A glittering piece of the real Self

It’s like a beautiful, glittering kite, flown high and above the regular considerations of our lives; and yet this part of us, long recognised by psychology, has the potential to transform us into people of being, rather than reaction…

(750 words, a five-minutes read)

When we are children, we have to be seen. By this, I mean that special feeling when your parents see you shining at something and radiate pride in what their child is doing.

The young child, hungry for this feeling that is essential to the development of their self, demands constant attention with trivial things. Over time, these become refined, as the youngster comes to appreciate the quality of the seeing – the energy it brings to their developing being.

The child begins to understand that when this is mixed with something real, something that brings achievement in the world, the eyes of the parents radiate a special energy of appreciation, knowing their child is showing the first signs of adult achievement and self-discipline.

Some children never get this. Their glittering kite, flown constantly and increasingly desperately for the parent’s seeing, goes unnoticed, as yet another aspect of play. The parents are too involved with their own lives; too wrapped up in the set expectations they have for their offspring to see the reality of what is played out before them. The child’s real identity is never acknowledged, though their existence may be comfortable and even luxurious.

For children whose kite is never seen, the string gets longer, they let out more and more of it so the glittering object rises higher and higher, barely visible… only seen by the child, itself; but at least protected.

Psychology calls the kite the ego-ideal. It is part of the set of self-states that we form as we explore our relationship to the world. Later, we may come to understand it as our world, but that requires that we grasp a deeper level of reality.

In terms of Freudian psychology, which was the foundation for so much else, the growing sense of a ‘reality of me’ has the building blocks of ego, id, and superego. The ego is what we think of ourselves. The superego is the constant sense of ‘should do’ that sits on our shoulders and nags us to be better. The id is the wild energy of our being that is suppressed ‘below’, like dark fire, ready to erupt and ruin our place in society.

The young science of psychology was shocked to find that the ‘self’ is capable of dividing itself to form separate self-states, but it does; such is its power and importance – a strong and stable ego being the main goal of modern psychology.

So where does the kite, the ego-ideal, fit into this? In the heart of the Superego there lives a single attribute based on us – our identity – rather than the imposition of expectations. It is the best of us, and, seen or unseen, it represents our metaphorical sword, our armour, even our wings, because it has never lost its connection to our real Self, the one we are born with, but which, through lack of recognition, seldom gets to grow and bear its jewelled fruit in our lives.

We all know people who have that certain energy of being. They may not be wealthy, but they have a naturalness of expression and a bigness of soul that carries them, shining eyed, though life. These have never lost their connection with who they are. By accident or nurturing, they have protected and refines their selves so that they can express what is within them.

Psychology usually stops there… but spirituality doesn’t.

And, at the end of that other journey, we can feel the emergence of a completely new us. Stronger and more real than anything we could have imagined.

That kite, because it is real, can become the seed of a new level of being. We can pull it down from the high blue sky in which we have kept it safe, and explore its reality. We can let its true energy spill over into the rest of our lives as we contrast its presence with that of lesser things. We can choose to look and find other aspects of our real selves because we know the taste…

Perhaps then, walking along the beach of our lives, we can come across other little children flying their lonely kites; and help them see the reality of what’s on the end of that fragile string…

©Stephen Tanham

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

The opening of the Eye – a mother’s tears

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I was up to meet the dawn on Saturday, finding the world covered in a heavy frost and very beautiful. The morning began with a guided meditation. The companions gathered at 7am and closed their eyes. It was a simple journey… that of a seed thrown by an unseen hand to the winds. The tiny point of consciousness watched from inside itself as it grew, illustrating the journey into becoming.

Breakfast and preparation… and then it was time for the second of the ritual dramas.

These dramatic episodes, played with conviction in a place made sacred, have a profound effect, enabling understanding, engaging the emotions as well as the intellect as they bring the teachings to life in a unique manner.  This is one of the ways we will teach, through workshops and teaching sessions and the weekend workshops, open to all.

These do not form an essential part of the School’s course, they are not required, nor is attendance limited to School members… but rather they enhance and enrich it, as well as allowing friendships and companionship to grow. Study can be a lonely thing and the personal journey must be ultimately walked alone… but that does not mean there cannot be company along the way, a hand to hold when the ground seems rough or laughter shared in sunlight.

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The first ritual drama saw the arrival of nine travellers, sheltering from a storm in the monastery of the Keepers of the First Flame. A shamanic drummer and two Troubadours, accompanied by a strange Child also sought shelter. They were following a quest to rescue an imprisoned king, or so they believed, and sought shelter and refuge for the Child while they continued their journey.

The first drama introduced these characters, and ended as the Troubadours left to continue their search, leaving the Child in the care of the nine and the Keepers. On Saturday morning the second drama was to explore the characters further, seeing deeper into their innermost being.

As the Troubadours were ‘absent’, Steve assisted our technician and had placed me in the role of the Great Mother, simply  to bless the individual journey each was about to undertake as they entered the Temple.

And that felt odd. All the very human insecurities raised their head as I had read this point.. me, as Great Mother? How… what could I, just me, bring to this? And that question, I realised, was also the answer. I could bring my Self, it is all we can ever do.

The costume was simple and symbolic, grey veiled in clouds of night, a girdle of stars, dark tears at my throat and a simple nine pointed circlet, beautifully crafted by Katie. All chosen for their  simplicity and symbolism… especially the veil which prevented the pilgrims from seeing Her face, yet allowed them into her embrace. I thought I had it sorted.

I do not know and cannot tell what others felt. Only what I saw and felt myself.  I stood in the silence of the sacred space and waited for the first of the companions to enter, a silent prayer in my heart, not knowing really what to do, simply trusting that I would know when the moment came. The bells called the companions in, and the first saluted the central Light and turned to me.

And it was simple. I just held out my arms and embraced them and the cloudy veil held them like dark wings.

It sounds very little. But, from my heart to yours, I tell you that this was the most profoundly moving thing. Each pair of eyes met mine with radiant joy, each heart was open and full of Light and Life and Love, each face lit with so much beauty. One after another I held them. Overwhelmed and humble, with a glowing, incandescent sun, it seemed, blazing in my heart.

I sat in silence to watch the drama unfold and behind the veil the tears slid across my cheeks to meet my smile.

It was I who was blessed.

Lost in translation

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We were talking today about how much is lost in translation. This was being discussed from an abstract, as well as a literal viewpoint.

It started with a conversation about books and moved on to language in general and thence to poetry and song. I mentioned Jacques Brel, a poet, singer and performer of, in my opinion, utter genius, who wrote almost exclusively in French. Many people know the songs for which he was best known, even though they are generally known best in English as cover versions.

To take one of the original songs and translate it into literal but literate English is fine.. it allows access to the meaning, but not the poetry. To take the original and make it into a song that has rhyme and rhythm is wonderful.. but it then loses must of the lyricism and the depth of meaning and emotion created by the choice  and juxtaposition of words that create that unique imagery.

Yet Brel sang with absolute passion and emotion. I would point the curious in the direction of the incredible recording of his concert at l’Olympia, available piecemeal on Youtube. Each song is a showstopping performance and portrayal of human emotion. Even when the lyrics are not understood, one cannot help but be moved by the emotion. Understand the words and it is simply stunning. Look for ‘Ces gens la’, ‘Jef’ and ‘Ne me quittes pas’. I remember well the first time I saw that last recording on TV. I knew the song word for word. My husband, himself a singer/songwriter, sang it frequently. Yet, I sat, mid dusting, mouth open in utter amazement and with tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched and listened.

I have to say that I think Brel understood living with passion.

Of course, the discussion then moved on to how other things are lost in translation. Especially the abstract personal concepts that deal with the evolution of the self.  It is not a secret that that SilentEyeSchool seeks to promote a way of living in vivid colour, a way of moving through life with passionate awareness and on to another level of being.  It is exceptionally difficult, sometimes impossible, to share in words the depth of emotion a spiritual realisation can give. There are expreiences off the normal scale for which there are no common phrases or images. And they are uniquely personal.

Yet, as teachers we have to find the words, the images, the scenario that will illustrate and suggest to the mind of the student something abstract and subjective. We have to describe a spiritual ‘taste’, and if you think about it, even that sense of taste, something we are all very familiar with right from birth, carries impossibility.

How can you describe a taste? You can compare it, say it is similar to or different from.. you can generalise and say it is sweet, acid, savoury… but you cannot describe a taste accurately. Nor, if you think about it can you describe an emotion. It is something you can only learn for yourself through experience. Although you may be able to learn if it will be pleasant or painful in advance, you cannot know how it feels until you feel it. Sometimes the best way to share it is to show it, allow it to be observed and witnessed. Sometimes all you can do is point the way.

The School takes students down tried and tested pathways. We walk them ourselves. It gives a map and a companion, and, if you will, a set of tools to use along the way.Yet ultimately the experience will be as different for each of us as we are from each other, and each will find they take their own unique journey with its own flavour.

Without words

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Good morning. It is sunny today, with the sky a clear cerulean blue. My grandmother always said it was going to be a fine day if there was enough blue in the sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers. Today I could probably kit out the entire navy. If the makers of paint could capture this colour in all its transparency, they’d make a fortune. Not that they don’t already, given the price of artists colours.

There is a heavy frost this morning though and the cold has me by the throat, both literally and metaphorically. The dog has the door standing wide open, the heating has gone on strike again and my son’s prayers have been answered. I will not be singing today. My throat is as swollen as if I’d talked all through the night. I vaguely remember that scenario.

I am lucky at present. I see my son every day and the depth of the conversation we share can be astonishing for stone-cold sober and mid-morning. We can cover ground from the most ridiculous to the deepest philosophical debate, passing via music and neurology, pizza and sturgeon to the nature of God and the soul. But other than Nick the majority of my days are spent in silence, apart from a very dear friend on the phone from afar and my conversations with the dog.

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There are few things I enjoy more than settling down to long, varied and frequently random discussions over a bottle of good wine with a friend. Living in France was a perfect introduction to that, because there is always cheese. If there is cheese left, it is almost obligatory to open a second bottle to accompany it, and if there is bread left, one needs more cheese… it would be wasteful not to… and so it goes on, sometimes all night. Conversations can go very deep at these times.

We don’t talk enough. Or not about things that really matter. We chatter about the simple things, mundane problems, the latest news but we seldom seem to have time to sit and simply listen to each other these days. Or even to listen to the world around us. One of the downsides of electronic conversation is that it is often so short and factual. We cover the necessities and rarely allow heart to speak to heart, sharing the inner depths of who we are and what matters, really matters, to us as a person.

Listening, I think, is one of the greatest gifts we can give. To listen, with ears and heart and mind while someone shares themself with you is a beautiful thing. And you can hear as much in the silence between the words as you can in the words themselves.

Mind you, I have no objections to silence either. It is, after raising a family, a luxury. I have always loved silence and it was a rarity in a household full of growing children. It is an animated silence, my mind seldom quiet, pursuing trains of thought down convoluted alleyways, imagination always online and seeking ways of expression. There is a richness in this type of silent working that can be drowned in the normal noise of everyday life. One can see the value of the contemplative life. Though, as a friend has said on many occasions, I was not cut out to be a nun. I would be constantly doing penance…

There are also, though, moments where the internal dialogue stills into quiet. The dog is usually asleep at these times, the distant road noise hushed and the only sound in the village the song of birds.  At those times the surface mind is silent and something deeper still can speak in the heart. There are no words, just a knowing, yet it is communication. There is something within that reaches inwards and upwards, deeper and wider than the conscious chatter of mind, and it is answered by something deeper still that seems to be waiting with arms open wide. It comes out to meet us like a friend and lover that has been waiting for our presence and listens in the silence of those moments only to the murmuring of the soul.

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.

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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.