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…

Cycles of Light (1)

Have you ever considered how strange our week is?

By this, I mean we get to the end of its seven days and fall off into an infinity of named celestial objects like Gemmda5, Godiano554, Artuix Sunburst and on, and on, and on…

But no, we don’t… I made them up. Instead, we look out at the cosmos and name (in various languages) our periods of wakefulness after seven of the ‘ancient planets’, which repeat, infinitely. Our whole universe is patterned with a plate of rotating flavours from which we (subjectively) transmit the qualities of one-seventh of our lives.

We have:

Sun – day (easy enough, even in English)

Mon – day (Moon’s day. In French, which is very helpful in this regard – Lundi, after La Lune – the Moon)

Tues – day (English not much help, but French comes to our rescue: Mardi – Mars Day)

Wednes – day (French is Mercredi which sounds a lot like Mercury)

Thurs – day (Thor’s day, possibly… not much help. French gives us Jeudi, which hints at Jupiter)

Fri -day (French: Vendredi, clearly Venus)

Satur – day (Simply Saturn’s day)

And then, back to Sunday

So, we name our days as: 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)

Do we simply have an anachronism – a naming convention for the days of a repeating week based upon an ancient view of our solar system – including the ‘solar’ in our solar system? You might think we would have replaced them with something like the European SI units: OneDay, TwoDay, ThreeDay and so forth, ending at SevenDay.

Or is there something deeper?

Do these planets link us with something so real in our existence, that they – or what they represent – deserve to cycle within our lives every ‘week’.

In this series of posts, we will examine whether this ancient cycle of Sun – Moon – Mars – Mercury – Jupiter – Venus – Saturn – Sun – Moon really links us with the forces in our solar system, or whether the connections are more subtle; and therefore, potentially, more powerful.

And why seven? Who said there should be seven days in our week? Why not, for example, twelve?

To being this journey of discovery, we need to consider the importance of ‘seven’ and the science in which the qualities of these seven ancient presences (the original planets) were first studied.

©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.

Close to home

scotland trip jan 15 481

I had occasion recently to talk with someone whose actions had once caused me a good deal of pain. I was asked, in the light of later maturity, if I could ever forgive them.

I found that I could not.

I could not forgive because I had never really blamed. I cannot blame what I can understand. That does not mean that I condone, accept or agree with harmful actions. It simply means that if I can see why it was, for that person and at that moment, the only thing they felt they could do, I cannot truly blame. If I were them, I would be in their shoes at that moment and would I have acted any differently? Probably not.

It is something none of us can know. We will never be in their precise position and can only hope that if we were in a similar situation, we would do otherwise. That does not make any of us better than another, or any more likely to take the best course instead of a reactive one. It just means that we approach each moment with a different arsenal of experience with which to make our own choices… and our own mistakes.

“I forgive you.”

The word sounds like the giving of a gift, doesn’t it? In some respects, that is true. But what exactly are we giving… and to whom?  A full pardon for an offence? An assurance that we will put the memory of that offence behind us? Or a complete forgetting of all that the offence engendered? Whatever those words mean for each of us, the simple fact of choosing to forgive implies that we feel a wrong was done and that some aspect of that injury remains. If not, there would be nothing to forgive.

By offering forgiveness, there is also an implication there has been an admission of guilt… a mutual accord that wrong has been given and received.

Is it even humanly possible to choose true forgiveness and forgetting in a single moment? To wipe the slate clean with three words, leaving no trace of hurt, resentment or guilt? I don’t think it is. We may be able to maintain an attitude of forgiveness and genuinely act from the heart, as if it were true, but all hurts take time to heal and memories need time to fade.

The only way I have found to really forgive a perceived injury is to change my own relationship to it. Sometimes a little human understanding is enough and the old platitudes about ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ and ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ can be enough to create that change. Many injuries are not what we feel them to be but have their cause rooted somewhere beyond the obvious.

Sometimes the change may come with a flash of understanding sparked from an outside source, like the words of a friend or a chance phrase you have read. Most of the time, though, you have to dig deeper, realising that in hanging onto your resentment, the only person who is suffering may be yourself.

We learn such a lot through our interactions with each other. When someone has harmed us in any way, we will, in an ideal world, learn from that experience and not allow ourselves to be in that position again. In reality, we tend to meet variants of these same situations over and over again, each of them dressed differently so that we are fooled into thinking them something new. It is only in looking closer that we see a common thread…and that thread may be traced back through the labyrinth to its source, which is often some aspect of our own personality.

That is not to say that we are to blame for the actions of others, but it is we ourselves who open the doors of experience and any repeating pattern holds a clue to who we are, how we show ourselves to the world and how others will see us… including those who would hurt us.

Learning to really understand ourselves and what is behind our actions can be one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake…and the most rewarding. Systems such as the one we use in the Silent Eye can help give a structure to that quest and hold up a mirror in which we can begin to see ourselves more clearly, identifying the cracks and vulnerable spots in our characters and emotions and allowing us to address them. There is no blame where there is understanding…and the empathy and compassion that leads to real forgiveness must start with ourselves.

Telling tales

I was talking with a friend, as you do, comparing notes over coffee and a few thousand miles. He described his own spiritual tradition as ‘walking in Beauty’.  That, I thought, was a wonderful way to describe any path. Yet it came to my mind that if I had to describe as simply the path that has drawn me, the path we seek to share with the School, I would have to say that we ‘walk in Love’.

For me, there is little difference in essence between the two. They are, perhaps, facets of the same thing seen through a different lens. As with many concepts, the words carry some powerful personal emotions. Beauty looks different to each of us, though there may be common points between observers where all will recognise something that goes beyond time, culture and the rest of the conditioning filters that superimpose themselves upon our eyes. Not everyone will see beauty in the barren rocks and treeless landscape of the high moors, but most will see it in the trusting smile of a child.

Love, too, covers a huge emotional landscape. Again, there is the common ground that seems to speak to the heart of humanity and again it is stretched across the extremes from the nurturing and caring to the catabolic. While love may lift us to the heavens, it may not, at first glance look like love when it strips us bare and leaves us naked in the desert, in a seeming act of cruelty. But ultimately, even these dark and painful moments can be a great gift of Love, for in that vast emptiness we may find the core of Being.

With the Silent Eye, we needed a way to carry the student beyond these filters, beyond thought and logic, beyond the personal emotions that may be associated with a particular word, system or concept towards something more universal. We seek to speak to a deeper level of consciousness, leading the intellect to the heart and the emotions with the mind and imagination. So what else would we do in a modern Mystery School than fall back upon probably the oldest way we know? The power of stories.

Storytellers have woven their magic across all ages and cultures. The bards of old carried wisdom and knowledge in their tales from fireside to fireside. Many of these tales still linger in our cultures and societies, and the roots of myth and legend weave through our lives no matter where we live.

If you think back to childhood, your own childhood, there will be great swathes of time you do not remember. There will be snapshots of memory here and there, but most will have merged into the mists. Yet if I were to ask you what was your favourite story as a child, ask you to tell me about it, I’d be willing to bet that you could. And in that retelling you would see the mental pictures you saw as a child. It would recall time, places, people, emotions… and it may even remind you of what you learned from it. But then again, it might not, as children absorb the lessons so simply from a story… they do not analyse every word, wanting to know why the writer chose this phrase or that… they just embrace the magic of the moment.

The landscapes thus created in the mind are given life by the child’s belief and become real on their own plane.  To the child, there is truth in Aslan, or King Arthur and Camelot, or dragons and griffins. And I think something of that reality remains with us as we grow up. Regardless of the dawning awareness of historical accuracy and the distinction between fact, fiction and fantasy, there is a hidden place within us that still believes in that childlike truth, for it marks us at a very deep level. And in that place, they are still real for us.

Stories bring the world to life in a very special way for a child. I know a huge number of adults to whom the back of a wardrobe is still a magical place… and I count myself among them. From folk tales to fantasy, through science fiction and film there is something in the essence of a story that reaches beyond logic to a subtler level of meaning and which speaks to us more deeply than conscious understanding.  Stories engage the imagination in a way few other things can and this opens a whole new world of possibilities.

In the Silent Eye, we use a family of archetypal figures to tap into the unconscious understanding of the Beyond.  They accompany the student on a symbolic journey into the Self on a quest for a truth we cannot give, but only find, each of us, for ourselves. The symbols of the journey are an expression of the essence of something higher and finer and we use the tools of fantasy so that the student does not become fixated on the symbols themselves, trapped behind the walls such limited vision can build. We allow them to find out for themselves the difference between looking at the pointing finger and the moon…

So in April, we will delve into the mysterious realms of story, heading back to a time beyond time. The archetypes will wear the faces of the Big Bad Wolf, the Pied Piper and a Beauty frozen in sleep. In a reality one step removed from our own, yet which finds its echo in every life, every day, we will seek meaning in the old, familiar tales.

Join us for a weekend in the heart of Derbyshire…

17-19 April, 2020

Awaken the beauty that sleeps within.

Details of the fully catered, residential workshop are available HERE.

Download a Booking Form – pdf

or contact us at rivingtide@gmail.com for further details or to reserve your place

Fooling ourselves…

As soon as you start to mention the whole mind over matter thing, scepticism immediately cuts in like an automatic safety mechanism to keep you on the right side of reality and sanity. Vague visions of objects floating across a room by the use of telekinetic powers are accompanied by the eerie strains of 70s sci-fi TV and straight away, you are unconsciously looking for the wires.

As an idea, it isn’t quite so far-fetched though. There are good reasons to believe that the mind can influence matter and that the body can influence the mind.

Smiling is a good example. We smile when we feel happy, yet it is equally true that we feel happy when we smile. Even if it is a forced smile, by activating the muscles around the mouth and eyes in imitation of a smile, the brain is fooled into thinking we must have something to smile about. Our internal chemistry adjusts accordingly, stress levels drop and we actually feel happier. Research done over the years suggests that the smile, even forced or faked,  can affect how we interpret and feel about the world around us too. The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that we create a feedback loop with our facial expressions that are not just an effect of emotions, but which, in their turn, affect emotions.

It is well-known that depression alters our appearance. So does happiness. Even simple things, like the way we dress, can influence our mood and self-confidence dramatically and, in turn, that influences the way we see ourselves in face of the world and crucially, how the world then sees us.

derbyshire 3

In this day and age where so many of have access to the latest scientific theories, we can hardly avoid the debates that rage around certain areas of science. Most of us, for example, will have at least a passing acquaintance with the idea of the observer effect in quantum mechanics where it is postulated that the act of observation alone may alter the movement of particles. The scientists get very excited about the whole idea and the philosophers pile in with their speculations on the nature of reality. The trouble is that for the vast majority of us, such high-flown stuff is of little practical use and, regardless of how fascinated we might be by the theories, they are unlikely to change our day-to-day lives any time soon.

There are areas of science, though, that do profess to be able to do just that. One of the most popular TED talks is a presentation given by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, where she discusses her findings  about the effects of non-verbal communication, or body language to the majority of us. Although her scientific findings have been questioned by other scientists seeking to replicate the results, the talk is interesting in itself. It highlights the use of posture and how, even by faking it, we can make ourselves feel more confident and, as she puts it, more powerful. She looks at the way the animal kingdom uses posture to express personal power and relates it to human body language. It isn’t at all far-fetched… we too are animals and there is no reason to suppose that Nature has given us a special dispensation to break away from the basics of animal behaviour.

One of the phrases that Ms Cuddy uses takes the idea of faking it one step further than the usual ‘until you make it’. “Fake it until you become it”, she suggests. It is an excellent phrase with which to end the presentation, but as an idea, it is far from new. Íñigo López, better known as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who was instrumental in the founding of the Society of Jesus in the mid 16th century, suggested that we should put ourselves in the position of prayer and we would soon pray, which is simply another way of saying the same thing.  The Jesuits, following the principles outlined in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, engage the imagination in order to enter into creative visualisation and experience, rather than simply read about, the life and mission of Jesus. The psychological principles are sound as the brain and emotions react to what is seen and experienced by the mind’s eye in a very similar way to how it reacts to a more concrete reality. This is why guided journeys such as we use in The Silent Eye, meditation and creative visualisation are such powerful exercises… and why the pictures of the feelgood ‘cute kitten’ is always a winner on the internet; both allow us to experience emotion in the safety of our own imagination.

derbyshire 2

In the Mysteries we learn the techniques for the creation of the ‘magical personality’. It is through this that we learn how to function effectively in our role. On one level, this persona is a no more than a construct built in the imagination, but imagination alone is not enough to make it real, for it to be effective in the ‘real’ world, we must believe in it and the strongest belief in ourselves comes from seeing that belief mirrored back at us through the eyes of others. Just like the smile, a feedback loop is created that, once set in motion, picks up momentum and continues to reinforce itself.

Just as an actor dons a mask of wears the make-up and costume of his character in order the ‘feel the part, we too can assume a mask. Not to hide behind or pretend that we are something we are not, but to show to the world and ourselves what truly lies within, buried beneath the fears and insecurities that have held us back and stifled our possibilities. We can change our own perception of ourselves and how we face the world.

Does it matter if scientists and philosophers spend their time arguing and seeking the validity of reproducible evidence or demonstrable theories? All most of us want is to feel better about ourselves, more confident, happier. We want to feel we can face the world with our head held high and a smile on our face that comes from the heart. Maybe all it takes to begin that process it to wear the smile we want the world to see and, looking into the mirror of each other’s eyes, we too can see that smile and begin to believe it.