Looking for answers…

P1110502

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night… this book that lies open on my desk begins with a rather less evocative phrase. More mundane  and far less atmospheric…though the writer who had penned them both was the same. I’ve never really seen what was wrong with that opening, though it has passed into the realms of ridicule as ‘purple prose’ and the Right Honorable Lord Lytton now has an anti-literary prize named after him, awarded for the worst opening phrase of a story. A tad unfair, I feel. His style was the product of a bygone era and a society that held different tastes close to its tightly corseted bosom.

This particular book, I haven’t read in a good many years, but as it is fairly obscure yet has been mentioned by three people in as many weeks, I thought I should rummage through the shelves and find my battered and dog-eared copy. I’ve always liked the work of Bulwer Lytton, a prolific novelist and playwright.  His style, I grant you, is heavy and sometimes ponderous… like many writers of his epoch, he will seldom use one word when five will do. His storytelling, however, is a different thing and he manages to evoke times long past and populate them with unexpected characters. Little known today, his ‘dark and stormy night’ is not the only phrase he has added to the language. His novels were hugely influential when they were first published. ‘Pelham‘ changed fashionable dress. Verdi, Wagner and others wrote operas based on his historical works. His friend, Charles Dickens, changed the ending of ‘Great Expectations‘ on his suggestion and Bram Stoker was inspired to write ‘Dracula‘ after reading Lytton’s ‘A Strange Story’, which was the first of his works that I read. The Hollow Earth theory was also popularised by Lytton in ‘The Coming Race’, published in 1861 and was credited with helping to launch the science fiction genre. 

I was barely fifteen when my grandfather gave me two of Lytton’s works. ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ and ‘A Strange Story’. The books could not have been more different. One, a vividly portrayed piece of quasi-historical drama, the other a dark and unsettling tale, set in what seemed to be my own backyard. The locations were referred to only by their initials, but the town sounded remarkably like my own and the Abbey and the old house sounded like those at Kirkstall, Simply because of that, I ploughed through the heavy prose when most of my contemporaries were turning to Barbara Cartland for ‘historical’ fiction.

The tale tells of youth and ego that seeks to perpetuate itself through the fear of not-being, drawing on the life of others in true vampiric style, though without the blood. It is one of those stories where nothing happens… yet lives are changed as the characters act out their fate. The reader may be changed too, as questions begin to form in the nether regions of the mind and parallels are drawn with less lurid occurrences in daily life. I went on to read his ‘Zanoni’,  where a choice between immortality and humanity lifts the veil on many arcane themes; that book also brought questions and my grandfather’s library was a gold-mine.

moors sm001

Dion Fortune, Robert Graves, Aleister Crowley and MacGregor Mathers were probably not average teen reading. Many of the books my grandfather gave me raised questions. Some gave me answers too, or better still, were signposts that showed me where to look to find my own. In that I was lucky; far luckier than I would realise for many years. At the time, I just assumed that when such questions arose, everyone would have someone with whom to discuss them. It was not until much later that I found that my situation was the exception rather than the norm. In those days, books on alternative approaches to spirituality were still rare and hard to find and, even today, many will have no-one with whom they can explore the deepest thoughts that arise within the hidden regions of the soul.

We all have questions. Many people still turn to books to explore their ideas and seek inspiration, but with the advent of the internet it has become even simpler to tap in a query and see what comes up. The problem is that there is just so much information out there…and most of it conflicting. From the strangest concepts to the harshest diatribes against them, the genuine seeker will find every possible shade of opinion, every argument for and against and every wild and wacky theory there is… and where do you start to sift through them?

Common sense is usually a good place to begin and filters out the worst offenders. Anything that promises the earth will probably not deliver. Especially if it says all you have to do is sit back and pay your hard earned cash for them to wave a magic wand that makes the world right. The wonderful and inspirational sites that tell you that all is right and beautiful have a point; I would agree with them in principle… but when you are stuck in confusion or a dark place in your life, that isn’t really all that helpful. Abstract ideas are all very well, but sometimes what you need is a stout rope… an idea of what you can do to climb out of the hole and there are many excellent schools, groups and systems out there who will throw that rope to you. But how do you know which one?

The best advice I ever read on how to find the school, organisation or system that would work for you came from Dion Fortune when she wrote that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. She advised that the seeker look at those who are part of those systems … not those who have gone a little way and left for one reason or another, but those who have walked the path and stuck with it. Look and see whether those people have something that speaks to you, something you can trust.

The best advice I have ever heard, was simply to ‘ask the question’. Turn your attention to the quiet place within and listen to the prompting of the heart. The spiritual seeker has already knocked on the door and the wordless inner voice, that expression of the higher self, is waiting to answer.

moors 007

The perfect teacher?

When the student is ready, the master will appear.

This saying is often quoted both by and to those who walk a spiritual path. All too frequently, it is said with the kind of supercilious air that implies that the listener is not yet ready… and further, that they are in the presence of one who already knows more than they ever will. The early stages of any path are littered with those who like to think they have walked much farther than anyone else.

The trouble with that is how it devalues a principle that is, in fact, true… though not necessarily in the way the seeker might think.

A few envisage a numinous being descending in glory to reveal the inner secrets of the universe to them alone. Many expect to simply meet a person or group who can guide them, or point them in the right direction. For most of us, though, it is not even that… it is a thought, a book, a glimpse into a moment that changes our view of the path we have chosen and sets us on our way. It can be the smallest thing and its magnitude is seldom immediately obvious because it is so different from anything we thought we expected.

The clue, though, is in the proverb; the master will appear. Not from out of nowhere, in a puff of smoke… when the student is ready, the guidance they need becomes visible to his eyes. It may always have been there, indeed, there is a teacher within, just waiting for the question, but without everything he has learned on his personal journey, the student is simply unable to see it for what it is.

There is one teacher we each experience every single day. It illustrates many of the most basic beliefs upon which we have founded our complex religions and our personal faiths. It may be from observing its ever-changing face that those beliefs arose in the heart of Man in the first place.

We have only to look at the planet we call home, in all its beauty and order, to see the origins of wonder. From the rising of the sun that chases away the shadows, to the seasons of the year that lead from youthful spring to sere winter… and on again to the rebirth of spring. From the harvesting of what was sown, to the precise perfection in the design of any living organism and its place in an endless, cycling chain. There is a perfect teacher there for all of us.

If you look at the incredible design of body, leaf or crystal, even at the most minute level…and then consider how everything we know works in harmony, feeding from, nourishing and reliant upon other links in the endless chain… apart, perhaps, from humankind’s behaviour… you cannot help but marvel at the scale and perfection of the design.

Accidents, mutations and evolution, say the scientists.

Really?

Am I suggesting that there is a bearded old guy on a throne somewhere, compass in hand, drawing up plans for creation? No. I don’t discount the scientific explanation at all. But I do see it as just that… an explanation of what is and most scientific explanations are little more than descriptions of the mechanics of the physical world.  It doesn’t mean it is entirely correct… how can we, a species that is a mere blip on the face of evolutionary time, expect to fully understand the whole process of creation? Nor does it mean it is incorrect… as far as it goes. Accidents and mutations are certainly part of the evolving design… but that design is too vast for us to see in its entirety.

With the intricacy of the interwoven strands of the physical world before our eyes every day and the dance of the  heavens above us at night, little wonder that humankind percieved Intelligence behind the design. From there, it is but a short step to see the basis of beliefs such as reincarnation, karma and the survival of the soul played out upon the body of the earth. Nor is it difficult to see perfection in action.

It is worth considering. When the student is ready, the master will appear. Maybe all we have to do is open our eyes.

 

Three Ghosts of Christmas Present

Unfolding nightmares can begin very innocently…

My mother, who is nearly ninety years old, has vascular dementia. She’s had a wonderful life and is enjoying a blessedly slow decline of her faculties – to the extent that she’s still in her own home and able to look after herself as long as the family watch for the ‘monsters’ at the edge of life.

Anything technical and new, or related to problem-solving, is now beyond her, but her zest for life; and the love of walking her little dog, Sammy, is undaunted. I have been surprised how much of a companion this ‘challenging’ little Pomeranian has been in her past decade.

We have a dog – a Collie – so Sammy has always been welcome at our house on the edge of the English Lake District. We are conscious of living in a beautiful part of country – and happy to share it with family and friends whenever we can. My wife’s sister, Joanne, is a frequent guest; and mum and Joanne look forward to spending each Christmas with us – often arriving a couple of days before so that we can all settle into the mood and have few runs out in the Lakes.

A few days ago, I could tell that I was coming down with a nasty cold. Despite my array of juicy oranges, concentrated garlic, salted water snorted up the nostrils (sorry…), the little sod seemed to have got through. On Christmas Eve I dosed off; doped, warm and comfortable in my chair not far from a blazing log stove…

In the dream, people were panicking, and there was the sound of a door to the garden being opened, repeatedly. When you spend a lot of your life in ‘carer’ mode, you get used to springing awake and alert on such occasions.

Mum was racing around the lounge looking for the coat she had dropped when she entered. Joanne, my wife’s sister, was yelling her apologies.

“Well, how long has he been out there?” mum was asking.

“I just forgot he’d gone out…” said Joanne, desperately worried that, in her inattention, she’d lost mother’s dog. “…perhaps twenty minutes or so…”

Both were distressed. Sammy the wandering Pomeranian had done this before, but not for many years. He’s old, largely blind and his back legs are going… poor love. You would think he would just stay in our ample garden with Tess and our cat Misti.

But no…. Pomeranians have a wandering gene… and it doesn’t matter how blind they are or how cold the winter day is.

By now, mum was chasing around the garden, calling out Sammy’s name. I knew in my bones that it was futile… I’d just about woken up and was trying get my befuddled and cold-strewn mind to come up with a plan. To add to this, the light was fading and a very black darkness was taking over the end of the afternoon.

Fellow dog-owners will know the value of the head-torch. These brightly coloured bands of elasticated fabric sport a tough square-ish light that can be focussed in different ways from the forehead. They allow the hands to remain free while you conjugate the million other things your dog needs, such as poo bag use… I’ll not dwell on it. but it’s doubly challenging in the darkness.

I suppose it was my slightly Lemsip-induced state, but I seemed to have left the house without a coat; though I did have thermal jumper on. I was trying to catch up with my mind… actually not true; I was striding through the darkness up the unmade lane that is the only road to our house following what I knew was the last chance of recovering our ageing Pomeranian. In the background, I could hear my mother’s near-crying voice and knew that her dog had long gone. The only chance was to choose the right direction and hope that his slow progress would allow me to catch up.

When you get to the T-junction at the top of the lane, you can go left, right or straight ahead. Straight ahead is up a hill, but the first house on the left is the home of two local dentists, and brightly lit due to them being a fan of decorating most of the house in lights. It’s lovely… sort of. It’s certainly bright.

I checked the dentist’s courtyard driveway, shouting out Sammy’s name and hoping the light might have attracted him – nothing. Breathing in the sharp, cold air, I strode off up the hill to find a genial figure walking down with his own dog.

We’ve met before but I don’t know him well. Graham is on the parish council and always stops to chat. He had heard me shouting out Sammy’s name as I came through the darkness towards him. He stopped and offered to help with the search, explaining that there had been no sign of our dog during his own descent of the hill I was climbing. At least we could tick off that route…

When we got back to the junction and the dentist’s house, the lady dentist was at the gate.

“Have you lost a golden dog,” she asked?

I coughed out my delight. She explained that, a few minutes prior, she had seen a Pomerian entering another, smaller lane, nearer the centre of the village. She had approached it, but every time she got close it ran off – further into the darkness and up the hill. She had been worried about making things worse and had left him to return at his own pace.

But he never has, in this situation…

Graham, my first helper from the parish council, then said we could split up and search the two branches of the dark lane – the place where Sammy had last been seen. One leads to a small housing estate, the other climbs, steeply, into the darkness of the open country and towards the main London-Glasgow railway line…

I told Graham I would take the steeper route and set off – gasping as the cold air hit my sore lungs harder, and with only a head-torch for company. It grew darker and darker – there are no street lights in the village. My spirits began to fall as my analytical mind raced through the diminishing odds of us ever seeing Sammy again – and the stupidity of having practically on the fella without a coat… But I had known, that, unless I left the house that second, we would never see Sammy alive again.

Near the summit of the lane the winds picked up. There can be a ten degree difference in wind-chill up there, as the are fully-fledged Lakeland hills in their own right. Thinking survival, I made sure my thermal jumper was stuffed into my trouser waistband and prayed.

The head-torch, my only piece of ‘armour’ shone valiantly into the darkness….and the unknown.

At first, I thought the reflected beam of light was the torch picking out a limestone wall. But then it got brighter… and I realised there was a car coming towards me from one of the farms on the local uplands. The lane will not permit two cars along its length; not even a car and a person along most of it. Passing places are provided lower down the hill, but not this high. To let a car pass, you have to clutch a branch of one of the bordering trees and pull yourself off the tarmac and partly into the hedge.

I did… hanging in space while the Citroen estate slowed down for an ill-dressed madman with a head-torch.

Half way along the car’s length, it stopped. I clung desperately to my branch as the window opened and warm air spilled out.

“Looking for a dog?”

I could barely speak.

“Name of Sammy?”

I had slipped into a parallel reality. A good story to ease me gently to a freezing death…

“Yes,” my steaming breath formed, hesitantly.

“In the boot!” said the no-nonsense voice of the lady farmer whose face, if not name, I knew. “Was taking him to the animal rescue…, but got to rush – family do!”

In a surreal world, I slithered along the line of the silver car and she opened the boot, electronically. There, looking up out of the warm darkness was Sammy…

Of course, I’d not brought a lead. But my cord trousers sported a belt. Stealthily, I slipped it off and looped it under the errant’s collar.

She, laughed. “Merry Christmas.” I repeatedly chanted my thank yous from the back of the car… frankly in a state of disbelief.

The rescuer waved in her mirror as she drove off, leaving us to descend through the darkness back into the warmth of the village, our house and the tears of my mother when she saw her freezing son shuffling up the lane with her beloved furry companion…

Truly three ghosts of Christmas present… and a lesson in trust in the possible, even in the face of great adversity. But I’d rather not have another one of those anytime soon…

©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.

Keys to Heaven: Sobriety…

Image result for odin's cross

*

With our third term, ‘sobriety’, we start to rise…

By accepting the control we attempted to impose on the

world in our ‘planning’ and singularly failed to exert upon ourself in ‘gluttony’.

*

Roads of excess can lead to places of wisdom insists the Blake-Man,

and in our countless excesses may we hope that this is so…

*

Sobriety is not abstinence but it does wield discrimination,

when applied not to others, in judgement,

but to ourself, in understanding.

*

Our search for food left little time to shop,

and a small sandwich instead of the better value large

proved an elegant sufficiency.

*

Meeting at the same Cafe as our morning break

proved only that lightning does not strike a place twice.

*

Any lingering excess from the previous night would soon

be burned off by the looming coastal walk:

away, blown, cobwebs, the terms,

introduced by a little mud sliding…

*

From here on in things necessarily become

incredibly precise though, heaven knows,

we had no idea. Does the hand that guides, also design?

*

Our forty minute cliff-top sojourn

somehow became one-hour-and-a-half.

Do not ask for these are mysteries.

We stopped to talk for no more than fifteen minutes en route…

In a gale.

It could not have been longer.

*

Our ‘early tea’ became just a coffee,

and an early night beckoned, then,

we were accosted…

*

Image result for odin's cross

Fire from heaven

nick north days 075

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.

dinton 033

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.

nick north days 017

Here and now

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.

Cycles of Light (2) – Wheels of Fortune

In Part One, we examined the days of our week and the planets after which they are named:

Sunday – Sun’s day

Monday – Moon’s day

Tuesday – Mars’ day

Wednesday – Mercury’s Day

Thursday – Jupiter’s Day

Friday – Venus’ Day

Saturday – Saturn’s Day

And back to Sunday

The civilisation we know as Mesopotamia gave us (via the Romans) the week, and named each day in a specific order of celestial influence. The focus of these ancient astronomers, in what became Persia – modern day Iraq, was on how Life on Earth was affected by the seven most important celestial bodies. Five of these were ‘the wanderers – true plants; the other two: sun and moon, were ‘luminaries’ – light-bearers.

They reasoned that the faster a (true) planet moved across the sky, the closer it was to the Earth. Using this as a basis, they classified all of what we could now call the ancient, visible plants and included the Sun and Moon. They arrived at another sequence of the seven celestial bodies.

This was: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn

The two sequences are related by a figure from the world of sacred geometry and we will examine it in a later post.

We need to ask the question: Why were the planets so important to the priest-astrologers of Mesopotamia that they named all present and future time in recurring cycles of seven?

The human mind, guided by scientific thinking, is masterly at shutting off wonder. The emotions of longing and belonging generated by the cycles of the night sky are largely lost to the modern western mind – and yet what they are based on is now acutely observable with the aid of modern astronomy. What we’ve lost is the intimate sense that when we study the night sky we are studying ourselves. 

For these ancients, there was an immediate and intimate connection and correspondence between the patterns in the night sky and life ‘below’.

The importance of the number seven in this context is related to the Mesopotamians’ use of a 28 day cycle, which they divided into the four phases of the moon. The lunar month was observed to be 28 days, divided into four major states: new, waxing, full and waning. The week of seven days was the result. The symmetry confirmed itself in that there were seven objects in the night sky that behaved differently to the general backdrop of the star constellations.

The ancients knew that the 28 days cycle was only an approximation, (it is really 29.5 days ) but it yielded an enduring mapping of time that is still with us today – and so embedded in our lives that it may never be changed. We still have leap-years, of course… to bring things back into true alignment.

This seven-day structure is seen by many scholars as the mythical basis of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. God created the world in the week of seven days; six days of work and one of rest.

So, we have the effective creation of the concept of ‘universal’ time, defined by the Moon, within which each of the days had a ‘nature’. This nature corresponds closely with what we might view as the ‘good fortune’ (or otherwise) of the specific day… or as we shall see, the divisions thereof.

The derivation and implications of these natures of fortune will be discussed in the next of these posts.

©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.

What if you were wrong?

rumi quote

I was thinking about a discussion I had enjoyed with a friend, about how our upbringing colours our worlds more than we realise. Both cultural and personal influences shape the images that imprint themselves upon the mind of the child and it is against these that we measure the experience of life in later years.

Life is a confusing thing sometimes and there is not always clear guidance on how best to live it. Social conduct and the parameters of acceptable behaviour differ from country to country. Laws and morality share many core tenets worldwide, but also throw up areas of wide disparity and within every nation there are even more variances dictated by local custom, heritage and the beliefs of a multicultural society.  There are as many ideas about what is the ‘right’ way to live as there are minds, hearts and rule-books to conceive them.

Many of our central values have grown from religious culture and the way it has been woven through human history. Regardless of whether or not an individual subscribes to a particular faith, the social code in which he or she grows will have been influenced by such beliefs. The echoes of our cultural history cast a long shadow and define the images that we choose to accept or deny in later years. Many people say they do not believe in a divinity, yet when asked what they do believe in, it becomes clear that all they deny is the image they would have learned about as a child. The shadow of those childhood images helps to shape, in acceptance or denial, the way we move through our lives.

Even without a detailed knowledge of religion, most of us have some kind of belief about what happens after death and this also informs the way we live. Some see only oblivion and a return to the elements of earth.  Others see a wheel of rebirth, a cycling of the soul through reincarnation and karma Yet others see some form of afterlife, either in a spirit realm or a paradise… or some less pleasant realm.  There are almost infinite variations of thought, but once we have found the one that speaks to us of its reality, it becomes, in many ways, the yardstick of conscience.

The deeper the belief of what happens after death, the more of an influence it becomes in life. We may seek to be worthy of a place in paradise, or to escape the maw of the nether regions… or believe that the karmic scales must be balanced …or that we owe it to ourselves as members of the human race.

Yet… what if we are wrong? We have no objective proof that any of these are the right way forward. We don’t even know for certain that there is ‘a’ right way. Maybe they are all right… or all wrong. Does it really matter?

Mankind has always argued about religious belief. Wars have been fought, schisms have occurred over the interpretation of a single word, millions have suffered and died for the belief that there can be right and wrong beliefs.

Yet ‘belief’ is defined as ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof’ it is ‘an assumed truth’. Even our understanding of the world is based upon beliefs we have formed through experience. The very definition of the word makes our arguments both futile and ludicrous. We may disbelieve a belief that contradicts our own… but inherent in both is the possibility that it might be wrong.

Belief can only be a personal thing and when it inspires us, as individuals and members of the human family, to do the best we can to be the best we can, how can any such belief be wrong? Perhaps all that matters is that we follow the dictates of our own inner being and live our lives ‘as if’ our beliefs will carry us home.

Time traveller

nick north days

As the first lightening of the sky separates silhouettes from the blackness, the temperature plummets and cold floods my body. I can feel its bite and the reactive crisping of muscle and sinew as I huddle into my coat and my hands seek the warmth of pockets. Breath clouds the air in front of me, parting to let me pass as I walk and streaming over my shoulders. The smell of wet earth and leaf-litter has an illusory warmth of its own and an early bird lifts its voice in song as I walk round to the village shop in the pre-dawn darkness.

December… and there are fairy lights in the trees, sparkling with a promise of things to come. Gradually the village will fill with them and the night will become a wonderland, for now, the bare branches of one winter tree are decked with pinpricks of blue. Even so, the sight of these few lights in the darkness flood me with a sense of excitement as potent as when I was a child. Although I walk in the silence before dawn, it is the teatime dark of a winter afternoon, with the shop windows of the city reflecting light and colour onto pavements wet with snow-melt. Tall people cast their shadows as they rush by. The noise of traffic and voices and a chestnut seller touting his wares, the pungent smell of charcoal and toasted shells warm the air as I hold tighter to the hand that is both safety and guidance. I am five and we are going to see Santa’s grotto at Lewis’s in town…

I am in Schofield’s, where a young mother works on the haberdashery counter. Grandad has taken me into town and we call in to see her. She is showing me a painting on the wall of the store. She is going to buy it and bring it home. She is not really a Christian, but this portrait of Jesus speaks to her of courage, resolution and serenity. It will remain on the walls of our home for many years and define my image of Jesus.

Painting by Warner Sallman
Painting by Warner Sallman

The lady makes clucking, soothing noises as I cry for my Mam. I am tiny, very tiny and the lady lifts me up easily and stands me on the counter in Woolworth’s. I’ve lost my Mam and I’m scared. Really scared. A man in a uniform comes and they whisper. I just want my Mam. I see her white face coming and cry even harder. She picks me up and hugs me. Then scolds and smacks my legs… not hard… and hugs me again. She’s crying too. The vision that looks out of the child’s eyes sees that she is little more than a child herself.

The five minute walk to the village shop takes the hours of excitement, anticipation, comfort and abandonment that the child once felt and now feels again as memory slips back to incidents long forgotten by the conscious mind, following a chain of associations that the mind can only observe but could not have deliberately constructed.

It is surprising how little it can take to lift our presence out of the present and into a memory so pristine and intense that we feel it with all our senses, even while the senses are busily engaged in the work of the moment. Our presence exists in both the now and the ‘other’ and we have effectively travelled in time to a moment that no longer exists and yet which is filled with sensory and emotional impact. Somehow we experience the moment in exactly the same way that we did once upon a time, yet we also observe it from within with the mind of the now, even while we walk through the now itself.

Where are we when we go back in memory? When are we? The body is doing what it does in what we call ‘now’, operating almost on autopilot as if the thing we call ‘I’ is no longer present, yet perfectly conscious of what we are doing… rather like leaving a foreman in charge, capable of making necessary decisions but not authorised to act on behalf of the boss. Yet we are not ‘back there’, even though we re-experience a moment that was then as if it was now. We observe, even though we can see through those younger eyes. We cannot alter those moments or affect the outcome. We cannot act, only relive.

The only action we can take at such times is to observe and possibly learn more from the reliving by seeing through the eyes and mind of an older, and hopefully wiser, self that has access to a wider knowledge… a ‘bigger picture’… and can therefore look on with more understanding than the child it once was.

Where are ‘we’ at any moment, if time and distance, holds no sway in the realms of mind? Not even death holds meaning in memory as we walk again hand in hand with loved ones long dead and feel their warmth. The body that ages can still be a child, the dead can walk and events long over can be not just replayed but relived. ‘We’ are not the time, the place or the body… we stand within them at will or at the whim of a chain of associations and both live and observe their passage and their mark. Perhaps we are more than we think…