Two journeys, one destination (3) – the mysterious Picts

(Above: the view of the neighbouring Inverness Castle from the steps of the museum)

‘The Romans were frightened of them…”

I remember reading that the week before our Scottish workshop and being astonished. I knew the Picts had created some of the most mysterious stone carvings I had ever seen. But fearsome warriors? Weren’t these enigmatic people simply farmers?

We were in the Inverness Museum, which is one of the best places to study the history of the Scottish Highlands. Our interest was specific and restricted – though we could have happily been there half the day. We were there to gain a perspective on the story of the Picts’ existence: where they came from, how long they endured, the nature of their spirituality, and the location of their primary settlements.

(Above: the land of the Picts, stretching from the far north-east of Scotland, to the present site of Inverness, then along the Elgin coast towards Burghhead and beyond. Inverness, the site of the museum, is marked in red.
~Map adapted by the author from a photo of the panel in the Inverness Museum~)

Equipped with this mental map, the following two days of our Silent Eye weekend would enable us to place in context some of the most remarkable pieces of Pictish stone carving and other artefacts, as we travelled, in turn, up the Tarbat peninsula, down to the Black Isle and, finally, to Dunrobin Castle on our way to the Orkney ferry at Thurso.

(Above: Cast of the Brodie Stone, a mystery in two halves:)

Following the Pictish Trail throws up some wonderful mysteries and instances of great fortune. As an example (above), the Brodie Stone, a classic ‘cross slab’ – a cross carved within a surrounding stone surface. The real Brodie Stone stands in the grounds of Brodie Castle, Moray. It was discovered in 1781 during the digging of foundations for a new parish church. For many years it stood in the village of Dyke as a tribute to Vice-Admiral Rodney, for his success at the battle of Saintes, in Dominica. Since then it has also been known as ‘Rodney’s Stone’. It is actually a Class II Pictish stone, meaning it has a Christian cross on one side and Pictish symbols on the other. The Picts converted to Christianity during the 6th and 7th centuries, as we explore, below.

We’d had to reserve our places for the museum online, as the Covid-19 restrictions applied. We were allowed to enter only in small groups and at our allotted time. We were also expected to maintain a steady flow through the exhibits to prevent queuing at the entrance. A tall order, when we had so much to absorb… But at least photographs were allowed, and many of the information panels featured graphical summaries without which this post would have had much less illustration. Sincere thanks are due to the Inverness Museum for allowing this.

Before us were information displays on the geographical and geological history of the region, showing Scotland’s organic formation after the last ice age:

(Above: after the ice; the emergence of Scotland at the end of the last ice age)

The last ice age ended in Scotland about 9,000 years ago. The melting ice gave way to tundra – an arctic diversity of mosses, lichen and grasses, supporting mountain hares, arctic foxes and reindeer.

As temperatures rose, the tundra was invaded by birch scrub and then woodland, Oak and scots pine eventually replaced the birch, and cloaked the Highlands in dense forest. This became home to red deer, elk and wild cattle.. along with wolves, bears, lynx and, humans.

Around 9000 years ago, the European hunter-gatherers, enabled by the melting ice-sheets, reached the Highlands, and, as conditions improved, they settled permanently to become the first highlanders. They were originally nomads, but, as stone gave way to bronze and then iron – the iron age, the Picts established their home and became skilled farmers.

Then we came to the first of the Pict-focussed panels.

(Above: one of the panels in the Inverness Museum places the Picts and Romans co-existing from 80-399 CE. Beyond this, the Picts survived to around 900 CE, when they ‘mysteriously vanished…’)

The Iron-Age people who became the Picts were inhabitants of this Highland coast long before they were given their name by the Romans, who called them the ‘Picti’ – painted people; the reference being to their custom of painting their naked bodies before they went into battle, thereby giving a ghostly sheen to their skin and showing off their warlike body art and battle scars. Despite this frightening appearance, they were essentially peaceful farmers, whose ferocity appears to have been roused only when they were threatened.

(Above: a picture of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone. We had no idea that the weekend would bring us face to face with a large and exact life-size replica! Note the twin circles in the upper and middle parts; these are considered feminine and depict ‘comb and mirror’. The inset ‘V’ shape is another classic Pictish symbol called a ‘V-Rod’)

The Picts left no written record of their history. What we know of them comes from the striking images they carved in stone – which therefore endured. They were written about by both Scottish and Roman writers. The Roman Eumenius, in 297 CE, was the first to refer to them as Picts. There is an alternative theory of the name ‘Pict’, which refers to their own word ‘Pecht’, meaning ancestors. This link to those of their own who ‘went before yet still remain’ has strong spiritual overtones, as we shall see when we get to the Orkney part of these journals.

Recent evidence suggests that the Picts came to Scotland from Orkney, and before that were descendants of Scandinavia, though they lived much earlier than the Vikings, who, according to some sources, were to feature cruelly in their eventual demise. Orkney played a fundamental role in the advancing civilisation of what became Britain, and the age, sophistication and influence of its works is staggering. When we come to consider the spiritual beliefs of the Picts, Orkney takes on an entirely different importance…

(Above: Wolf Stone
Found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromart
This incised Pictish stone was found in 1903 built into an old wall. The graceful figures of the wolf is depicted using a few carved lines to give a sense of movement and shows the power of the animal)

The Picts lived here in the Highlands; the Romans invaded. With the Picts, they came up against something they didn’t understand…and came to fear. If the local forces were losing a battle, they would simply vaporise into the landscape – a wild landscape they knew well, unlike their oppressors. The Romans became frustrated, then despondent, at the failure of their traditional military tactics.

The Picts held their ground against the invaders in a number of engagements, but also lost major battles. It’s often said that they lost the battle but won the war. Scotland was never successfully conquered by the Romans, though they tried many times and succeeded in establishing forts well into the Highlands.

(Above: a Pictish picture of an ‘unknown beast’. Also found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromarty)

The Picts left no writing, unless their art contains a hidden phonetic key, awaiting the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone that enabled the translation of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Written records, by others and about the Picts exist from 297 CE until 900 CE, when they supposedly vanished. Scholars caution against interpreting this as extermination, since it is likely that they simply merged with the surrounding Scots tribes. It is also probable that the Picts’ adoption of Christianity in the 6th century CE was (at least in part) political.

The ‘Scots’ were, in those times, the rival tribe to the south. Further south, still, was Northumbria – one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. In 664 CE, Northumbria’s King Oswiu hosted the Synod of Whitby at which the rivalry of Celtic and Roman Christianity was determined in the Roman Church’s favour. By the time the Picts embraced Christianity, the Roman church had become the de-facto Christian faith across most of Europe. That the Picts came to embrace it is the logical act of a people who wished to live ‘in harmony’ with their neighbours. This may also explain the eventual merging of the Picts and the Scots, and the apparent disappearance of the former.

But what of their art? One of the main goals of the Silent Eye’s weekend was to consider its extraordinary clarity of design, its refreshing simplicity and the use of recurring motifs. The museum had little to say on this, so we hoped that our further journeys to the Tarbat peninsula and The Black Isle would help us. We had been successful, however, in placing the Pictish people, in understanding a little of their motives and culture. We had a framework within which to work. Inverness had served us well.

(Above: The Achavrail Armlet
The example of ‘massive metalworking’ reflects the designs adapted from continental Europe. Dating to the first or second centuries CE, this large bronze armlet was made by the ‘lost wax’ casting method)

Our time was up. The enforced flow around the exhibits had meant a rushed gathering of information. What we needed next was a degree of immersion in the Pictish culture. In the morning, a forty minute drive north from Inverness would see us enter the Tarbat Peninsula (see map). There, on one of Scotland’s most beautiful coasts, we would find a former church dedicated to a much deeper social understanding of the mysterious Picts.

But first, it was time to chill for an hour or two and then get ready for some much-needed pizza!


(Above: Mobile populations.. The Inverness museum illustrates many facets of Highland life. Silver pocket watches by Primus Mink and Faller brothers, 1870s. Mink and Faller brothers were craftsmen driven from Germany by political unrest during the late 1800s. They and at least six other German watchmakers flourished in Inverness at this time…)

To be continued…

Other parts of this series of blogs:

Part One, Part Two, this is Part Three

©Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Field of dreams..?

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Long, long ago, when the world was still young and I was younger still, I moved into a house with a garden. It wasn’t much of a garden, long-deserted, overgrown and gone to seed, but my mind painted it in rainbows. Since getting married, we had lived in a flat and a ‘street house’ that opened straight onto the pavement. My only forays into gardening had been herbs on the kitchen windowsill. It was the first time I’d had a garden of my very own, though there had usually been one at my parent’s home and my grandparents’ long-established gardens were places of magic and mystery.

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It is odd to think that although I remember every home I have lived in very well, as well as those of my grandparents,  I remember the gardens better. I have but the vaguest of memories of my father’s family home. We probably did not visit all that often as my father was stationed in Kent where we lived in married quarters and I cannot have seen Longfield after I was about three years old. I recall the tiles on the floor of the porch, the billiard table in the cellars, and being helped to slide down the great oak bannister that framed the huge staircase in the hall. Outside, though, my mind still paints the shadows cast by the rhododendrons, the slopes that ran down the hillside into the woodland and the wide expanse of the croquet lawn below the terrace.

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I can still see the garden of the married quarters where we lived in Maidstone until I was three and  where I searched for an absconding tortoise. I could sketch, plant by plant, the gardens of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. It was here that I first began to learn the names of plants as a child and had my first lessons in herb-lore. I learned which were poisonous, which could be eaten or used in the kitchen or for medicinal purposes, and best of all, some of the folk traditions that went with the plants.

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When I finally had a garden of my own, I remember standing outside the back door one winter morning and looking at the mess we had acquired. I had no gardening tools other than a trowel, no plants and no money. All I had was a dream of life and colour.

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I took the kitchen shears to the vast meadow that had once been a lawn and to the overgrown privet hedge twice as tall as me. It took me days to cut the stuff back. Then I started on what had once been flower-beds, removing the obvious weeds, softening the hard, squared corners and trying to identify what might be in there that was worth saving. Dead wood was removed from old roses, unidentified shrubs pruned and woody stems that still bore traces of life cleared of bindweed. By the time I had it tidy, the snow was falling… and I was in love.

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My love affair with plants blossomed through the dark winter days as I read every gardening book I could get my hands on, delved deeper into herb-lore and planned impossibly expensive planting schemes in my mind. In reality, our meagre budget would not run to plants, so I set about nurturing cuttings, raising seedlings and collecting spare plants from everyone I knew. Even so, the huge empty beds were going to look bare for a long time to come.

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As winter deepened and turned the corner into spring, I began to learn the most valuable lesson of gardening…patience.

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With the winter rain and snow, Nature watered the mutilated garden well. The threadbare hedge I had hacked put out new leaves, filling the bare patches and becoming a dense, dark backdrop against which my few flowers would glow. As the seasons turned, the lawn became a vivid green starred with daisies and crocus. Self seeded lupins, dug up from the old railway line, were steadily filling out and patches of pretty ‘weeds’ I had encouraged to grow, like yarrow and loosestrife, were showing promise. I planted what I had acquired and waited.

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Spring brought clumps of snowdrops and aconite, followed by daffodils and tulips. They had been hidden, invisible beneath the soil and were a beautiful surprise. I recognised the poisonous but beautiful leaves of monkshood. The scarlet leaves that had prompted me to leave an untidy clump of plants alone in winter revealed themselves as geraniums. ‘Dead’ roses and an ancient hydrangea recovered and bloomed and a drift of lily of the valley filled the air with fragrance and memory. By midsummer, the dismal mud-patch had become a riot of life and colour, buzzing with bees and a paradise for butterflies. It had done most of it itself, in spite of the efforts of the novice gardener. All I had done was the groundwork.

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I learned a lot from that garden and the lessons have stayed with me, rooting themselves and flowering, bearing fruit that I have plucked and tasted in many areas of my life. The perfect visions I had created in my mind were surpassed by the hand of Nature when she was allowed free rein. But, no matter what had been hidden in that garden, it would not have thrived, nor would I have been able to see it, had I not cut back all the dead and dying material, letting in the light.

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I had worried about the empty beds; I did not realise that the seeds of beauty had been sown long ago and were silently waiting to bloom. So often we think we must strive to achieve something, only to find it is already there, dormant within us, waiting only for our care and attention to grow.

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In the movie, Field of Dreams, there is a phrase oft-misquoted as ‘build it, and they will come.’ I have read the sentiment before, if not the exact words, in Dion Fortune’s book, Moon Magic, when ‘Lilith’ speaks of building the temple in order for it to be indwelt by the gods. No sacred space, be it temple, church or our own being, is truly alive until it is a home for something more than its physical form, no matter how beautiful. No gardener creates the beauty of a flower. We can only clear and create a space, enabling the conditions in which it can grow and bloom.

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Where I now live, I have a small space I laughingly call a garden. I have planned the garden I would like to make, right down to the last detail… knowing it will probably never be anything other than a dream. For now, there are only a handful of rescued plants, no flower beds to speak of and a threadbare patch of grass that cannot be called a lawn. I doggedly exercise a gardener’s patience, waiting to see ‘what happens next’, trusting that when the time is right, the seed of purpose will grow and reveal itself.

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Even so, there is beauty. I need not lift a finger to see the seasons turn, the light change hour by hour or the stars illuminate the night. I need not dig and toil to create what is surpassed by every blossoming dawn. I need only watch to see the birds and insects at work, the dew scatter diamonds on the grass or the small dog fill the space with joy. Dreams are wonderful things, but you have to choose to make them happen, and you have to work to bring them into being. And sometimes, we work so hard chasing dreams that we forget to see the beauty of what is already there.

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Two journeys, one destination (2) – Inverness

It begins in Inverness, that beautiful confluence of water, road and mountain. Like any journey through northern Scotland, it will be dominated by water…

The year 2020 will be etched in all our memories. It was not a good year to try to hold the kind of workshop we run: three days of shared travel, feeling the landscape, and thoughts about the nature of consciousness; that most precious jewel every human carries. Add to that the possible extension to visit the archipelago of Orkney, and we had something very difficult to achieve.

Covid had caused us to cancel three of the planned workshops of the year. We hung out for the September one, hoping that the physical heartbeat of the Silent Eye could endure for at least one annual pulse in these challenging times. Bad news after bad news threatened it, but the core bookings had been made and we intended to honour them – even if it meant a small group.

Finally, it was time to get in the car and begin what was to be a vast journey… Inverness would be the point where those able to attend were going to meet up. For most of them, it was a journey of hundreds of miles even before they began the weekend.

(Above: one of the Pictish slab crosses in Inverness museum)

The workshop was to be in two parts: the first, centred in Inverness, would follow Historic Scotland’s Pictish Trail; the second would take advantage of the fact that we were already near the top of Scotland and could easily board the ferry to Orkney. Bernie and I had visited Orkney in 2018. We were keen to return with the others, and even more eager to share the wonders of this magical place.

(Above: the fine lines of Pictish art display the high culture of its people)

The mysterious Picts have long held a fascination for me; ever since I first saw their art, and was struck with an inner sense of wonder at what I can only describe as its ‘quality’. The only other time this had happened was when I saw an Egyptology exhibition in London, and gazed on that ancient civilisation’s wonders.

Decades on, I was lucky enough to visit Egypt with a mystically-oriented group and finally see the relief figures on their beautiful temples. Later in the trip, we were to encounter traces of a people even older than those Egyptians, and much closer to home…

(Inverness’ beautiful and formidable River Ness, with its set of islands connected by walkways. What looks like the far bank, here, is actually the largest of these)

But first, we wanted to have a beginning that would ‘wash away’ the miles that most of us had endured to get here. Inverness offers the perfect answer: a walk by the River Ness.

The River Ness is the channel that connects Loch Ness with the North Sea by way of the vast Moray Firth. It is one of the most powerful rivers in Britain… and yet, to my mind, one of the most peaceful. Near the city, it is criss-crossed by several pedestrian bridges, three of which link both sides of the river to a set of islands in the middle of its flow; effectively creating a set of natural wild gardens in the middle of the river.

Using these, we were able to take a circular walk and finish at a coffee stop that reminds me of something you might see in Paris. The bright and unexpected sunshine helped, and you could feel that the tired spirits were rising.

(Above: A Parisian-style coffee hut on the bank of the River Ness)

The coffee hut was a colourful place, and clearly popular with seasoned local folk – one of whom agreed to pose with ‘his’ seagull for this shot…

I had wanted the walking tour to finish here because of its proximity to one of Inverness’ hidden gems: the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, a Scottish Episcopal Church situated by the River Ness a few minutes’ walk from the city centre. It is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness – a vast geography.

(Above: the exterior of the Cathedral Church of St Andrew)

It is the northernmost cathedral in mainland Britain (but, later, we will encounter another, magnificent one in Orkney…).

Inverness Cathedral was the first new Protestant cathedral to be constructed in Britain since the reformation. The cathedral was built during the years 1866-1869. The foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, in 1866. The architect was a local man, Alexander Ross.

(Above: the graceful lines of the Cathedral of St Andrew, created in the Gothic Revival style)
(Above and below: the eye is drawn to the high, wooden ceiling)

I had wanted to see inside this building because, since a visit to the Belgian city of Ghent, two years ago, I have developed an interest in religious icons, and I knew that the Cathedral of St Andrews contained a very special set.

(Above: The icons are located on the north wall of the nave)

The central figure is that of Christ. The inscription reads:

“These icons were presented by the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II, to the Right Reverend Robert Eden, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness, on the occasion of is pastoral visit to the country in 1866’

A detailed review of the Cathedral is not the point of this post, but it is worth drawing attention to two more unusual features of the building, The first is the magnificent pulpit, rendered in marble and local sandstone.

The second is a beautiful reproduction of a Pictish Christian cross, located in a special chamber near the entrance. I know nothing of its origin, but spent a full ten minutes at the end of our visit just staring at it…

The magnificent Pictish-style cross

We had met well. The rest of our afternoon was to be spent in the wonderful Inverness Museum, deepening our knowledge of the Picts. We had much to learn…

To be continued…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

Deportment for the soul

Image by ADiamondFellFromTheSky
Image by ADiamondFellFromTheSky

He passed me the disc, about the size of a small dinner plate and quite heavy. My hands were full of things needing to go through to the kitchen. There was only one thing for it, I placed the disc on my head and walked through that way, thinking how the lessons learned when we are younger than we are today still have value and inordinately pleased with myself that I could still do it without effort..

My mother used to tell me about good posture when I was small and it was fun trying to walk around with piles of books balanced on my head. We had to do the same at dance class. We had it in school and in the gym too back then. For my mother, it was about deportment; the way a lady carries the body. For my teachers, the idea was that by developing balance we would be able better able to perform the movements that were required of us with grace and poise. Nowadays, it is simply about good posture and, hunched over a keyboard far too much of the time, I am grateful for those early lessons and still prefer a straight back.

Good posture stays with you. It is not something that you lose like the beauty of dewy skin or the lustre of youthful hair. Something of it remains. Even my great grandmother, her spine bent under the weight of almost ten decades, still held herself well. Those we deem elegant seem to have something in their carriage that stays noticeable for the rest of their lives too, even when the years have erased all outward sign of youth.

When I was fifteen, my grandfather gave me a copy of Dion Fortune’s Moon Magic. There is much to be learned from the psychological journey of the two protagonists and it is still one of my favourite and best-thumbed books. Being young and on the verge of womanhood, however,  one small phrase took my eye that had nothing to do with the story itself. “… the body should swing and balance from the waist and that is worth more in beauty than a slender line.”  I think this is true and it gives an impression of balance and grace.

We learn very early in our lives the mechanics of sitting, standing and walking and, once learned, we seldom give them another thought until we begin to suffer the consequences of what we failed to learn to do well. Then we get back-ache and have to learn anew, starting with the core muscles, as often as not. Yet the body is designed to both respond to and create those minute shifts and adjustments that are required in order to maintain perfect equilibrium. Until it knows a poised centre of balance, it cannot create it.

Our inner balance is very similar… we learn as children our techniques of how to deal with the world and though they may be perfectly serviceable for years to come, evolving as we grow, they may also come back to haunt us as emotional aches and pains. The accumulated effects of the years gradually throw the balance even further out and it may take going back to the beginning to put things right, through therapy or through the self examination we do when we seek to understand why. It is only in doing so that we begin to see the repetitive scenarios and reactions that have been there all along, but which themselves are no more than a symptom of something we learned awry  early in life. Once we find the starting point, we can begin too to straighten things out.

The spiritual life is little different. Spirituality does not necessarily mean religion, although religious faith should mean spirituality. The spiritual life is that very personal relationship we may each seek with whatever greater reality we come to know. We have all met those people who seem to radiate joy, no matter how hard their lives may be, no matter their age… they have a glowing beauty for which there seems no reason and they find a beauty in life that may seem to pass us by.  We may ask ourselves why here too. We absorb what we are taught as children and it serves us as children. As we grow, so do our thoughts and beliefs change and grow with us. There usually comes a point where we may feel spiritually off balance and start to examine those deep-seated beliefs, tracing them to back to their beginnings. We may find that the spiritual ‘muscles’ were never fully flexed, that we simply accepted what we were given because it worked for us then, but now the core needs some work and the source  does not seem to show us the Source we feel may be there.

Where can we look to find the answers to those questions we begin to ask, to find that poise and grace that comes from spiritual equilibrium? We need only look within. The questions we ask are unique to every one of us, the answers we seek are part of us all. It matters little if we give what we find there a Name and a Story… it is the essence of what lies at the heart of us that straightens the spiritual spine and brings back the balance.

The Entered Dragon (6) : figures in the mist

Continued from Part Five

Centre stage, the King smiles at us. His gaze is strong but gentle. As our eyes touch his, we feel the sense of purpose he holds. Courage and force reflect in the subtle colours that draw us into his very being. We feel renewed by this contact, shown that the burden of what we must face in the day-world is only a necessary stage in our lives; that the sense of inner royalty he represents will carry us far beyond its confines – if only we will hold those eyes…

The scene pans backwards from the purposeful orbs. The gentle hands of the Queen still rest on his shoulders. She smiles, knowing that we have absorbed the essence of this encounter. She brings her face closer to that of the King, and, as their skin touches, we feel her perfumed presence close to our own. It races through our being, filling us with a love and longing that leaves us agape.


In this final part of the series, we examine the nature of what Carl Jung named the ‘Archetype’. Archetypes are an active part of our shared unconscious. They are energy patterns at work within the most fundamental part of us. When we come into contact with them, we are seeing a personalised representation for our life, alone. But the type of figure, represented, for example, by a King, is shared with all humans. In this we can see why such types have been with us in myth, legend, poetry and song for as long as we have remembered and recorded our most meaningful experiences.

We have seen that the whole of the human unconscious is simply the other half of what we are, consciously. Our lives contain what is embraced and what is rejected. But what is rejected does not go away. It is part of our experience and was/is there for a reason. Like the ancient yang and yin, it is the rhythm of alternation of dynamic and passive – simplified, often, as male and female, but more subtle in reality.

(Above: the yin/yang symbol, ancient symbol of permanent, harmonic change)

Both have their own power, there is a time to be resistant and a time to embrace, we need to know when to use both, and watch the flow and dance of the harmony of our lives, free, within their selves, of society’s expectations and rules. The unconscious gives us this power, liberating and releasing its vast energies… if we can learn to communicate with it.

There are two techniques we may use to allow the unconscious to communicate with our waking intellect and emotions. The first is by being more conscious of our dreams; the second is a technique known for thousand of years and held sacred within the heart of whole civilisations: active imagination.

Our personal unconscious tries to communicate with us using images and symbols. It does not use our daily language. Dreams are full of images. We normally dismiss these as simply a stream of random recollections from a brain that is half-asleep. But investigation will reveal that they are more than that. They are our own unconscious trying to communicate important perspectives to us. These might include the deeper nature of a current problem causing us great distress.

Habitually, we pay little attention to the detail of dreams. We have to relearn to be aware of the content of dreams, and allow a residue of what we observe to lie in a part of our memory from which we can retrieve it in the morning, writing it down as soon as we wake so that we have a record. Later in the day, its vividness will have faded, but, if we get used to a personal way of noting down the details, we can return to their important points.

As an example, one of my recent dreams was of a black and white comic book. In the dream the actual events of my life were being rendered as part of this book. What did this mean?

Here we enter a second stage of understanding our dreams. We need to take that ‘kernel’ of the dream and let the conscious mind ‘fly free’ with it so that it may make an interpretation. This is not a matter of intellect. Our intellectual minds are used to dominating how we perceive. We should try to maintain a gentle and passive state, forcing nothing, but allowing a reflective part of our minds to ‘mull over’ the stored nugget of the dream. If we make this a habit, the dream kernel will become a trigger and suggest to us the personal relevance of the image or symbol, without needing the use of reason. In my own example above, I concluded that the part of my life illustrated in the ‘black and white comic’ was not receiving the attention it deserved, and would shine in colour if I corrected this…

The other route by which we may converse with our unconscious is what Carl Jung called Active Imagination. Here, we deliberately let our waking consciousness follow a conscious script of imagination. This may be provided for us by a book, or be part of a series of imaginative journeys created by a school such as the Silent Eye. The essence of the induced, inner experience will be a journey of some kind. In that journey we will find archetypal figures like, for example, Kings, Hermits, Warriors, Lovers and Chaste Maidens. We may encounter withdrawn figures who hide from life, but whose knowledge is great. We may find that our King is withdrawn, but strangely not defeated. We may find that he (or a corresponding Queen) is waiting for the arrival of a Hero, one uniquely equipped to heal a rift in the land.

Such an inner journey of active imagination needs to be based upon time-honoured principles in order to engage the unconscious. It is the true work of any school of the mysteries to provide these, and guide others through the journeys – though the real value is the unique experience to be had by the ‘hero’ of the hour – the person carrying out the active imagination.

I suspect that Carl Jung did know of the ancient use of such techniques within magic and the mystical. His great gift was to investigate it, rigorously, and describe it in terms acceptable to the world of psychology. We owe him a great debt for his insight and the descriptive language he bequeathed.


The stage is quiet. The King and his Lover have gone. But one image remains, that of a pair of eyes. Unafraid, we draw closer, finding them strangely familiar. As the swirling mist clears, we realise that they belong to us, that they are a living mirror, yet subtly different, of our self’s eyes. They have much to say to us, as we come together in the laughing depths of our own most secret place..

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five This is Part Six, the final part.


©Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Interpretations

cartoon Grammar

“ … the standard translation of one of the chief scriptures of China refers to the venerable Lao Tse as “the Old Boy”. This sounds comical to European ears, yet it is not so far removed from the words of another Scripture which has been fortunate enough to receive translation at the hands of those who reverenced it; “Except ye become as a little child.” I am not a sinologue, but I incline to the opinion that the translation “Eternal Child” would have been equally accurate and in better taste.” Dion Fortune

Dion Fortune’s comment in The Mystical Qabalah struck me when I first read it, more decades ago than I care to remember. Nothing unusual there, as what I learned from her teachings over the ensuing years has shaped and informed my thoughts and personal journey since my grandfather gave me that book when I was fifteen. I still have that same copy, with his own hand-written notes on the fly leaf and margins… a glimpse of his interpretation of the teachings he too had discovered in those pages. I don’t agree with all his notes, yet some proved invaluable in opening the doors of understanding; even the ones I didn’t accept… as they too shed a different light by which I could explore.

The book, and that passage in particular, came to mind the other day as I was discussing the question of translation with one of my students. We were talking about the Bible and the numerous historical translations from originals that have been lost. Now it is true that by collating all the oldest surviving documents, it seems that essentially what has come down through the past two millennia is fairly accurate to the original documents… and the faithful who copied the texts so laboriously would, one imagines, have done so with loving respect and attention to detail. But translation? That is a different matter.

How is it possible to have a literal translation when any translator can only use both the idiom of the language into which he translates, and his own emotional connection to both the subject and the choice of words?

I remember translating The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for my younger brother long ago. Translating the words themselves from French to English was easy. To make it read as beautifully as the original French was much harder and to capture the inner and hidden sense of the words, with all their nuances and association chains was nigh on impossible. The result may have evoked something of the original… and wasn’t a bad translation when I compared it years later to a professional one… but you could tell it was through my own eyes, heart and perspective that I had worked.

That’s the problem with translation and interpretation… the unconscious application of emotion, perspective and the bias of belief.

fingword

It is easy to get caught by an unconscious desire to glorify that which we love and vilify things we dislike or disagree with, choosing words with that intent, almost behind our own backs. Reading several translations of a particular passage, I was struck by a number of word choices that differed, translation to translation, shifting emphasis ever so slightly. Possibly it was just a personal interpretation, possibly a political one, depending on the body behind the edition. It is also easy to know the words of another language but, with the best and most impartial will in the world, to miss the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of colloquialisms that change as quickly as any other fashion.

We do it all the time, in small ways, telling of our day or experience, subconsciously choosing words that emphasise what we are trying to express beyond the words themselves… humour or pathos perhaps. We will use every conceivable nuance, expression or innuendo to get our own perspective across. It is a normal part of human communication after all. Yet were our words to be reported out of context, what exactly would others think we meant? They too would put their own interpretation on the words and before you know it a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ is chasing through people’s minds.

Many of us will not read ancient Greek or Latin ourselves and be obliged to rely on the good offices of those who can to understand, for example, some ancient text, but the mind is what needs to be engaged with any translated or reported words. The heart and discernment too. The symbolism of language itself is something of an art form and we are all skilled in its use and interpretation when we bring our whole being to bear.

FisherInscription

Words are symbols for meaning, no more and no less. While we are very good at interpreting that meaning face to face, reading the subtle shifts of expression, tone and body that bring them to life, with the written word we may take the meaning on face value through the eyes of the writer instead of questioning and being alert to other possible interpretations. We may disagree with each other on that interpretation, seen secondhand through our own eyes… and when the text in question holds meaning for us that can be a recipe for disaster. Wars have begun that way. Yet being willing to look behind the words, to the essence of meaning, without prejudice and with an open heart may point the way towards peace.

Lenses

Orion Nebula

“Religion is a matter of diet. You must choose what suits your spiritual digestion, I suppose.”

Naomi Jacob, ‘Four Generations’.

Growing up, I loved the stories that Naomi Jacob wrote about the Gollantz family. I am not Jewish, though some of my forefathers were. Reading Jacob’s books gave me an insight into part of my own family’s culture and recent history. One passage has come to mind a lot lately. Emmanuel, the lead character, is struggling to come to terms with pain and loss. Hannah Rosenfeldt, an old friend, tells him that he must learn to say, ‘The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’. Emmanuel cannot bring himself to say the second part, as he cannot bless a God who allows tragedy to happen. I was way too young to fully understand the stories, but this particular dialogue stuck, as some things do. There was an awful lot in that short passage and it reminds of a similar conversation with my grandfather.
I asked him why… how could the loving Father of whom we were taught in Sunday School permit so many horrible things to happen? It is a question most of us have asked. My grandfather was not a religious man, though he had a belief in the sentience of a Divine Light. These days, many would say he was ‘spiritual, not religious’. Even that would not be the entire truth, for he had walked some dark paths and his convictions were hard won. ‘Religion is a matter of diet. You must choose what suits your spiritual digestion…’ . He had tasted and had chosen. I was allowed to grow up with the same freedom, with an incredible cross-section of knowledge and experience from which to draw the raw ingredients of my own diet.
It was my grandfather who gave me the first hint of understanding… that we are too close to events in this human life to be able to see what purpose may be served by them. But that there is purpose, he was sure of. That hint came when he gave me my first microscope.

Mouse cells
Mouse cells

Looking through the eyepiece I found a strange world opening before me… blood cells, plant cells, the scales of the human hair, an insect’s wing. Peering at this magical world through the lens was a wonderful experience for a child… yet I realised there was no way for me to identify what I was seeing unless I already knew all their patterns and learned to understand them. I could see they were cells, but I was looking far too closely to see what they were part of. I could see them, but had no idea what they made.
Then Grandad built a telescope. A big one, with a lens the size of a dinner plate that he ground himself on a pedestal in his study. I remember it well; the black squared surface of the plinth, the pots of jewellers rouge, the steady motion that polished the glass…and while he worked he told me stories of gods and giants, of the fae and the otherworlds and the stories of the stars. He told me of radio waves… he had been a wireless operator in the army… and built me a Wimshurst machine to teach me about electricity. He showed me, from both the scientific and spiritual perspectives, how it was possible for different forms of matter and energy to occupy the same space. I had a fantastic education and did not know then just how lucky I was!

Wimshurst machine
Wimshurst machine

 
When the telescope was finished the whole affair was huge. Somewhere there is a picture of me standing with it… a great metal structure that captured the heavens for me to see. When elevated, it was much taller than me. We projected the sun’s image onto card; it was too bright to look at directly… and that was a lesson in itself. Some things are beyond the compass of our senses. We see only the effect, not the source. I saw the landscape of the moon and watched the stars wheel across the heavens, learning that much of what we saw through the lens was a past millennia old. Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away… the light we could see was that old. It had taken that long to reach us, so we were looking at the past! Yet time just was… wasn’t it?

Tycho supernova
Tycho supernova

 
It was odd too how similar the view through the two lenses were… microscope and telescope. How could we know that the heavens themselves were not simply the cells of a greater being we were too small to see? Something whose pattern we were too small to understand?
Then there was a time of loss, and that phrase I had learned stayed with me… The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away… Blessed be the name of the Lord. By this time my spiritual diet no longer included the confining thought of the orthodox Christianity we were taught at Sunday School, but the certainty of the One, by whatever name It is known, remained unshaken and unshakable.
I began to wonder if the lens through which I looked at events in my grief was too close? Or its purpose to big, too far away from my understanding? Was there some pattern that I was simply unable to see through the myopic vision of human eyes? Yet I do not believe that each step of our lives is foreordainedI believe in free will…in the gift of being able to choose our paths, gain understanding or make mistakes, learning from the experience of living. That makes a Divine Plan a little hard to reconcile at first glance. How can we have the freedom to choose and yet believe there is a Purpose to the events and circumstances of this life we live?
We need to step further back… away from our involvement with the heartaches of the mundane world and see from a different perspective. This conviction has grown over the decades as, from the hardest, the worst and most painful events of life I have seen much beauty unfold. From the loss or surrender of things to which I have clung, allowing them to define me by their habitual presence, I have found new directions, new doors opening before me. And I have watched this unfolding, this flowering of possibility, in others too.

Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula

We all face the heartaches and trials of life every day and we often do not understand the ‘why’. When we are facing that unscalable mountain that blocks our path, makes us change course and curse under our breath, how can we know it does not protect us from a lifeless desert or a valley of wild beasts? We can never know for sure, but we can learn how to plan a better route and to understand the landscape in which we find ourselves.
It is impossible to trace the beginning of a series of events with our ‘what ifs’…really trace them back to cause and effect. There is always another ‘what if’ even further from the moment. Nor can we see into a future unknown and know what will come of any given event. Events cascade, creating a domino effect of circumstance and possibility that disappears beyond the borders of our imagination into the unseen millennia to come.
Only a being vast enough to bring the lens to the right focus on time and space would be able to see the beginning and the end of the existence we know… and it would have to know our pattern, like that of the cells under the microscope, and understand what we are in order to see what we form as a whole.
Such a being we could only conceive of as god-like and as such infinite. Yet infinity means there are no boundaries, no borders… no alpha and omega, it would itself be both beginning and end, and yet endless. And if it is endless and All, then we and all we know must be of It. And perhaps It knows the Purpose in ways we cannot imagine.

Horsehead nebula
Horsehead nebula

The Entered Dragon (5) : a seat in the gods

Continued from Part Four

The stage is set. The feeling of expectation is deep. In the darkness of the auditorium, we cannot see those sitting beside us.

The stage is dark, yet the darkness is not empty; in fact the darkness is full of that which is not yet formed, but can be. None of our senses can yet register what is happening. But something within us at the deepest place that we can call our selves is filled with this potential. But the potential is not dark, in fact, The potential has an unseen brightness and a powerful sense of immanence.


In this series we have examined the nature of what the early psychologists called the unconscious. We have considered that the conscious part of our existence is like the visible part of an iceberg seen above the water. Most of its mass and energy and potentially dangerous presence lies beneath.

In the last post we encountered Carl Jung’s  dramatic conclusion that all consciousness emerged from this ocean of unconscious being. What does that mean? We can be without there being any differentiation between what is perceived and what is considered a centre, an us

The world is a continuous creative explosion of events, which to us forms a screen of experience around what we call ourselves. This self isolates part of the happenings and calls it its own. As this analysis proceeds the separated being becomes more sophisticated in the way it divides self and not self. It’s crowning glory is to give the things it has perceived names, and language is born.

After a while the self becomes so fascinated with the power of its own separated existence that it does not want to relinquish what it sees as a gain. But the costs of separation are hidden and subtle. Once part of an ocean of creative and continuously changing being, the small self is is now responsible for the maintenance of its entire psychic ecosystem. Its creativity may be bright, but eventually the separation from that which gave it birth becomes painful and depressing. The things of the self-world lose the sparkle; and yet there is the ghost of a memory of what a world filled with joy was like…

Here we have the vast theatre which is mankind on Earth. On the one hand the creation of something so precious that it was worth this lonely journey. On the other the anguished separation from a creative, all-powerful vastness which longs to reconcile it’s ennobled child. It’s a paradox… as so many things of a spiritual nature are.

Going far deeper into this mystical vision Carl Jung made it his life’s work to provide us all with a language to map this ‘fall’ and separation from the glory of all-being.

But the journey that mankind undertook was and is not taken in isolation. Throughout our history artists, writers and mystics have spoken of a deep kind of communication from an inner state of ‘holiness’ carried out by beings whose role was to be communicators of hope and inspiration. Sadly, religious metaphors do not always communicate well, nowadays, so a different set of words is needed.

One of the best names for these beings is the word Messengers… 

The Greeks had no difficulty in describing a real, but inner, world populated by Gods – plural. To them, the inner experiences of a lifetime had a pattern and were overseen by powerful inner forces that could be courted or challenged. The essence of this inner world was that it was already there… Scholars had not invented in an academic or poetic exercise. If you could find inner quietude, and you were gifted in sincere two-way communication, then you could converse with this inner world. Those with deep skills were cultivated and asked to communicate for others less able – Oracles – but the essence of this inner land was that it was and is there for all of us.

The west’s age of enlightenment, ironically, put an end to this world of ‘myth’, consigning it to the realm of fantasy. In separating it from the ‘demonstrably real’ world of brain-knowledge and quantity, we lost the glory of personal contact with figures from the inner which were sharable among us all.

Carl Jung’s work in psychotherapy – whose main purpose was to restore the ego (self) to health and stability – gave him access to a base of scientifically recorded information of patients’ inner states. He observed that there was a pattern of images described by those he was treating, a commonality of experience, or, rather, a commonality of the inner characters they met within their own mental and emotional worlds. Far from being schizophrenic, these characters enabled a healthy communication with the patients’ inner states, from which Jung was able to provide healing patterns of reconciliation.

As he ventured deeper, he realised that these healing forces had a purpose: that they were actively communicating with their own ‘host’ personality, though the patient might have seen them as fantastical. Further work showed him that the nature of many, but not all, of these inner characters was shared… by all people. Most of us did not seek this active inner communication with the messengers, but some did. After all, the greater part of mankind’s history had revered them. Psychology had provided at least a partly-trusted window back into the ‘realm of the personal gods’ to combat the creeping coldness of the scientific view, though the latter was providing the basis for much more comfort and security in our daily word… as long as you forgot its power to destroy that world, entirely-–in itself, a form of global schizophrenia.

Over many years, Jung got to know these inner figures, and named them ‘Archetypes’, a word overly familiar to us now, but dramatically new in Jung’s time. Freud would have nothing to do with such a concept, which, to him, smacked of mysticism.

Today, through the writings of such authors as Robert A. Johnson, anyone can discover the nature of these inner messengers – whose role is to help us heal our self’s divisions – and work with them, if we are bold enough…

Next week, we will consider some of the faces of our Messengers, and the precious gifts they bring.


The stage is so quiet, it is almost painful. We look into the darkness to see a kind of swirling. Within seconds the smiling face of a King emerges, and behind him, a figure of pure love, so beautiful that tears are unavoidable, rests her gentle hands on his shoulders…

They have come…..

Other parts in this series:

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


©Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

The walking dead…

We had been engaged in one of those long existential debates, discussing life, death and the possibilities of what might come before and after. The debate had gone on for some time, discussion had gone deep and we had covered some serious stuff, including the changing perspective of the years, fuelled by my impending birthday and the universal fragility of life.

“You should make a video,” said my son.

For a moment, I was flattered, feeling that perhaps I had acquitted myself so well that he saw my thoughts as worthy of being shared. But that moment was a fleeting one… he took out his phone.

“What, now?”

“Yeah.”

“But I’m a mess…” Vanity is universal when faced with a lens. Or that’s my excuse.

“Well, I’d rather you were sort of natural anyway…” It all clicked into place then. So much for flattery.

“You mean, for when I die?” My health may be a bit unstable at present, but I’m certainly not planning on dying at the moment. He had the decency to look a tad embarrassed.

“Well, yes… but don’t feel obliged to die anytime soon…”

“Thanks…”

“…I haven’t given you permission yet.” This is true. As he is both my son and my employer, such an extended leave of absence requires his approval and he has made his feelings quite clear on the matter.

By this time, the camera is running and I face the immortalising lens with no make-up, haystack hair and wearing my oldest clothes. We continue the debate, though in a far more lighthearted manner. Even so, it feels odd. Bad enough being recorded, which I dislike at the best of times, but to know you are being filmed as a memory for when you are dead is quite a strange feeling.

One of the things we had been discussing was the value of remembering that physical life is finite. It is a concept that must be taken from rather abstract idea we generally live with and transformed into a practical application. It is not a morbid or depressing perspective, as some might think, but is actually liberating as it shifts the focus from the transient to the eternal.

With a conscious awareness of the inevitable ending of this phase of existence, life and every experience in it, good or bad, takes on a new depth and richness. Nothing is to be missed through inattention, every experience is to be savoured and appreciated, because there is an awareness, a backdrop to living, that constantly reminds you that each moment could be the last.

And, as the camera captured our laughter, I was getting a graphic lesson in bringing that concept into reality.

It begs the question of how we want to be remembered when we are no longer in the world. Do we want to leave a mark on society? Be missed? Create immortality through art or a legacy of scientific thought? Maybe our immortality comes through our bloodline… our children and their children? Or perhaps we wish only to be remembered with a smile.

But why should we want to be remembered at all? Perhaps it is the fear of utter annihilation. Or simply the ego, the personality we wear in life, programmed for its own survival, that  seeks to perpetuate itself… and cannot accept that life as we know it can carry on without us? No matter how well-known or well loved we are, unless we do leave some kind of concrete legacy to posterity, in a few generations we will be no more than an entry in a ledger or database somewhere.  And even that will one day disappear.

Whether we believe there is no more than this physical existence, or in the survival of the soul, we cannot escape the cycle or the recycling of life.  One thing is certain, in the physical universe, nothing is ever utterly lost. From plankton to planets, everything that comes into being will evolve and come to an end. Its component parts will be returned to whence they arose and become the building blocks of something new. Personally, I believe that also holds true of the soul. We do not need to seek immortality. We carry eternity within us.