Principles of Fire (2) belief-faith-knowing

Continued from Part 1.

Before me on the table is an electrical device. It needs a new battery and to do that I have to remove the cover. The small screw holding it is of the type that requires a screwdriver with a cross-head. My mind is intrigued that this illustration of ‘knowing’ has come into the ‘now’, but it has, and I’m grateful.

I open my domestic toolkit that lives beneath the shoe polish in the utility room. Inside is a group of small cross-headed screwdrivers. As long as the size of the head is correct, I know this will open the battery cover of the clock. How do I ‘know’ this for a fact? And how did I come to have such a certainty of success that I can lay aside everything else I’m doing to focus all my energies on this simple but important task?

In Part 1, we spoke of belief and faith – but not in terms of religion; rather in terms of psychology and a more general spirituality. In that post, I said that belief advanced to faith, but that there was something beyond faith. Now we come to what that something is, and it may come as a surprise that is knowledge – or, rather, the act of knowing; something we take for granted… but shouldn’t.

I ‘know’ because I’ve done it, before. But even that is not the start of the trail. I only know this because someone once showed me how to do it. Even then, we haven’t finished chasing this back. Someone showing me is not the same as doing it myself. When this happens, successfully, I get more than a mental tick in the box; I get the rush of entry into a new world. This may be a small victory, but think back to bigger examples, like the first time your parents removed their supporting hand and you rode your bike…wobbling off into your excited future.

Science might say you that your brain and muscles simply added a capability. This is certainly true, but is that how it felt? And doesn’t our motivation to try for other expansions of self get driven by how it feels?

For spirituality to have any real meaning – beyond the intellectual ‘purity’ of the zealot – it should take us into a newer world each time we make a breakthrough. Belief and faith are not exempt from this expectation. The belief in an ‘afterlife’, where we live in a state of bliss, free from our ‘lower’ natures, has caused more heartache than can be imagined. Life is now, life is here. We know that the biblical parables spoke in metaphor, yet we don’t always think to apply this to the meaning of life and death.

Death happens, there is nothing we can do to change that. Biologically, we are programmed to die. The forces that shaped us could have made it differently, but didn’t. So we can say that death is part of the cycle of life; or that the two are day and night in a revolution of the personal planet. The personality is produced by cumulative effect of our reactions to life, going right back to the fundamental experiences of being ‘one with mother’ and the inevitable separation and lack of satisfaction engendered. And so our individual lives began, never able to be reunited in that total oneness and belonging that brought us into the world.

Is this just a tragedy, or a longing that can take us, like the Prodigal ‘Son’, home? And what sort of maturity and home would that quest involve?

For what do we exchange this inevitable closeness with mother? Something wonderful, certainly: the ability to self-direct our lives – to go out there and ride that bicycle, change that battery–things which are mundane at that level, but very different if we see that there is a wholly new way of living associated with spiritual growth. That is the goal of real spirituality: personal transformation. What passes from this life at death is a different consideration, and not one within the scope of this post.

Let us continue the bicycle metaphor. We become competent riders. We can ride in a very straight line. We become qualified to ride, with thousands of others, along large, adult roads. The bicycle becomes more complex, heavy and sophisticated; and faster, ever faster. Riding along is filled with excitement, and we carry on letting the clever machine do more and more for us. One day, we don’t even notice that there is an us and a bicycle, we just see our lives as movement in a straight line, along the road followed by so many other bicycles.

Then, one day, we speed past a person of great interest who is cycling very slowly at the side of the road. We don’t know why she or he is of great interest, but we know they are… There is, perhaps, a calmness, or even a sense of adventure about them. They have an air of being slightly different, detached from the world of the straight line road we take for granted. The next day we see them again, but we have time to slow our bicycle down to stop next to them. They smile. They may even say they have been expecting us…

They invite us to ride with them, but, immediately, they race ahead and turn off onto a track that runs through a beautiful forest. We only know how to ride along the road, so, in a panic, we stop at the point where they left our road and stare at the wonderful strangeness of what’s happening. Were we not so bored with the straight line of the road, it might seem frightening. But it’s not frightening, it’s exciting, and it tastes of the same kind of newness as when we first got on our bike, knowing that the world of our self was about to get much bigger.

Other bikes and riders are flashing past us. Some may disapprove of us standing there, feet on the floor. We look along the track into the forest. Far ahead, the stranger is standing next to his bike but has turned back to face us. He is smiling. How can this be? Bike and rider are one, surely? To get off would be like… dying.

There is a lightness of laughter as we flex our feet, secure on the ground. All the riders with whom we were cycling have gone. There’s just us, the empty straight road and the enigmatic stranger on the path in the forest, inviting us to join him or her on that mysterious path.

Since we got on the bike, so many years ago, we have never been off it. We look at the figure in the forest and see that rider and bike can be separate things; that we can live perfectly well off the bike. More importantly, we can see that the massive cycling highway, with its shared straight line that misses so much of the beautiful land, is not the only way to travel in this wonderful landscape.

In a moment that will change our lives, we examine the mysterious stranger’s stance, and get off our own bicycle. For a second, we mirror his pose, then, we begin to walk towards him, pushing the bicycle, whose direction we now control. After a few steps, an idea comes to us: we get back on the bike and cycle towards him, achieving the power of the machine plus our own choice of direction, freed from the habitual highway. The very air around us sings with the intensity of what we are doing. Even without a destination, we are somewhere new… and it feels so much like home.

Like any metaphor, this can only be taken so far, but it contains many truths about human life and its spiritual psychology. More importantly, it contains, by analogy, the elements of how belief grows. The child we were believed that it was possible to ride a bike. In the hands of a good teacher – our mum or dad – we extended that into faith that we could do it, too. When we finally wobbled away into the world of riding, we took a step beyond faith into the world of knowing… The theoretical belief evolved into the empowering faith, which, with a deep breath, became the spiritual world of knowing.

In the last stage of our metaphor, above, we jumped, deliberately, to a different level of meaning. The child-become-adult riding along the shared highway became a higher level model for how our lives as a personality exist in parallel to others – the other riders on the highway. In this we had forgotten that we and the bicycle (the personality) were actually separate. Meeting the mysterious stranger showed us that there were other roads and tracks we could travel; without losing the carefully cultured ability to ride within our evolutionary arena of time, space and body.

So, what will you do when you step off your bike and begin to push it along a different track and into that wonderful forest? The first thing you will discover is that it was your strength that gave the bike its power. Smiling with this knowledge, you might get back on the bike and cycle towards the stranger on the path; not only free of the common highway, but able to use everything you have learned, before, in the service of your newfound spiritual freedom, and its ability to choose in a very different way.

This second, this moment, this now contains all these things; and they are real. You only need act with enough resolve, and in the right way, to enter that magical path into the forest of personal potential and real individual freedom… and for that, you will need a very deep breath. But you need not fear you will be alone…

One final thought to consider is this: when we experience that rush of knowing, and enter that new world, are we really adding something to our lives and selves, or are we recognising the truth of a world we never left, but just forgot? Have we become ‘bigger’ because we are nearer to home?

©️Stephen Tanham


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 home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

 

The courage of conviction…

‘They’ve got that completely the wrong way around.’ I almost winced as I read the article, completely disagreeing with the perspective that was being outlined. The basics were correct, I felt but there was something decidedly ‘off’ about the way it was being put across. I read on regardless, listening to the running commentary in my mind… then winced in good earnest. This time at me.

By what right did I think I could judge another person’s perspective? Anyone can challenge facts if they have better information, but this was not a factual piece; it was an article on an aspect of spirituality, which, by its very nature, deals with the unseen and unknown. I may have the right to disagree with a belief or an opinion, just as I have a right to my own perspective… but I have no right to judge another to be wrong on such a subject, no matter how deep my own convictions may run.

How can we know? None of us can prove there is anything beyond this realm. None of us can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that anything exists beyond what we are experiencing right here, right now, with our own physical senses. And even that is debateable, subjective and at the mercy of quantum physicists. We cannot even be sure that we exist in the way that we think we do.

We accept that we are solid beings in a physical world where walls are impenetrable and water is wet, all the while knowing that there is more space between the particles that make up everything in the universe, than there is solid matter. Even though, theoretically, our atoms should be able to pass through walls, we don’t try to walk through them. Experience says it doesn’t work.

But we all know that there are things beyond what we are seeing. I know my sons are in their homes as I write. I know the dog is sleeping in the hallway and that the sun will rise in the morning. I cannot see any of these things, but I know them to be true. I have learned from experience, and such things are part of my image of the world that has been built over time. If I doubted that experiential reality, how could I move through the world?

When it comes to spirituality we are, by definition, dealing with things unseen and unprovable in any scientific way, yet as soon as we wonder whether there is a greater reality of some kind, we are looking at a plane of causation, something which affects and is an integral part of this reality.

We are faced with three ways we can go. There is scepticism, where we withhold judgement until and unless we find some reason to change our minds. There is belief, where we can choose to accept …or reject…a vision of reality put forward by others. Belief, on its own, implies that choice and choosing not to believe comes into that category. There is faith…trust, conviction, knowing…call it what you will. It may have, but does not require any religious affiliation or dogma, it transcends logic and simply settles on the heart.

Scepticism and belief can argue their corner. They are based on knowledge and reason. Faith is unreasonable, subjective, emotional, often illogical… and yet it can grow from both scepticism and belief. Faith ‘just knows’ and the conviction is so deep it permeates every aspect of your life and answers its every question.

And you cannot prove a thing.

You might very well be wrong.

The only ‘proof’ you can offer is how you live your life. How your convictions shape you and carry you through the trials and tribulations each new day can bring. And the trouble is that, regardless of the specifics of that faith, you are not alone. There are people whose convictions sustain them exactly as you are sustained… yet their path is different from yours and may not include faith at all.

So how can we judge another’s faith, belief or conviction when we cannot prove our own? As long at it follows some version of the Golden Rule and harms none, how can we say who is right and who is wrong?

All we can do is refuse the impulse to dismiss another’s belief, believe without seeking to impose our own perspective and accept that there is always a paradox… we can know with utter certainty, knowing that we might be wrong and that it is okay.

That, I think, is the true courage of conviction.

The uncertainty of fish; random questions on the nature of existence…

salmon 001

“Fish simply do not exist.”

My son, well used to the odd phrases that make it past my internal censors, merely grunts; his expression that of a man very well aware that to ask for elucidation would start a debate that could last for hours. This is good, it leaves me with the silence in which I can explore my thoughts.

We are watching his fish on TV. Not as silly as it might seem; although undoubtedly it is beautiful to stand in the sunshine gazing down at the water, the camera which brings the live video feed into the house is submerged, taking you right into their world. You see them from another angle completely, watching as they move in what appears to be a multitude of dimensions to which our bodies have no access. You do get up close and personal with the fish that appear on the screen.

Except… there aren’t any.

The huge screen is full of light and movement. Bubbles swirl like a billion stars in the night sky. But of the sixty or so fish in the pond, some of them as much as three feet long, there is not a sign.

It occurs to me that, right at this moment, there is no way I could actually say for certain whether such a thing as a fish exists… had, indeed, ever existed…

I remember fish, both in general terms and at a personal level. In my mind, I remember feeding them moments earlier. I can call up the image of the sturgeon we had rescued when the pump had died… of Simon, the bubble blowing character with the voracious appetite… of Bent-Tail fish, whose appearance had sparked a whole train of thought… I can, indeed, call up an image of most of the fish allegedly in the pond, right back to when they were fingerlings. And all the other fish I have seen, even caught and occasionally cooked.

But how can I, in the isolation of my own mind, be certain that all these memories are not just some figment of my imagination? Creatures dreamed and on an evolutionary par with, say, pink elephants?

I could turn to my son and asked his opinion of their existence. I could call my younger son, ostensibly intent on catching a few carp today… but folie à deux or even trois is a recognised disorder… a shared believe in the existence of fish is no guarantee that we are not all affected by the same delusion.

I could simply get up and go outside, lean over the pond and verify their existence for myself. Or could I? Who is to say that what I see is real? I could, at best, only be assured that I perceive something I choose to refer to as fish, swimming in a perception I call water….

But anyway, that isn’t my focus right at that moment. It is simple… if I cannot see fish, I can only believe that they exist. I cannot know for sure.

Through personal experience I can say that I have had empirical proof of their existence. Except that, in fact, right at this moment, I can’t do more than say that I believe I recall having experiential evidence of their existence. I can look at circumstantial evidence… we are sitting on the sofa watching a screen full of bubbles in the stated hope that fish will appear. The camera was specifically installed for this purpose, to compensate for my son’s damaged vision. So he could watch fish. Would we have gone to all that trouble had we no proof that fish exist? Would we, in fact, have even dug the huge pond and purchased fish were we not certain of their existence?

Yet, unless I can see them… and right at this moment I cannot… how on earth can I be certain of anything? The bubbles on the screen swish and swirl, changing direction with the passage of something. I can only believe that they must be fish.

Whether or not fish exist, I know that my belief in them has changed the world and continues to change it each day. I am, in a very real sense, in service to fish… each day I tend their environment, offer them food and learn their ways. Work has been done, things crafted, built, made beautiful, because of a belief in fish. I have risen above my phobia of wet worms to serve their needs, finding courage because of their existence and my love for the beauty they bring to life.

Even though I cannot see them, I sit here watching the shadows of their passage, seeing them move the bubbles, themselves unseen, and feeling the effects of their invisible presence as my body relaxes, my mind lets go of care and I watch expectantly for a golden glimpse of beauty.

Their presence is, to my subjective view, the only plausible explanation for the effects I see, and feel, their existence to have caused. It does not matter if my perception of fish is flawed, that perception serves them, changes my world… and changes me for the better. It does not matter if my perception of fish is not the same as, say, your perception. I can’t change that for either of us… can’t even be certain of the clarity of my own vision in any provable way… All I can do is hope that your experience of fish is joyful. As for me? I choose to believe… I have faith in the existence of fish.

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

Circles Beyond Time – Dreaming Stones

barrook-circle

“They say the stones sleep. That they are old and forgotten… voiceless.

Is it so, little sister? Are they silent…or do they dream, the long, slow dreaming of aeons.

They were old when they were brought here. Older than memory. Older than time.

Their song never sleeps… it is we who live too fast.”

I’d written that a long time ago after a trip to the stone circle at Barbrook, bringing the vision of a seer to the page. “Sleepers awake, tell us your dreams”…  Helen had written in that in her notebook a couple of days before visiting the place. And on the Friday morning, just after dawn when two of us had come to check the circle prior to the workshop, we had been shocked by the sense of ‘withdrawal’ at the stones… as if after too many centuries alone, they had finally sunk into sadness and allowed the moor to begin taking them back into the mists.

barbrook-2

Three is a magical number…and three times three is thrice so. In the Silent Eye we work with a system based on a nine pointed symbol… but there is always the higher presence of the invisible One. As we approached the little circle we were only eight… but I felt that she who had once kept the circle would lend us her unseen presence. I say ‘she’ as, between the archaeology and geology of the area, plus what we and others have ‘picked up’, there seems to have been a strong feminine presence in the rites of land and sky.

It may be that it is time for the presence of the stones to fade, their meaning now lost, forgotten and often corrupted by those who seek to lay a new paradigm over an older vision and call it their own. But if that is the case, we may as well say the same of every church and chapel, every temple and grove, for all faith, religion and belief starts from a single point of illumination that is unique and personal before they  can  grow, evolve and spread.  It is this continuous evolution that brings the understanding that set one heart and mind aflame to life, allowing it to speak to the hearts and minds of many and to answer their need… and each will take that spark and make it their own.

nick-fox-weekend-barbrook-156

For me, as for many others, any place that has been rendered sacred by the faith of those who once walked there is worth preserving… and not just as a museum-piece. While there are still those who sit amongst the stones and wonder, while offerings are left in respect for some unnamed spirit of place, while there is one person whose thoughts turn to a higher sphere with stone at their back and their mind reaching beyond the birth of the stars… the ancient places will be kept alive.

We let our little company explore the circle. Some simply found a stone and sat quietly, others walked the perimeter of the circle…as we would do in ritual…. before taking their places at the stones. I watched from my place at the Seeing Stone, feeling the gears shift and stir, wondering what to do next. It was while we were waiting that a man appeared, accompanied by a white dog. He stopped and waited and was invited to go through.. he didn’t want to disturb us, he said. It was good to see the place being used. He was invited into the circle, to join us if he wished.

Rider-Waite Tarot by Pamela Coleman Smith

And so we were nine. Helen began by reading the first verse of the poem she had written about the sleeping stones. Then, in imagination, we visualised the rebuilding of the energy of the circle and all the while, our ninth companion, with white Nance by his side, nodded his head in approval. The symbolism was not lost on us; in esoteric terms, the Tarot is also known as the Journey of the Fool… and the Fool represents the soul. When we had done what the moment asked of us, Helen read the rest of her poem, which could have been written specifically for that moment and was perfect…and yet which had been written with no knowledge of what we would do. We hadn’t known that ourselves until we got there.

We do not seek to revive an outdated belief, nor do we seek to cling to what was. We honour what is… and what has lain at the heart of all of Man’s quest for understanding, since the dawn of time itself. What our ancestors understood from the earth and sky, we seek elsewhere, through the words of Books and the lives of Teachers. The teachings we are offered are appropriate to each successive Age of Man, building one upon the other and adding to a greater understanding. Yet the questions we have asked, of our origins and our purpose, will barely have changed…and however we clothe our vision of the truth across time and evolution, Truth itself does not change, even if we see only glimpses of it, like stars in the velvet night.

barbrook-3

Our friend stayed with us as we reconstructed a simple divination, using the tokens our companions had chosen at the carved stone that morning. The method could not be historically accurate, for obvious reasons, but was based upon our own system and drew upon the ancient  methods too. What we did was to show one of the ways in which we think the circle may have been used for the life of its people and it was in keeping with the spirit of the place. Of the stones that we used, each companion retained their chosen token, which left us with four. Steve, Stuart and I joined in a final blessing… which left us with one, a piece of labradorite, the magician’s stone, and this we gave to our friend. It seemed the right thing to do.

He accompanied us to the gate. He too had been to the other circle and had sat where we had sat. He is often on the moor and sits with the stones and we hope that we will meet him there again. Many of the small offerings we have seen there are his, gestures of respect… a guardian of the stones. As we walked away from the circle, we looked back to see a hawk, with wings outstretched,  hovering over the stones.

barbrook-1

Faith, Belief or Gnosis – Did Gawain have Faith? by The Patrician Lady

The Patrician Lady is a much-loved and respected member of the esoteric community who, for the last two years, has shared her own perspective on the subject matter of the April workshops. She has kindly permitted us to reproduce the text of the talk that she gave at Leaf and Flame, where the central theme was the story of Gawain… a talk which, as one Companion stated, is “worthy of a workshop in itself.”

sir-gawain-green-knight-ff94v-95

Faith, Belief or Gnosis – Did Gawain have Faith?
by The Patrician Lady for the Silent Eye workshop: Leaf and Flame: the Foliate Man, April 2016.

Today we’re going to look at the words Faith, Belief and Gnosis and to offer a perspective on Faith as used by Jesus in the gospels which has relevance to Christian Western Mysteries. After this we will look at the response of Gawain when tested by the Green Knight. Did Gawain have ‘Faith’?

I had never really thought about the difference between Faith and Belief until I read books by Maurice Nicoll[1], in particular The New man. This book has a chapter on Faith which gives Nicoll’s thoughts on what Jesus actually meant by Faith. I realised that, like many other people, I thought Faith and Belief were the same, or as near as makes no difference. But Nicoll told me I was wrong, they’re not the same. After reading his thoughts on the topic I had an ‘Aha!’ moment, a moment of clarity which I would like to share with you today. If you google ‘Faith, Belief and Gnosis’ you will find numerous articles and books written on the subjects, together with various dictionary definitions, many of which define one as the other; everyone seems to have their own interpretation of difference and accord. Having read many of these articles I have sifted and distilled my thoughts which I hope you will find useful.

I’ll start by saying that Psychology is not my field of expertise, so any statements I make in this area are based on what I’ve read and understood from various articles. The human mind can be divided into three types; the Sensual mind, the Mystical mind, and the Spiritual mind. I have no doubt there are other definitions and divisions but I’d like to work with these for our purposes. The Sensual mind receives information from the five senses and the three dimensions of the physical world; with the Mystical mind you can experience beyond the Sensual mind, that is beyond the experience of the five senses. The Mystical mind receives information through the five senses but the information is abstract and not physical. The Mystical mind also receives information through intuition, psychism, telepathy etc., what we might call astral input.  The Spiritual mind is our Inner mind. It functions on a higher plane beyond the Sensual and the Mystical. The Spiritual mind is where it is possible to meet with Divine Unity, Godhead.

These three minds connect with the Body, Soul and Spirit. The mind holds our thoughts. It is the link between the Body and the Soul. It operates/functions via a physical organ, the brain, but its output is abstract and of a higher dimension. Spirit is our particular spark of Divinity carried within the vehicle of our Body, animated by our Soul or animus/anima. We also have three levels of consciousness or awareness: Normal consciousness, Sub or Un-consciousness and Super or Higher consciousness. These things we know and take for granted but ponder on them and they become a mystery.  Having said all this, let us return to our three types of mind: Sensual, Mystical and Spiritual and consider how these relate to Belief, Faith and Gnosis.

People say ‘I believe’ and assume they have Faith but Faith is not Belief. Belief is related to the Mystical mind. There is an aspect of choice about Belief. You learn about something and then choose whether or not to believe it. You create your own Belief-system. Beliefs are mental constructs, conclusions about reality or spirituality. Beliefs continuously change over time, influenced by incoming information, thoughts, hopes, experiences. From these we create our Belief-system; we can choose to believe or not-believe. Most people who say they believe in God get no further than the Mystical mind. Before reading Nicoll’s New Man I had always thought one could have Faith even if you ‘weren’t quite sure’, that Faith was the positive side of not being quite sure – people would say ‘Have Faith’. But it isn’t. Faith is different. It requires a transformation in thought, metanoia,  a re-penser, to re-think [not to repent as we use the word today – this is a mis-translation of the original French word]. Faith is pure knowledge, direct experiential wisdom, direct experience of the inner real. Faith is not a matter of choice. It is experiential, personal to you. It produces an inner knowing – Gnosis, a knowing produced from beyond the senses, whereas ordinary knowing results from sensual experience and is an intellectual occurrence. Gnosis is a one-way system; once you ‘know’ something through Faith you can’t un-know it. It is no longer based on information or choice but on inner experience.  So, to believe is to intellectually accept what you hear. To believe in God is a matter of the Mystical mind. To have Faith belongs to the Spiritual mind.

Looking further at Gnosis, many languages have two words for knowing. German has wissen and kennen; French has savoir and connâitre distinguishing between outward, objective knowledge and inward, subjective knowledge. The easy way to remember this is to think of knowing a thing or a fact and knowing a person.  In English we only have one word to know both a thing and a person, even though one is objective and the other is abstract, subjective. To ‘know’ oneself at the deepest level is the secret of Gnosis – Know Thyself- Gnothi Sauton (Gr) was inscribed into the temple at Delphi and over the door to Plato’s academy; in Latin Nosce te ipsum was adopted by the Romans. This inner knowing belongs to the Spiritual mind.

Also, Belief has a touch of hope but is not necessarily certainty. Faith is certainty projected forward. Gnosis is deep, inner knowing, it is static. Remember this differentiation as I’ll use it later.

Faith and Gnosis are related to this other inner mind, the Spiritual mind which is neither Sensual nor Mystical. Unfortunately this mind does not exist empirically within each one of us, which means it isn’t part of our basic construction but it is only present in potential, it has to be created by us in our life-time. In order to create this mind we need transformation, alchemy. It requires work, effort. But the great thing is that we only have to do half of the work needed.

The Intention to find the inner mind is the first step. Then we have to develop positivity, to lose the negative mind-set. Meditation and contemplation are effective tools for developing the inner mind but on their own they are not enough. Having stated your mental intention and put in the hard work, somehow a change in ‘mind’ happens, a metanoia takes place. Having reached up your hand, Divinity reaches down to meet you half way and pulls you up into the inner Spiritual mind dimension. This process is not as fantastic as it may at first appear; it already exists in nature as quanta of energy at the quantum level in physics. There has to be enough energy present to form a quantum or package; below this level nothing is formed, nothing happens. At and above this level energy is manifested; for example – Light travels in packets called photons. Each photon carries a certain amount of energy. Below this ‘certain amount’, no photon is created, which is why it’s called Quantum physics. So, back to our review of Faith, Belief and Gnosis; having put in enough work (effort) there is a quantum leap from Belief to Faith. All of this can be found in Ouspenky’s book on Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. The seed of Faith is created with God’s help and that’s all it takes, just the smallest seed. Read the parable of the mustard seed in the New Testament. A single spiritual experience the size of a mustard seed (which is very small) is enough to know God. Once you have experienced it, it sits within you as a seed of Faith; from this it can grow like the mustard tree (which is very large). You can read descriptions of Faith and possibly think you know what it would be like but until you experience it, until it happens to you, you cannot know what it feels like, what it is. It has to happen to you. It is an individual experience. Yet Faith is not an emotional response, it is a conviction. Remember our earlier definitions in which I said Belief has a touch of hope but is not necessarily certainty, whereas Faith is certainty. Let’s look at this a little further.

Looking again at words, the Greek word for Faith, pistis, comes from the verb peitho to persuade, make obey. Thus Faith (pistis) carries with it a certain power (dunamis) dynamism. So it’s not passive Belief but dynamic Faith; it transforms man to a higher level (I use the word ‘man’ meaning the species man-kind). The result is alchemy, transmutation, the creation of a new mind, a metanoia, which obeys the laws of a new level. Faith occurs on another level from Belief, an inner, higher level of being.

To gain Faith you must will to have it. You cannot move to a level above the ordinary level by any outer means, by anything seen or heard from the senses. In Aramaic the word for Faith is haimanuta. This word carries the implication of a person’s confidence, firmness, integrity of being in Sacred Unity (Divinity): haimanuta is the word for Faith that Jesus would have used.

Faith is always a gift from God, and never something that can be produced by people. Jesus spent a lot of time and effort trying to explain Faith to his followers. They thought because they gave up their families and followed him that they had Faith but he, on several occasions, accused them of having no Faith (as in Mark: ch 4,). Often the gospels translate this as having little Faith (as in Matt: ch 16) but experts are of the opinion that the original word was No Faith. You cannot have little Faith, just as a woman can’t be a bit pregnant, she either is or she isn’t. Haimanuta implies conviction. You either have Faith or you don’t. The disciples of Jesus gave up everything yet several times were told they had No Faith. One example comes after the transfiguration of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where He can be seen as ‘going beyond himself’. He demonstrated that a higher form of man exists and Faith leads to transformation. Why else were Peter, James and John allowed to be present? But they were asleep, weighed down with sleep. They had to wake up. To be awake is to comprehend meaning beyond the ordinary, to be conscious of things which are more than ordinary life, extra-ordinary. They needed to have a change of consciousness, a raised consciousness – up to another level. All this happens within your mind. When your consciousness moves to this other level you enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is inside you. Entering the Kingdom of Heaven refers to a quality of understanding that results in inner knowing (Gnosis).  You have metanoia, become born again at a higher level. This higher level of ‘being’ is the Kingdom of Heaven and it lies within you.

Once you ‘know’ this then you have ‘Faith’. You become aware of higher levels of being.  Faith denotes a certainty that a higher interpretation of life exists and as a consequence that the transformation of man is a possibility. The peculiar quality of Faith is that life can only be understood by a sense of something higher than man as he is and that man has the possibility to become transformed and understand new meanings in relation to life on earth. This peculiar quality makes Faith different from Belief. It is interesting that John the Baptist was a very sincere man, described as the best prophet up to then. John and his followers fasted and prayed but they still held beliefs that the messiah was come to save this world. They had not moved to the inner level, did not have metanoia, new thinking and so could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was telling us that we cannot graft new thoughts on top of old thought patterns. He used the analogy of not putting new wine into old bottles, or a new patch on an old garment. We need a new way of thinking. Also we need to accept that Faith gives us this dynamic capacity to change things. Remember peitho, the power of persuasion, to make things obey. The centurion who asked Jesus to cure his servant was aware of levels of authority. He understood the levels of power; he said ‘Just say the word and my servant will be healed’ and so was told he had great Faith. Faith (pistis) in the New Testament means more than mere Belief. It means understanding on a level other than literal. We need to understand life in a new way.

So, with Belief you may hope, desire and expect that a certain thing is true or will happen but when Faith happens you stand firmly, with conviction that a thing is true. Only this mindset will get you into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Gospel tells you Faith is the Key to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, what the intellect thinks may contradict what the heart believes; so there is a dichotomy between believing and ordinary knowing. Thinking by itself cannot change human nature. Something else is required. Tradition tells us there is within us a force that draws us towards truth and this force is neither thinking nor emotion. Faith is not simple emotional conviction. It puts the intellect in possession of truth which reason itself cannot grasp.

To reach the state of mind required for Faith to happen you must love with no thought of reward and approach life in a positive manner. All this takes effort. All the negatives have to go, jealousy, anger, ‘me’-ness. The woman who washed Christ’s feet with her tears had this kind of love and Faith. This kind of love is necessary for knowledge to grow into inner understanding via a seed of Faith. For this to happen most of us need ‘metanoia’ a new way of thinking. By this means we reach the Kingdom of Heaven within ourselves for it exists nowhere else. If everyone did this the world would take a step up in evolution but the step can only be taken by each individual. This is why man was created. Jesus came to teach us that this is the goal of life; an inner state of development that man can reach, yet remember this – John the Baptist was no ordinary man. He had teaching and knowledge, followers and fasting; yet Jesus said he had not attained the lowest level of the Kingdom of Heaven. One would have said that he believed, how else could he continue with his task, yet he was told he had no Faith. In Matt: ch 11 John is told that he belonged to the highest degree of earth but not to the lowest degree of the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus, to pass from one level to another is not automatic; it requires transformation, a change in habitual ways of thought, of habitual reactions. Christianity promotes Faith as an end in itself. If you have Faith you will attain the Kingdom of Heaven which is within. Other religions such as Gnostics place Gnosis as the objective, with Belief as the lowest rung and Faith as an intermediate stage. Faith undermines all our natural beliefs because it leads away from earthly thought in a direction that can no longer be confirmed by the five senses. Faith is defined as a seed in the mind, with potential for growth which cannot exist in us as long as we believe that life is the end of human endeavour and not the means for something else.

Jesus was also hard on his followers. He called them a faithless and perverse generation. Perverse in its etymological meaning is ‘turning in all directions’. He meant that we need to be pointing and moving in one direction.  Here Jesus gives the description of the mustard seed. A seed has inside itself organisation to grow into something more. Take an acorn for example. If I were to tell you that this acorn contains a great tree 50 feet tall you can choose to believe it or not. But once you have planted an acorn and watched it grow into an oak tree this becomes Gnosis. You can look at an acorn and know it contains a great tree, an inner knowing, a confidant conviction which doesn’t require further proof and your ‘Faith’ in this phenomenon cannot be shaken. An acorn can become an oak tree. Once you have the acorn, the seed, you have the possibility for it to become an oak tree. The oak tree is already there within the acorn, it just needs an input of energy and planting in fertile soil. To become an oak tree the acorn must cease being an acorn and no longer obey the laws of an acorn, it must obey the laws of an oak tree; but Faith is knowing that the oak tree is already there without having seen it grow. Not easy for one of a rational and logical disposition.

The problem is that we can’t ever see the Kingdom of Heaven without having Faith and this is where the effort comes in plus the will-power and the metanoia. Now we get to the nub of the process. Part way through writing this article I had what I call a download of information. It happened whilst I was relaxed and reading a novel but I’d relaxed even further into a day-dream. I’ve had similar episodes before, always with a significant realisation at the end. It brings to mind the way the 6-carbon benzene ring construction came through to Friedrich August Kekulé on waking from a day-dream. It’s as if information coming in from the inner planes can’t get through in normal consciousness but gets through between the thoughts if the mind is ready to receive it. I became aware that Faith is not Belief; it’s all to do with intention and will-power. Now, where have I heard that before? Intention and Willpower – Of course, its Magic! Jesus was trying to teach them Magic. Faith is Magic! And here’s the quote to prove it:
‘and verily I say unto you, If ye have Faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain: Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.’ (Matt: ch 17).

I’ve heard it said before that Jesus was a magician, not a sleight of hand manipulator but one who works on changing things by means of changes in consciousness,  but I had never thought about the magic he was trying to teach. Dion Fortune and others of the Western Mystery Tradition describe magic in words like intention, focus and changing levels of consciousness but we can miss this in the teachings of Jesus because he used different words: tilling the ground; planting a seed; Faith; Kingdom of Heaven within. He never once used the word Magic but that’s what it was and his methods of achieving the Kingdom of Heaven were the same as those generally known to Adepts, those who are adept at changing levels of consciousness. We can learn about such changes in consciousness. We can learn about contacting higher planes. Those who wish can attempt to experience unity with the Divine like Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle. In the gospels it’s all there in the words; pistis, peitho, to make things obey, move mountains, Magic! Suddenly I got it. Read the gospels with new eyes. And read not only the established Gospels but the Gnostic Gospels, Thomas, Philip etc. It’s all there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  At this point I realised why Jesus the man was also Christ the Saviour. It is this aspect of him that we work with in our Christian approach to the Mysteries. And I began to see that the Gospels aren’t just the story of a man’s life and teaching, they are also an allegory. The life of Jesus Christ was an allegory for the alchemical process of transformation, a process that we can all go through in this life. Jesus was trying to change the world by raising consciousness. So Jesus was an alchemist as well as a magician, not a practical alchemist changing physical metals into physical gold but a spiritual alchemist changing the lead of humanity into spiritual silver of the soul and gold of the spirit. The alchemist is part of the alchemy process and during the process is changed themselves. His teaching shows us the way to change ourselves. Once we have been given the gift of Faith, we too are empowered.

Christianity as we know it today has changed in many ways from the original simple teachings of Jesus. The same applies to most other religions, yet all have the same objectives and the same core of spirituality because by definition of the word religion (re-ligio meaning to re-unite) all lead to the Universal Creator by the path of faith. If many people had Faith it would change the world but it has to be individual achievement. Raised consciousness has a combined effect but is based on individual effort. Jesus, during his ministry, was teaching us how to do this.  Many of you may already have made this leap of awareness but for me this difference between Faith and Belief and the objectives of Jesus’ teachings were a revelation. When we understand something we say ‘I get it!’ but the getting has to be yours alone. I can only indicate the way but I cannot take you there. Only by thinking about it, contemplating whatever it is, will you ‘get it’. This is your effort (work) in reaching up your hand, and Higher Consciousness as God will reach down and pull you up to another level, so that Faith becomes an inner knowing (Gnosis) and you can say ‘I GET IT!’ Then you will have Faith as Jesus the Christ taught it and if you work hard enough you can find your Heaven on Earth, your magical inner world where all things are possible, even union with the Divine.

– I wrote that in May 2015 and today we are asked to look at the actions of Gawain in his encounter with the Green Knight. Part of our story this weekend is based on the medieval poem Gawain and the Green Knight. There are some slight differences between the Silent Eye version and the original poem but such dramatic license, as with poetic licence is allowed. Essentially, in both, Gawain is tested. The medieval poem has two main themes, the Beheading Challenge and the Test. I think for this talk I have to try to minimise any confusion between the two versions. In the poem Gawain was offered a green silk ‘girdle’ by the Lord Bertilak’s wife. (A girdle and a garter are essentially the same, they come from the same word for encircling – to girt or gird as in our word girth). She said this girdle held magic and would protect him in any circumstances, it would save his life. Now Gawain was a deeply Christian Knight, as were all the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur and Gweneviere. We are previously given clues that Gawain might have been hedging his bets, backing both sides, because although he had an image of the Virgin Mary on the inside of his shield, he had a pentangle as his outward emblem, the five sided cross or pentacle, also known as the endless knot. This emblem can be interpreted as portraying both Christianity as the five wounds of Christ or as a pagan sigil of protection. It only appears in this one poem, in other references to his shield he has other usual heraldic creatures but the objective of this medieval poem is to test his Faith. As a Christian Knight he was supposed to shun anything with pagan connections, this included magic. He was supposed to place all his Faith in Destiny and accept his death if that was his lot. But when offered a ‘magical’ talisman he took it. However he had also made a pact with Bertilak to exchange anything he received during the day with Bertilak’s spoils from the day’s hunt. He revealed the kisses he had exchanged with Lady Bertilak but he did not reveal that he had accepted her girdle (or garter). He placed his Faith in the magical talisman and not in his Christian beliefs. This girdle was richly made with golden edgings but that was not what swayed him, it was the promise of magical protection.

During the encounter in the Green Chapel the Green Knight made as if to chop off Gawain’s head. Twice he brought down the axe and stopped before it touched his neck. On the 3rd stroke the Axe drew blood as it grazed a slight cut into Gawain’s neck but it did not remove his head. Gawain’s debt was paid by accepting the blows.

Hear the words of the Green Knight after the event as translated by Brian Stone:

For that braided belt you wear belongs to me.
I am well aware that my own wife gave it to you.
Your conduct and your kissings are completely known to me,
And the wooing of my wife – my work set it on.
I sent her to essay
(try) you, and you certainly seem
To be the most perfect paladin ever to pace the earth.
As the pearl to the white pea in precious worth,
So in good faith is Gawain to other gay knights.
But here your faith* failed you, you flagged somewhat, sir.


[*In this line Tolkien translates faith as loyalty. But for me it was always a matter of faith and I was pleased as punch when I found the Brian Stone translation: And I have looked at the medieval English original and can find no word in that line that translates as loyalty].
And so we see that in the final testing, when push came to shove as we say on the borders of Lancashire and Cheshire, which is where this poem is thought to have originated, Gawain had No Faith in prayers and Christianity but he put his Faith into the old ways of Magic.
©
The Patrician Lady – April 2016

[1] The son of a celebrated Free Church minister in Scotland, Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953) studied at Cambridge, where he gained a ‘First’ in science. He qualified as a doctor at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London and then travelled to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and finally Zurich where he became a colleague of Carl Jung. The psychological insights of Jung left a lasting impression on the young Nicoll. (Amazon)

What if you were wrong?

rumi quote

I was thinking about a discussion I had enjoyed with a friend, about how our upbringing colours our worlds more than we realise. Both cultural and personal influences shape the images that imprint themselves upon the mind of the child and it is against these that we measure the experience of life in later years.

Life is a confusing thing sometimes and there is not always clear guidance on how best to live it. Social conduct and the parameters of acceptable behaviour differ from country to country. Laws and morality share many core tenets worldwide, but also throw up areas of wide disparity and within every nation there are even more variances dictated by local custom, heritage and the beliefs of a multicultural society.  There are as many ideas about what is the ‘right’ way to live as there are minds, hearts and rule-books to conceive them.

Many of our central values have grown from religious culture and the way it has been woven through human history. Regardless of whether or not an individual subscribes to a particular faith, the social code in which he or she grows will have been influenced by such beliefs. The echoes of our cultural history cast a long shadow and define the images that we choose to accept or deny in later years. Many people say they do not believe in a divinity, yet when asked what they do believe in, it becomes clear that all they deny is the image they would have learned about as a child. The shadow of those childhood images helps to shape, in acceptance or denial, the way we move through our lives.

Even without a detailed knowledge of religion, most of us have some kind of belief about what happens after death and this also informs the way we live. Some see only oblivion and a return to the elements of earth.  Others see a wheel of rebirth, a cycling of the soul through reincarnation and karma Yet others see some form of afterlife, either in a spirit realm or a paradise… or some less pleasant realm.  There are almost infinite variations of thought, but once we have found the one that speaks to us of its reality, it becomes, in many ways, the yardstick of conscience.

The deeper the belief of what happens after death, the more of an influence it becomes in life. We may seek to be worthy of a place in paradise, or to escape the maw of the nether regions… or believe that the karmic scales must be balanced …or that we owe it to ourselves as members of the human race.

Yet… what if we are wrong? We have no objective proof that any of these are the right way forward. We don’t even know for certain that there is ‘a’ right way. Maybe they are all right… or all wrong. Does it really matter?

Mankind has always argued about religious belief. Wars have been fought, schisms have occurred over the interpretation of a single word, millions have suffered and died for the belief that there can be right and wrong beliefs.

Yet ‘belief’ is defined as ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof’ it is ‘an assumed truth’. Even our understanding of the world is based upon beliefs we have formed through experience. The very definition of the word makes our arguments both futile and ludicrous. We may disbelieve a belief that contradicts our own… but inherent in both is the possibility that it might be wrong.

Belief can only be a personal thing and when it inspires us, as individuals and members of the human family, to do the best we can to be the best we can, how can any such belief be wrong? Perhaps all that matters is that we follow the dictates of our own inner being and live our lives ‘as if’ our beliefs will carry us home.

Place and time

heather 2015 derbyshire, higger tor, beeley circle, edensor, bak 045
I looked around and was silenced mid-sentence. Fingers halted in empty air over the keyboard, I was doing a fair impression of a goldfish. It was not what I expected to see. But it just goes to show how much our inner world can influence the outer and how complex the chain of events can be that lead from ‘cannot’ to ‘can’.

There is much written these days about the power of positive thinking; some from a scientific and psychological perspective, some bordering on the lunatic fringe… and just about every possible shade in between from the sleekly professional, to views as fluffy as an angora rabbit. What most of us will come across hangs somewhere in the middle and takes a common sense approach to how we can make our daily life a better place to be.

We recognise negative thought as a limiting behaviour… our thoughts narrow our focus and refuse to move from their problem at hand. We react to specific situations and fail to see the other possibilities around us, creating a downward and inward spiral that effectively blocks us from finding a solution to the problem; either that, or we are so engrossed in taking immediate action that we are blind to all else.

Positive thinking has many well documented benefits for health and wellbeing. In one test, two groups were set up in order to control the experiment where the main group were asked to write about an intensely positive experience every day for just three days. Three months later their health and emotions were measurably better than the control group. It isn’t just writing that helps; anything that lifts the mood is a step in creating that positive mindset. Doing something you love, being with people with whom you are happy, creating art, music or craftwork, maybe riding a bike… or simply playing, allowing yourself to take time out just for fun.

Meditation, one of the techniques used in the Silent Eye‘s course, has also been shown to have a rapid effect on stress levels, health and on the brain itself.

One recent study looked at how and why a positive mindset could bring specific and long term effects. The findings showed that, amongst other measurable benefits, positivity enhances creative thought, by widening the focus so that all manner of possibilities can be admitted into the moment.

But possibilities are not concrete realities… and to translate the one into the other there is another ingredient, that is required and one not so simple to create… belief in ourselves. We are very good at hiding the cracks in the way we value ourselves. Buried deep, there is often something akin to the impostor syndrome, where we simply don’t think we really deserve the happiness, health, love, success…or any number of other states our surface mind strives to achieve. It is a belief which may have grown though out our lives, with small incidents and large adding strength to its presence.

Many are aware that they are not as confident as they may seem to others, but this elusive lack of belief is hard to pin down and often goes unnoticed. While it lurks in the shadows, we are entirely capable of sabotaging our efforts without even knowing it. We may also choose not to make an attempt for fear of not succeeding as we feel we should… a fear rooted not in any real assessment of our capabilities, but in an invisible and insidious belief that we are bound to fail.

Conversely, when we do believe in ourselves we are capable of achieving great things. That belief too tends to be something that has built up slowly over a period of time and with the confirmation of innumerable small successes. It is something we can encourage, by acknowledging those things we have achieved… from the small to the large… from evicting a spider from the bathtub to getting that promotion or publishing a book. We build a portfolio of associations that make us feel confident and bolster our belief in ourselves and what we can do… and who we are.

And sometimes everything just comes together. Time, place and mindset combine to produce the perfect moment for big things to happen. Take this weekend, for example. My son was out on his trike and chose to turn up at my door after a very long ride. Ani, who sees him rarely, had been ‘singing’ for several minutes and doing the ‘postman dance’, a very specific circular prancing that alerts me when we are going to have visitors or ‘intruders’ (like postmen…). I parked the trike and helped him inside. As we reached the door to the living room, with the dog bounding around him joyously, he said he felt he ought to be able to just walk across the room. I too, against all logic, felt that it ‘should’ so.

I helped him to the sofa, with the ecstatic dog bringing him balls faster than he could throw them. She has a habit of dropping them too far away when she is excited. I needed to look something up on the computer…and turned round to see my son walking across the living room to the table. This was where the goldfish impression came in…because, of course, my son can’t walk unaided…except on May Day… and, apparently, here…

When my mouth had finally closed and settled into an inane grin, we talked about what had happened. He had ‘just thought he could’; the room had that effect… a place that had been the scene of many moments of progress and triumph, large and small, when he came back home after the brain injury and our days were entirely focussed on his recovery. We had adopted a consciously optimistic stance, even while we acknowledged the more dire and official prognosis. We chose, here in this place, to believe he would recover and the association of place is positive… I could understand why he had felt that way. Then too, he had just arrived under his own steam, on a trike that was allowing him freedom to explore without someone pushing a wheelchair; something that cannot help boosting his self-belief. If ever there was a time and place to try, this was it. And he succeeded, placing yet another link in the chain of belief that will allow him to walk unaided again.

I think we underestimate the power of place and time. It is easy to recognise the effects of being somewhere that makes you feel good… a heather strewn dawn on the moors will do it for me, every time. Asking ‘why’ may throw some light on the associations we have with a location; it doesn’t matter to me which moor, for example… they all take me back to childhood, happiness and being with people I have loved. To be in such a place, with such associations, is always uplifting and opens the doors of possibility. Such a place is the ‘right’ place to find belief and embrace our hopes and dreams, opening ourselves to whatever possibilities the universe might offer. And the right time… whenever that feeling surfaces that you can be who you were always meant to be…is now.

Sacred Places

Wells cathedral
Wells cathedral

All my life I have visited sacred sites when I could, and I have been lucky enough to visit many. Whether ancient church, temple, stone circle or legendary landscape, there is something about these sites that touches a place deep within. Perhaps it is a sense of kinship with those who built them, perhaps a sense of shared reverence for that greater Something touched unseen beyond the veil.

It has never mattered to me how that divinity was approached or what form it took, only that it was perceived, recognised by the heart and present in the lives of the builders. They, and I, share perhaps, a common sentiment, expressed in my favourite Hindu prayer, “Thou art without form, but I worship thee in these forms”. In these often strange, yet somehow familiar, edifices and landscapes we can glimpse the very real place that divinity took in the lives of our forefathers.

Theories on the technologies and purpose of these places abound.  Yet have you ever stopped to consider the amount of sheer hard work that went into their building? Silbury Hill, for instance. It has been estimated that it would have taken 500 people, working every day for 10 years to construct the hill from 500,000 tonnes of chalk and earth. Stonehenge with its small forest of stone, in excess of 1200 tons… and the bluestones transported all the way from Wales.

Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill

I have driven from Presceli where the bluestones were quarried to Salisbury Plain. Even in a fast car on a clear road you are looking at a four hour drive. And four and a half thousand years ago there were no nice smooth roads. I worked in transport for a long time with cranes and often had to organise the transport and installation of large sculptures. Even with modern technology it is no easy task. Can you imagine what was involved in terms of sheer effort for our ancestors to move these great stones so far?

Wonderful churches and cathedrals sit in the midst of our towns, passed daily with barely a glance by many of us, yet these edifices are a testimony to ingenuity, innovation and craftsmanship, lifetimes of artistry and work. Here at least we can understand in modern terms how an artist would work for a living, yet those who built the ancient places … what drove them to do so? Would they not have been better occupied pursuing the necessities of survival?

stonehenge 012
Stonehenge

They appear not to have thought so. Someone must have fed them, cared for their children, their parents and for them, so in the harsh and uncertain environment in which they lived, not only the workers themselves were involved in the effort, but whole communities must have supported it and taken part, each sacrificing time and sharing resources to maintain the workforce.

These ancient places, sacred to their builders, speak of humanity. Perhaps the planners, the decision makers, saw power in the building… that too is a human trait… yet to be able to envision such great works, to organise and coordinate, to maintain a workforce and create these wonders of which we see but the remnants, would have taken powerful leadership. It is not as if the tribes were equipped with the weaponry to enforce and impose these projects so many thousands of years ago.

Glastonbury
Glastonbury

So what drove them? We cannot know for certain, of course, with the ancient places. No record exists except the enigmatic traces on the landscape. Yet the human heart and mind has not changed so very much perhaps that we cannot divine a recognisable thread.

With the great cathedrals, of course, the wealth and power of the church was displayed. Religion dominated every aspect of life and was a very real force for peasant and noble alike. They took it seriously, awed, fearful of judgement perhaps, loving too and worshipping from the heart. In medieval times the physical and political power of wealth and weaponry could have imposed, the organised power of a multinational religion would have been able to ensure that such works were completed. Yet they could not have imposed the obvious and loving dedication of the artists and artisans who created the beauty that survives.

Cadbury
Cadbury

Amid the simplicity of domestic architecture and the poverty of the cities, amid the homes we would see as hovels, the cathedrals were built, reaching high to the heavens, magnificent structures of lace carved in stone, towering above the surrounding rooftops to the glory of their God.

I can only think that the ancient places too were built for much the same reasons.

Was it simply an effort to propitiate the gods and ensure survival? Yet if so, would the tribes not have been more profitably occupied in smaller works and greater effort hunting, farming and working in known ways to survive? I think there was more to it than that. These places, when we stand among their traces, are so vast, entire landscapes shaped and altered by human effort, sweat and blood, that the only reason I can feel is awe at their perception of something greater and their efforts to somehow reach out to it and bring it into their own life and land.

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Rombald’s Moor

When I stand in the nave of a tiny chapel, a lonely temple on the moors  or amid the splendour of a cathedral, when my bare feet walk the grass between the stones and landscapes carved by human hands, I marvel at their skill and dedication. Yet beyond and beneath the awe at the human achievement is a sense of companionship on a sacred quest, a journey of the soul towards a Light perceived, however dimly, that pervades and illuminates the world and each of us.

It matters not how that Light is seen, what Name we use or the stories we have woven in our attempts at understanding. It matters only that It is, and that seeing It, we look for It within. The sacred landscape that is our self is enough.


Originally published on Daily Echo  2013

As Solstice approaches, we are currently exploring the sacred landscape around Avebury on our Mountains of the Sun weekend. It seemed appropriate to repost this particular article.