The edge of the precipice

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Driving home, there was one of those moments of sheer, unadulterated joy when the fields were lit with pale sunshine, the sky a clear blue and the feel of the car around me occupied my whole being. I can’t think of a better way of putting it. It is one of those things for which words seem too small. Yet, you could argue, it is only a car… getting on a bit, less than perfect and just a machine.

On the other hand, what it means to me, personally, is something quite different. The world inside the car is a place out of the ordinary. It is a haven from importunate necessity, an oasis of silence in spite of the roar and rattle it carries with it; a place where thoughts can blossom and bear fruit. It is possibility, control and freedom… and sometimes escape. It allows me to serve the needs of everyday life, as well as to follow my heart into the hills.

In itself, it is none of these things. It is just a metal box on wheels. It becomes, however, the symbol for all these things and more because it is the vehicle of my choices.

It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to learn to drive. I had started… had my first lesson… in my late teens just before a drunk driver ploughed into the car in which I was a passenger. A fractured skull and a rearranged, reconstructed face left me too afraid of cars to try and drive again. The blow to the fragile self-confidence of a teenager was profound and the scarred face itself a major life-lesson it took many years to appreciate for the gift it was.

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Over the years many people encouraged me to try and learn to drive. It was nearly twenty years before I found the courage to try again and only then because I felt it necessary when my partner was terminally ill. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise… I was too scared and had absolutely no confidence in my ability to become either safe or proficient. Fear had me completely caged, but I came to a point where I felt ready to tackle the bars of my self-imposed prison.

Perhaps those who had encouraged or pushed me to learn earlier were right. Or perhaps I would not have had the confidence to learn before I did. I may have missed years of enjoyment… or avoided a potentially lethal fear hitting the road. Who knows? Be that as it may, I made a decision and went for it.

All I do know for certain is that by the end of that first month’s lessons I was hooked. I loved it. These days, even some twenty years later, there are few places I am happier than behind the wheel. I love driving. Facing the fear had proved it to be no more than a shadow and, critically, one I finally realised that I had adopted and accepted as a habit. The car, previously a symbol of distress and panic, became a thing of confident joy.

It is often the way. There are choices we have to make, fears that we have the opportunity to face; personal precipices where we stand on the edge looking out over what seems to be a huge gulf of terrifying uncertainty knowing you can only fall or fly.

There is a moment of calm and clarity when you know that you can choose your course of action. There may be those who urge you forward or who seek to pull you back, holding you in safety away from the edge. Yet while their advice and counsel may inform your decision, you are the only person who can make that choice. You are the only one who has the power to choose what course of action is really right for you at that time. It is only necessary to be genuinely prepared to face the moment and make a conscious choice.

You may choose to turn away from the edge… to step back into the safety of the known. You may choose to step off the edge of the precipice, knowing that you may fall.

And sometimes you find that you have wings.

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Vexed by the Tribe

I am vexed…

It’s a word you don’t hear much, now. Old English, I believe. It describes an agitated state of mind – and possibly body – when something nagging can’t be solved.

What I’m vexed about is the entrenchment of nationalistic opinion across the world, in the face of much more important issues – like the world’s climate problems and the undermining of democracy as a new type of war carried out by authoritarian regimes.

I’m vexed because I think I’ve seen beneath this to the psychological mechanics of something that has the potential to kill the world.

In Britain, with Brexit, we are marching, like lemmings, towards a clifftop that will bring chaos and self-inflicted harm to not only this generation of voters, but our children and their children. They will look back at the devastation and ask why somebody didn’t do something to avert it.

Friends in the USA describe a similar situation, there. My intention with this blog is not to discuss politics, but to examine the entrenchment of views that underlies these vast shifts in ‘normality’. This is closely linked to the use of ‘fake news’ as a defence against the truth…

The psychologist Maslow did some ground-breaking work on developmental psychology, particularly human motivation, back in the 1940s. His celebrated diagram of the “Hierarchy of Needs” is reproduced below:

Source: Wikipedia

Maslow’s idea was that the lower needs in the pyramid had to be satisfied before the higher and more creative functions would manifest. It has been modified since the 1940s but remains a popular and intelligent way to understand some of the ways societies evolve – or devolve.

In Maslow’s scheme, the ultimate state of the human in a society is one of ‘Self-Actualisation’ – the top of the pyramid. This is built on ‘Esteem’, which grows in the soil of ‘Love’. Only below this level do the ‘fear-factors’ come into play.

There is an upward current which is enabling. But any downward movement in the lower levels is capable of de-stabilising the whole thing. It would be difficult to put a complex political situation like Brexit into the above pyramid, since this is based upon a society’s condition rather than that of an individual. But we can identify ‘what’ happens in such upheavals, and that may serve to illustrate the forces at work.

If a majority of people vote for something, then we in the West believe they have ‘spoken’ and we honour the result – unless there has been electoral fraud or other fundamental abuses. And this is a big ‘if’. With every such new generation of abuse the perpetrators show they are cleverer than the regulators.

But Western Government is still based on the principles of democracy. So the motivation behind how people vote is a vital thing to understand – and it may help us to come to terms with the often self-destructive basis of such individual decisions. This is where it could be illuminating to consider a scheme similar to Maslow’s at work at the heart of how countries evolve their governance.

A person is born into a ‘tribe’ not into a society

We are all born into a family of some sort. We know nothing of the society in which that family exists. If we are lucky, the family will be loving and caring. In honouring that we will wish to reflect the inherent but often unstated values that the family subscribes to. These are powerful things, and much more akin to how tribes used to, and still do, work. The Tribe will have a relationship to the geography in which it exists. This may be cooperative or antagonistic.

The route of the person from birth, through the values of the tribe and to real individuality may not happen at all. True individuality requires knowledge, judgement and a high degree of self-reliance. We all know Tribes in which such a rise to the ‘freedom’ of individuality would be frowned upon – to say the least.

Complexity, of the sort we experience today, is a relatively modern thing

Despite this, the wisest of individuals have, throughout history, risen to think for themselves and brought great change to the overall society in which they lived. Their upward journeys have been struggles of courage against both circumstance and prejudice.

I believe we now face new forces which are abusing and mis-shaping our countries. They are driven by the relatively small number of people who understand the ‘Complexity’ of our worlds. Our societies have changed beyond recognition in the past fifty years, largely driven by technology. Tech can be and is an enabler, but it is also a generator of fear for those left behind as powerful entities dominate the way in which such Tech is used…

Tech is also an ideal basis for placating the masses. Television soap operas and dating shows, for example. Thinking is hard, that is the simple truth. Thinking for yourself is very hard…

The above diagram illustrates the idea that, while maturity is an aspirational force pushing up our pyramid of self, Complexity is a negative one and drives people back into a tribal mode of behaviour. I believe this to be happening across western societies, today, and it partly accounts for the rise of nationalism and the seeming ignorance of the historic basis for the repeated rise of fascism in our histories.

A Tribe will serve its society if it has expectations that its brightest individuals will ‘see farther’ and educate the tribe, itself.

So, what can we do about what is happening in Western democracies? We may be unable to do anything. There are tectonic forces at work, both economic and political, which are de-stabilising for their own advantage. We can at least be aware that this is taking place and consider how Tribes are ‘played’ by such forces.

A Tribe will serve its society if it has expectations that its brightest individuals will ‘see farther’ and thereby educate the Tribe, itself. If this is not present, and any alternate thinking is given the ‘fake news’ treatment, then the element of ‘belonging’ will be invoked near the base of the pyramid and we will be collectively dragged back to the vexed lower land of our birth and not the potential of our individualities.

© 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.

Exploring reality?

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It was one of those conversations where a simple thought ended up taking us a long way. There had been a dream… one of those where it seems more real than reality and a lifetime is lived in the space of a night, and though completely out of context in terms of the waking self, it has its own validity and depth.

In such dreams you have relationships… ones that feel, to the dreamer, to be as full and rounded as in an ordinary day. That’s where the discussion started. How do relationships work in dreams? They are built on memory… How can a dreamer have memories of events neither their dream-self nor their day-self has experienced? And if that is impossible, how can there be relationships of love, friendship, fear? And yet, when we dream, we feel them. An interesting one to ponder…

You could put it down to a ‘straightforward’ psychological ability to synthesise emotional relationships in dreams based on experience in ‘real life’. You might consider past life memories if you believe in that possibility. We considered the theory of parallel and multiple realities where a dream might be a glimpse through a rift between them… We came to no conclusions except that the phenomenon is strange, whatever the cause and must be akin to what is felt in full awareness with those who have visionary experiences.

The more you think about it, the odder it seems. Most of us can call up the image of a face of a stranger… any face will do… probably one you have seen but taken no note of that has lodged in the photographic part of the memory. The image may be sharp or hazy… but the emotions are basic, little more than a gut reaction, if that. What you are calling up is a deliberate construct. Nothing more than a mental photograph about which you know nothing.

It made me think, for some reason, of my experience with PTSD. The flashbacks take you into a snapshot of emotion… the images, sounds, sights and smells are all ‘real’ during an episode, a moving image in which you walk… but the memory is false, being stuck in a scenario that has lost its connection to time and cannot therefore move forward or be filed in the past.

When a face to which we have a connection already comes unbidden to the mind, it brings with it a whole raft of response based on the span of time and emotion shared up to this point as well as our feelings for what the future may hold. It calls up their history, our own and our shared story; you know so many things about that person… not just that face.

And that is where the problem of dreaming takes you; if a dream is no more than a mental construct, how can it have such depth? How can there be past and future? You know nothing of the past, present or future… you have no memories, no experience of the people you meet in sleep. They should be ‘flat’… their stories as empty as if you tried to show the whole of an epic trilogy in a single photographic frame… yet instead there are those who imprint themselves on our memories and find a place in our hearts or our fears, because, somehow, we know them.

Dreams bend the rules of normality in so many ways and the most ridiculous situations can seem absolutely feasible. The most meaningful of relationships can flower in what may be measured as the blink of a sleeper’s eyelid. We did come to one conclusion; perhaps, just perhaps, our dreams serve other purposes than those posited by psychologists and scientists… maybe they allow us to explore the impossible and through their very impossibilities and give us space to question our perception of reality itself.

Slimegrobbels and custard…

“Tell me a story…”

My granddaughters and I were sitting on the floor of their pink-painted cabin at the bottom of the garden. I had evicted yet another invading spider and, while the youngest sat on my knee, her almost-five year old big sister was sprawling in the pink armchair.

The three of us had been playing. I had pushed little Imogen on her swing until she giggled with joy and had chased Hollie around the garden, swinging her up onto my shoulders and teaching her to stand on her head in a fairly unorthodox manner. Somehow, small children make you forget the aches and pains… at least until next morning when you try to move again.

By this point though, we had settled down in the playhouse and eaten a meal of chocolate-dipped worms and green slimegrobbels with custard… a menu chosen by Hollie and lovingly prepared by the smallest of chefs. I could only be thankful that the meal was imaginary… and delight in the serious expression with which Imogen, barely two years old, ‘cooked’ and ‘ate’ the ‘food’ while Hollie supervised. Watching a child’s imagination begin to flower is a beautiful thing.

As we settled down in the pink palace built by a besotted father for his princesses, Hollie asked what we should play next. I asked her to tell me a story.

“I don’t know any stories…” She held up empty hands, but that, I knew, was far from the truth. Not only can Hollie tell a good story from those she has heard, she also creates whole imaginary worlds for us to play in.

“You know lots of stories…” Hollie sighed and rolled her eyes in a manner that will serve her well when she has children of her own.

“Just pretend I don’t know any stories, Grandma… so, you’ll have to tell one.” I had walked into that, so we snuggled up and I began with the traditional words…

“Once upon a time, on the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl. She was as pretty as a princess and loved to wear a red riding cloak with a hood. Her name…” I could see the satisfaction as Hollie recognised the tale, “was Fred…”

Fred???”

“Fred.”

Hollie, her interest well and truly caught, sat forward in her armchair as I told how Little Fred Riding Hood had gone to visit Grandmother in the woods, carrying a basket of slimegrobbels, because Grandmother’s best friend, the Wolf, was poorly…and how, when she arrived at the cottage, Fred found that the wicked witch, disguised as a woodcutter, had changed them both into gingerbread men who had been packed in a giant’s lunchbox and had to be rescued by the fairy godmother who turned them into pumpkins by mistake.

Imogen was almost asleep, but Hollie had listened to every word. She sighed again.

That was just a pretend story, Grandma. Now tell me the real one…where Red Riding Hood isn’t called Fred… or anything else…” She went on to give me a synopsis of the whole adventure so that I would not miss any of the important details.

I smiled and told the story, pleased that my little granddaughter could tell the difference between a ‘real’ and a ‘pretend’ fairytale. It wasn’t simply that she knew the original plot well, she recognises that such tales have to be told in a certain way… ‘properly’, she called it. That is a common thing for children. The words and how a story is told matters.

What struck me most, though, was that from the way she was telling me the storyline, she also seems to understand, at some instinctive level, that while fairytales are not true, they are real in their own way. They have their own integrity and, when ‘properly’ told, they are important. Arbitrary changes are not allowed as they alter the essence of the story completely and, at the heart of every old fairytale, there are lessons to be learned whose sense will be lost if the salient details are altered.

In the days before the majority could read or write…and even further back, to a time before the written word was invented, storytelling would have been very much a part of the life of the tribes and families as they gathered around the light of the hearthfire. Stories would have been valued, from the anecdotes the old ones told of their youth, to the tales of the hunters, to those told by the shamans and teachers.

Much wisdom can be concealed within a story… and such tales would have been learned young, perhaps long before they were fully understood. Because they were stories, not obvious lessons, they would have been remembered and both the stories themselves and the hidden wisdom they held would have been passed down through the tribes and clans, just as we still remember the fairytales of childhood and tell them to the children at our knees.

As I sat there with my granddaughters, I felt that we were part of a story that goes back to the earliest human lives… and forward into a future that will one day leave even our memories behind. I remembered my own early years, looking up at great grandma and saying those same words. Images flitting across the screen of memory like gentle ghosts… a child absorbing lessons unawares, their stories attached to the emotions they engendered… and to the love of the storyteller .

Will Hollie tell her granddaughters about Little Fred Riding Hood one day? Will Imogen teach her grandchildren to make slimegrobbels and custard? How far into the past do we reach with that one simple phrase? How far into the future will one shared fairytale carry us as children uncountable say the magic words…

“Tell me a story.”


There is a lot more to fairytales than the wide eyed child understands, especially in the older versions. The archetypes we meet in these old stories echo many aspects of the human condition and the journey of the soul.

We are born into a magical world, where our childhood is peopled with wonders. We are given gifts and talents yet our soul is held within the body, like the princess in the castle. As we grow to adulthood the magic fades…or more precisely, our awareness of it fades. Like the princess, we fall asleep, lost to the song of the soul as the ‘curse’ takes hold. Alive but slumbering, waiting…

Join us next April to explore the hidden beauty of fairytales… and awaken the beauty that sleeps within.

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Primal Screen

Somewhere in the frontal cortex of our brains there’s a very special junction – a place where we learned to do something truly different with our minds… Let’s call it the Primal Screen…

Our spines can be considered the highway of our historical evolution: the inherited paths of form and energy that developed from single cells in oceans, through fish, lizards and apes. At the apex of this human ‘flower’ is the brain; in which the higher concepts, such as ‘self’ and moral values reside.

Those, like me, who felt uncomfortable with science’s cold and clinical view of life as a series of accidents aimed only at the mating chamber, can now take heart that the biological sciences, themselves, have, for the past twenty years, led the way in redefining the benign complexity of life and breaking us away from the genetic ‘evolution as everything’ model that dominated the life-sciences in the past.

The modern view of the human is a very complex thing, indeed – but wonderfully so. The innate complexity of sub-atomic matter is now matched with a new science – appropriately named ‘complexity theory’ – which studies and tries to understand how ‘dumb’ matter organises itself into increasingly complex forms, as though the whole of Life is experimenting with different ways to something mysterious.

Philosophers, long ago, named this ‘Teleological’; meaning it had a purpose. The modern picture is even more complex – or beautiful, depending on your perspective. Genes do work with survival and species as in the Darwinian model; but that’s not all they do. The new science of Epigenetics shows how genes also ‘express’ their complex proteins within a lifetime to alter the human: they are a living rather than a dead code…

The understanding of consciousness has played a part in the cultures of our species for thousands of years, but the division of consciousness into reliable ‘organs’ is a success story of the last century, in the form of psychology.

We can argue that this ignores mystical philosophy, yoga, and Buddhism, each of which have been around for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years… But the successes of psychology are real and provide a common basis for us to discuss the concept of ‘self’.

The breaking open of the greater life-sciences has changed everything, and there will come a time when all these journeys of the ‘self’ will be united with an advanced form of today’s biology; but possibly under a new and common language.

So, to return to our opening statement. What was this juncture in our evolution of ‘self’? The philosopher Gurdjieff made it one of the central tenets of his successful system of self-work. He called it Identification. It was the stage in our group evolution when we looked ‘out’ from our presumed separate bubble of ‘me’ and saw high-intensity things that were so interesting we decided they should be an extension of our selves.

Children do do this automatically. Their imagination is so vivid that the pile of rocks on that hill becomes a castle – and can stay so for many years until the maturing adult looks back one day and smiles at how he and his companions brought it to life as Castle Hilltop…

Imagination is not the only component of this extension of self. Identification involves emotions, too. That castle belonged to the boys and girls of the Hilltop Gang – and they defended it, fiercely… It not only belonged to them, it was them.

As we grow into adulthood, the identifications become stronger. Our job – that important place in society, is considered vital. Alternatively, we may develop a skill or craft that becomes our defining set of actions – an artist who locks herself away for weeks while a fine work is created is a positive example. The career-minded politician whose only goal is power, regardless of the cost is a more negative one. That shiny BMW in the top salesman’s drive might be considered a good example of the power that this kind of defining attraction holds.

Identification can be more complex and subtle, too. We can become identified with negative things, like our illnesses or states of depression; allowing them to define who we are. I am not trivialising the difficulty of working with these conditions, just pointing to the mechanism which has such a ‘locking’ power.

The core of what Gurdjieff said – and a big part of the Silent Eye’s first year course work – is to stand back from these ‘suits of armour’ and realise that we are not them. The ‘younger self’ beneath the defences and attachments is where we really live, but it takes a brave soul to begin that journey. Having begun, it actually gets easier, not harder. Each identified state has locked up a lot of the creative energy of our lives. Seeing them for what they are, with exercises to soothe the way, releases that energy… and gives it back to us as a gentle, creative warmth, which pools with its kin to empower a change in the whole being – in a remarkably short time.

Society and civilisation has its Primal Screens, too. We are in a period of global history where these are now threatening our future. As an older society we may see in others’ flag-waving an immature identification–but not be so good at acknowledging our own.

Beneath all of this is our true Self – and that kind, warm and sharing place has never changed, just been papered over like the interior of an old house. All mankind shares this house, and only a recognition of what we share, rather than our projected view of what we don’t, will enable us to free the collective healing energies to work with this beautiful planet.

At that wonderful stage in our collective lives, we may discover far more about ourselves than we thought possible. We might even discover an entirely new concept of purpose…

© 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.

Growing emotional…

It is the end of a long day; one of those days when many small things have seemed to go wrong and a few bigger things cast dark shadows on your horizon. You are tired…not the pleasant kind of snuggle-up-in-bed-with-a-book tired either, but the kind that begins to question and ask ‘why does it have to be like this?’

It comes to most of us at some point; that emotional bone-weariness. Chances are, you are too tired to even begin looking for answers and past thinking about them if you fell over them. But you are going to find things that look like answers wandering through your mind just the same.

Under stress, they will probably be the wrong ones. Anxiety and fatigue cloud thinking, and what may appear to be a perfectly logical train of thought can begin from a single skewed idea, from a slight misapprehension or misunderstanding. Pursue them and you could end up very far from the truth and casting blame in all the wrong directions, even, perhaps, where there is no blame at all. Life just throws things our way sometimes.

Why does it have to be that way? The most likely answer is that this is a path we have chosen for ourselves. Not, perhaps, with any conscious volition, but through the gradual shaping of our worlds over a lifetime, allowing it to become what it is today. Some events may be beyond our control; there may be no choice in whatever it is we are facing at any given moment. But how we react to it is a choice and one we may have been unconsciously making for a long time.

Our very earliest interactions with the world around us begin to shape how we will react throughout our lives. The nurture or lack of it that we receive as we grow, the people in our lives, our circumstances, all combine with the raw materials of who we might become to make us who we are. Our reactions to any given event are born from this accumulated and integrated input of experience. Our character and the way we walk through life devolves and evolves from the life we have lived so far and therefore we shape many facets of our own lives in what has been called a mechanical fashion.

That is a cold way of expressing it. We could equally and simply say that our reactions are determined by who we have become. It may sound like a negative assessment, yet it is not necessarily so. Reactions that lash out at the world in hurt or anger stem from here, but it is also from here that the means to express the generous impulse is born; the act of kindness and empathy, the outstretched arms… We all know someone who is, or perhaps hope we are, that person who instinctively reaches out to others when they are hurt or in need. What is that if not reaction?

 

For those who seek to understand a little more of how they themselves have come into being there are many systems, beliefs and paths available. Within the Silent Eye we use the enneagram, placing upon it archetypal figures that express the basic ways in which we function… the chief impellers of our choices. These are not cold caricatures…they cannot be, for all we do stems from emotion. Whatever is behind our public face, whether we are creatures of laughter and tears or intellectually focussed, emotion is the prime mover at the root of all we are.

Imagine working backwards from the very tip of a branch, retracing the intersections from the finest twig, back to the bough and eventually to the heartwood of the tree. The deeper we consider what moves us to be who we are, the fewer possibilities we are left with. The closer we get to the source, the more I am convinced that even from a purely psychological standpoint, love can be seen as the root of all we are. Whether we know it or lack it, feel it or feel its absence and a yearning towards it, whether we feel it must be earned or deserved, or run from it in fear of the demands it might make… whether we clothe it as a need for admiration and respect… even whether or not we feel love for ourselves…Whichever way you look at it, love seems to be the central fact of our existence.

From a spiritual perspective, many have never doubted that this is so. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “The truth is, indeed, that love is the threshold of another universe.” When you see that the Source of all Being, and the source of our being as one and the same, it changes the way you see the world, yourself and your fellow man… and leads you towards a threshold of understanding that surpasses knowledge. And perhaps it is here we will find our answers.

Only a Horse and a Sword

We become habitual in our thinking. It’s a good idea (and fun) to play little games with our mind to help us look at things differently.

One of these is to look at things in a ‘zero-sum’ way: that is, to consider life as a vast journey of ‘bought and sold’: acquisition, usage and disposal…

Saladin, (Salah ad-Din) the legendary first Sultan of the combined lands of Egypt and Syria, and scourge of the western Crusaders, is recorded as having given away most of his belongings before his death.

At the end, his only possessions were his horse and a sword.

But that’s ‘just’ end-of-life, stuff. How about if we lived our lives such that everything we ‘took in’ to our lives had to be used, valued and then disposed of in a positive way as we went along?

What might this include? Well, our possessions of every kind would have to be acquired alongside the sentiment: ‘I want this, but I will ensure that others benefit from it, too…’. Then, when the thing ceased to be of use to us, we would look for others to whom it would be useful.

Not too much to ask, or too onerous?

Our home would be open to others, as long as they honoured its ‘foundations’. Those would include a certain attitude to looking after it and respecting its conventions. Our family – something not acquired in the same way, but given to us – would need to be considered, too. At the end of our days, how would our balance sheet look? Did we leave others ‘richer’ than we found them? Did our presence bring some joy, along the way. There are always struggles with family, which is often the most difficult ‘school’ of our lives, but, overall, did we try?

Our careers would be an important part of this, too. We work in increasingly ‘compressive’ environments, where we are expected to conform to behaviours that are not native to our higher natures. How do we manage this? There may be few choices – externally. But we can always project an inner air of integrity, even if what is around us is ruthless, uncaring or downright cruel.

Examining our lives across these broader timescales will bring us back to much shorter ones. One consideration will be that we will look for things that we did not earn in any way, short of being present. Our food and other means of sustenance is a vital part of our lives. The ‘Maslow’ approach to this was that we cannot hope to lead a higher personal life until our basic needs have been fulfilled; and we should be examining others’ lives on this basis, too, before we judge them.

On an even smaller scale, how about breathing? We take in air whose creation and preparation has nothing to do with our own effort. At this smallest scale, we are literally given life every few seconds. There is no bill at the end of this most basic of meals.

In such situations, perhaps we can think of it as a debt. We owe…

And, maybe that sense of owing would begin to renew both our ‘selves’ and the planet, replacing the viciousness of entitlement so prevalent among those who ‘rule’ us. It seems that, as the world’s wealth comes to belong to fewer and fewer people, civilisation goes back in time to a more feudal basis. It’s a frightening thought that our ‘democracies’ have become so feeble that even the most educated feel powerless to stop the erosion of what were – not so long ago- shared values.

But we are not the first to live in troubled times. It may be that they are there to teach us to act responsibly and collectively. Unless we can do so, we are powerless to change things.

We may conclude that, as an individual, we can do nothing to change the politics of our ‘world’; in which case we live in an age where only our personal behaviour can make a difference: good examples of light in darkness can catch the spirit of the times and become visible flames.

Saladin was a great warrior and is said to have been a fair and just ruler. He had a vast kingdom and ended the power of the Crusading forces.

Our true kingdom is our lives, not how much we possess. Will we be able to look back on our lives from our single horse, and kiss the keen blade of thoughts and feeling that brought us through? And then will we have the grace to leave both behind, in a final act of giving, before surrendering our physical existence to the drifting sands beneath our feet…

©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.

Summer weather…

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August tomorrow… high summer… when the rush-hour traffic melts away and the roads are driveable, even at eight in the morning. A time of beaches and sandcastles, of ice-cream and strawberries. Of flowerbeds that are a carnival of colour… of sunshine and suntans… Or, in England… fog, rain and plunging temperatures.

Opening the curtains this morning was a waste of time. It didn’t get any lighter, and one look outside was enough to realise that it probably wouldn’t. The dog eyed the rain that battered the roses and went back to bed with a look of disgust. I couldn’t blame her… but like it or not she needed a walk before I left for work. We agreed… eventually… that we would indeed venture beyond the threshold, but Ani displayed none of her usual enthusiasm. To Ani, water should be confined to the pools and streams where she can get a mud bath.

If there is one thing we are good at in England it is weather. The variations we manage are quite stunning. Yesterday I came home beetroot red, in spite of long sleeves and soft cotton. Today, I am thinking seriously about putting the heating on to dispel some of the mouldering and all-pervading dampness that seems to have settled on every surface. I am cold, my bones ache and it feels like December… except that winter is just as likely to be mild and sunny…

I have to wonder though. Is it summer? Or is that just an arbitrary division of the year to which we doggedly hold, bound in place by our ideas of family holidays and the closure of the schools? The earth seems to think otherwise. Technically, I suppose it is, but we are, after all, already closer to the autumnal equinox than summer solstice. The harvest is being gathered, bales of gold dot the fields, there are ripe blackberries on the brambles and many flowers have already set seed.

Maybe it is a question of semantics and association. Speak of summer and the mind wanders to balmy days, leisure and laughter. It is our image, based on the memories that spring to the surface when we say the word… yet time does not stand still and summer melds imperceptibly with autumn, just as it had melted from spring for one brief burst of glory.

We like to have things neat and tidy in our minds and speak of the ‘first day of summertime’ as if the seasons will change at our instigation, or at least with some modicum of punctuality, when in fact there is no immediate transformation, more a gradual blurring as the seasons flow, one into another. I think it may be because Nature is beyond our control that we seek to cage her with our definitions and timescales. No matter how we manipulate genetic coding, defy medical conditions or learn to use the forces of the natural world, we are, at some level, conscious that Mother Nature still looks on with maternal indulgence at our meagre efforts to harness natural laws and bring them to our service.

We can delay, but cannot conquer, death. We can fertilise an embryo in a Petrie dish… but can we actually give it life when we cannot even adequately define it? Or are we merely taking the raw materials that Nature has given us to form a vessel, in the same way that the potter takes clay and water to shape a cup to hold the wine?

As to the weather… we have no chance. Ask an Englishman…

In black and white

 

Shadows, by Nick Verron
Shadows, by Nick Verron

I held out my foot, and pointed the camera… the reflection of black shoe and white skin in the black gloss desk was interesting. Thought provoking… just a reflection… perfect symmetry but as a negative colour. “Our lives are just a collection of images, aren’t they?” said my son. “Just reflections of the images our minds perceive.”

We had been talking about photography again and looking at some of the images he had taken and discussing why they work… or not, as the case may be. One in particular caught my attention… a black and white rendition of ducks on what looks like the edge of the Rimfall of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is surprising how much difference the black and white rendering makes to a shot. Uninteresting, everyday objects seem transformed and we look at them in a new way. They evoke a different response.

When I was a very young woman, my grandfather gave me a camera. I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but knew nothing of ‘proper’ photography. This new camera was a pretty basic SLR and I had no idea how to use it and determined to find out. I recall the moment it all changed and I began to see the creative possibilities of photography. I saw something from the top of the bus on my way to work and, that evening, grabbed the new camera, donned the boots, hat and scarf, and tramped through the village in search of a picture. I had never done that before… until that point I had done no more than take snapshots of places, people and events. But the long row of telegraph poles, high on the hilltop stood starkly black against the snowdrifts and I found that I really wanted to take that shot.

 

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I never became a ‘proper’ photographer, amateur or otherwise; I still just take pictures. Grandad’s old  SLR died fairly soon afterwards on a Spanish beach and life had other plans for me than letting me play with cameras. But that brief interlude, learning to see through the restriction of a lens, left its mark. The observation that comes with wielding a camera doesn’t fade, and the world took on a visual richness and a depth of interest that remains.

Processing photos is an interesting thing to observe too. The addition of deeper shadows can make colours sing and light dance and sparkle, changing a picture from mediocre to arresting in seconds. Sometimes a detail may drawn the eye and, with a little judicious cropping, the image of something familiar becomes an abstract work. Or perhaps you capture a moment in glorious colour, but change it to monochrome instead. Such changes can be startling, altering what we percieve and how. They change the mood, make us think; lifting us out of the ordinary and dropping us into unfamiliar territory. Our points of reference are altered, or taken away altogether, and it can be difficult to decipher an image at first glance.

Playing with the settings on the camera and idly snapping away at my son’s home as we talked, perceprion, recognition and memory were all called into question. Our lives, as my son had said, really can be compared to a collection of images, string together as memories. Moments perceived quite often in black and white, then coloured by memory and emotion. Sometimes those inner images are altered by abstraction from their place in time, or we turn up the contrast so high that we can’t really make out what we are seeing. The filters we apply to experience make things feel unfamiliar when we look back at them in memory.

When the shadows are very dark it may seem as if they are all we can see… yet we are not really seeing shadows, or an absence of light, just its interuption. Light and shade go hand in hand. You cannot see one without the other. On a photograph, it is the shadows that throw the light into relief and allow it to illuminate what we are seeing. In our lives, the dark times are the backdrop against which we can see what we have lived and who we are.

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