Rambling Rocks

(But what is it?)

I thought it might be interesting to take some of the less relevant episodes – the ‘out-takes’ – from the just-completed Scottish workshop (and subsequent journey to Orkney) and run them in reverse time-sequence. The Thursday blogs, here, will continue with the linear sequence of the Scottish and Orkney explorations.

That way the odd bits of the journey and the main storyline would meet somewhere in the middle – I have no idea where! Let’s see what happens…

The above image worked better than I thought it would. At face value, it could be a giant slide attached to a hotel on a headland, with a sandstone rock hitching a ride and about to decapitate the observer!

But it’s not, of course. It’s part of a sculptural installation on the headland at John O’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and a few sea miles from the archipelago of Orkney, from which we had just sailed… at 06:15 in the morning.

North of John O’ Groats – between the coast and Orkney – is the Pentland Firth, famous for its fast and ferocious tides and cross-currents. Dire-sounding weather and tidal warnings for Pentland Firth are regular features of BBC weather broadcasts.

The deadly tidal rapids on the surface of the Pentland Firth are common knowledge, but less well-known are the resulting activities beneath the sea. Recently, a new insight was gained when researchers, supporting the growing commercial interest in the harnessing of some of the Firth’s vast tidal power, began surveying the seabed with a view to locating permanent turbines on the ocean floor.

During this exercise, it was discovered that large rolling boulders of up to 1.5 tons in weight – similar to that of an average car – were regularly moved great distances across the seabed by forceful currents!

This fascinated local artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, whose work focusses on art and sculpture inspired by ecology and natural phenomena.

(Above: Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, creators of the Nomadic Boulders sculpture. Their website is here. Image taken from their website)

They put forward a proposal for a sculptural installation that mirrored their own delight at the thought of large deep-sea boulders wandering along the sea bed, powered by the stormy waves above. The result is what you see in the above photographs; something that puts John O’ Groats on the modern artistic map.

(Above: close-up you can see how heavy the boulders are. The ones used in the installation were washed up on a local beach during a violent storm)

The information board sets the context:

Across the world, boulders that defy the weightiness, their solid stability and static nature and hint instead at a more animated past are often celebrated. Small pilgrimages are made to visit them and share in their unusual power...

(Above: the ‘Nomadic Boulders’ information board)

… While the Nomadic Boulders of John O’Groats will forever remain shrouded in the deep and stormy depths of the sea, this monument serves to bring them to our consciousness, perhaps affording a tantalising glimpse of the world beneath the sea.’

Having sailed from Orkney on the early ferry, we were hoping to break the trip around the coast with a hot drink, before the long drive south. But at nine in the morning, on our first ever visit, John O’Groats was closed. We couldn’t even get a a cup of coffee. Scenic, though, and Larissa, one of our travelling companions and a skilled photographer, did gift us a fine portrait at the famous signpost.

To be fair, John O’ Groats is a fine and symbolic place, The harbour is lovely, and a pleasant place to wander around. The main view, though, is the sight of the Pentland Firth, and, beyond that, the outline of the Orkney archipelago.

(Above: John O’ Groats harbour)
(Above: The Pentland Firth and (distant right) the outline of Orkney)

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.

The fabric of being

We all know them, that handful of people who cling to a reactionary refusal to own a mobile phone… or turn it on when they do… or bother to check it. Or they don’t really like computers or social media. You can’t get hold of them, they pass their lives in a state of technological invisibility and you wonder how on earth they can survive…

Or… you secretly envy them their anonymity and accepted state of unavailability…

It is not so very long ago that communication was less intense, relying on ‘local’ calls and handwritten letters. The reliability of the mail was legendary, if slow, and such missives could be cherished or responded to in a timely fashion… say, a week or two. And that was okay. These days, ‘radio silence’ presses the panic buttons… people, including ourselves most of the time, expect an instant response. We have, very quickly, learned to live in a world that responds at the touch of a button and very often we seem to expect people to do the same. It is all about ‘now’.

Technological advances have not only changed our world, but our expectations, both of ourselves and others. We have, over the course of a couple of generations, seen a complete redesign of our daily lifestyles. We no longer have to beat carpets or black lead the range. Laundry is done, and even dried, at the touch of a button instead of the labour intensive wash-day that saw, even in my own childhood, coppers boiling, wash-boards and mangles at dawn and the flat irons heating in the embers of the black-leaded grate. Food no longer needs to be grown or prepared and ‘gourmet’ meals can be purchased ready-made from the supermarket chiller cabinet. And although, with the loss of cooking skills, the understanding of food and nutrition is being eroded, we can, of course, always take supplements…obviating even the need to chew.

Our days… assuming that our technologies are working as they should… have been freed of many constraints. We have more potential leisure time than we have ever had in the history of mankind… and many of us ironically turn to some kind of technological gadgetry with which to fill it. Meanwhile old skills are becoming obsolete… how many of us still know how to starch a shirt, for example? Do we need to know… do we even care? Most of us would emphatically answer in the negative… but are we really right to do so? Because it isn’t just the skills that are lost…

It isn’t exactly about how to dress a flawless shirt that crackles when you move… what I am thinking of here is the amount of care we put into the small, humdrum acts of daily life. The generations-old christening robe or wedding veil would not have survived this long had someone not learned to understand its fabric and spent time and effort on its care and preservation. With today’s wash-and-go fabrics, would we do the same? Do our email conversations hold the same place in our hearts as the bundle of faded, handwritten letters? Time and attention, a learned skill, a labour of love…

Anyone who has ever created a work of art or craft will know that feeling of pride and satisfaction when it is completed and you step back to look at the finished article. Anyone who cooks from scratch or watches the slow growth and ripening of fruit in the garden knows they taste different from their pretty, shop-bought cousins. Not just because of the obvious commercial factors, but simply because you have come to know the tree, the plant and the soil… you have watered and fed and watched as they grew and the relationship thus built with the fruit is personal. The care, time and attention we give to any object or task has a direct correlation to the value we place upon it and the relationship we build with it… a relationship that involves us on all levels, from the physical work involved, to the mental use of knowledge to the emotions it engenders. What we really earn, we value. What is done with love… like a child’s first scrawled painting of a parent… is valued. For the rest, we live in a society that allows for few things to impinge upon our hearts; our possessions often little more than visible symbols of our success that we can wear as a badge of status to convince others, and thus reassure ourselves of our worth. It sometimes seems that the biggest loss of all over the past generation or two is a lack of true value for ourselves.

We no longer know how to define ourselves; there is a lack of confidence in our identities, a pervasive uncertainty in our relationships with ourselves. Perhaps this is one reason why more and more people are turning towards the many spiritual paths made more accessible by the very technology that allows us the time to study them. Sadly, there are all too many pseudo-spiritual schemes on the market, profiteering from this need and offering little more than comforting reassurance, usually at a premium price. Or ways to achieve all with minimal effort… well, someone is doing well from these schemes, but it is seldom the sincere seeker of inner truth and harmony who profits…

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The spiritual journey is almost like laundering a garment. What we do will depend on what we seek from and for it in the longer term. Is this something we would wear for a season and discard, or something we hope will last a lifetime and beyond? A garment can come in every shade of the rainbow and the method of care of cotton is unsuitable for silk. Each is unique, yet shares a common underlying need.

When we are new and unworn, we are fresh and unblemished. Everyday life gradually adds its creases, stains and soiling and there is a point where we realise that we must do something about it or watch a steady deterioration that takes the garment beyond beauty. The first turning towards the path of the soul is comparable to a light wash… an initial cleansing that can be enough to freshen and maintain the garment in serviceable condition. We can go on that way for a long time, but without proper care the garment will, inevitably, begin to fade and pass a point where it will appear able to be restored to its pristine condition.

If, on the other hand, we look at the garment and take careful stock of its condition, learning to understand its fabric, identifying the damage and the individual stains and learning what they are so we can then learn how to remove them specifically, we can cleanse the garment with thorough and loving care. If we want to restore its pristine nature, we might learn how to properly ‘dress’ the garment… realising that its newly cleaned brightness may have to go back to the water to be dipped and soaked in starch… wrung into further creases and left to try in its own time, before being carefully smoothed with the heat of the iron. We may not know how to proceed… but we will know who will or where to search for those skills forgotten or unlearned. There is always someone to turn to who can guide us through the process, though sometimes the advice may seem strange.

It is a long process and there is much to be learned. It isn’t always an easy task, nor is it always a pleasant one. Many give up or prefer to believe that the stain on the front of the garment is something else entirely, not the ketchup they themselves had dropped there. Yet the longer we wait to begin, the more stains and moth-holes we may have to tackle. Restoration takes time, care and attention… which are, oddly enough, the very same qualities that allow us to engage with the things that matter to us most deeply… and which bring a true sense of achievement, value and identity.

In our society we are fast learning to want everything ‘now’. Yet the things we still value most are those that we work for, those we earn… those things that are worth waiting for. We do not expect to get such items without care and effort, nor do we expect to see the fruits of such long-term labours materialise immediately, though we may be working hard towards them. Nevertheless, we will see the savings in the bank grow, find our knowledge expanding or our skills improving, day by day, month by month as we turn our efforts and attention towards our goal. There comes, though, a moment when we realise that there was a ‘now’ where we made a start… and there will be a ‘now’ when we achieve our dream… but meanwhile our ‘now’ must be devoted to what we are doing right at this moment on the journey between the two.

The journey through life is unique for each of us, a turning point that may come early or late… some seem born with the starry heavens in their eyes and pursue that vision with all that they are, others seem to seek nothing until the silence of their last moments. Yet all of us, at some point, will question the stains and creases we acquire as life wears our soul. Sometimes, all we have to do is ask…

Tango in the key of sorry

As the years pass, I continue to wonder at the marvel of human communication, and the sadness of how little we use its potential…

The world appears to be full of conflict and strife. But much of it is happening at the psychological level. The Trump era in America and the Brexit ‘civil war’ in the UK were both fuelled by similar (if not the same) media barons, but they continue to feed on two common elements of human nature – hatred and anxiety; in most cases related to things that were not present.

The power of fear plus the well-placed myth of taking back control are a potent brew… and a complete lie.

This lowest state, in which our desire for real interaction with those of other opinions drops to zero, is easily kindled in people who have limited awareness of the complexity and interaction of modern societies. The populist dictator always sows ‘his’ seeds among the weak-thinking, the people who believe in black and white solutions. But that state of mind is driven only by despair at their own situation.

A wise and enduring society ensures that, though there may be layers of prosperity, no-one is in that lowest position of helplessness.

For good or ill, our societies have evolved into enormous machines of interrelated complexity. All attempts to disengage with internationalism are doomed to the same sad death – costing the inhabitants of the country decades of repair in wealth and reputation. In many cases our societies may never enjoy the prestige they had, before.

But to blame the car which has just driven into a line of innocent people, where the bodies lie, broken across the pavements, is equally wrong. Complex machines require sophisticated pilots. There is no equivocation about a pilot’s science: the plane lands, successfully, or it crashes. There are no ‘alternative facts’ about whether it landed; just like there are no alternative facts about how a virus rips through an innocent and unguided population.

Populism dies in the face of such disasters… and for those who still persist with alternative facts there is, simply, no hope. They are to be shunned by the ‘healthy cells’ of the society to which they represent such a threat. The society – the ‘body’ – remembers health, and yearns to return to it. Only the routes back are seen differently.

In this deadly tango, which now embraces us all, are the seeds of despair and hope. The despair will take us all down – like the car without a driver, or a driver who chooses the fundamentalism of alternative facts over the power of the real and chooses to die in an orgy of ego.

Hope requires that, as individuals, we all take responsibility for listening to others’ point of view – no matter how antithetical they seem to our own minds. All counselling is based, first, upon listening.

There may be a ‘special place in Hell’ for those who engineered the chaos in which we find ourselves. But the greater power lies in the word ‘sorry’ – said from the heart opened with empathy.

It is the beginning of that special state that repairs a world.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a ‘school of the soul’ that offers a three-year, mentored path to personal, spiritual growth, independent of religion.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details.

The mysterious Picts… and beyond

Three questions are asked about the mysterious Picts of the Easter Ross coast of north-east Scotland: Where did they come from? What was the meaning of their wonderful art – miraculously preserved in stone for us to explore, today; and where did they go?

For more than six hundred years, between the 3rd and 9th centuries C.E., the Picts – literally ‘The Painted Ones’, sustained a kingdom running from a southern line between what is now Glasgow and Edinburgh – then known as the Antonine Wall, and the coastline of Easter Ross, north of Inverness in the Highlands.

For centuries, popular history viewed them as ‘half-crazed savages’. But these ‘wild painted men’ fought back the might of Rome’s legions before vanishing from history. They left no written records, but their culture and beliefs are etched into Scotland’s history.

(Above: a tiled mosaic of a Pictish design, outside the Pictish museum, Rosemarkie)

The Picts created intricate and sophisticated designs, which surpassed any other native art in Britain at the time. The subjects of their art varied from animals and mythical beasts to Pagan and Christian symbols; they appear to have easily synthesised the old and the new religions, and made it their own.

(Above: the beautiful beaches of Easter-Ross)

Although there are no written texts, the Picts left behind a wealth of spectacular standing stones, elaborate carvings and intricate sculptures for future generations to discover. We plan to explore several of these – and their stunning landscapes, during our weekend. We will also look at the nature of their art, and, possibly recreate something of our own using the Pictish symbol system.

(Above: Pictish Queen at Portmahomack)

The Easter Ross Pictish trail is has been established by Historic Scotland and offers a spectacular journey through a landscape which has been inhabited since the dawn of civilisation.

“Mysterious and often beautiful, Pictish sculpture presents one of the great puzzles of Dark Age archaeology” (Joanna Close-Brooks 1989) 

The Silent Eye had a series of workshops planned for this year. Due to the Covid-19 situation, these have, so far, been moved to the corresponding months of 2021.

The coming September Workshop: ‘The Pictish Trail’ presents us with an opportunity to resume our celebrated weekends of wandering and learning from the landscape…and each other.

As of the date of writing this, (22 July 2020) The Scottish government rules on travel and groups have been relaxed to a degree that will permit the Pictish Trail workshop to go ahead. Outdoor sites were never a problem. However, as of this week, Historic Scotland are relaxing their restrictions, and an increasing number of indoor locations are being re-opened.

(Above: the ferry across the Cromarty Firth will be one of the features of the weekend)

Administration of the weekend

Inverness will be our base location, due to its facilities, though much of the weekend will be spent on the coast to the north of here. We will convene on the Friday afternoon (or evening) for a visit to the first of the Pictish Stones and a shared meal. If time permits, we can enjoy a walk around the town.

Saturday and Sunday morning will be spent further north, following the official Pictish Trail along the beautiful coast of Easter Ross, and the nearby hills. We will return to Inverness for Saturday evening.

The dates are: Friday 11 September 2020 to Sunday (lunch) 13 September.

Transportation, accommodation and meals are not included in the £75.00 per person fee. Please make your own arrangements for the above, though meals are usually taken as a group, in local pubs, and the costs divided.

Should the event be cancelled due to Covid-19 issues, a full refund of the monies paid to the Silent Eye will be made.

A mainline train service runs to Inverness from Edinburgh. A small number of car places will be available from Inverness from those driving to the event. If you are travelling on foot, please ensure you have checked this availability before your departure.

To confirm your interest, please send an email to rivingtide@gmail.com, attention Steve Tanham

Optional Extension to Orkney

A small group of us are intending to continue on the Sunday northwards to Orkney, via car and passenger ferry from Scrabster – Thurso’s port. We will sail to Stromness, returning to the mainland on the morning of the 17th September. As of the time of writing, some of the previously closed centres of interest are being re-opened to limited number of visitors. Orkney sites such as the wonderful Ring of Brodgar, have continued to be available during the Covid restrictions. Further updates will be given to anyone interested in joining this. Orkney is beautiful, spiritual and unique. This is rare chance to combine two events and visit it.

©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.

To dare, to dream, to be…

‘To know, to dare, to will… and to keep silent’… this is a phrase heard within many branches of the Mysteries and one which echoes facets of the labyrinthine journey undertaken by those of us who work within them. It is an old saying, but none the worse for that, as much of the magical and mystical tradition is rooted in history. It contains much wisdom… a veritable treasure trove that responds to exploration by the meditative mind.

When we were setting up the Silent Eye, talking about how we could encapsulate something of the essence of the School’s ethos in a few words,  that phrase was the starting point for a discussion. The school is a place where we ensure that ‘the heart and the head drink from the same stream’. It is just as easy to get lost in soggy sentimentality as it is to bury oneself in hardcore intellectualism and on the spiritual journey both ends of the spectrum need to arrive at the consensus where we find the road to Being.

It takes courage to set out on that road, for it is ultimately one that must be walked seemingly alone, facing the image of the constructed Self; the Ego that is our vehicle through this life in the mirror of the soul. It is not always a pleasant stroll; the flawed monsters that lurk within each of us are the demons the magician faces in his rites of evocation. It takes courage too to set out on a path that departs from the traditions and teachings you have worked with all your life and seek something new. To dare that road can seem like stepping off a precipice into the unknown… or it can be the most exciting voyage of a lifetime.

It is something many of us dream of doing. Yet where to start? How to translate that dream into a reality? And what is a dream anyway? It is a multivalent concept. We may think of a dream as something of no substance, the ephemera of the night; no more than a fleeting shadow of the impossible that haunts the edges of the mind. Many systems of thought, including our own, use the idea of the dream-state to reflect the limited reality of our daily lives, focussed upon the mechanical movement through the tasks and responsibilities imposed upon us, both by the world and by ourselves; seeing in our restricted and sleeping consciousness merely projected images upon the screen of the mundane world.

We can look at the Aboriginal and Shamanic dreaming that has woven its magic behind humanity’s vision, shadowing forth those aspects of being and divinity we have sought to understand for millennia. On the other hand, we may see a dream as an aspiration… something worthy of the questing soul that seeks the depth and meaning of the inner Light.

It has been asked which is the dream… does the soul dream this life… do we awake from life into a dream of the soul … are we ourselves the dream, the dreamer… or the dreamed?

Perhaps we are all of these and in that realisation… in daring to seek to bring the dream of the soul into reality, in the clear light of consciousness, we can live the dream and touch the realms of pure Being.

Wisdom Breathes Out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

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

Living knowledge

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“Crepuscular!” He was getting desperate now, having exhausted his list of the most obscure words. His face fell as I gave him the definition. He tried another and scowled… “How do you do that?”

“I read.” The words he dangled before me, trying to catch me out, may not be common in verbal usage, but they have cropped up often  enough in books to learn their meaning through meeting them in different contexts and from different angles. Except for unfamiliar technical terms, I don’t look up words when I read. It isn’t necessary to fully understand every word to experience a story… you need, instead, to enter fully into the tale and feel it as you read.  Over decades of reading, you encounter words in so many phrases that your understanding of their layers of meaning evolves and eventually becomes clear.

For me, that seems the best way to expand the vocabulary. It is easy to reach for a dictionary and have some else tell you the skeletal meaning of a word, but a dictionary can only go so far. It cannot teach you about the way an individual writer used the word… or the feelings their characters were going through… the personal interpretation or emotional overlay that goes with a word when it used rather than taught.

A dictionary is a useful tool that gives a cold, clinical definition that gives you a basic sense of a word… a story makes it vivid, bringing a depth of emotion and association to the self-same word. The one teaches from someone else’s perspective, taking a consensus of meaning that allows you to learn about the word, the other allows you to learn from experience and makes it personal… and experience is always the most effective teacher.

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I watched my granddaughter learning the other day. “No!” said her Mum as the little one extended a tentative finger. “It’s hot.” The small explorer has no concept of ‘hot’. So far, she has not burned herself. She did stop though, because she does have experience of that firm ‘no’. She will undoubtedly burn her fingers one day regardless of parental vigilance… hopefully no more than it takes to understand that ‘hot’ is not good in that particular context. Yet she will also learn that a hot day means sunshine and ice cream…  and that eating dinner while it is hot is also good. One day, she will grow up and learn that ‘hot’ can have a whole other connotation of which she had no idea too.

Life teaches through a process akin to osmosis. It is a natural learning that nourishes understanding, rather than being force-fed and learning by rote. Experience teaches with an immediacy and conviction that cannot be found in knowledge alone. Yet add knowledge to experience and understanding is deepened and enriched, the two working hand in hand to elucidate and illuminate.

When we began to build the Silent Eye, it was this dual approach that we felt would be most useful for those who decided to seek answers through the school. It is of no use to offer answers where there is no question. By the time you are able to formulate a question, you are already aware of a very particular gap in what you know…  and the questions of the spiritual seeker are born largely from pondering a life experience that is unique and personal.

In order to ensure that we could structure the course, Steve created stories, with characters, landscape and scenarios that exemplify and illustrate the spiritual principles we share. These are read and ‘lived’ in the imagination, with intent, and provide a way of exploring things that would be impossible in daily life as, to the mind and emotions, the engaged imagination makes the experience of these inner journeys real. Each month, over the three years of the course, another chapter of the journey is added that deepens the experience… and each month, knowledge is shared that allows the student to add another dimension to their understanding.

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The student submits a brief, weekly journal, working closely with their personal supervisor, a companion who has already walked that part of the path themselves. There is a shared experience that forms the basis for exploring individual experience of the shared journey.

It is a system that not only works well, but expands the creative imagination while adding to understanding… and can be fun too. Instead of dry facts dogmatically taught and learned by rote, the student ‘lives’ an experience, adds knowledge and draws their own vivid and vibrant understanding from each lesson. Such understanding is then as unique and personal as their life experience and far more relevant than the imposed view of another.

Since the birth of the Silent Eye, we have had the privilege of seeing students unfold and stepping into a life both full and aware. It is not by what we teach that we measure the success of the school, but in how the course allows our students to realise their own potential in their daily lives and embrace their own inner joy.


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Click the image to view a free PDF brochure about the Silent Eye’s supervised home study course.

Looking for answers…

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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.

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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.

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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.