The Stone and the Pilgrim (2)

Part 2.

Rested, the group of pilgrims gathers beneath the vast presence of Bamburgh Castle. The castle was restored to its present glory by the 19th century munitions entrepreneur and inventor William Armstrong. Lord Armstrong bought it from the Crewe trustees in 1894 for the sum of £60,000 – a fortune then. He went on to spend a further one million pounds creating an iconic English castle which would be used as a convalescent home for ‘well educated people who had fallen on hard times’.

Armstrong’s descendants still own and use Bamburgh Castle, though they have other dwellings, too. They are very much a part of Northumberland’s life and social hierarchy.

The portrait above was painted in 1846 and hangs in the museum within the castle walls which is dedicated to his work.

But we are not here for history. We are here to engage with the now, in a way that invokes the surroundings as a metaphor of our ‘interior’ state.

Seen from the beach the previous evening, the castle was the embodiment of protection… but also, possibly, conformity and obedience. Its structure is heavy, fixed. Whatever ideas gave rise to its creation are reflected in its unyielding stonework. The way it has grown and evolved is an accurate parallel to how the egoic self arises and dominates.

On the Friday evening, In our minds, we created an image of a portcullis being raised, and a mental journey into the castle to locate a symbolic key that would epitomise our pilgrim’s journey from here to Lindisfarne. But we know that things will happen when we actually pass inside its walls…

Psychologically, we will be transformed from being free but vulnerable, outside; to being safe but caged, inside. It’s not a new dilemma. The very first cell of biological life created that polarisation – that duality. From then on, the vehicle of life – the final product of organic chemical organisation – would thrive, but only inside the container which allowed protection and persistence… The world of consciousness changed at that point- becoming dual: the in-here and the out-there.

Sea bacteria became plants. Plants became fish. Fish became land and sky animals and finally, mankind emerged. At each stage, nature built on the best of what had gone before, while still allowing diversity in all its glory. The castle supports and protects ‘the best’. The inheritance of its wealth and prestige mirrors the DNA that allows life to endure in a cellular world, but only in a material sense.

We pass through the heavy wooden door and are assimilated into the interior of the ancient building. From here, even as group leader, I cannot speak for any of my companion’s experiences. Each is here to experience for themselves; each will or won’t find a key emotional space within the castle.

The first of the two ‘small rooms’ is unimpressive. Weapons and paintings hang from plain, white walls. There is no connection here, no sense of a powerful emotion related to our weekend’s quest, no test for the pilgrim…. it is spartan in its ‘feel’.

It is only in the next room that I discover that these two ‘small rooms’ were once part of the kitchens, which explains their plainness.

The connecting corridors and staircases wind into the centre of the building. The ancient is mixed with the familiar and familial, such as this bronze of Lady Armstrong and her two children, crafted by sculptor and film maker David Rawnsley, who, earlier in his multi-talented career, had produced the famous wartime naval epic ‘In which we serve’. The film was based upon the life of Earl Mountbatten.

A warship would make another good model of the egoic self, I think to myself…

And then the nature of the interior changes. It becomes obvious that we are approaching a different part of the castle; one with very different functions.

The stone is somehow grander. The lustre of the wood is deeper. The final flight of stairs is steep and heralds a dramatic change of perspective as we emerge into the King’s Hall.

The roof of the great hall is what first catches your attention. The false hammer beam ceiling is made from Thai teak. The King of (then) Siam was a close friend of Lord Armstrong and is said to have personally helped with the intricate carving. The King’s hall has served as the main ballroom and function suite since Edwardian times. It contains a minstrel’s gallery to house the musicians.

The austerity of the previous two rooms is replaced by a physical and emotional warmth. This is a place you want to be. Though only the ‘best’ would get that right, of course. It is ours for a few minutes. Within that time we each need to decide its significance in the scheme of the weekend.

‘I’ feel very at home here. The opulence speaks of a place evolved to suit the needs and the feelings of a ruling class. That is not how I feel about myself, of course, but I can appreciate the effort and skill that has gone into its design. There’s little here that is new; it’s all traditional – and of very good quality. The sheer height of the ceiling casts a sense of ‘freedom’ about the place. We who live in low-ceilinged, modern houses forget how special this feels.

And then it hits me: how far in mind I am from the spirit of the group on the beach, the previous evening; how I have indentified with the quality of the contents in the hall. And there, now plainly visible, is the slow undermining of the search for the real Self that such luxury promotes. It’s quite natural to want to be comfortable, to appreciate quality things, but the purpose of this weekend is to make visible the working of the egoic self and its (literally) trappings.

Smiling, I do a little nod to the power in the room and leave…

The two martial figures, devoid of real content, couldn’t be better placed. Their presence is almost threatening: “Look, we’ve tried it the nice way, but you’re being stubborn.” They seem to say. “Just turn around and embrace the opulence… forget the other nonsense…”

Seen with a ‘normal’ eye, it’s just dark humour. But we don’t do these things to see with normal eyes; we try to see differently. Here’s a classic case: the finding of a key, the resolution to ‘leave it behind’ and then the act of running straight into authority. That’s exactly what the ego does to us when we challenge its position at our centre. It has a scary counterpart in the ‘superego’ – an internal authority figure that mimics someone in your life – like your mother or father; someone whose standards you can never live up to.

But the suits of armour have another attribute that fits them well with our search for metaphor: they may look fearsome but they are empty… And, in particular, they have no centre of being. They are just a shell, grown in reaction to life to protect us. But what protects also imprisons…

Now, my time is nearly up and I’m on a mission to leave, to get out of there. I have one more thing I want to do, and that’s outside the main body of the castle. I walk quickly though the remainder of the rooms on the higher level, looking for the exit staircase to the lower corridor.

But, just before the staircase there is a well – a very ancient well, mentioned in the History of the Kings of England and dated 774 AD. It is nearly 44 metres deep and two metres wide, and was cut through hard rock to reach the water-bearing sandstone, below, giving the castle its life-sustaining water for over a thousand years.

Suddenly, my subjective day has a very special connection with the objective world ‘out there’ and my hand slides over the wooden cover in a gesture of gratitude as I take the staircase and leave the castle.

At the far end of the interior grounds of the castle is a raised platform on which sits the old windmill. From it, I know I will get a view of the whole structure – just like being on the beach. For long minutes I stand and look back, restoring the perspective of the evening before. Then, conscious that the others will be gathering outside the halls, I walk to join them.

Stuart, one of my fellow directors of the Silent Eye School is there, already. He is sitting in a reproduction of the ancient royal throne of Bamburgh, reconstructed from a fragment found on the site. Behind him, the companions of the weekend are gathering after their own interior experiences. Whenever we can, we open such moments to any kind of reading or spoken observations. Poetry or prose is a popular choice. Stuart has on his knee a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress…

We gather and listen… It’s surprisingly apt.

To be continued.

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One,


Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation 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.

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

Castles of the Mind (ii)

Castles of Mind new logo

Continued from Part One

As the group walk through the arched entranceway to the interior of the castle, a new feeling emerges: one of ‘being in it, together’. The transition from outer to inner space of the newly considered ‘organism’ of the castle brings with it other changes of perspective. One of these is that a process – that of the weekend, itself, has begun.

One of the weekend’s companions, new to what the Silent Eye does, asks a question:

“Is this – she points to the entire interior of the walled space – to be looked at as a representation of life, and the possibilities of spiritual work within that life?”

Warkworth tease of interior

The answer is unhesitating. “For the purposes of this weekend, we are using several of the Northumberland Castles to be exactly that.” He pauses, “So, this, as the beginning, is the place where the elements of that search, that quest, begin to work towards the goal.”

The new companion considers this. “So, what is our start point? What is the core idea that powers the rest?”

Castles of the Mind 2 tower and sun

Its a great question. The man looks around him, seeking, not inspiration, for he has begun such discussions many times, but the spirit of the moment. Then he smiles, as an image forms in his mind…

“This is a medieval castle; imagine a shield…”

The new companion is listening. Alert and as keyed into the moment as the group leader. She waits… silent and attentive.

“A shield that belongs to you – that has grown to defend you.” He uses his fingers to draw a circle in the air, and then lets the hand fall and draws it down towards the ground, describing an outline around the group that mirrors the interior shape of the castle.

“So the castle perimeter – the walls – is the shield?” asks the companion. “But why call it a shield. Wouldn’t ‘castle wall’ have been sufficient?”

Castles of the Mind 2 Outer walls

“It would,” the man answers. “but the image of a shield is more useful as a symbol of something that belongs to you.”

“My shield, then…”

“Exactly so. A deeply personal object, one you have crafted and groomed for all of your life.”

She’s getting into this. “A shield alone… I don’t have a matching sword?”

She smiles, as does he. “We’ll get to swords, later. One symbol at once – your shield, alone, took a very long time to make…”

“It defends me, this shield?”

“Look around you – don’t you feel defended? Or would have in the days when this was a functioning structure?”

“Yes,” she hesitates, clutching a the edge of a thought, an important one. “But it’s sad, too.”

“Why sad?” his eyes flash in the morning sun. The smile is one of deep encouragement.

“Because it cuts me off from all that beautiful world, outside…”

Castles of the Mind 2 Country beyond

Everyone in the group is silent – as though the words of a very important prayer or salutation have just been whispered.

“Yes,” he says, softly. “It does, but it keeps you alive…”

The sadness of her realisation has affected her voice. “Must it be that way?”

“No,” he says, running with the hidden wild horses in the moment. “Which is why the shield, your personal shield, has the most beautiful outer face.”

Not wanting to dwell on the sadness, she laughs. “Tell me?” she turns to see the smiling faces of the group. “Tell me…”

“The shield, your beautiful shield, has nine powerful jewels set into its face. They defend, too, but they can be something different.”

She is laughing now. “What can they do?”

“They can be a map back out into the beautiful world.”

Castles of the Mind 2 - staircase up

“Couldn’t I just turn round and make a run for it now?”

Now he is laughing. “You could… but you’d still be a servant. Wouldn’t you rather leave the castle as a King or a Queen?”

You can see she wasn’t expecting anything like this. “A King or a Queen? A shield has this power?”

“Not alone, but the jewels, and their arrangement do…”

Other parts of this series:

Part One, 

To be continued…

Castles of the Mind is the forthcoming September 2018 workshop of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching organisation that promotes and enables the investigation of our true self, using a combination of modern spiritual psychology and traditional magical symbolism. The workshop is open to all, not just existing Companions of the Silent Eye School.

The dates are 14-16 September. The workshop will be centred on the Northumberland town of Seahouses, but will involve travel to other locations along the coast.

The Silent Eye holds four workshops per year – in April, June, September and December, mirroring the major events of the solar cycle. The April event is the main one, and is always held in Derbyshire. The other three are ‘Living Land’ or ‘walk and talk’ events such as that described above, and are held in different locations each year. The administrative cost is £50.00 per person which does not include accommodation and meals. Meals are usually taken together, in a local pub, and the costs shared.

To register your interest, or for more details email us at rivingtide@gmail.com.

©Stephen Tanham

Castles of the Mind (i)

Castles of Mind new logo

Like the best of ideas, it begins with a partly-seen ghost, the glimmer of an edge of something that will work…. Ideas are great, but, unless something is practical and consistent on the day, its value is limited to fuelling a ‘greater’ idea that will be.

And then the right idea expands, filling out, not linearly, but with emotions that billow like a spinnaker on a sailing ship, catching a wind that is not of the individual creator’s making. If the goal is a spiritual one, then that catching of an inner wind has the taste of something that will have a shared effect on a group of people who have come to experience transformation.

The setting for the September 2018 weekend workshop ‘Castles of the Mind’ is the beautiful coastline of historic Northumberland, the border county between England and Scotland, the home of the terrible land-pirates known as the Reivers; and, before that, the place of skirmish, battle and blood between the Scots and the English.

Small wonder, then, that this beautiful coastline has more than its fair share of castles, whose use dates back over a thousand years. They provide the basis of a wonderful chain of historic visits, but their use in this coming Silent Eye weekend (14-16 September) is based on far more than their strong and ancient stone.

Castles of the Mind is based on how we think, feel, act and behave now...

Warkworth full wall

The weekend of 14-16 September will be a mixture of companionship, adventure and fun. We will begin on the afternoon of Friday 14th, assembling for an Italian coffee or English tea, in the lovely town of Warkworth, fifteen miles south of Bamburgh. This classic Northumbrian market town provides a pleasant venue for us to gather and discuss the structure of the weekend.

From there it is short walk (or drive) up the nearby hill to the car park of Warkworth Castle, our first site, and the basis for the rest. Warkworth castle is a unique medieval building. The castle was the favourite residence of the well-known Percy family – the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland. It was occupied by their family from the 14th to the 17th centuries.

Below, on the banks of the river Coquet, and often missed by those visiting, are the ruins of a hermitage, which was carved directly out of the rock.

As a group, we will consider the impact that this imposing castle has on our combined consciousness. We will look at the sheer mass of its presence, and consider the nature of authority and achievement… We may also reflect that, though the purpose of its design is still visible, it is a ruin…

Warkworth Gatehouse and wall

The functions of this mighty power were focussed on the gateway. Though the building’s primary purpose was defence, its real use – the exercise of the authority that security brought – came only when that structure allowed people in… or out.

Warkworth Gatehouse

In this, the castle mirrors the basic building-block of organic life: the cell. A cell’s function is to isolate its organic mechanisms from the ‘soup’ of the world around it. Only through this isolation can the processes of individual life take place. It is ironic that, here, in a world where the castle was one of the largest ‘things’ in the world, its function mirrored that of the smallest structure of life.

One of the ‘shocks’ on the path of mystical study is to discover how closely the physical processes of life are mirrored on a higher level within the structures of consciousness. We will discuss this as we peer through the ‘tunnel’ of the castle’s portcullis and gatehouse, beginning to perceive that, beyond the ‘wall that excludes’ there are internal stone structures that hint at a more sophisticated life in the interior – though only able to operate while the protection of the walls continue to operate.

Here, we will consider where fear fits into all this? Is it primal in its power; so deeply rooted that we cannot afford to go near it? Or have we forgotten that, once, it was layered over the foundational mechanisms of our lives… and is therefore a ‘man-made’ reaction?

Warkworth tease of interior

And then something remarkable will happen. We say this with confidence, since it always does. When a group intends to raise its ‘level’ of consciousness by working together, there occurs a moment – early in the event – when everything comes to a point of harmony and productive endeavour.

In the tunnel of the gatehouse, the constricted space that will lead to the essential nature of the weekend, we will ask each person to imagine they are being born into a vision of their own interior nature…

To be continued…

Castles of the Mind is the September 2018 workshop of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching organisation that promotes and enables the investigation of our true self, using a combination of modern consciousness methods and traditional magical symbolism. The workshop is open to all. not just Companions of the Silent Eye School.

The Silent Eye holds four workshops per year – in April, June, September and December, mirroring the major events of the solar cycle. The April event is the main one, and is always held in Derbyshire. The other three are ‘Living Land’ or ‘walk and talk’ events such as that described above, and are held in different locations each year. The administrative cost is £50.00 per person which does not include accommodation and meals. Meals are usually taken in local pubs and the costs shared.

For more details email us at rivingtide@gmail.com.

©Stephen Tanham