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.

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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

Personal

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It is undoubtedly an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It is unbelievably impressive, designed specifically to be awe-inspiring, streaming light and colour into the great cavern of Bath Abbey. It is also just too big to be able to make any sense of the images it contains. Had I  not seen other Tree of Jesse windows before, recognising the recumbent figure of the dreamer, I would have had no clue what it was I was looking at. It is only later, with the help of the camera, that I am able to see the individual scenes depicted in the great, towering window of the south transept of the Abbey… and the east window is even harder to decipher.

You have to wonder why.

Politics, probably… the intent of the builders hovering somewhere between raising an edifice of the utmost beauty to the glory of their God and the desire to impress upon all who entered its portals the power and supremacy of the Church itself. In so doing they seem to have forgotten that the primary function of both the images and the Church itself was supposed to be to teach the words of a humble Man to other humble men.

Given that the stained glass and the earlier wall paintings of these magnificent and beautiful churches were designed originally to convey the stories of the Bible, the saints and the virtues of the faith to the faithful, it seems rather pointless to make them so grand they cease to fulfil their function. Their very magnificence renders them indecipherable to the naked eye… in effect, their stories become so remote and impersonal as to be invisible.

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It is only when you can actually get close enough to see the painted faces that any connection is made with the subjects they portray and it is through the emotional connection that religious teaching has always been promulgated, either with the gentle message of Love or through the fear of hellfire and brimstone. It has to be personal. Without that contact with the emotions, such teachings remain too distant to take root in the heart, where faith must grow if it is to be a true and personal relationship with the divine by whatever Name we come to know it.

The same concept applies to all our life-lessons. Unless they touch our emotions in some way, we take little note of the events, great and small, that make up our lives, events that may be there and gone in an instant. There are 31556952 seconds in a single year… each one already in the past before you know it is there… each one capable of being a pivotal point of understanding, of change, of realisation. Multiply that by our traditional ‘three-score years and ten’ and the number is just too great to comprehend… too distant to seem as if it has any relevance in our lives… too big to know how to even read the number correctly… Yet we will grumble at wasting two minutes of those lives… a mere 120 seconds… in a queue. Those seconds are relevant because they are small enough for us to come to terms with… small enough to understand their waste on something annoyingly unimportant, yet big enough for us to see what else they could have been spent upon. Annoyance and frustration make them real to us.

There are 3600 seconds in an hour… and an hour spent with someone you love, doing something you love… even dreaming about somewhere you love… is an hour well-spent. It makes you smile, relax, feel good about life. We can understand the passing of an hour. It is small enough to be personal and yet it can hold enough to make life feel as if it is pure gold and we the richest of creatures.

There are 2.208e+9 seconds in seventy years. Except for the mathematicians amongst us, such a number holds neither warmth nor possibility… it is too far from our everyday comprehension to hold any relevance. It is too big… too impersonal.

Our way of life is becoming more and more remote. The personal touch is being lost to scripted phone calls, self-service checkouts, automated business… even our social lives are now lived largely online. Youngsters will even text each other when they are in the same house. The distance between human hearts and the lack of contact in a society that shuns the intrusion of personal space can isolate us insidiously. Automation is saving money for businesses and organisations to the point where fewer people need to be employed and I wonder how far society is moving towards losing the ability to connect with each other and solve problems through building a personal relationship that starts with a simple smile.

This is especially worrisome now, when both fear and imposed restrictions limit our movements and mask our faces, isolating the hard of hearing by making lip-reading impossible and making it far more difficult to make that contact between eye and smile that warms the heart and creates an atmosphere of possibility.

It doesn’t really matter if it is a beautiful edifice divorced from the heart of its purpose by its own grandeur, or the two pairs of eyes, gateways to the soul, that slide away from each other for fear of an illusory intrusion… without that personal touch, we cannot reach each other and we are prisoned in glass stained by our own tears.

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All of Them

“Grandad,” said Jessica. “Can we have the Hoovid story, again?”

Her hazel eyes, wise beyond their five years, twinkled at him. He put down the book of the forest, with its fold-out leaves and simulated bark, and smiled at her.

“Okay,” he said. “Of course we can…ready?” He bounced her up and down on his knee: their chosen method for settling in for a story. She squealed. Her curls shook as she shouted,“ Story…story…stor–“

“Once,” Grandad said, capturing the silence. “there was a good bacteria named Hoovid.”

“Are all bacteria good, Grandad?” The earnest young voice asked.

“Well, no… lots of them are bad, but only to us humans. The bad ones can be very good for other forms of life… but Hoovid was good… and very special.”

“Why was he special?”

“Because he had been born very small, and he could see the nasty ghost organisms that were too tiny for even the good bacteria to worry about.”

“Were they ghosts because they were tiny bacteria?” Jessica asked. Then added, “And you could hardly see them?”

“No,” said Grandad. “They were ghosts because they weren’t actually a creature at all, but a chemical that was clever, and could invade the bodies of other creatures and take them over, turning them into bad ghosts, too!”

“Did Hoovid save the world?” asked Jessica, remembering.

“He saved a lot of the world, yes.”

“How did he do it, Grandad?”

“One very special day,” he said, “Hoovid was hungry and he came upon a group of ghost chemicals that were called viruses.

“Are there any good viruses, Grandad?”

“All things have their place and purpose, Jessica, or they wouldn’t be here on the Earth.” He paused, remembering. His eyes turned misty – something he didn’t want Jessica to see – so he pretended to cough.

“Did Hoovid do something else?”Jessica asked. Filling the silence.

Grandad cleared his throat and continued. “He ate the bad viruses…”

“All of them?” asked Jessica, bouncing, again, and swinging her arms.

“All of them,” said Grandad, emphatically.

“All of them in the world?” Jessica said, her tone rising in wonder.

“No… just the ones he’d found… but then, something remarkable happened!”

Jessica’s joy could barely fit on his knee…

Grandad continued. “The good bacteria can do a wonderful thing.”

Jessica had stopped all movement; she knew how important the next bit was.

“When they have learned something, the tiny coils of who they are can adapt to hold that learning… and automatically share it with all their relatives.”

“So all the other bacteria could eat the nasty viruses, too?” she shouted in wonder and excitement.

“Yes… and they did.”

“All of them?”

“All of them!”

A few minutes later he was tucking her into bed.

“Grandad, was Grandma a microbogist?”

“A microbiologist, darling, yes she was. She was the one that discovered and encouraged Hoovid, but not in time to save herself…”

Can I be a micro…biol…gist, Grandad.”

“That would have been your Grandma’s deepest wish, Jessica,” he said, turning out the light. “Sweet dreams.”

As he walked across the landing, he heard the little voice whisper into the gentle darkness. “Night, grandma…”

©Stephen Tanham 2020

©Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Living knowledge

blood moon 010

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

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

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

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

dawn sky (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Seeking a path

Labyrinth, Glastonbury

Over the past few weeks, I have had a lot of emails from people trying to find their way through the maze of possibilities now available to those seeking their spiritual path. Tap ‘spirituality’ into the search bar of Amazon and you will be faced with around half a million choices. Not so very long ago, you could trawl every bookstore in town.. and most towns had a fair few to choose from… and you would be lucky to find anything more than a bible. Ask for the esoteric section and the assistant would look at you with a blank expression and/or back away from the weirdo before directing you towards the poetry shelves. There were books… but not many, and they were both hard to find and expensive because of their rarity. The best places to look were the scruffy, second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, invariably tucked away down a side street in a seedy part of town. When you found a good one, you didn’t forget.

These days, it seems as if everywhere you look there are books, CDs and videos promising you the earth and the heavens… or heaven on earth… or ascension… or, well, you get the idea. Spirituality has become big business.

I have lost track of the number of Avatars and Ascended Masters currently plying their trade. Call me old-fashioned, but I have a deep distrust of anyone who has to tell me they are such a thing. Inspire me, make me think, lead by example and show me the results made manifest in the way you face your life and the way you inspire others… ‘show, don’t tell’ is as important in the spiritual world as it is for writers. The true spiritual teachers I have had the privilege to know would never see themselves as any more than students sharing a journey towards the Light.

While there are some excellent books, many reputable schools and organisations and a handful of genuine spiritual teachers, it is very difficult to wade through such a plethora of promises and find the ones that speak to the heart. It becomes even more confusing when the lines have become blurred between the truly spiritual and those books and systems guaranteeing worldly happiness and success. Many of the techniques employed are very similar; indeed, many of the ‘feelgood’ systems appear to have hi-jacked magical techniques lock, stock and barrel, repackaging and rebranding them as something new and unique that will bring the subscriber their heart’s desire.  The trouble is, they have taken the heart out of the practices to do so.

The true intent of those ancient techniques that work upon the personality is not to hone and polish it for worldly success and a happy life.  The need to ‘Know Thyself’ is at the core of all spiritual paths, but not in order to make money or attract a mate, though your life will change if you follow the old teachings and find yourself opening up the greater potential of your own being. Such studies give access to great joy as inner balance is real-ised. Confidence comes with the knowing and eyes come alive with wonder. ‘Success’ may well come too because of the expansion of understanding of yourself and your world, and though it may not always be measurable in worldly terms, by the time it arrives, you value each experience for its true worth.

The purpose of such study has a higher aim than filling a bank account or an empty space in the bed. Sadly, there are many self-proclaimed spiritual leaders who seem all too happy to fill their own at the expense of the true seeker, confused by the sheer amount of information and promises now available to them.

Mankind has always recognised that there is something beyond himself. For some the highest good is seen in the heart of humanity and how, beyond the petty griefs and greeds that shadow his days, humanity can know compassion, generosity and love. For others, that ‘something’ is reflected in the small gods of hearth and home and the spirits of Nature. Still others raise eye and heart towards a universal Intelligence. While the beliefs of individuals differ, there seems to be a common need to perceive and acknowledge a higher good.

For much of humanity’s history, that higher good has been found through the direction of bodies of religious knowledge. For centuries, religion and politics were closely aligned and until relatively recently, it was simply not good for your health to question the prevailing belief of your country. Those who did so publicly suffered for their freedom of thought. Sadly, there are many places where this is still true today and the emergence of a genuine and global freedom of belief is an ongoing process still far from its goal.

Over the past few decades, much of the world has seen a real, noticeable increase in the freedom and desire to question dogmatic teachings. More and more people are recognising that the key to spiritual development lies in their own hands and heart. It is not necessarily a turning against the traditional teachings, but a desire to understand their inner truth and deeper meaning, as well as an acknowledgement that to follow the rules blindly is a far cry from taking personal responsibility for our own lives and actions.

Our personal relationship with our own spiritual nature and our concept of divinity is unique. Whether we look to the heart of humanity or a higher Source does not matter if we truly seek to grow into the best of ourselves. There is no lid on the sky and no limit to the inner vision that can lead us forward.

No book, no school, no one human being can teach you ‘spirituality’. What they can do is share knowledge, experience and a system that has been found to work and give results. They can be your guide, hold your hand on the journey and share it with you until you reach a door through which you alone may walk. It is not always a comfortable journey to examine your self and begin to fit the fragments of your being into a bigger picture, becoming part of something whole. Not for nothing is it called the Work. But it is always worthwhile. Spirituality cannot be sold any more than you can sell a sunset… but you can be shown where to stand and in which direction to look. And no-one, no matter how much they charge, can teach you to be a spiritual being… because that is something you have always been.

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Written in stone

Nine Stones Close
Nine Stones Close

There has been a bit of a preoccupation around here lately with stone. Between the recent and forthcoming workshops we will have visited a fair number of stone circles, standing stones and burial chambers and it might be tempting to think we are simply indulging our curiosity or even wafting around the stones of the past, in denial of the fact that evolution has taken humanity thousands of years away from the time and spiritual climate in which these stones were erected.

There is a temptation also to look at these stones and call them primitive constructions, or crude symbols, yet the planetary and seasonal alignments present at many of these sites, let alone the scale and sheer number of them across the landscape, suggests we need to reassess that misconception. While arguments smoulder about their purpose and significance, their beauty, mystery and the power of standing in their presence is undeniable.

Castlerigg
Castlerigg

We look upon these enigmatic stones from a position of greater knowledge of the world and indeed, the universe than at any other time in human history, yet we still look at the precision and beauty with which they were built with awe… and wonder if, for all our knowledge, we may have lost something. Did the Old Ones understand the world in a way we have forgotten? There are so many questions that will remain unanswered and any answers we are given will be accepted or denied according to our own predisposition.

Yet there are still things we can learn from looking at these monuments to our own distant past. Not all of those lessons need to be about the stones themselves, even if we simply observe through modern eyes, the stones can act as catalysts for our own progress towards understanding.

I remember a very interesting talk given by Steve some years ago, based on the work of Maurice Nicoll, in which he looked at some elements of the Gospels from a symbolic, rather than a literal viewpoint. He suggested that certain words refer not to physical objects, but to more abstract concepts. Three of the words he looked at were wine, water and stone. I can’t recall the exact terms he used, but roughly, wine symbolised spiritual truth, water living truth and stone the rigidity of dogma. Within the context of the Gospels stories, those terms work to shed an extra level of illumination on the parables. Such apparently coded symbols may have been common knowledge in an earlier era, much as the symbolism of the medieval wall paintings that look so strange to our eyes yet conveyed a clear message, in their day, even to the unlettered peasantry. Like any code of symbols, though, just because it works within one era and arena, it does not necessarily follow that the same meaning would be applied across all others.

Gardoms
Gardoms

Of the three words that Steve examined, his symbolic definition of stone is closest to our general use of the term. We speak of things being ‘written in stone’… like the Ten Commandments that were inscribed on the tablets… and therefore both unchanging and unchangeable. It is for this reason that it is so apt for describing the decline of living truth into mere dogma. Yet, I wonder if even the common definition of ‘written in stone’ should be set in stone?

Rock is part of the very fabric of our planet. You could say that it was formed from cosmic energies operating in earth. The elements that existed before the formation of rocks were gradually solidified to form the basis of our lands. Man recognises stone as a symbol of solidity and permanency; even today, we use it for our monuments because of its longevity and durability. In a more abstract sense, because of these same qualities, it represents truth and it is true that the truth as we see it, when it is set in stone and not allowed to grow can indeed become dogmatic.

When our ancestors built their monuments they began by using wood, a material in plentiful supply and relatively easy to work. Traces of vast monuments, such as Woodhenge and Seahenge, still remain. Yet timber circles were not enough. Our ancestors too chose to build their monuments… and in Britain that means the circles, the monoliths, cairns and chambers… in stone. The organisation and work involved with the simple tools we are told they had available at the time is staggering. You cannot imagine that they would have cut, shaped and carried up to eighty stones weighing up to four tons each, over the 150 miles from Wales to Stonehenge, for instance, unless they saw some great virtue in doing so.

long-meg
Long Meg

It can have been no arbitrary decision. Perhaps it was something to do with the Prescelli hills where the stones were formed, perhaps something to do with the qualities of the stone itself. We may never know. Either way, it was an incredible undertaking. The precision of the stones at Stonehenge, both their crafting and their placement, is well documented and many books have been written exploring the astronomical alignments built into the circle. It can only have been conceived with some kind of sacred purpose in mind, especially considering the labour it took, the manpower and the time, in order to raise the monument and the vast, sacred landscape in which it stands. Stonehenge may be the best known and visually the most impressive, yet there are over a thousand stone circles in Britain.

You can imagine the Old Ones lifting the stone with reverence from the earth, shaping it both to their needs and to its place in the landscape. You can see them placing it with care to exemplify and illustrate a living truth which made sense of their world, raising their beliefs to be written in the permanent language of stone.

stonehenge
Stonehenge

Yet stone is continually open to change. It is constantly being eroded and reshaped by the weather, even by the touch of human hands. It is destroyed by progress, cleared away, moved, re-used to suit the needs of later generations.  Its meaning, both as a symbol and as an exemplar of our ancestors’ beliefs, may be lost. Yet, the original message… the essence of what was ‘written in stone’… although invisible to later eyes, still remains encapsulated in the living stone they raised.

We will continue to build our monuments in stone to the truth that we see and their meaning too will one day be lost in the mists of time. Unlike our ancestors, we record our world… with new technologies that will also become obsolete. Five thousand years from now, there may be some knowledge left of the meaning and purpose of what remains of what we now build, but the true import, the understanding of the emotional, social, religious and political context, will have been lost. Stone is not a permanency, it just has a longer, slower life than we mere humans. It is in a constant state of change, just like the truth it symbolises. Even dogma will have its day and either self-destruct or slowly fade, replaced in the heart of Man with a new paradigm. But behind the truth and the reality we know and profess, there is a greater Truth, eternal and immutable. We may not be able to see it, but somewhere beyond our differences and arguments, beyond our ever-changing beliefs, doubts and systems, we know it is there. It is in this greater Truth that understanding grows and sometimes we may be able to catch a glimpse of it, written in the very stones of this little planet we call home.

avebury
Avebury

A Prospect of Whitby (2) Steps in Time

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The Cross of Caedmon – a modern monument (erected 1898)

Good food is everywhere in Whitby. Even with our Collie dog in tow, we were able to find a wonderful and furry-friendly tearoom – Sherlocks in Flowergate. Forty minutes later we had enjoyed it so much we decided it would make a great refreshment stop for those coming to the ‘Keys of Heaven’ workshop on the first weekend in December.

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Bridges are always significant. We’ve lost that sense in our busy age: too consumed by ‘doing’ to think back to how civilisation was practically divided and delineated by these ‘crossings over water’ that used intelligence to change borders… Quite something, yet, today they are simply a convenience and we travel over them as though they were just another part of the road.

Children don’t… they squash their faces to the car’s windows to fully experience the water crossing – something in them is still alive to the magic of this.

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The ‘swing-bridge’ over the Esk river is in the centre of Whitby and unites the two halves of the town

The bridge in the centre of Whitby is known simply as the ‘swing bridge’. But it divides Whitby in two and allows three types of crossing: foot traffic and cars move over it, boats move beneath it. For both a junction in time and space is created. The river Esk completes its thirty mile course here, meeting the sea under the watchful eyes of light and cannon at the harbour’s entrance.

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The Gun and the Light… Whitby’s West Pier

We had come down from Whitby’s West Cliff and were passing the point of the cannon and one of the town’s historic lighthouses, when Bernie, looking up at the still-distant Abbey ruins, had said, ‘A light in the winter; something new will happen, I think…”

At the time, I hadn’t given much though to it. I presumed she was referring to our present visit and not the destination workshop in December.

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(Above) Sandgate – on of the two main commercial streets on East Quay

Now, crossing the swing-bridge and thereby the mighty river Esk, we entered the major shopping streets of Sandgate and Church Street and something made me return to her words.

“When you said something new would happen here, did you mean at the workshop in December?” I asked.

“Yes, December,” she replied. There was something in the landscape, back there with the cannon and the lighthouse that made me think that…”

She’s very intuitive. Sometimes I miss it the first time… She was right. There was a sense that this was a different type of landscape from what we had used before… and maybe we needed to react to it in a slightly different way?

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(Above) Across the ‘Swing Bridge’ – lower left – lies the older part of town – and leads to the Abbey

Historic towns always have a contrast between what is old and more modern. There is little in Whitby that would be classed as modern – its beauty lies in the fact that it’s an historic port. The ‘Dracula’ reputation has made it a centre for ‘Goth’ festivals – which are generally good-natured; but somewhat at odds with the religious past of the Abbey and its history. Despite this, there is one thing that epitomises the town and unites the two: Whitby Jet.

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Whitby Jet is a local gemstone made from fossilised wood which, millions of years ago, had been covered in other sediment in water environments and compressed into the shale beds that eventually became the North Yorkshire coast. It is a beautiful and lightweight material, making it ideal for jewellery.

Mining of Whitby Jet has never been allowed. Instead, a local tradition of lowering young men over the cliffs was permitted. They would dig into the cliffs to extract larger pieces of the raw Jet gemstone, fill their baskets and be pulled back up the cliff. It was considered an extremely dangerous career! Today, there is little left of the original deposits, but the local industry is resourceful – and world famous.

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The cliffs to the north of Whitby – a severe working environment!

Weather permitting, we would be including a cliff walk in the plan for the weekend. Time would not allow us to sail as the ancient pilgrims in these parts did, but we could be close to the water… and high above it!

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We made a note that ample time needed to be given in our December itinerary for a wander around the streets of Whitby to allow for some Christmas shopping…

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Beyond the market the streets began to narrow. You could just ‘feel’ that this far part of the town was the approach to something very different…

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A final turn – a final tearoom – and there were the steps up to Whitby’s famous Abbey. Nearly two hundred of them, apparently… The next stage of our exploration beckoned – and we would have to work for it… We were finally approaching the symbolic centre of the coming weekend.

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To be continued…

Details of the Silent Eye’s ‘Keys of Heaven’ Weekend

©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.

A Prospect of Whitby (1) The Abbey at the centre of time

Above – A Prospect of Whitby Abbey from West Cliff

The title’s cheeky… Bram Stoker created Count Dracula of Transylvania and had him come ashore at Whitby in a ship named The Prospect of Whitby. We’ll not be talking much about Dracula in our coming weekend workshop; we’ve got enough to contend with considering the truth…

There are many ways to approach the centre of Whitby, but only one to truly approach its heart… In the opening shot the phone camera is straining at the maximum of its zoom abilities, but at least generates a clear image across the considerable distance from West Cliff, where we stand, not far from where the car is parked, and excited to be back here here after a gap of fifteen years.

The right of the image shows the key detail: the wide, winding steps ascending from the bustling streets to the ancient ruins of Whitby Abbey. Even from this distance – which is across the mouth of the estuary – there is a feeling of sheer importance about that far place… Something of immense significance happened there, and it’s our job to consider it fairly and reasonably without too much emotion… and then turn it into the basis of a deliberately emotional workshop that will involve both heart and mind – and the undoubtedly freezing winds of a December weekend on the famously cold north-east coast of Yorkshire.

(Above) An edited photo of the town map showing (red mark) where we are at West Cliff; and (green marker) where we’re going (The Abbey). The nature of ‘approaches’ is symbolic and important.

To help with that objectivity, I am doing my prep visit with my wife, Bernie, who is an historian by training… and is also a Catholic. I’m not a Catholic. I was raised in a Rosicrucian family which fell foul of the local Church of England vicar in a small Lancashire village… but that’s another story. The important thing is that, between us, we can be objective about the religious importance of Whitby and what happened here…

Fourteen hundred years ago…

We take one last look across the bay before beginning our descent into the town. It’s a bit like a mystical view of a life – seen before birth and imagined as a final glimpse of the whole before you become in-volved and begin the evolution that the individual life brings within the necessarily different existence of the gritty details…

(Above) Captain Cook was here…

Entering the grassed area at the top of the West Cliff steps we noticed an image of Captain Cook. Although not born here, he began his marine training in Whitby, aged eighteen, as an apprentice to the master of a local ship: John Walker. For the next nine years he served aboard cargo ships between London, Liverpool, Dublin, The Netherlands, and the ports of Norway and the Baltic. In the course of this, the gifted James Cook rose from apprentice to mate, developing skills that would enable him to become a master-mariner and lead his world famous voyages of discovery.

The significance of this to our forthcoming Silent Eye weekend is not lost on us as we walk down the steep hill. The steps become a winding road, and the road becomes the harbour that was the home of Fishburn’s yard. Fishburn’s produced all four of the Collier-class ships used by James Cook; including the famous Endeavour.

(Above) Captain Cook is celebrated with marine replicas, too…

In the broadest sense, a ship is a container…

The makers of such soul-carrying containers bear a great responsibility: to ensure they are fit for the passage of time, events and circumstance in which a group of people will travel. Our coming weekend bears little relation to Cook’s epic journeys; except in this regard: that if we make it a fitting vessel, it will serve the consciousness-deepening goals of the workshop with integrity.

“We should begin, then…” I say as we start to walk along the harbour’s quayside. Bernie gives me that look and smiles, knowing I’m about the launch forth into one of the pivotal statements for the coming workshop. “It’s not sufficient to say that the Christianity of the Anglo Saxons resembled two armies that met from north and south to meet at a battle named The Synod of Whitby – in AD 664..”

She inclines her head. Not used to such a fair-minded opening. “Mmmm… Whereas the truth is?” she asks.

“Whereas the truth is that both Celtic Christian and Roman Christian faiths were interwoven from region to region across Saxon Britain and no-one made much of a fuss about it till King Oswald (Oswiu) responded to his wife in the matter of settling the date of Easter!”

“Which was important because…?” She taunts.

“Which was important because he followed the Celtic Faith and she followed the Roman, which meant that when he was feasting she was fasting…”

“And, as King of Northumbria, he was the most powerful monarch in the Anglo Saxon world.”

“Quite!” she says, then, “Look – fish and chips ahead… The famous Magpie Cafe… with the usual queues.”

The celebrated Magpie ‘fish and chips’ Cafe – perhaps the Friday night of the weekend?

Whitby’s like that… From the deeply historic and serious to the frivolous in an instant. I look around and wonder if a Goth from the adjacent festival might rush us and offer something outrageous.

The swing bridge and then the lovely ‘Whitby jet’ jewellery shops await, on the way to the Abbey steps, but, first, we need something to eat. Breakfast was meagre and a long time ago.

St Mary’s Church and the Abbey await.. but it’s a long way up and we haven’t eaten yet

Across the harbour, the East Cliff looms over the town like an old guardian. But our own pilgrims will need refreshments upon their arrival on the Friday lunchtime of the weekend, so the body-not-soul research, trivial though it is, must be done before we make the climb.

To be continued…

Details of the Silent Eye’s ‘Keys of Heaven’ Weekend

©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.