To have and to hold

From behind the curtain I am watching the birds in the garden. I am waiting for the hawthorns to grow tall and become a haven for feathered things. They are, for the moment, little more than bushes, but even so, every morning, sparrows and blackbirds, bluetits and doves visit my little patch. Ravens and jackdaws fly in most days, while Ani lies by the open door and watches, or bounds out to scatter them when she sees that I am watching. Every day, overhead, the great red kites soar majestically. Yesterday one landed on the roof behind my home and I watched, not daring to move for the camera, as the huge beauty surveyed its domain.

It was a rare privilege. Though I would give the proverbial eye-teeth to take a really good photograph of these birds in the wild there are some things you can only experience, not seek to catch. Had I moved for the camera I would have missed the moment; had I sought to capture it, I would have lost something precious. Some things are simply a gift from the Earth, just for you in that moment, to be enjoyed, cherished only in the heart… not to capture.

There are things, moments, that are so beautiful, yet so ephemeral and fragile that they cannot be held or possessed, only accepted. Like a sunbeam that cannot be caught, but only felt as it plays across your skin, or seen as it lights the rainbows in a diamond… or like a butterfly whose fragile wings are crushed by a child’s grasp at beauty. The ancients knew and told the story of Eros and Psyche… Love and the Soul…. Psyche could be with Eros only as long as she did not seek to look upon him and when she did, he disappeared.

By seeking to hold we can often lose the very thing that moves us. Yet it seems we are programmed very early on to want to ‘have’ what touches us, instead of being able to simply love something that is free to be itself.

Even language seeks to impose a degree of ownership on all we do, and particularly in regard to human interaction. Language conditions us and the careful choice of words can have devastating effect, for good or ill. While we may be aware of the effects caused by the deliberate usage of words in terms of propaganda, we unconsciously do the same all the time, not realising, perhaps, the insidious implications a single word can have.

Even the simplest statement… “I have two sons…” implies a degree of possession. We do not intend it that way, we may simply be using the easiest words… we may be indicating affection rather than ownership, if we think about it at all… yet the verb ‘to have’ implies ownership at some level.

Yet, when we possess something it ceases to be itself and becomes little more than an extension of ourselves… it loses more than freedom and autonomy, as its own identity becomes subsumed in our projection of our own. Even deeper than that, we often become, even in our own eyes, defined by what we think we possess… yet in truth, we come into the world naked and leave it the same way, so we possess nothing. We may think we hold things for a while, but the only thing we truly ‘own’ is our self. And even that is debateable.

As I watched the birds I was thinking about that. Would I want to cage a sparrow? No… I delight in their antics in the garden. I love them for their freedom. Would I want a red kite on a perch, just to say it was ‘mine’? No, I want only to see them ride the wind… though a little closer to the lens would be nice, I admit!

We all delight in the unexpected glimpses of wildlife. And, by their very nature, they are free… wild… unowned…untamed. Over the years a good many baby birds or injured ones have passed through my hands. While it is a delight to have that close contact for a while there is never any other goal, and no greater joy, than to see them fly free as soon as they are able. You are left with nothing but memories… perhaps a photo…with empty hands but a full heart. Maybe that is the only place we can truly hold anything.

Hug someone

stats 385It is early when I wander through to the kitchen… the world is silent except for the little grunting noises Ani makes as I cuddle her good morning. I don’t speak dog fluently, but I have a feeling these short, low grunts are an expression of affection; you only ever hear them during cuddles and that is how we start our day, the small dog and I.

As the kettle boils I think about the headline I’d glimpsed about a twenty second cuddle being good for your health. I hadn’t looked up the science behind it, prepared to agree unquestioningly that cuddles are good for you. Just having someone close enough to open their arms to you, someone you trust enough to be able to hug back… that shows you have affection in your life and that has to be a good thing. Even if the arms, in this case, are paws.

Cuddling is instinctive in many situations, from the moment a mother holds her newborn child to her heart it becomes a gesture of warmth and comfort. We cry on friends’ shoulders, reach out to hug each other for sheer joy, and it is one of the simplest and most eloquent expressions of friendship, empathy and love.

I don’t need the research to back up the logic of this, but I look it up anyway. Yep, cuddling affects oxytocin and cortisol levels… the bonding hormone and stress marker. And apparently cuddles have even wider health benefits for women than they do for men. That explains a lot… Women tend to be more tactile than men and, as an advocate of listening to what your body is telling you, perhaps it is a response to something deeper than a romantic longing for closeness.

I wonder if dog cuddles count scientifically? I know they do, but wonder if the research has extended to include pets. The work done with MRI scans show dogs have complex emotions close to our own, not that any dog-person needs to be told that. I tap a quick query into the search bar; sure enough talking to them also reduces stress levels. So at least now I have a scientifically based excuse for talking to animals. Not that I need one.

The coffee kicks in and I make a mental link with the recent stories on the negative health implications of loneliness. If you don’t click on any of the other links, this one is worth the read. The results are stark and shocking in their reflection of how society is moving away from closeness to aloneness. Being on your own can be wonderful, but serious loneliness isn’t. It is appalling. I recall many years ago, finding myself feeling just such utter aloneness and isolation. It went on for a while… so long it was desperate enough that I had to resist the urge to reach out and touch people I passed in the street. Which sounds overblown, but honestly, that’s how it feels. And that was only a few weeks. Can you imagine what it must be like for those who are lonely for years? It can, according to the studies, quite literally knock years off your life. ‘Even more than poverty’ says one report… but don’t get me started on politics at this time of day…

By now we are back from our walk and I’m on the third coffee. I’ve been pondering the obvious link between these three bits of research. The extension to that is the social support that is lacking in the lives of the lonely and isolated. There is introspection instead of stimulation and interaction … and while introspection can be a good thing when it comes through choice, it must be an increasingly limiting conversation when it is all you have.

Modern communication methods are also a double-edged sword. While it is easier than ever to keep in touch with people across the world it is also easier than ever to just send a quick message instead of picking up the phone or putting on your coat and going round to see someone. For those who do not have the technical expertise or the funds to access the technology this trend becomes yet another nail in a coffin that suddenly seems more realistic than proverbial. The high cost of travel for those on a limited income coupled with the long hours many have to work in order to survive further compounds the problem. We have created a society that is increasingly isolating us on a physical level and I wonder how readily we are accepting that isolation without realising its consequences?

Then the coffee joins up another couple of dots and the well-known mental and physical benefit of helping others adds itself to the mix. So, even if we aren’t in need of cuddles ourselves, giving them to others still does us good.

Deeper reading of the research and commentaries and a bit of thought beyond the specifics and you can’t escape the idea that affection and companionship are good for health. And that the physical demonstration of that in terms of interaction… cuddles, eye contact, touch or a shared smile…even talking to the dog… is measurably good for us; physically, emotionally and psychologically.

For those who see Love at the centre of creation, this is no surprise; to put it in simple terms even the scientists now agree… love matters.

As a society we are constantly being urged to improve our health, wellbeing and quality of life. The cost of gym membership and therapy is high. Time and energy are limited. But at least we can to resolve to share more smiles, meet more eyes and hug more. Even if it is only the dog.stats 3986

Adapted from a post originally published on scvincent.com

The Last Jaffa Cake

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I get side-tracked a lot. As if something was tugging at my sleeve… The blog was initially designed for thoughts on the school, but half the time, all that happens is that I talk about my dog. You may have noticed.

Not that Ani isn’t worth talking about, of course. She is an education all in herself. She is currently teaching me acting and patience… Acting because she deserves an Oscar for the look of pathetic starvation as she rests the tip of her well-fed  nose delicately on my knee and  gazes at me with longing. Patience because she knows very well that if she waits long enough, she will get the Jaffa Cake… The fact that there is a growing damp patch of drool spreading across my lap just adds to the insistency.

There is something about a pair of big brown eyes gazing up at you adoringly and pleading…

Ok. She won. I’ll have toast instead… I can happily give the last jaffa cake to a being so loving and so quietly persistent.

It is that expectant gaze that does it, every time. The consciousness of her eyes on my every move tugs at my attention and I have to acquiesce.

She’s not the only one at it though, as through every moment of the day, and most of the night, there is an unignorable pulling at my mind and heart, continually reminding me of another love to which I am committed. Where once I could happily curl up with a book and lose myself in a new world, or pick up a brush and create my own, every moment, spare or otherwise, my mind turns to the work of the Silent Eye and, more importantly, what lies behind it.

There is so much to do. And it is a joy… as the three of us, Steve, Stuart and myself, work to build something we believe in.

For myself, it doesn’t matter whether I am driving or wielding the duster, ostensibly wallowing in the steamy luxury of a bath, or tackling the supermarket… thoughts of the work in hand occupy my mind. I am either refining some idea or planning the next, constantly seeking ways to weaving our own strange web of myth, magic and common sense around what the school teaches, bringing the spiritual life and the ordinary, everyday world together.

There is a pressure behind it. Not the kind one gets when there is a deadline to meet…though there are deadlines too…but the kind of pressure one generates by building a dam in a mill race, where the surging water accumulates until it finds the most permeable point and rushes through unstoppable. It is no use trying to plug the gap with mundanity, the torrent will find a way through, washing away any blockages at it goes and eroding barriers until it finds a clear path.

It too has a patience, It can wait a while if It has to. But when the time comes to act, the force is irresistible and one is swept up in the current.

When I finally gave in and Ani had eaten the last Jaffa cake, she snuggled close and gave me a cuddle. She will take all I have but offers so much love in return. And she would still snuggle even without the little cake, for a dog loves unconditionally.

The heart of the School holds an even greater Love.

I have, therefore, no fear of giving It my every last crumb ……

Thought without words

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“Love you!” says my granddaughter, wearing a huge grin and blowing soggy kisses She still can’t pronounce the words quite right, nor does she really know what they mean. She only knows they always bring smiles when she says them. She has learned them from the big people who feed, cuddle and play. The ones with whom she is safe and happy. She knows they mean something to do with that… but can have no real definition of the words at one year old.

Although she is never quiet and babbles away constantly, she has, as yet, no real use of language above the few nouns and verbs with which she navigates her world. She is learning fast, having grasped this concept of verbal communication. Expression and intonation she has already acquired and we have long, involved conversations, that are still communication regardless of the fact that technically, neither of us understands the other. Sometimes she will pause in her chatter, with her head on one side, as if she is considering what to do or say next. She reminds me of a puppy when she does that.

Dogs and humans communicate too, though there is a lack of shared language here too. We have learned to read their visual and audible language, though not always well. They bring all their senses to bear on understanding their humans and often seem to read us better than members of our own species.

I’ve often wondered how babies and dogs think. You have only to watch a small child or puppy working out a problem… like, for both species, how to open the forbidden cookie cupboard… to see that think they do. With children and dogs, you can almost see the cogs turning. But how do they think?

Not everyone thinks exclusively in words, even in the surface mind. Some think in pictures and process experience and problems that way. Other non-verbal forms of thought include kinaesthetic, musical and mathematical thinking. I am no expert…barely have a toe in the murky waters here… but I wonder if all these are forms of conscious thought, with verbal thought being the simplest to transmit and therefore the most commonly acquired.

I think verbally. A nice easy statement. I use the acquired tool of language to frame my thoughts. Dogs and small children have no access to that. But when I think about it… do I really use language in order to think or merely to translate the real thoughts into a readily transmittable format?

The surface mind uses words, dressing thought in such a manner that it is ready to go out into the world. They are neatly framed in the local language so that I can speak or write those thoughts, sharing them effortlessly. But are they the thoughts themselves, or merely their shadows? Does true thought accept the constraints of language, when the realm of imagination is wide enough to encompass more than just words? And if our verbal thoughts are merely shadows on the surface of the brain, then like our own shadows, how two-dimensional might they be in comparison to the original thoughts that cast them?

There are moments, lost in contemplation when an idea or concept that is usually hazy becomes crystal clear. For a split second, you know that you understand perfectly what you have sought. You know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this time, you really ‘got it’. But the instant that thought hits the conscious mind, it is wrapped in language, becoming clouded, fragmented… the flow of understanding becomes little more than the staccato reflection of a broken mirror and understanding is lost…at least to consciousness.

Perhaps it isn’t language that is the real constraint, but the limitations of the conscious mind.

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What could we discover if we could trace our thoughts back to their source and bring them back into the world whole?

Mankind has always used symbols to suggest in visual form concepts too abstract to translate into words. There are words associated with them, names, descriptions and meanings… there are stories attached to them, designed to engage the emotions and imagination… but the deeper meaning of a true symbol is difficult, if not impossible, to express. It can only be experienced and known.

Within the Silent Eye, we use this principle to teach through imaginative ‘journeys’; visual meditations based on an unfolding story designed to allow students to experience a scenario in the realm of the mind. We are working backwards from surface consciousness towards the source of thought, beginning with the crafted words, and painting them as moving pictures that the imagination and emotions can bring to life. The Companion of the School experiences these journeys at a level of thought beyond words… and what is brought back to the conscious mind from these meditations adds a new perspective to the way we see the world and the way in which we walk through our days.

The flow of thought, in this respect, may be said to resemble a stream within which our normal consciousness drifts like a canoe with the current, always flowing downstream. There are many techniques for meditation, such as the ones we use in the School, and these could be equated to giving the canoeist a paddle that allows them to explore and retrace their journey upstream to the source and move in a controlled manner on the stream.

We use a similar approach for our April workshops, spending a weekend living out a story in imagination and scripted drama. You could just call it playacting…but doesn’t every child begin to learn through play?

We may never know how the mind of a child thinks. There are theories galore and more studies and papers than you could read in a year on various aspects of their perception, learning and expression. There are amazing distinctions of tonal expression that are heard by a child, but lost once they have acquired language. What else do we lose when we allow words to clutter the pathways of the mind? Is the white noise of language masking the real content of our thoughts? And how wide a vista could we find if we still the incessant chatter and access the source of understanding?

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Fool’s dawn

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I followed the sound of laughter down the hallway to my son’s bedroom, curious as to the cause. “A champion,” read my son out loud, still lying in bed at half past nine with another cup of tea, “is one who gets up when he can.” I’m not entirely certain he was taking that quote the way it was intended, but I couldn’t argue with the facts.

I could, technically at least, lay claim to some such accolade under those terms… but having got up and taken the dog out by half past five myself, I am more inclined to think that makes me more of a madwoman than a champion. Except, perhaps, in the eyes of a certain small dog.

Leaves are piling up, stripped from the trees and in daylight they look like jewels spilled from a treasure chest. Being pitch black out there at that time though and raining to boot, I didn’t take the camera, nor would the silent shadow of an owl that parted the air above us have shown up on a picture. I regretted leaving the camera at home though when the dawn finally came up. The sky was an amazing canvas of pink and gold; a gentle dawn contrasting with the wind and rain overnight and no true herald of the howling gales to come.

I know old countryfolk and seafarers can read the skies and tell what the weather will be, fair or foul. To most of us, that gorgeous dawn would have held the promise of a beautiful day. Certainly it was enough to lift the lowest heart. Sometimes it is the mists that veil the coming of sunshine, sometimes the palette of the angels holds out a hope of beauty that is drowned by the rains. You can’t really tell without that inside knowledge born of intimate association with the skies.

Our own days are like that too in many ways. What seems to be a wonderful occurrence may hold pain, yet a seeming disaster may unfold into beauty. In their own moment, it is impossible to tell where any event may lead or what may come from a single instant’s choice. It is also pretty much impossible to follow every thread and filament that reaches out into the world and its future from an isolated scintilla of time.

I watched a film the other night, The Saragossa Manuscript, that illustrated how closely every story is intertwined and how seemingly unconnected events may, in fact, be the threads that form warp and weft of the same tapestry… each one contributing to a greater picture that can only be seen when observed from a distance. In this case, you had to be the watcher who saw the stories revealed on film. Sometimes we observe the same phenomena as we watch events working themselves out in the lives of friends and families. We itch to tell them what we can see, to make them see, just as we know when the monster will come up behind the next victim in a movie or we know the true feelings of hero for heroine but they seem blind to each other’s hearts. It is easy for the observer to see what is not calling upon their own intimate involvement.

It is much harder to see the patterns in our own lives. We are just one of the threads of the tapestry… a single strand of colour that makes little sense on its own. Yet we do observe ourselves. There is that inner watcher, and inner voice… consciousness and conscience, the other level of awareness that sees and examines our thoughts and motives all the time. We may ignore it, but we know it knows and eventually we will listen and begin to question our observation of ourselves.

That listening process is part of maturing… we tend to listen more as we grow up and grow older. This is also the basis of many techniques, such as mindfulness which has come very much to the fore over recent years. It is also the premise by which the maxim ‘know thyself’ can be applied to everyday life, something that forms a core part of the techniques we share in the Silent Eye. Strangely enough, it is through listening to the inner voice of awareness, becoming, in a way, seemingly more introspective, that we find a way to step back from our own lives and get a better look at the design of the tapestry. And getting a glimpse of that bigger picture brings a new confidence that we can take forward with every step.

Which is why, although the dog may feel I am a champion for taking her out so early, and I may have seen the day begin with a promise of beauty, we were both doomed to disappointment. For me, it was the clouds that rolled in on the gales… for the dog, well, as long as she doesn’t realise that her champion is really a Fool, we’ll be okay.

Lessons in chocolate

 

Yesterday, I ate very badly.  In fact, I would be hard pushed to find anything healthy in the entire menu. All day. Not that I ate all day, you understand… in fact I ate very little, but, I admit, a nutritionist would cringe. Croissants and hot chocolate for breakfast, coffee for lunch, a melted cheese crumpet for tea, wine and chocolates for dinner and coffee before bed. In fact, about the healthiest part of that lot was the glass of red wine.

I could blame my sons. It was, after all, all their doing;  one provided breakfast, even if he did send me to the supermarket to pick it up on my way to his home and demand to be served his share in bed…  He then turned up on my doorstep, hungry from a bike ride at teatime… This was just before his brother arrived with wine, flowers and chocolates. The wine, apparently, being good for the toothache he was suffering, needed to be opened and as you shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach, the chocolates came in handy…

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The dog, of course, desperately wants to share, but what is a pleasure, if a rather naughty one, for me, would be toxic to her. My sons can, with impunity, eat anything. They share a metabolism a supermodel can only yearn for. They didn’t get it from me… I am of the type who can eat half a pound of food and put on five pounds in weight. So goodness knows what is going to happen by the time I finish the chocolates… and I’m working on that; valiantly disposing of them to remove myself and the dog from further temptation.Which is a tactic we often seem to employ to fool ourselves…

Let’s not look at calories and fat content… suffice it to say that each small chocolate contains the potential to add far more than its own weight to mine. Very like experience, in fact, where the smallest thing can potentially change a life, out of all proportion to its size… it all depends on the person who experiences it.

So Forrest Gump’s Mama may have had a point when she reportedly compared life to a box of chocolates; not because ‘you never know what you are going to get’, although that is true enough, but because what you do get will affect everyone in a completely different way. What may be a common and pleasurable experience… and sons, dog and I all like chocolate…some may enjoy with no problems, others may not have without putting themselves at considerable risk and some will suffer long-term consequences for their choice to indulge. The experience is unique to each of us. In general terms we may know that what, in small doses, can be good, is always a negative when it is too much … but how much is too much for each of us cannot necessarily be measured. Nor can another dictate or decide for us, though they may be able to guide. We alone must ultimately take the responsibility for our choice and be prepared to accept the consequences.

Of course, it isn’t always that simple. The dog, for example, doesn’t know that chocolate is toxic  to her. She sees only the lure of instant delight. If she ate just a little, it would probably do her no harm and enjoying it, she would want more… but overload is not too far away and could prove fatal. For me, overload to fatality is a long way away… I sincerely hope!…but each mouthful will add inches I will have to work to eradicate. My sons just enjoy the moment, but actually, though there are no visible and obvious consequences, do we really know what is happening in their bodies and what the longer term fallout might be? Or will they just use the energy of the sweetness to fuel, for example, the long cycle ride home?

Oddly enough, it is past experience that teaches us enough to make those decisions about the experience at hand. My waistline, for example, is at known risk from such indulgence. On the other hand, there is a willingness to accept that as a small price to pay in exchange for what is now a very rare pleasure… an evening enjoying the utter randomness of my sons when they are together and seeing a small dog in utter heaven at having both her boys at home. You could say the consequences to my waistline were a willing sacrifice to the greater good.

 

 

 

 

Of Pups and Patience

trial 021Ani, my dog is in the mood for play and has been since I got up at half past five. It is not unusual. Her needs are simple, food, play, walks, lots of love and somewhere warm to sleep. Usually the sofa, in spite of all my efforts to convince her otherwise.

By six am we had done sleep, food and walk… cuddles are always the first job, before even the kettle is switched on. After all, she hasn’t had a cuddle for at least five hours. Now I need to work, and she wants to play.

She understands that when I am at the computer I am ‘unavailable’ for ball throwing and tug of war. But understanding doesn’t necessarily mean not trying. She will hopefully bring me a toy and carefully insert it on the shelf below the keyboard, sitting with her tongue out and tail-end wagging, looking at me expectantly.

She is a persistent soul. She has her eyes set on her goal and works towards it with determination and a clear vision of where she wants to be. The only side issues are the distractions of duty… usually by a passing fly, a pigeon invading her garden or the postman, all of which clearly need to be dealt with as a matter of some urgency.

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After a while, I will generally explain that I am busy and it is not playtime, a conversation we have several times a day and which she quietly ignores. If the first toy doesn’t do it, she will offer me another, until the shelf is full and her toy box empty. Then she will sit beside me gazing up soulfully, with her head on my knee, knowing I can’t resist and at the very least my fingers will slide into the silky fur of her ear as she leans her head into my hand for the caress.

Just occasionally, if I fail to respond, her impatience takes over and I find my sleeve being surreptitiously nibbled. If that doesn’t attract sufficient attention, I end up with a substantial dog hauling herself onto my lap and in front of the screen in the full and certain knowledge that I simply cannot ignore her.

I can sympathise with her. We are not unalike. My needs too are simple and I am trying to develop an inner patience. The preparation for the annual workshop involves an awful lot of practical work. This is wonderful and I am loving every second of rolling my sleeves up and getting on with it… it challenges and stretches me daily as I learn new skills and enhance or remember old ones. I am constantly busy, constantly awake and focussed on whatever the task in hand may be.

This spills over into other areas of my life. When duty calls I bring a new efficiency to it, knowing that if I ‘bark’ effectively at my ‘pigeons’ I can return all the quicker to the Work with my mind free of distractions.

Yet there is this odd dichotomy, for so much of the Work has its being on the inner levels. Only here will I find the knowledge and understanding I need. It can be hard, waiting, when you know there are things to come, but I cannot nibble at Its sleeve or crawl onto Its lap. I must wait in patient inner quiet for that touch. The days are so hectic, yet within them I have to find time and space to simply lay my head on the knee of the One and wait for that Hand to touch me with Love.

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