The lowest of the ten ‘spheres’, above, is Malkuth, which is the body and its raw awareness. But our composite consciousness of the world begins at the next higher level – the purple sphere of Yesod above it. One of the key meanings of Yesod is ‘The Image’.
The story of how our deeply personal ‘way of seeing’ developed is the story of how our experiences formed relationships between ‘me’ and the world. These started very simply, but powerfully, with the essential relationship between the infant and mother. In the first two years of life are to be found the essential lenses of our seeing that pattern the rest of our lives.
In the next part, we will examine this early state – not from a perspective of regression, but with a view to blending our early perceptions with the adult discrimination we now possess. The mixture can be a fiery one… But the flames of self-discovery can put an entirely new light on our habits, our fears, our joys and the potential for our consciousness to go much further than we currently envisage.
As I pulled the book from the shelf and opened it, a flower fell from between its pages. Its colour gone, its petals so fragile they cracked and crumbled as I caught the little thing. Still there was enough left for me to recognise what it was… a little sprig of forget-me-nots. My face remembered before conscious memory kicked in, the smile and the tear meeting halfway across my cheek. It was a long time ago, but for a second, imagination painted two hands where there was now one and the soft blue of the flower glowed ghostly blue. At its centre, the golden eye of a distant sun looked back at me. A very long time ago.
How much my life has changed in twenty years! How much the world itself has changed. Children who have grown into parents, people who have moved through my life, taken centre stage then exited quietly, to other lives or beyond life. Technology has moved at a pace that makes my daily life barely recognisable, opening a world of knowledge and communication whilst closing the doors on many more human moments of contact. Twenty years to see the sharpness of youth fade to softer tones. The hand that gave me that flower would barely recognise so much of my life today.
Yet, so much has not changed. People are still people, with the same hearts and hurts, the same dreams, the same problems. The places are all filled, as generation after generation play an eternal game of musical chairs, each taking the place of those who went before. The sky is still blue, the earth still as green and a babe in arms still has that soft, milky smell as every babe ever born. Forget-me-nots still bloom, and seem to tell a story similar to our own.
Tiny leaflets pierce the soil, barely distinguishable from any other plant, except to the gardener who knows them well. They grow, and buds small and pale, emerge baby-pink and fragile from the protective cocoon of sepals. As the petals begin to unfurl, their colour changes and deepens as they mature and become what they were always destined to be, opening wide to mirror the sun with a golden heart… then, slowly, they fade through the pastel shades of age, setting seeds that cling to everything with which they come into contact. They are carried far and wide and will spread, perpetuating their delicate beauty long after they are gone.
For a moment time stops as I look at the crumbling flower. I am there and then, yet here and now too and the two are not separate but occupy the same time and space within me as, for a scintilla, I am conscious of being outside of the constraints of perceived time. The moments that unfurl like petals in memory have never left; they are not ‘gone’ or ‘lost’ but remain as part of the garden of my own life and from the memories, as much as the moment when the flower was fresh, seeds are continually sown and grow.
I return the papery fragments to the earth and the flower has gone full circle… my hands are empty, yet the smile and the memory remain and will bloom every time I see a forget-me-not. They always do. No experience is ever lost, it only slips from consciousness to take root in mind or heart.
The misty dawn blushed a soft, rosy pink, probably embarrassed by the number of clichés it was inviting. It had begun with a delicate glow, suffusing the rising mist with gold as I shivered on the doorstep, then painted the world in pastel colours, as gentle as an apology. As the sun rose, the temperature plummeted, the swirling mists turned to fog and you could almost see the ice crystals forming. Another morning was born…
The sudden frost highlighted every detail of plants still resolutely green, each strand of spider silk and the edge of every fallen leaf. The ordinary became beautiful. Details that are overlooked a hundred times a day were limned in crystal and became unmissable… yet, but for necessity, I would have taken the option of comfort, stayed warm indoors and seen nothing. As I scraped the ice from the windscreen of the car, I was once again struck by how simple it is to learn the lessons of life by observing Nature at work. My own experience of the morning was one of frozen fingers and yet, the bitter frost served only to highlight a beauty that might otherwise have been missed.
Necessity and inevitability so often lead us into bitter and painful situations, but without them as a contrast, would we…could we…truly appreciate all that is right in our world? Would we notice a dawn if the sky always wore the colours of sunrise or do we need to experience darkness in order to understand the essence of light? Looking around too, I noted that while some plants were still green and would remain so in spite of the coming cold of winter, others were sere and brittle, giving every appearance of being mere skeletons of the vibrant life they once wore. Yet here too, Nature teaches, for beneath the soil, those brittle bones wait only for spring to grow once more… different in appearance, perhaps, but still essentially the same.
There was nothing new in those thoughts… no fanfare, no great revelation. It was no more than a gentle reminder, a reassurance that we are never called upon to make sense of this world and its upheavals on our own. There is always a teacher on our doorstep, always a deeper wisdom than our own, older and with experience of all that has ever been. It knows the tides of night and day, of winter and summer, freedom and necessity…and it is poised to teach us, every day. We do not always listen, we are wayward students and easily distracted, but the earth knows her children well and repeats her cycles, waiting for our chattering minds to quiet and allow us to understand. And when we do…when we listen… sometimes, it seems as if she smiles.
It was a luminous dawn, the world blanketed in a thick cocoon of frost against the darkness and silence of a newborn morning. The sun rose, pale and gold, strewing a million diamonds on the tarmac path; setting a fire in the heart of ice. There is a magic in the morning light that seems to bathe even the hard edges of winter in a soft glow. Where the light streams, its gentle warmth sends showers of tiny droplets glinting to earth, yet where the shadows hang heavy, the frost lingers, clinging to the day with hoary fingers.
Looking down, splashes of unexpected colour stand out against the whitened world… the scarlet stalks of ivy and bramble, the earth tones of autumnal remains and the vibrant shades of the evergreens. Details, hitherto unnoticed, leap to the attention, thrown into relief by the blank canvas of the frost. Shapes unseen are highlighted; fractal patterns that seem to hold the story of creation in their humble familiarity.
Looking up, the birds are waking, stretching chilled wings against the morning. I wonder at them… their delicate frames and fragile bones kept safe through the frozen night by no more than a feather. So tiny, so light, yet they can fly against the storm winds and through the battering of the rains. This morning I watched the sparrows as they woke, fluffing their plumage as we might shake an eiderdown. Such busy little birds, clinging to the smallest perch to watch the day begin.
Light strikes the trees, turning them golden as the sun rises higher, painting the doves pink and waking the jackdaws in a flurry of wings. On the low roof the frost crystals turn the little clumps of moss into the hollow hills and forests of a faery landscape where imagination walks, painting tales of otherworlds to be explored. Even the cars are clad in jewelled fur that makes them look like the surface of some fantastic planet.
I love mornings like this. They truly are magical, both to see and to ponder, when the delicate overlay of a winter frost changes everything and yet the beauties revealed by the frost are always there, just waiting for us to see them. We are blind to the familiar world, habituated to its presence. It takes change to open our eyes and hearts to what is already there waiting for us. In this way such a morning reflects the journey of the seeker; turning to face the light of being and seeing that no matter how far the journey may lead him, no matter how many changes may come, his destination has always been a place he never left.
As a little girl, I loved the tale of Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson. There was something wholly magical about the battle between the Summer King and the Winter King facing each other in within a circle of stones to wrest the season from each other. That story was set at Beltane, but the ‘battle’ between summer and winter is never more obvious than at midwinter. The period around the winter solstice is the dark time of the year. The sun appears to stand still for a few days, hovering on the horizon. The nights begin early and end late. The days are short and cold. As the winter weather closes in, grey and forlorn, for a little while it seems that there is only darkness.
Yet it is at this very moment, when the winter has its strongest hold, that the light triumphs in the age-old contest as the nadir of winter passes and the sun begins to renew its ascendance. No matter what the calendar says or how dark the day, the renewal of the light has begun its journey towards spring and many traditions honour this moment in time, each in their own way. It is for this reason that so many of the Lightbearers have been celebrated in the dark of the year throughout our history. It is in the midst of darkness that the birth of hope is both most needed and renewed.
It is odd, for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, to think that while we are celebrating all the holidays and holy days associated with the winter solstice, those who live in the southern hemisphere are celebrating in the warmth and sunshine of midsummer. The original inhabitants of every corner of the world would have had their own celebrations, born of the turning wheel of the year. Then, when the Old World colonised the New, the colonists took their traditions, beliefs and festivals with them too. Now, at opposite poles of the world, we share, for a moment, common celebrations of Light.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice. – T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Perhaps that is something we can carry forward, beyond the celebrations, recognising our kinship instead of fearing our differences. Celebrating the fact that we can be poles apart in our beliefs and yet sharing a common desire for peace. This year has been a dark one for many, both at personal and international levels. There has been a sense of unease and foreboding, a longing for community and the fear of encroaching darkness has overshadowed many hearts.
As the seasons turn once more at the solstice, whether we live in the northern hemisphere or the southern, we can use this point of change to move forward into a brighter world. In every heart, there is a spark of Light and each one of us can be a Lightbearer to the renewal of the coming year.
We are creatures of cycles; the smaller fitting within the increasingly larger. We may have little conception of the very largest, but the effects of that level of creation trickle down to remind us of our true natures…
(750 words, a five-minute read)
We live in cycles within cycles. Every day, we wake up to a period of brightness which is essentially the same experience as the last. Yet we do not see this ‘endless’ stream of days as being without structure. Our days fit, seven at at time, into weeks. Weeks fit into months, whose length has been played with by powerful rulers over the course of our various societies and civilisations. The ability to manipulate such months is limited by the fact that there is, finally, a physical barrier – the year – to remind us that some things are not subject to our whims, but objective in their nature – that is, they have their own being, outside of our mind’s attributions.
The absolutes are very special, because they were here before we were; and they remind us that they had a hand in our creation.
It is of great importance for us to collide with objective things. It reminds us that we are creatures and beings that have been created by our environment. There may have been other forces involved in that creation – even in its nurturing – but we can clearly see that we are evolved creatures possessing a potentially high degree of intelligence.
We can define intelligence in many ways. My two favourites are that intelligence is the ability to abstract a problem. This goes hand in hand with the other: to play ‘what if’ in the mind. The ability to ‘run the tape’ to see what might happen if we stay on the present course of action is, literally, a life-saver.
The year can be said to summarise the forces working with us to further this intelligence. In the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the Earth, there are four observable seasons, each with its different character and ability to generate the mysterious things we call emotions.
Emotions might be said to be a movement of energy within us, reminding us that we are not just cyclical biology and desires, we also are capable of experience related to invisible causes. With training, we can develop a certain control over the effects of emotions. We can use intelligence to question their effects, for example. They are often vivid, but sometimes destructive and weakening. We can learn, through our powers of self-observation and the intelligence of ‘what if’ to spot the good and bad patterns as they are arising, and before they overwhelm us and impel us to negative action.
The good emotions reflect their energy into our higher faculties. For example, they empower creativity. They are also used in gradual spiritual awakening, where the stale egoic cycles of experience are broken though…to find a fresh new world of the Self.
In all cycles there are peaks and troughs. We enjoy the green vitality of spring, before surrendering to the colourful decline of outward life known as the autumn. The rapidly declining light heralds the winter. Within this cycle, two days are of special importance. They are the Solstices – the longest and shortest days. In late June is the Summer Solstice. The 21st December 2020 marks the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day and the longest night.
But that longest night might just be the greatest gift of all, since it marks not only the switching of the light to increasing length and brightness, it also can also mark the emptying of our ordinary selves.
Perhaps you will joins us in the Silent Eye in taking your candle, unlit, into a real or imagined dark place and holding in your mind and heart an emptying of your self as the astronomical moment of the solstice arrives. Then light the candle and see that, although it is small in the darkness, its light travels out, unresisted, into the world.
Hold the thought that, because you have used this to empty yourself, you are now a vessel of consciousness which can be filled to its maximum potential.
With that, smile and go happily into your deepest night.