The Big Picture (6) : Unshakable Mine

I am the child of two loving parents. One gifted me a living background in philosophy and mysticism; the other gave me the gift of verbal conceptualisation… talking.

(1500 words; a ten minute read)

My father passed away a decade ago. We’re still clinging on to mother, who at 91, is robust only in her ability to talk. She is in our care for the foreseeable future and I would like nothing better than that she passes away gently, in that state of being loved and cared for… if not always understood.

Neither of my parents had a clue about the sciences, yet I, despite being a moderate folk-singer in my youth, I eschewed the rock star dream and headed for a Computer Science degree, achieving it after four years (the old-style ‘sandwich course’) of struggle at a Polytechnic in the north Midlands.

I was not a gifted student, but I could talk. Also, I noticed I could explain complex things quite well – finding analogies, new words and metaphors, not to mention humour, to make the complex comprehensive and… fun. I was a vice-president of the local Student Union – a natural fit with talking, I suppose.

Only one of my lecturers understood fun, and I cherish his memory. He knew I wasn’t a good student, and that my final grades were not going to rocket me into a starring role in the emerging world of computing. Remember, this was 1977, and the world of business computing was an exciting (and brutal) frontier.

My fun-loving lecturer called me into his office one day. There, opened on his old, metal desk, was a huge centre-page advert placed by a well-known computing company named ‘Burroughs Computers’.

“Look at the headline,” he said. “They need a thousand graduates in computing to sell their computers… Looks a good package, too.” He rocked back in his chair. “Be a tough first year of survival, mind you…”

He leaned forwards, placed his giant hands on the desk and fixed me with his dark eyes, suddenly full of ice.

“Now get out of here and make something of that wonderful ability to talk!”

Two months later, clutching my degree certificate of under-achievement, I sat down in the cold kitchen of our greengrocer’s shop in Bolton and began to ring every computer company with a office in Manchester. Fifth on the list was a German company called Nixdorf, with a regional office in Sale, Manchester.

Minutes later, the office secretary put me though to the branch manager. I recognised a scouse accent, and the friendly but challenging voice that, bluntly, meant business.

“Why the hell would I be interested in a grubby ex-student like you? Did I mention I hate students,” he snarled, in a passable likeness of John Lennon on a bad day. I tried not to be sick with tension – which resulted in my first ever example of what I later learned was the sales ‘power of silence’. In truth I was choking and had taken my head as far from the phone as possible.

A door in my consciousness opened. I actually heard the ‘crack’. A rush of blood to the head and lungs and then: “Because I can talk well,” I said, clearly and slowly. I sounded calm… I wasn’t.

All I could hear was his laughing. “Bloody hell, I can‘t fault that,” he laughed. “Be here next Monday morning at 7:30. Let’s see if you can get up, as well as talk.”

He put the phone down. “Bloody hell”, I repeated to myself. My best and worst attributes in the same adrenaline rush.

I was there at 07:25 on that Monday. My orange VW Beetle, part financed by my Dad, but now my own responsibility, was parked discretely behind the office.

I stood by the door, but not blocking it. Not overly familiar but not looking like a ‘bloody student’ either. I stood aside as he passed me. He issued a small but rueful-sounding “Good morning”, injected with a tiny degree of irony. Nothing else.. But he let me see his smile as he swung the door open.

I got the job. The first year didn’t go according to his plans, as I was courted and, frankly, seduced, by a divorced senior lady systems analyst who had a sporty BMW. She toyed, elegantly, with my affections and other things. She was great and we had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t learning the day job. The Branch Manager tried to warn me off. Headstrong, I wasn’t listening.

Of such things are harsh lessons made…

At the end of the year, with little sales success, I knew the manager was ready to fire me. I sank into a depression. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying – I hadn’t let the high-octane fraternising frazzle all my brains. It seemed that no-one would take me seriously – out there in the boardrooms where people brought expensive computers. Was I just too young? Had my ability to talk failed me?

That evening, I had a pub meal with a new friend I had got to know through working in my parents’ shop. I liked Ian a lot. He had a tough but humorous, no-nonsense manner and he liked BMW cars – though he couldn’t afford one. He had been a chef, but had swapped it for a job as a salesman in a catering engineering company who made high-end industrial cookers.

I was explaining my imminent demise and he listened, deeply, reading my face. For the past few months, over several evenings, he had coached me in the nitty gritty of ‘selling the person, not the product’. He finished his drink, but continued the silence.

I went to the bar for the second round.

“Do you know,” he said, as I set the drinks down. “that selling is the only profession that gives free consultancy?”

The sentiment was new to me at the time. It hit me like adrenaline. “Look at all your training,” he continued. “Four year computing degree; ‘sandwich-course’ during which you gave up your summer holidays to work in industry. Smart, well spoken… “Whereas, half the people you are selling to are dull, imagination-less lickspittles…”

It was the first time I’d heard such sentiments. Looking back, they were designed to fire me up, but much of the sentiment was true. You had to learn to value yourself if you hoped to sell anything. I knew that, I just hadn’t ‘actualised’ it. Later, I found a better word for that.

“What are you doing tomorrow morning?” he asked, sipping his beer.

I drank mine, conscious of the importance of the day to come. “Final attempt to close the deal at a wholesale Painting Suppliers in Salford. My last chance.”

He looked at me, eagle-eyed. “What are your chances? Really?”

I drank some more beer. “Not brilliant – but there’s a nice BMW in the car park. I’ve noticed that there is definitely a correlation between that and what kind of reception we…. I… get; German company and all…and the Operations Director’s a nice bloke and gets me a coffee.”

“Good,” said Ian. “Then use it. Make it count.”

Mr Johnson, the Operations Director, was a man who combined warmth and acute intelligence. His office was classy but minimalist – quite avant-guard in Salford. He watched me, intently, as I worked to summarise my proposals and tell him why now was the right time for him to sign the deal. I felt I’d done a good job and sat back, ready to use the power of silence to its best effect.

After twenty seconds of mutual silence, he rocked his chair back and let me have a half-smile.

“Steve,” he said softly. “I like you… the financial director likes you. We think we have an honest soul, here. Someone who will work with us to deliver this… beyond the selling.’

He let his chair rotate forward so his arms could lie on the desktop, and fixed me with eyes that contained a different sentiment to any he had displayed to that point. I knew something completely new was about to happen in my life.

“Now let me tell you how you’re going to sell this to us…”

In those few seconds, my entire world changed. It was the beginning of the sense of worth solely related to my-self. Mr Johnson was going to instruct me in how to use that because he felt I was was worth it. That sense of worth – in this adult context – was dramatic and life-changing. I’ve never forgotten it… I’ve never wanted to. I think of it as ‘unshakable mine’.

It was only years later that I realised it had a spiritual dimension. One of the key stages in our individual development is to realise that each human has a great importance to the cosmos. This is something that can trigger a fundamental change in ourselves – and link us more closely with everything that is creative in life.

It’s a Little Us that carries a spark of something almost beyond belief. But the journey to that realisation is the story of how we get there, in a weird and wonderful paradox, full of divine humour and discovery.

We are all born with amazing potential, but we have to realise our relationship to the world we live in – the whole, vast universe of it…

Finding that deep sense of self, beyond the ordinary egoic concept, is central this journey.

A week later, as promised to the Nixdorf Branch Manager, the deal was signed. It probably wasn’t the thing that saved me. The outspoken manager had fallen out with one of the senior managers in Germany and had resigned… The man who took over had warmth and had seen the effort I was making. I lived to fight – and learn – another day.

Next week, in the final part of this series, we will pull together the threads through these posts, and summarise the truly ‘big picture’ of Self-development.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, This is Part Six.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The Big Picture (5) : A glass of silver wine

One of the ancient mystical traditions that has turned out to be startlingly modern is that of the Sufis. We may be familiar with Sufi thought in the form of its often quoted poetry, such as that of Rumi, or the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the ‘Astronomer-Poet of Persia’, whose work became widely-read in the west, following its translation by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859.

(900 words; a ten minute read)

The Sufis used the wine glass or wine jug as a subtle motif. The delicate glass may be filled with any liquid, but water or wine features in many of the teaching tales. We take such a vessel for granted, but it merits closer investigation…

The glass is fixed. If we try to insert something hard into it, like a stone, it will break. But if we pour a liquid into it, the result is harmonious. What actually happens? The liquid takes the shape of the glass, filling every cavity to such an extent that the two are practically the same… But we know they are not; the obliging liquid has taken on the shape and contours of the container into which it has been poured. If the wine were white and not red, it might be difficult to even know of its existence. The glass, though more ‘basic’ in its nature, is necessary for the wine to exist in a drinkable form. If the glass is finely made, it reveals the depths of beauty in the shimmering wine, and even allows reflections of the world back to itself.

Let’s imagine our wine is beyond ‘white’ and has a mercurial quality that makes it look silver…

(Above: the first edition of Fitzgerald’s ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’, from 1859, a book that introduced the western world to the mischief and subtleties of Sufi spiritual thought. Image Wikipedia, public domain)

Our silver wine not only fills the vessel, it also reflects the colours, lights and shadows of what flows through the glass from outside, but reversed. They become an imprint of each other, but the silver wine is fluid and flexible, whereas the glass is fixed and brittle.

If the glass is scratched or dirty, the light being reflected from within the vessel is less bright than it could be. But our silver wine still needs the holding power of the glass if it is to remain effective in the world of solid things. It is the glass which collects and transmits the light from the ‘outside’, giving the glassy material all its life, and the silver wine half its life.

In our continuing exploration of the nature of self, we can use this Sufi image to great effect, especially if we make it a bit more sophisticated. Let’s bring our glass alive… and give it feelings and the ability to react, making it it an engine of perception, reaction and response to the physical world.

Our new glass is evolved. It is made of the substance of the world, whereas our silver wine is from another place. To function in the world, the silver wine needs the cooperation of the glass, allowing its will to be guided by the sparkling liquid within.

Our new glass is imbued with the power of reaction, in the form of like and dislike to everything it experiences. The silver wine within the glass does not need to like or dislike; it is completely at peace with whatever happens, living in an ocean of wonder and reflecting it. But its life is now so closely mirrored with the glass, that it begins to absorb the reactions that the glass experiences to the outside world. It remains dutiful to the glass and its perceived world, but knows it could do much more for the glass than just receive and reflect its life. But the silver wine cannot function in the world of the glass without its container…

The only chance the silver wine now has for a greater life within the glass is for the outer vessel – the glass – to get to a point where it knows that it has tired of its reactions to the world and needs to get back to the limitless and unjaded level of life that is the silver wine’s inner vitality – a world the glass knew well when it was young and the silver wine had just been poured into it.

The glass represents the reactive life of the personality with its body, informed by its brain and will. The experience of the world passes through these and forms the life of something in the glass that is the mirror of the silver wine. This is the self, and it is only ever a lesser reflection of the shining inner liquid.

In mystical learning, we work to move the seat of the consciousness from the glass to the silver wine, quietening the reactive self, and allowing the consciousness to have dual centres, each used within its own realm.

We can take this exercise deeper by making it into a meditation. We first imagine that there are two worlds, one filled with light and fluidity, the others more bound by physical laws of form. We then imagine two streams of life meeting up, one as an inherited form being blown, beside a furnace, into a beautifully curved wine glass; the other becoming the finest silver wine and being poured into the beautiful glass. Together, they have the potential of perfection, but only the glass keeps the wine composite, whole and drinkable.

The analogy is ultimately limited, but contains some deeper symbols hidden in the story. At the right point these can speak directly to our own ‘silver wine’ triggering far-reaching events for both glass, wine… and the ultimate wine-lover.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, This is Part Five

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

Impression of Contentment…

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso image Wikipedia

I never really got contentment. “Are you happy?” I once asked a friend. “No, but I am content,” was his reply. To me, it wasn’t enough. It seemed like accepting some kind of mediocrity. I was young then and life was lived in all the vivid hues of passion. Emotion ran sky high or hit the depths… the times in between were bland, a mere waiting for the next rise and fall of the rollercoaster.

Emotions, back then, were all sharp-edged, like a cubist painting… and like such works, always disassembling the object of them to examine them from every angle. Some of the edges were so sharp you would bleed if you touched them… but you were alive. There were no in-between days of grey and dun.

Alizarine: sandorfi, maklary
Alizarine: Etienne Sandorfi, image: Maklary

A little older and the days took on a greater realism. The consequences of action and reaction were more direct as the responsibilities of adulthood were revealed in stark detail. Like looking in the mirror, these days reflected back at you only what you projected into them. The colours were still sharp; the detail and emotion clear… all the edges well-defined. A delineated life, with specific duties… niches for the fragmented self that is required by the roles demanded by the varied aspects of a society that likes to label everything.

But even that changed, morphing into abstraction where the lines and stark hues threw everything into question and the secure assumptions of youth that had flown direct as arrows suddenly seemed to realise that infinity is not a straight line. Stubbornly held beliefs were taken out of the strongbox and held up to the Light. Some were found to be tarnished, others broken, some simply too outmoded to be of any pertinent use. Yet there is a freedom in that de-cluttering of heart and mind, a simplicity that leaves much open to interpretation and, like a gallery, the fewer you hold on to, the more you can begin to appreciate what remains in all its glory.

The Depth of Woman by Benjamin Prewiit
The Depth of Woman by Benjamin Prewitt

These days I have a preference for a more Impressionistic style. I like my edges softer, the detail less focussed. I like to be able to stand back and lose myself in the moment in order to see a bigger picture, full of suggestions and possibilities half-glimpsed; open to the imagination and the emotional whispering of the heart-centred soul. There is something about this time that both softens and excites. I find that I like the lack of definition, the gaps only my heart and mind can fill. Instead of wondering about the name of the artist, I ask instead what message they were trying to convey.

And finally, I know contentment. It is not that there is nothing I could wish had been different. Nor is it that there is no looking back in the knowledge that I could have done things differently… for better or worse… Yet there is an acceptance that everything has its purpose. Like the myriad dots of a pointillist painting, each speck of experience may seem out of place when looked at too closely in time and emotion, yet stand back and the colours of the days blend and merge into something beautiful, understandable and whole, where every scrap of colour is in the perfect place.

A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte,_Georges_Seurat,_1884
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat. Image Wikipedia

There is a new beauty… and it is far from the mediocrity of my youthful disdain. The colours of this new world are deep and rich, their contrasts sing against each other, dark illuminating light. I can see that both are needful and their harmony beautiful. The detail fades in importance; the whole is where the story lies, waiting for our eyes to read it on a wider canvas than the frantic myopia of youth can encompass. The frame of my days holds a beauty only the heart can see and its starry skies are streaked by the fingertips of the creator.

The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh
The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh. Imgae: Wikipedia

The Big Picture (4) : a hammer of sorts

As children, we lose ourselves in play and the toys or games that give the play structure: a skipping rope, chalk to mark out a court, balls to kick and control… perhaps, now, a computer to enter a virtual world. As adults we inhabit a different world, and the entanglements of our earlier years may pay us a return visit…

(1400 words; a ten minute read)

The big red ball was heavy. It was a toy for a large dog, and we didn’t have one, so I felt justified. When you held it, there was strangeness to its mass, as though the density came from ‘another place’… Alien.

The only pet we had was a mangy old tom that my mum had rescued from an icy death one winter. I knew nothing of the world of dogs – my repeated requests for a collie falling on dad’s deaf ears… Looking back, I don’t blame him. I know, now, how much exercise those lovely creatures need… mind you, I t’s worth it.

Conceiving of the big red project had taken a while. The Norse legends, made modern in the context of an excellent book set in the sci-fantasy genre, had captivated me. I took the large meat skewer and set into into the middle of the glowing embers of the garden fire I’d been nurturing for the past hour. My personal ‘furnace’….

Both my parents were out… of course.

I watched the skewer glow red, then, slipping my dad’s ‘fix the underneath of the car’ gloves on, I picked up its curly end and approached the sold red rubber ball locked fast in its makeshift wooden cradle on the top of mum’s rockery.

There was an appalling hiss as the red-hot metal melted its way through the first two inches of dense, composite rubber. I had the good sense to avoid the life-diminishing fumes, and continued pushing. It soon became apparent that creating a passage through the exact centre of the giant dog ball was going to take several return visits to the fire… but, eventually, it was done, and I held it up to the sun in triumph, aligning the dark tunnel like a telescope.

I’d already constructed the rest of the kit. The new rope, bought from the local hardware shop as a scrap piece, was too large to fit through the hole, but perfect for the strength I would need. To get around that I had wound and tied a piece of string to its end so I could thread the smaller line through then pull the thicker length along the red ball’s axle tunnel.

The wooden handle – to attach to the end of the two feet of rope, was a masterpiece. Carved by hand from a tree branch with my large penknife, then formed into a finer shape with a borrowed hemispherical file from dad’s toolbox. I had finished it off with hours of sanding, using a borrowed sheet of fine grade paper. When I closed my hand around it, each of my clenched fingers slid into place perfectly.

I threaded the end of the rope through the hole in the middle of the handle and tied it off with the newly-learned knot, pulling the rope back into the upper part of the shaped hole so that it would not stand proud and interfere with the grip… and the all-important swing.

I took the mighty red ball in one hand and let it drop to the length of the rope. The impact jolted the handle, but I was ready. I still remember the smile as I swung the great weight round and round in the air over my head, so fast it began to swish and hum. Unexpectedly, my scorched tunnel had given my red beast a voice!

Nearly there… now I had to test it.

Raymond Barlow lived in a much older part of Ainsworth than we did, yet was a neighbour ‘over the back’ so to speak. The stone cottages were on the main road, but set back, and with huge rear gardens. At the far end of one of these, Raymond’s grandfather had made two wooden outbuildings with a tiny alley between and around the back of each. In a far corner, a solid wooden post was set into the ground, looking like it had stood there for millennia. My best friend and I used it for stone-throwing practice.

“Go on then, get it out!” he said, exasperated, when I arrived through the hole in the hedge that marked the terminus of the excellent secret path we had forged between the two houses; very painfully, for it was full of trees and shrubs with thorns and others pointed spikes.

I straightened my back and reached into the largest pocket of my anorak, pulling out the handle and letting the coiled structure reveal itself.

It was the first time I had ever seen him speechless. “Bloody hell,” he whispered.

Imitating what I hoped was a strong but silent god, I took a step towards the post, leaving perhaps ten feet of throwing distance. There, I began to whirl the red ball of destruction around at great speed. In a practiced end-move, I snapped the handle down and towards its target, feeling the impossibly dense projectile whistle closely past my head on its descending curve.

It hit the post so hard, it snapped the wood clean in two… I tried not to show my utter surprise… as delight filled me from the toes upwards.

“Bloody hell!’ Raymond shouted louder. We gazed at the severed spar. I stood and saluted.

“Let those who advance on Asgard beware!”

There was a new god in town. His name was Thor and he had a hammer that would shake your world… That far-away, but close to the heart kingdom could sleep a little safer that night.

—————————

It’s all completely true, yet here’s a story with a deeper meaning. This is the most powerful memory I can muster to illustrate the principle of identification. Identification is a process that affects and forms most of our lives. The young Stephen knew he wasn’t Thor, of course; but then no-one was. The difference between what he was doing then, and what he had done, before, was that his new hero (and many identifications are with heroes) was a figure with profound values.

The Norse Gods were good. They represented different aspects of us, though that was felt rather than understood at the time. In many ways, that fearful red ‘hammer’ was a ritual instrument, a thing forged and made, with the power of transformation gifted to of its worthy bearer…

The process of identification is one of the key areas where psychology and spirituality meet in entire agreement. What I identify with will change with time and circumstance, but it will be ‘me’.

The more carefree stages of childhood – if we are lucky enough to have a stable family background – will see identification fixed on positive things, even if they are fantasy. As we pass from being looked after to looking after ourselves, then others, the identifications can become either deeper in purpose or more negative – descending even to anxiety and illness. Much depends on that first decade of encounter with reality.

In each case, the identification is a process of becoming fixed upon something, and that something is a projected image from ourselves. Its source may be unconscious, but it’s at the heart of who we are…

Much of the work done by psychologists involves gaining the trust of those they treat so that they can take them on an internal journey where the ‘light’ of adult understanding can be thrown on the objects of fixation. The process is complete when the power is returned to the newly-balanced self, more intent on making its brighter face more powerful.

A modern mystery school’s focus is not treatment, but exploration. The mystery school will create such journeys in a landscape of the mind and emotions in a way that is safe, mentored and discussed. Group meetings will examine, often with roles being played, how the self is built from such images, and their component identifications.

Identification can be a bad or a good thing. It passes us from stage to stage of our self, as we mature from fantasy to (hopefully) reality. The young Thor becomes the student, who becomes the junior in an office, where he or she has to redefine his very existence before becoming proficient in his or her chosen adult role.

Only at the end of this, at a stage of maturity in our lives, do we come to question the entire process of identification. We notice that despite all the power being with us, the objects of our identification are difficult to change… What happens if we refuse to have an identity which is external to this now-powerful sense of self that I know is mine?

In the next part we will go deeper into where this quest leads, and to the help that may lie a short way along that path.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, this is Part Four.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The Big Picture (3) : objects of desire

The word ‘object’ has many meanings; but none more mysterious and potentially wonderful as the meeting of spirituality with the findings of psychology’s Object Relations Theory…

(1400 words; a ten minute read)


Everything in our daily world comes from them; they are the highs and lows, the anguish and the triumphs, the misery and the joy… and above all else, the overwhelming violence of the world, permeated, occasionally, by the heroic kindness of someone selfless, someone who only wants to add a little love to the sad garden.

But it may not be entirely so…

Our world reflects our thoughts. Our thoughts are mainly habitual reactions to conditions, some are pleasurable but many induce a sense of anxiety, if not actual fear.

If we are fortunate, our inner relations are within a harmonic family – though this is by no means guaranteed. When we are older, we look back on our lives and sigh at what might have been, but also take some pride in what was.

Yet, through all of this, a sense of ‘I was there’ prevails. We can see the key decisions we made; can wince at the costly mistakes, and bask in the sometime triumph over adversity that we – often in concert with others – made happen.

We feel a pride in that accomplishment. The aspect of us that feels this pride is the self.

When the world of psychology came into existence in the early years of the last century, it caused quite a stir with its promise to accurately explore what it meant to be a self.

A ‘self’ is a permanent place of accumulated beliefs, views and and reactions that crystallised into a sense of ‘me-ness’ around the age of seven. One view, developed by Sigmund Freud and still used as a basis for much of modern psychology, is that our sense of self is threefold and divided into an energetic under layer – the id; an overbearing ‘should do’ layer – the superego; and a core of ‘conscious me’ stuck in the middle and attempting to mitigate between the wild, energetic and sexual creature and the overbearing tut-tutter that society might expect.

Anyone who tries to understand the world sees that our societies are also a response to the collective presence our psychologies – our selves. The individual adds their own psychological presence to the society in which they live. The pressures, norms, expectations and authoritarian tendencies of our societies can be a heavy burden throughout our lives.

We can retreat from the world, or we can face it with an intelligent and loving intent to react differently to it… or not react at all. By reducing our direct reactions to the world, we generate more power of self, and often find the world has changed, accordingly… which can be surprising, to say the least.

To live a life within a new ‘chamber of calmness’ is not to cut ourselves off. Rather, it requires the will to introduce a ‘catching gap’ between experience and reaction. In creating this, we begin to notice how powerful certain aspects of our lives are, and how difficult it is to control the reactions to them.

Sometimes, it is all we can do to watch this taking place. Any idea of control needs to be a secondary stage. Often, in watching deeply and not needing to react, the present reveals itself in a different way, perhaps not requiring our active participation at all… There is always a third force at work; the power of the ‘present’ helps us to recognise this, as we develop this side of our minds and hearts.

What we react to, and the way we react, became the subject of a new branch of psychology, beginning in the 1930s and extending to the present day. It is called Object Relations Theory. It developed from and extended Freud’s psychoanalytic theory into a more detailed view of how we visualise what affects us.

It also provides a shared space of understanding in which mysticism and psychology may meet and harmonise.

In 1975, physician turned psychiatrist Margaret Mahler wrote a radical and seminal work: ‘The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation’. The title surprised people – as it was meant to, implying that the physical birth of the body is not the same, nor synchronous, with the birth of the child in the sense of what will become the personality.

The personality develops from the mixture of experience and reaction. But the idea that the infant is simply a junior ‘us’, issuing automatically from the body, is wrong.

The psychological infant has to develop in parallel with the healthy body, but its development is of an entirely different order to the biology of cells. The essence of this – ultimately the goal of present day psychology – is the development of a strong and stable self. The goal of spirituality is to investigate the deeper mysteries of actually having a self.

Mahler showed that the infant exists, pre-birth, in a state of parallel life with the mother, knowing nothing else. This is bliss to the unborn soul. When birth occurs, the infant slowly discovers the sadness and dissatisfaction of separation, which is essential for its growth towards what Mahler called individuation.

It is important to grasp this; the unborn infant does not exist in a state of oneness with mother. It exists simply in a state of oneness… There is no knowledge, and no presence of anything but this.

In terms of the world’s myths and religions, we might reflect that, at this stage, the infant knows nothing of the father, though his contribution was the seed that found its place within the ‘ground’ of the mother, triggering the process of new life and contributing half its DNA.

Mother and child move from oneness to a separation in which the child must increasingly come to know the world as an ‘other’ from itself, in order to fulfil its needs. The oneness becomes, first, two tightly-coupled entities, then two separate beings. How well and harmoniously this is achieved shapes the rest of our lives. The physical side of this is obvious to us, but not the stages of the psychological progress. Mahler revealed this in detail, and analysed the criticality of each aspect of healthy physical, mental and emotional development.

Within Object Relations, the word ‘object’ is used to describe an ‘other’ – typically a person, and this is not meant derogatorily, it is simply a notation. Our world comes to be populated with ‘others’ as we develop an inner vocabulary of ‘types of other’. Within the mind, such objects are always seen as pictures, as images. These images can be rich, with all manner of sensory information attached.

Mother is the first ‘other’, and definitive. Each subsequent stage bears the imprint of the mother experience. Mystically, we can also equate Nature with mother, a model that implies that the life-force may come from somewhere else…

The child comes to recognise another object called Father. Though there is no consciousness of shared origin in the same sense as that of mother. Father becomes important, ideally, as role model for individuation – making our own way in the world.

So far, you may rightly ask what this has to do with mystical development of the self. The key is that the early infant, although not individuated, is in touch with the states of inner beauty and completeness that are also the goals of all spiritual quests. What the child cannot do is function in the world. This must be learned, and as it is achieved, the beautiful early states of essence are gradually lost in the stuff of outer life, though, as Wordsworth wrote, we come into this life ‘trailing clouds of glory’.

As a mature person, of whatever age, we have a strong sense of self. We know, to some degree, how to work the world. The early lessons of survival are long behind us, and their wisdom is embedded in our matrix of stored reactions. At a certain age, we may feel that the early vividness of the world is gone; that life and duty are making us dull.

When faced with this, we are at what we call in the Silent Eye, the ‘turning point’. We now have the chance to take all our worldly competence, our balanced ego, and embark on a search for those ‘clouds of glory’ that still inhabit our innermost spiritual rooms.

Next week, we will look at how we begin such a quest – among the ‘objects’ our life has gathered. We will examine the nature of the new world we encounter as this unravelling begins. We are not talking about becoming an infant, again. We are looking for adult experiences of the active imagination that will act as triggers for a vast and excitingly new state of Self. The ‘objects’ we already carry with us will provide the fuel…

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The Big Picture (2) : a portrait of the archer

If we’re going to set off in search of the spiritual – as seen in humanity’s ‘internal pictures’, we need to have a more modern definition of what the ‘spiritual’ actually is…

Imagine we are reading a paragraph in an absorbing book – something like the image below. Normally, our brains would assemble a sequential stream of characters into recognised words, then meaning. The meaning would be gradually tuned as we read into the context of the whole.

Clever stuff… Our minds equip us well to interact with the information sources in our world – some of which could kill us, if wrongly interpreted: think of a traffic crossing. We have a life-imperative to protect our organic existence, but it does not mean that, beyond the needs and duties of this lifetime, it was ever truly our home.

Back to the paragraph in our book. Imagine if, instead of that sequential, character-by-character interpretation of the language, we looked at the set of words and suddenly sat back with surprise as the whole thing sprang into vivid life in front of us!

Now, everywhere we look, and from every angle, the deepest meaning of the text becomes vital; and with a force that simply leaves no room for it being wrong…

That’s what seeing with a ‘spiritual eye’ is like. The sense of ‘me and it’ is lost in a glorious, calm involvement with what had been the object of our vision – and this can be the whole world. What’s happened is the sudden and miraculous removal of the learned idea of a separate entity for me and it. Instead, there is a seamless and deeply personal absolute knowledge that we are seeing the truth of where we look.

The experience is completely real. It means the state we have entered is a higher one. By that, we mean that it came first… It is a parent of the state we are now in.

The state we normally live in, this lesser ‘ordinary’ consciousness where understanding comes through slow absorption of ideas, is the product of a natural process as we enter life and become in-volved with our new world.

It is essential that we do this; that we experience this biblical ‘fall’ into the denser world of organic matter. Why this is so is a much deeper answer, one requiring a more developed vocabulary for the shape of our existence. The brain cannot fully comprehend it, but it can string the bow… What happens next requires that we have an arrow.

Our personal power in life comes from having a strong ‘identity’ with ourselves… and this is a picture of self. This self, and its interactions with the world, are gradually assembled into a composite which solidifies with a psychological ‘whoosh’, somewhere around our seventh year of life. From then on, this ‘me’ becomes the core of how things are felt, and how we take things forward. It is the personality; but it is built on many, smaller units of ‘me’ that are part of a process of deeper involvement with the world.

The prenatal infant does not know itself to be separate from mother. But ask any mother and they will tell you the poignancy of knowing something that your body has ‘made’ will have to leave your warmth to achieve its life, separated. The mother knows the infant is not her, the infant does not… until, mirroring the deepest spiritual tales from our collective past, it is born, a stranger in a strange land.

Instantly, there is it and the world. The most beautiful state of Oneness, paradise, has been lost… And only the most magnificent human potential could justify that event.

Mother is there, of course. Her breast and her warmth are everything to the child, but they are not the exact match to her needs as when in the womb. There begins a process of not just separation, but of ‘lack’, especially orally when there is not enough milk for the infant’s hunger.

From these early events is formed a set of relationships with the new experience of independent life. The infant is always present to its experience, so everything is seen in a relationship to itself. The whole of the infant’s life will be patterned by these formative experiences.

One way of examining this development – which is mainly psychological – is the technique of ‘Object Relations’: one of the tools of modern psychology, and one that finds itself most closely allied with certain mystical schools – though not by intent. An understanding of Object Relations will help reveal the pictures formed during this first stage of our-selves.

We are not attempting regression, here. The goal is to unite the adult mind’s power with the early and potent feelings of being human. We do this because there is a correspondence between those early events and the patterns of experienced energy we find when can touch our own essence.

It is no accident that the ability to form good mental images – visualisation – has always been one of the key tools of spiritual development. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is most famous for his exposition of building living images of oneself ‘imitating Christ’. These techniques are truly ancient, and have been the tools of ‘priests’ throughout history. To get what we want and hopefully need, requires a ‘clear picture’ of the desired state, even if it is partial.

But there is a problem when it comes to visualising a higher spiritual state. The mind cannot conceive of something higher than itself. However, we can assemble a small armoury of self-tools certain to take us at least part of the way to the spiritual eye spoken of in the opening paragraphs. It’s time to make our arrow…

In the next few weeks, we can follow an overview of the Silent Eye’s method for:

  • Understanding the most important of the early pictures of self, and how they became the foundations of ‘us’.
  • Examining the aspects of ‘ancient wisdom’ that correlate most closely with the pictures.
  • Reconciling the adult and powerful self with the fears of the infant, experiencing a ‘washing away’ of that early anxiety, thus freeing the energy inherent in the early states that were so close to Oneness.
  • Finding the separate ‘faces’ of that Oneness, and forming a new picture of each, as the Sufis do, as Intimate Friends on our deeply personal path.

Equipped with the above, we truly notch our arrow into the taut and harmonic string of a mighty bow, and, standing tall, fire it into the heavens of our own sky.

We might even get an answer to this focussed message. But its nature may surprise us…

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The Big Picture (1) : life and the image

We don’t live ‘in the world’… an outrageous thing to say, and yet it’s true. Well, if we don’t live in the world, where do we live?

We don’t live in the world; we live in a picture of the world… the ‘big picture’ of the blog’s title. If we actually lived in the world, we would go insane within a very short time in trying to process the near infinite information that the real world throws at us every second of the day. Nature has helped us with this; millions of years of evolution have honed and perfected this ‘signal processor’ that we call the brain.

Instead of losing our minds – itself a telling statement – we have evolved to have, at the pinnacle of our personal organisation, a sophisticated ‘summary engine’ that can be taught what’s important to us so that it can be extracted from the ‘flow’.

When we were children, staying alive was very important; as was staying close to ‘mother’, who protected us. The knowledge and methods of this stage of our lives are buried deep in our so-called ‘subconscious’, where they protect us by becoming ultra-fast reactions based on recognised patterns of events coming at us – like a hot coal that once burned us, or the initial taste of mother’s milk, our original food of life that went hand in hand with her deep and ‘most warm’ love.

The human being’s consciousness is made up almost entirely of reactions… and rightly so. In a potentially hostile universe, these reactions operate at lightning speed to protect and preserve us. They also give us fear, filling us with chemicals that speed up our reactive potential. They can also give us pleasure… to the point of addiction.

(Above: within us we have a kind of stage, where the events of our lives are turned into an ongoing story, a play. Image by the author)

Growing up to maturity in a stable way is not a trivial process. No wonder we value the stability of the bionic machine that protects us. That this reactive engine is the pinnacle of us is marginally untrue. We also have a strange other creature sitting high up there at the top of our personal organisation.

Reading this, you can, at any time, break away from these lines of language being interpreted by the equivalent of millions of lines of ‘brain code’ that sift and refine what the meaning is. You can break away from this information stream and ask yourself, ‘Mmm what do I think of this?’

The part of you that has this power of separate thought from the general engine of survival, pain and comfort is the self. The self is a very strange entity that arose in our internal experience once we had stabilised our survival. Essentially, the self was what survived in conscious memory from moment to moment within the sea of experience. We became attached to it, for it not only carried memories vital for survival, it also gave us a sense of worth. Because it was always there, we grew fond of it. With its help, we could take greater autonomy in our lives, choosing certain directions based, positively or negatively, on pleasure, pain or… even values.

Values are interesting. They dont feed us, they don’t frighten us, yet we have learned that they are important. Some humans don’t spend much time on values, but anyone brought up with love and affection is likely to have a small treasure-trove of culturally inherited values from their loving parents and those who have influenced them most strongly in their lives.

We might say we have an unusual instinct for the ‘good’, beyond any need for it to be linked to our survival… or even wellbeing.

Our higher levels of organisation – our minds – contain the most sophisticated abstract representations of our world and our selves. These representations are in the form of interior pictures. They may contain all the information our senses can provide, but they are still pictures. They are not the reality of the present. They are that reality seen through pieces of our history, as though through an evolved lens.

The nature of those pictures, and their relationship to any quest for the reality of our selves, is the subject of this series of posts. It’s a series I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I feel the time is right and appropriate to this felt sense of an ‘end of the age’. My belief is that things are indeed ending, but only to clear the way for the depths of human potential to be further revealed. Because of the way we are made, the real changes need to come from a psychological and spiritual perspective. Only an awareness of this dimension of ourselves will open up our possible future…

(Above: The Tree of Life, a representation of progressively higher levels of consciousness. Image by the author)

The idea of images being central to our mental and emotional existence is not a new one. Ancient systems of metaphysics used diagrams like the Tree of Life, above, to illustrate the relative place of the actual world and our consciousness within it. The lowest of the ten ‘spheres’, above, is Malkuth, which is the body and its raw awareness. But our composite consciousness of the world begins at the next higher level – the purple sphere of Yesod above it. One of the key meanings of Yesod is ‘The Image’.

The story of how our deeply personal ‘way of seeing’ developed is the story of how our experiences formed relationships between ‘me’ and the world. These started very simply, but powerfully, with the essential relationship between the infant and mother. In the first two years of life are to be found the essential lenses of our seeing that pattern the rest of our lives.

In the next part, we will examine this early state – not from a perspective of regression, but with a view to blending our early perceptions with the adult discrimination we now possess. The mixture can be a fiery one… But the flames of self-discovery can put an entirely new light on our habits, our fears, our joys and the potential for our consciousness to go much further than we currently envisage.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

Changing tides

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He tripped, catching the pointed toe of the winklepickers on the kerb. Righting himself he looked around, his eyes darting self-consciously to seek out any possible observer, even while he reassumed his pose of studied nonchalance. Do they even call them winklepickers these days? From the anonymity of the car, I watched… the shutter of memory capturing the scene in vivid detail.

I took in, with some appreciation, the shiny black shoes, drainpipe jeans and striped shirt. Honey gold hair, worn a little too long to be called short, carefully coaxed across his brow. From one hand dangled a blue jacket… but what had caught my attention was the brown waistcoat and large, black satin bow tie.

This was a late summer Saturday. His attire both too warm and too contrived to be casual. An incongruous look, even if he was going to a wedding or other social gathering. Heading in the direction of the town centre and around fifteen, at a guess, I couldn’t see him making his way to such a function alone. The town and the plate glass reflections of shop windows were, I guessed, his goal. And possibly a girl. He looked nervous enough.

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You could read his emotions in the way he walked… every step seeming to shout ‘look at me!’, even while something in his stance suggested he still wondered if he looked as cool as he felt or as idiotic as his father may have told him.

I smiled to myself; a mother of sons. There is something very fragile about those first, tentative steps into a grown-up world of independence and learning to express the person you know yourself to be on the inside. It is a time of great vulnerability when the desire for acceptance and approval can lead to you conforming to the patterns laid by others, responding to their image of who you ‘should’ be.. and a time when the fledgling wings are easily clipped, damaged or irreparably broken by an unkind word or a lack of trust in your ability to become an individual in your own right.

The indulgent smile froze for a moment as I realised that some aspects of teenagerhood are not reserved for teenagers… but can happen to us all at any point in our lives. I thought about my hair.

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It is now non-existent, lost to chemotherapy…a temporary state, I can hope. It had once been dyed red , but although it had felt outrageous, in retrospect it was fairly tame, almost natural. A small, domesticated and timid attempt at self-expression. It had been building for a while and though the mahogany was quickly allowed to fade back to propriety, the lava was rising.

I was in my fifties when I dyed my hair rebellious; a colour somewhere between disaster and flame. It was short too; I had hacked it off with the meat shears in an act of sheer defiance… carving an image that owed no thought to anything but my own freedom to choose. I loved it. It carried danger signals and waved a flag of independence, screaming in no uncertain terms that enough was enough and I would no longer take either the garbage or the begrudged crumbs of affection upon which I had subsisted for far too long. I had no idea where this was going, but that it was going to go somewhere… anywhere….I was very certain….

Basically, I was little more than a come-again teenager, facing the world all guns blazing to assert a self-image I had yet to form and a confidence I had yet to feel. It was a time of change and reaction where I tore off the masks I had allowed to take up residence and began to wear instead the passion for life that I had always felt and kept locked primly away in the staid closet of domesticity.

Such a conflagration can go either way… but having once embraced the searing of the flames, I grew to love the contentment of the warmth of glowing embers. I did not need to display the blazon of a passion that will always burn. The challenge became a more carefree confidence, the red once more its gentler, natural shade, though now comfortably streaked with silver and growing wild. Outwardly, I have come full circle, back to the place I began, yet I see now through different eyes from another arc of the spiral of understanding.

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Major changes always bring on a moment of panic, while the wave rises high and gathers momentum. A new job, new parenthood, the end of a relationship or the beginning of a shared life… all call for us to readjust our perception of who we are as values and the demands we make upon ourselves are shaken out of their accustomed patterns and rearranged. We can change our style, choose a different expression of who we are, or who we want the world to perceive, but these are no more than outer manifestations of an inner state of mind and heart. At some level of consciousness we are always wondering who we will be when the wave of change finally crashes to the shore, spreading its fanning arches of foam across our lives.

As I watched the youngster walk up the hill, I realised I could not have told him the answer to that question…it is always one we have to learn for ourselves through lived experience. We will be who we have always been… our essential self does not change; we may learn and grow, we may alter our perspectives, swap one mask for another or discard them altogether… We may seem to recede into our own shadow or blossom in the sunlit fields of joy… but the essence of our true Self remains as clear and pure as the day we were born…and at any moment we may turn and drink from the well of being that resides within.

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Two journeys, one destination (6) – a Pictish horizon

With the wonderful Portmahomack behind us, it was time to meet the three Pictish stones that marked the horizon line of the Tarbat Peninsula. These would originally have been visible from the sea, and boats approaching from the Moray Firth would have known they were approaching sacred Pictish land – centred on the monastery at Portmahomack.

On this second day of the Silent Eye’s Pictish Trail weekend, our plan was to work our way back from Portmahomack along the spine of the Tarbat Peninsula towards Inverness, viewing each of the major standing stones and ending with a visit to Rosemarkie – across the Cromarty Firth on the Black Isle.

Our first stop was at Balintore, a village that looks out over the Moray Firth. There, we saw signs for the nearby Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone. I was eager to see this famous stone, about which we had read so much in the Tarbat Discovery Centre. I knew a little of its history, but the truth was to be more fascinating than I could have envisaged…

This Pictish stone at Hilton Cadboll was created at the Portmahomack Monastery to the classic design of a what we now call a Pictish Class II cross-slab. One side would have contained symbols from the older Celtic (pre-Christian) religion, mixed with local glyphs of the sponsoring family. The other would contain Christian iconography.

The cross-slab was erected here in about AD 800. Sadly, it broke soon after, under the pressure of high winds. The stone was re-erected, on the same spot; the lower portion being buried to form a new base. It broke again in 1674, and a further section was left in the ground. This beautiful stone has not enjoyed a happy history…

In about 1676 the entire Christian cross-face was chipped off by a local laird to create a family grave slab! By 1780 the surviving half of the stone was recorded as being near the ruins of a now-vanished chapel which is presumed to be located under the mound of earth next to the present stone.

(Above: the mound that covers the ancient church and, possibly its hamlet)

100 years later the stone endured a somewhat ‘political’ journey via Invergordon Castle and the British Museum to be returned to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where the original is now located.

The local people were not happy at the loss of their precious stone, but accepted that it was now safe from harm and, at least, back in Scotland. Its original base and thousands of broken fragments were extracted from the site in 2001. But the local population were so supportive of their folk-history, they paid for a magnificent replica to be carved, in situ, over a five year period. The work was carried out by local sculptor Barry Grove.

(Above: the seaward-facing side of the Hilton Cadboll slab-cross. This was re-created by the sculptor using his knowledge of similar stones)

Barry says of the reconstructed stone:

“No Pictish tools survive. At our Iron Age bonecarving workshop, Jim Glazzard used a Viking tool box as his basis for the iron tools. The Hilton of Cadboll stone also provided some evidence. It snapped and blew over several centuries ago, and the remains of the base and lower areas of carving became buried.”

Remarkably, during an excavation taking place prior to the erection of Barry Grove’s replica, the original base (from AD 800) was found preserved by the soil – which also revealed the nature of the Pictish carver’s chisel marks. This provided the sculptor with a basis of authentic design and technique for the reconstruction of the missing cross face. Using what he had as clues, Barry Groves spent a month on the design, then began what would be five years of stone carving. The rediscovered original base has a secure home in the local Seaboard Memorial Hall in Balintore. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit.

It’s a remarkable story of a small community succeeding against the odds…

(Above: the upper face of the ‘Celtic’ Pictish design, showing a noble woman leading a hunt, which includes several men in the group on foot. This is deemed to show her superiority. She may well have been the sponsor of the Hilton of Cadboll stone. Above the hunt scene, the upper face contains the traditional twin discs and ‘V-Rod’ design, which will be commented on later in the post.

Standing before the ‘restored’ Hilton Cadboll cross-slab is a profound experience. You can view the stone as original Pictish ancestors would have seen it over 800 years ago. Standing in front of it in the sunshine, with the sea at your back, is quite an experience…and freely given. There is no charge.

It is believed that all such stones were originally painted. The image below shows how the centre section of the Hilton Cadboll cross slab would have originally looked. The use of colour makes the symbols a lot more ‘familiar’.

But what of the Pictish symbols, such as the ‘V-Rod’ and the twin discs, both of which feature on the Hilton of Cadboll stone? It is unlikely that we will ever find a ‘Rosetta stone’ that gives a word for word translation. But there’s nothing stopping us looking at the symbols and letting our conscious (and possibly subconscious) minds having a go…

Symbols are universal. If they ‘speak’ to us, then there’s a reason. We can relax and let them share what they are. We don’t have to be archeologists to sit with the symbol and let it talk. If we take a child’s approach and ‘say what we see’, then insights can happen.

Take the upper symbol above – the V-Rod. When I did this, earlier, the two halves of the rod suggested an arrow. But it’s not broken in two, just bent… at what looks like a precise angle; a little greater than 90 degrees. Lets take a guess and examine what 100 degrees looks like:

That looks quite close… So, as fingers have been around for a long time, and the Picts clearly had a strong grasp of numbers and geometry, we could say that the V-Rod might represent 10×10 fingers – or ten ‘men’. The arrow may indicate that they were warriors, so we have ten warriors, which may have had symbolic significance. It might have been short form for an army, for example.

The crescent looks moon-like to me, but it might also represent the bowl of the heavens. Also, it seems to contain waves. This might alter the overall interpretation of the symbol. The lower curves in the crescent remind me of the bowed shape of a sail. We might be looking at sailing warriors, then. Masters of the craft of sailing long distances, possibly using the moon or stars for stealthy navigation? Or perhaps the moon is simply a symbol for the sea, with which it is intimately connected?

And here, I’d better stop, because I’ve just realised I’m making a very good case for a leading family whose ‘crest’ this is being Viking!

My logic may be baseless, but it’s the kind of open-minded approach that can bring insights. But we should move on… We had a timed entry at the museum in Rosemarkie, due to Covid restrictions, and we’d yet to visit Shadwick and Nigg.

The Hilton Cadboll stone is a dream to photograph…unlike our next location; which is a classic example of an intact Pictish cross-slab that has stood in its original position for over a thousand years…

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five. This is Part Six

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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.