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

In the Similitude of a Dream III…


… At this his relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed

that what he said to them was true, but because they thought that

some frenzy distemper had got into his head; therefore, it drawing

towards night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains,

with all haste they got him to bed.



But the night was as troublesome to him as the day; wherefore,

instead of sleeping, he spent it in sighs and tears.

So, when the morning was come, they would know

how he did. He told them, Worse and worse:

he also set to talking to them again; but they began to be hardened.



They also thought to drive away his distemper

by harsh and surly carriages to him; sometimes they would

deride, sometimes they would chide, and sometimes

they would quite neglect him.

Wherefore he began to retire himself to his chamber…



… to pray for and pity them,

and also to console his own misery;

he would also walk solitarily in the fields,

sometimes reading, and sometimes praying:

and thus for some days he spent his time.



Now, I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields,

that he was, as he was wont, reading in his book,

and greatly distressed in his mind;

and as he read, he burst out, as he had done once before, crying,

What shall I do to be saved?


The Pilgrim’s Progress



Reflections from the, ‘Castles of the Mind’, weekend,

organised by Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh.


In the Similitude of a Dream II…


…In this plight, therefore, he went home and refrained himself as long as he could,

that his wife and children should not perceive his distress;

but he could not be silent long, because that his trouble increased.



Wherefore at length he brake his mind to his wife and children; and thus he began to talk to them:

O my dear wife, said he, and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend,

am in myself undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me



… moreover, I am for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven;

in which fearful overthrow, both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably

come to ruin, except some way of escape can be found, whereby we may be delivered.


A Pilgrim’s Progress



Reflections from the, ‘Castles of the Mind’, weekend,

organised by Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh.



In the Similitude of a Dream…


As I walked through the wilderness of this world,

I lighted on a certain place where there was a Den,

And I laid me down in that place to sleep…



And, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.

I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man

clothed with rags, standing in a certain place,

with his face from his own house,

a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.



I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein;

and, as he read, he wept, and trembled;

and not being able longer to contain,

he brake out with a lamentable cry,

saying, What Shall I do?


The Pilgrim’s Progress



Reflections from the, ‘Castles of the Mind’, weekend,

organised by Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh.




Reflections on Free Will

Reflections Free Will

What does it mean to have ‘free will’?

It’s a phrase that is used very casually, as though it carries an identical meaning to us all. It’s particularly important if you want to pursue a path of mystical self-development, since the whole idea of ‘will’ is a central concept of work on the self.

What is will? We take its very existence for granted, but we should be clear in our own minds as to what we mean by it. We could say that will prevails. It is a kind of force that determines what happens next – as  much as that is under our control. We will return to the subtlety of this point at the end of this short post.

It would be useless, as King Canute is reputed to have done, to exercise our will to hold back the incoming tide. Actually, Canute was a wise ruler and was trying to show that the divine right of Kings had limits… History can have a cruel ‘will’ of its own. This does imply a certain amount of wisdom about how we use our will: we have to know what is possible, or potentially so, whether or not we have the force to succeed. This, in itself is curious, as it implies we have some foreknowledge of our likely success in the exercise of our willed force. Do we, then chose to fail when exercising ordinary will power? Or is there some form of higher ‘seeing’ that knows what can be done, uniquely, in the personal now?

We can say we are successful in using will – for example in not having that heavy pudding that will add more weight to our already- January rich waistlines; or we can say we failed to exercise our willpower in refusing it. This is curious, since it implies that we are, somehow, split beings: one part doing the ‘right’ thing, the other the wrong or weaker one.

From a cultural point of view, this is serious stuff, since the very idea of will seems to be bound up with doing the ‘right’ thing, rather than the prevailing of a chosen and pleasant course of action (having the pudding). The cultural derivation is obvious: we live in societies that consider themselves to have a code of proper conduct. There are rules and expectations governing everything from personal hygiene to political and humanitarian conduct. It is not easy to go against any of these ‘norms’ and stay an accepted and respected member of that society.

In the human definition, to have a will implies that the entity wishing to use will is alive. Aliveness is a whole topic, in itself; but its origin as a concept begins with organic persistence. An entity is alive because it persists; and in a self-renewing form that gives it an identity. This is true from the single cell, right up to the most complex organisms, such as mankind. Something with an identity can belong to a family, and then its will is expected to conform to the expectations (and receive the praise) for actions supporting that group.

There are two things to carry forward here: the first is the mystery of the dual approach to our will: the having or not having that pudding. The second is the simple truth that any real form of mystical development requires the individual to step outside their ‘tribe’ and attempt to see things from a different (and hopefully truer) perspective. No harm is intended with the latter, but it can be painful to arrive at a set of values that are, from the new perspective, more ‘grown up’ that those inherited from the family or, more likely, the tribe.

The idea that we have conflicting wills is not simply that of organic hunger versus waistline and looking good. When we begin our mystical path, we begin to sense a more subtle world; one which has a very different set of (very gentle) expectations. These carry no prohibitions save that of belonging to something we have selected as an individual, rather than that received from a group.

Here, we can see a trap: a mystical training organisation that expects you to absorb its dogma without question is not behaving in a truly mystical way. Self-discipline is always a part of good things, but there is a fine line between dogma and a rigorous basic training. The western mind, with its industrialised psychology, is not very good at following group-disciplined paths.

A few years into our training, we may encounter the final consideration of will: that the universe is vividly alive, and that this vast life-force has a will of its own. If we have been successful in making our training our own and not just someone else’s dogma, there will have developed the first stages of a new level of consciousness in which the highest level of our will finds itself attuned to the needs of this vast intelligence. Then, the perception of will at all levels becomes a very different vision. We begin to see that the greatest freedom of will is to belong to something that works on a vast landscape of all-mind and that belonging to this is no loss of individuality at all.

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via low-cost supervised correspondence courses.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at

©️Stephen Tanham.