“… so fear was originally there to help us survive.”
“Yep… and with not many sabre-tooth tigers roaming the suburbs, we found other things to fear. And fear is intimately linked to how we judge people.”
It was one of those early morning conversations over coffee and from the nature of fear we had progressed to how we unconsciously judge the people that we meet. It is all very well to say that we should not judge…but we do. At least to a certain degree. Sitting in moral judgement upon someone’s actions is a slightly different matter, but we do seem to be programmed to make judgements about the people who arrive in our lives. It comes from the same primitive survival instinct as fear and is part of the same process. If a hunter comes face to face with another spear-wielding man, that snap judgement would be the deciding factor; does he run from a foe, throw his own spear, or welcome a fellow hunter to the chase?
Our need for such judgements may not be so acute these days, but the instinct remains. We just use it in a more abstract way. A new person arrives on the scene… a new colleague, perhaps… and an immediate reaction determines what we see as our best approach. How we judge them then determines, rightly or wrongly, what we expect of them too.
But how do we make that judgement? Against what measure are we holding them? We only have our own normality, our own world view, with which to work… and that, of necessity, becomes our median line. Some people will quickly climb high in our estimation, others will let us down. People will either surpass our expectations or fall below them…and hopefully we can rejoice at the one and learn from the other.
The problem here is that if we let the uncontrolled ego have its way, by setting ourselves as the median line, we may also be setting ourselves in a position of unconscious superiority. If that happens, then everyone else starts at a disadvantage… the people we meet will start from a ‘lower’ place than that which the ego sees itself as occupying. This means that before anyone can begin to meet our expectations, they have a steep climb ahead of them before they can hope to meet us on an even playing field.
The higher our ego sets us on that scale, the lower are the chances of people fulfilling or exceeding our expectations. If someone does manage to climb above our median line, the chances are that the owner of a ‘superior’ ego, instead of applauding that success, will feel themselves weighed down by it… and look for ways in which they can bring that person back down to, or below, the median line of ‘normality’…at least in their own mind.
The ‘superior’ ego fears being overshadowed by the success of others and reacts to any inkling of such success with resentment and prejudice. The higher the other person is perceived to climb… and it may be no more than a perception… the more the ‘superior’ ego looks for them to fall. These are such destructive emotions that, while the other person continues with the normal ups and downs of life, embracing both successes and failures, the ‘superior’ ego finds itself on a slippery slope of its own creation.
We cannot abstain from judging altogether…it is an instinctive function of our safety mechanism. We should not have to lower our hopes for people either… for in trusting and hoping for their success we help ensure it. Imposing our expectations, though is a different matter… expectations breed disappointment.
What we can do is remember than our own median line is not a straight path, but meanders with every step we take, and we can fall or climb just as easily, and as often, as anyone else. No matter where we stand in terms of our social position, educational achievements, affiliations, beliefs or ethnicity, we are equal partners in the human family. Our median line should not be drawn by the ego, but from the one thing we all share… our humanity. We are each as fragile, as fallible, and as capable of reaching the heights as each other… and regardless of the judgements passed upon us, we share a gift of possibility that allows us to walk our own path.
One of the most wonderful elements of being Human is the sense of self; yet there is great confusion as to what the ‘self’ really is… even whether it exists at all.
Something harvests the experiences of each day yet declares itself separate from them. This accumulation is deemed to be a living entity – the ‘me’ – resplendent with a memory of having lived it, rather than the actuality of what was lived, and containing a trace of the story of that day, which, over time, is consolidated into ‘like’ experiences.
Language cements this relationship with experience. In western languages, we have the basic construct of ‘I do this’: subject, verb and object. Some older languages – often associated with highly spiritual societies – do not have this structure. Sanskrit, for example, the ancient language of India, would say “This is being done”.
It is memory that gives us this certainty of self. Its power of continuity becomes vital to our wellbeing. We take this completely for granted. We do this because we have no choice – it became our dominant perspective at a young age, typically before the age of seven. Because we ‘live in it’, we no longer see it – like so many aspects of our individual worlds.
Although wonderful, it is also a spiritually-deadly perspective, because it separates ‘us’ from the rest of our world.
Let’s consider the elements of this.
Having a sense of Self means that I separate out parts of my experience and call them ‘me’. This act, alone, is quite remarkable. On what basis did my young self determine which bits were me and which were something else?
Vividness of experience must have played a big part. What my attention is drawn to becomes that which I focus on. My attention is grabbed by immediacy and there is nothing as immediate as my body. Continued focus on my body dulls the attention given to the rest of ‘my’ world, even though it is still there with all the power it had when I was a new-born.
This sense of my body becomes, in many ways, my first self – and this will remain dominant for the rest of my life. Spirituality in all its forms, faces this as the first barrier to development. We have to come to see that the solid reality of our own cluster of matter – our bodies – is only one reality; and that the dominance of this in our consciousness is due to habit, rather than any superiority of existence.
The dominance of self as body has another consequence – it locks us into pain. When the body is in pain, so becomes our whole self, if it is focussed in this way. Pain in the body will always be real, but its effect on our overall aliveness is determined by our attention. This discipline is one of the tenets of Buddhism.
The founding psychologists of the early part of the last century worked hard to establish a structure of the Self, or Psyche, so that they could truly investigate its workings. This was a giant leap in mankind’s ability to analyse its own existence. Freud is somewhat dismissed these days, largely because of his singular focus on the sexual power as the dominant ‘drive’, but he gave us a lasting legacy and some major insights into how the self develops and sustains itself. These are of great service to the spiritual seeker.
His description of the structure of the self is of great use to those pursuing a spiritual path; and has echoes across traditions as varied as the Kabbalah and Sufism.
Freud proposed a three-layer hierarchy for the psyche. The first of these was what became known (in English) as the ‘Id’. The translation serves us badly, because the native German was much more instructive. This word, (Das Es) was, literally, the ‘It’.Using the word ‘it’ distanced the observer of her own psyche from this ‘beast’. The sentiment being: “I may need it for my survival, but I don’t have to suffer its beastiality in my normal life.”
And yet, the beast of the Id contains all our energy . . . Coming to terms with it is really important, if we want to lead a vital life. The sad part of this rejection is that it also locks away our younger self, with all its innocence and its delight – because it had appetites for things the subsequent world found ‘antisocial’.
This act of staring at the Id generated a kind of second self, known, in English, as the ‘Ego’. The native German, again more helpful, was ‘The I,’ (Das Ich). The ego’s job became to manage the monster below, allowing us to fit into society without picking our noses all the time – feel free to substitute your own metaphor . . .
But the Ego borrows all its energy from the Id, which it then seeks to manage . . .
The final layer of the Freudian self is, in English, ‘the Superego’; in German, the Uber-Ich (the over I). This is largely concerned with the ‘should-dos’ of our lives – the development of morality; that which is handed down to ‘well brought-up children’. Again, the Supergo borrows all its energy from the Id, to give the final structure and management to the concept of the self.
So… we have a beast and a trapped child, not allowed to develop into an adult self because we have rubbed up against the edge of acceptable society. Above that we have a parentally-created pattern of authority, that lives with us all our lives until we decide to break that ice ceiling and see the sky . . .
None of these things have been created by bad people. They result from two things: the commonly accepted concept of Ego, which is really the Personality; and the nature of Society – which centres itself around consensus and power, and therefore cruelly robs the individual of full life. If mankind has a purpose, it is to reconcile these forces, for the good of the life that follows.
These elements of the greater Self can be ignored – in which case the patterns of ego-driven personality will return to haunt us all our lives, producing similar patterns of events as the years progress. The alternative is to embark on a journey into the self; spiritually, we would say to go in search of the Self.
There are many trials to such a quest, the biggest being the act of turning away from the chosen path when the going gets difficult. The ego, which, remember, is a mental and emotional construct and has no real existence, has an armoury of below-the-radar weapons against such a frontal assault on its (false) kingdom.
Techniques can help. One of the most powerful tools for providing us with a personal map of the journey is the Enneagram. Originally developed by Gurdjieff as a key to how the world ‘unfolded’ in its process (the spiritual ‘Word’), it was added to by deeply spiritual teachers, such as Ichazo, Naranjo, Alamass and Maitri, to become the basis of a way of understand the ‘whole in diversity’ in the sense of how the human personality obscures the greater part of the Soul, within.
The Silent Eye has combined this knowledge with the insight from a triad of mystical and magical pasts, to offer the student (we prefer Companion) a three year guided journey, taken by monthly correspondence course with personal supervision, where every aspect of the Self is encountered, deepening each year as the journey takes us to the realm of the soul-child and beyond.
Companionship is one of the keys. Schools like the Silent Eye offer this even more than they offer teaching. This is because the journey can only belong to the one taking it. In the real journey of the true Self, which brings us face to face, via the Soul-Child, with the Essence (Being) from which our Soul formed itself, we reach a point where no system or religion can have any power over us. We come, quite early on this path, to a place where we know that truth belongs to us, and only truth learned and experienced in this way has any value.
To stand alone and look out at that which we distanced ourselves from, when the founding layers of our personality separated us from the “Other”, is a moment that brings us to stand before reality – possibly for the first time. The new Self generated at that point is one of immense power . . . and intense humility.
Steve Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit, teaching organisation which delivers stages and mentored lessons via correspondence course. For more information contact us at email@example.com
It is the end of a long day; one of those days when many small things have seemed to go wrong and a few bigger things cast dark shadows on your horizon. You are tired…not the pleasant kind of snuggle-up-in-bed-with-a-book tired either, but the kind that begins to question and ask ‘why does it have to be like this?’
It comes to most of us at some point; that emotional bone-weariness. Chances are, you are too tired to even begin looking for answers and past thinking about them if you fell over them. But you are going to find things that look like answers wandering through your mind just the same.
Under stress, they will probably be the wrong ones. Anxiety and fatigue cloud thinking, and what may appear to be a perfectly logical train of thought can begin from a single skewed idea, from a slight misapprehension or misunderstanding. Pursue them and you could end up very far from the truth and casting blame in all the wrong directions, even, perhaps, where there is no blame at all. Life just throws things our way sometimes.
Why does it have to be that way? The most likely answer is that this is a path we have chosen for ourselves. Not, perhaps, with any conscious volition, but through the gradual shaping of our worlds over a lifetime, allowing it to become what it is today. Some events may be beyond our control; there may be no choice in whatever it is we are facing at any given moment. But how we react to it is a choice and one we may have been unconsciously making for a long time.
Our very earliest interactions with the world around us begin to shape how we will react throughout our lives. The nurture or lack of it that we receive as we grow, the people in our lives, our circumstances, all combine with the raw materials of who we might become to make us who we are. Our reactions to any given event are born from this accumulated and integrated input of experience. Our character and the way we walk through life devolves and evolves from the life we have lived so far and therefore we shape many facets of our own lives in what has been called a mechanical fashion.
That is a cold way of expressing it. We could equally and simply say that our reactions are determined by who we have become. It may sound like a negative assessment, yet it is not necessarily so. Reactions that lash out at the world in hurt or anger stem from here, but it is also from here that the means to express the generous impulse is born; the act of kindness and empathy, the outstretched arms… We all know someone who is, or perhaps hope we are, that person who instinctively reaches out to others when they are hurt or in need. What is that if not reaction?
For those who seek to understand a little more of how they themselves have come into being there are many systems, beliefs and paths available. Within the Silent Eye we use the enneagram, placing upon it archetypal figures that express the basic ways in which we function… the chief impellers of our choices. These are not cold caricatures…they cannot be, for all we do stems from emotion. Whatever is behind our public face, whether we are creatures of laughter and tears or intellectually focussed, emotion is the prime mover at the root of all we are.
Imagine working backwards from the very tip of a branch, retracing the intersections from the finest twig, back to the bough and eventually to the heartwood of the tree. The deeper we consider what moves us to be who we are, the fewer possibilities we are left with. The closer we get to the source, the more I am convinced that even from a purely psychological standpoint, love can be seen as the root of all we are. Whether we know it or lack it, feel it or feel its absence and a yearning towards it, whether we feel it must be earned or deserved, or run from it in fear of the demands it might make… whether we clothe it as a need for admiration and respect… even whether or not we feel love for ourselves…Whichever way you look at it, love seems to be the central fact of our existence.
From a spiritual perspective, many have never doubted that this is so. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “The truth is, indeed, that love is the threshold of another universe.” When you see that the Source of all Being, and the source of our being as one and the same, it changes the way you see the world, yourself and your fellow man… and leads you towards a threshold of understanding that surpasses knowledge. And perhaps it is here we will find our answers.
There is something about a map, a proper, paper map, that makes a journey personal. We don’t tend to use sat-nav, resorting to such technologies only when cities force us to do so… and we had invested in a brand new map too, the other one having been worn to shreds over the past couple of years. So, instead of following the directions given by the leader of the expedition, we took the winding backroads to get to the last site of the day and arrived there a little while before the others. We killed a little time by snacking on the remains of lunch, then had a wander up the path to wait outside the tower.
Time, though, was getting on. Knowing Steve had been really impressed by this place and worried that it might close before the others arrived and we had chance to see it properly, we decided to go inside. They couldn’t close the place while we were in it, and we would have hated to miss it, so it seemed the best thing to do.
Preston Tower is a pele tower, built between 1392 and 1399 to give the alarm and protect its people when Scotland and England were in an almost constant state of war. It looks like a miniature fortress and that is exactly what it is. Built with walls seven feet thick to withstand attack, a small postern door through which the animals could be brought inside in case of danger, and with tiny windows that could be blocked in case marauders attempted to smoke out those within, it seems almost impregnable.
In later years, the most common problem was caused by the depredations of Border Reivers, the cattle rustlers from across the Border between England and Scotland, whose lands were seldom enough to support their clans as all estates were split on the death of their owner between all the surviving sons. The Reivers had a code of honour, nonetheless, and it was required that they help each other regain their own cattle or answer insult… and any man who refused to do so could be put to death, thus perpetuating the feuds and bloodshed.
Within the tiny entrance to the tower we found another map, this time showing where the Border clans were based, including my companion’s clan on the West March. It may well be that he was the first of his clan to actually get inside the Pele Tower.
The ground floor was reserved for bringing the animals in to safety. But also housed a tiny guard room and a prison cell. We had not, at this point, found the light switch, and the atmosphere in both was that of a condemned cell. The darkness, alleviated only by the merest slit of a window, was oppressive, heavier than darkness should be. The guard room is only slightly larger than the prison cell, and the floor-space is little bigger than a coffin. It feels like one too, even when the lights are on.
We went up to the next floor, climbing a precarious wooden staircase, taking in the two tiny chambers, furnished as a sleeping chamber and living room, after the fashion of six hundred years ago. Above that are other rooms, marked with curious geometric symbols which have been highlighted in yellow and are probably masons’ marks. Here too is the mechanism for the Victorian clock that was added to the tower, and above it on the roof is the eleven-hundred-pound bell which, when it struck five, was loud enough to wake the dead.
The tower is incomplete, being only half of the original building, but it gives a very complete picture of what life must have been like for those required to retreat within its walls. The conditions are incredibly cramped, daylight almost non-existent and the thickness of the walls effectively cuts off all sound from the outside world. It must, we agreed, have been hellish, but as nothing compared to the absolute hell suffered by those in similar towers when the attack came.
You can imagine the stone cracking as flames that could not breach the walls were kindled to smoke out those trapped inside. You could hear the panic of the animals on the ground floor, adding to the fear and chaos, the crying of children and the sound of battle from the roof. A safe haven? Perhaps… but it could also be a deathly trap.
More than either of the grand castles we had seen, both restored and ruined, this was the perfect illustration of the ego and we could see why Steve had wanted to make it part of the weekend. Our lives are varied… we have roles in many arenas… but at the core of the ego is a strongly fortified haven within which we can survive and into which we retreat when we feel threatened in any way. Like the tower, the very thickness of our own personal walls can protect us from harm, real or perceived, but like the tower, it can be a trap. Any refusal to come out into the world for fear of its dangers will lead to our becoming increasingly isolated from our fellow beings, and if we linger too long within those walls, cut off from the beyond, the light and life within us will surely perish.
We looked out from the rooftop across the trees to the sea. There is a place in our lives for looking inwards, a time to withdraw and contemplate what is real, who we are and what truly matters to us. But freedom lies in stepping beyond the barriers we beset ourselves with and in embracing life in its entirety… even, and perhaps especially, when we fear it.
Far below us, we saw cars drawing up and the faces of our friends laughing up at us. Leaving reverie behind, we rejoined the human race. An evening would follow where the ‘walls’ stayed down and, fuelled by excellent food, a little wine and much talking, peals of laughter followed our visit to the the pele tower. We would share stories, discover coincidences, chat with a complete stranger about the magical community, find the fact that two of our number shared a birthday… and oddest of all, that the gentleman we had met in such strange circumstances in a Cornish fougou five hundred miles away, was a member of a group run by one of our companions for the weekend. Later, three of us holed up with a glass of mead and talked until we were falling asleep… None of which would have happened had we immured ourselves behind our inner walls…
A short walk along the coast from Craster is another of the most iconic sights on the Northumbrian shore…Dunstanburgh. The castle has inspired artists and poets over the centuries; Turner and Girtin both painted the ruins, and so did I, long ago, when I was teaching myself to paint. I had only ever seen the castle from a distance, though… this was the first time I would step within what remains of its walls.
Like the castle at Bamburgh, just nine miles up the coast, Dunstanburgh was built on a much earlier site. Our earliest ancestors had used the rocky outcrop and had built a promontory fort there, ringed with earthworks that were, almost two thousand years later, incorporated into the defences of the thirteenth century castle. It is a curious feeling to see those same ancient earthworks still intact, topped by the ruins of a grandeur a mere seven hundred years old.
The earth itself provides the foundations of the castle that is built on black basalt that juts up from the green earth and a gilded shore. Around the castle are the remains of the meres, the artificial lakes that would have provided fresh water for livestock and additional defences, whilst making the mirrored castle seem twice as impressive. There are fish ponds too, for the raising of freshwater fish, with the water being fed into the meres through a stone channel from a nearby spring. Within the castle is a well, and even besieged there would have been a water supply.
There are legends of tunnels connecting the castle to local farms and towers… stories of unknown men passing to and from the castle in secret through concealed trap doors. While it is possible that these legends are no more than a garbled memory of the water channels, it is no secret that Dunstanburgh was a place of intrigue and plots.
The castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. Thomas and his cousin, King Edward II had a very poor relationship and, by the time the castle was built, in full view of the royal castle at Bamburgh, Thomas saw himself as a rival for power. Having been involved in the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and the king’s favourite in 1312, Thomas was severely out of favour at court, so the castle may have been a safe retreat, away from the king’s armies in the south.
He may also have built the castle as a direct challenge, a taunt or a political statement. It was one of the largest castles in the country and cannot have met with anything but the king’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the castle never served Thomas’ purpose. He rode to war, but was himself captured and executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge. The stories tell that the executioner was unfit for his job and that battle-seasoned soldiers who witnessed the execution fainted as the headsman struck eleven times before finally ending Thomas’ life. It is, they say, for this reason that his ghost walks the castle, carrying the severed head which bears an expression of utter horror…
The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, and even in its ruinous state still played a part on the defence of the north-eastern coastline during World War II. Dunstanburgh is a place of many layers, and as we walked towards it, we began to consider some of our own layers. The analogy of the castle as the ego, built layer upon layer by our own experience and that of those who went before still held true.
We build the shell of the ego from our reactions to all the situations and stimuli we encounter, including those passed down to us from our parents and to them from their parents… the layers go deep. This can be a good thing, as we learn from their experience… and just as we are taught early not to touch what may burn, or eat what will make us ill, we can also learn how to live within the society into which we are born and how best to treat each other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work in a positive fashion. The accumulated wisdom of generations may also be contaminated by the acquired prejudices and misconceptions of an earlier era… and if we too acquire them, then the problems continue until we stop, look and challenge them for ourselves, stripping back the layers to see a kernel of truth from which we can form our own beliefs and make our own choices.
Steve also introduced the second thread of the weekend’s theme, that of pilgrimage… a sacred journey, deliberately undertaken. Although Dunstanburgh is a castle, not a sacred destination, we do not know for what purpose our earliest ancestors may have used the place. We had seen in Cornwall that the promontory forts may have ritual, rather than defensive roles. But for our purpose, it was symbolically perfect.
The ego is a necessary part of the human experience. It is our haven and shield, the face we present to the world, yet it is not who we are. Beneath the acquired layers, we are something more than our reactions, and the quest of the seeker is to take down the walls we have created around the shining core of being. Not completely… for the ego has its uses. Like this castle, where the natural erosion of time and weathering has reduced the impenetrable structure to beauty and bare bones, the ego dissipates as we grown and learn to know the inner beauty of the light within.
Curiously, another legend associated with Dunstanburgh is that of Sir Guy the Seeker. As night fell and a storm raged, an errant knight sought shelter beneath the ruined towers of the deserted castle. From out of the shadows, a wizard came forward to greet the knight… some say it was Merlin himself… and promised that, if Sir Guy would accompany him, he would be granted a vision of great beauty. The knight followed the wizard, who led him to a secret room. There, sleeping on a single radiant crystal, was the most beautiful woman Sir Guy had ever seen. She was surrounded by an army of sleeping knights, and on either side of her were a sword and a horn.
Sir Guy had, said the wizard, only to make the right choice and the maiden would be wake and be free of her crystal prison. The knight, dazzled by beauty, stretched out his hand and took the horn. Raising it to his lips, he blew a single note… and was plunged into darkness. As he lost consciousness, he heard a voice chastising him, crying shame on him for a coward for choosing the horn when a true knight would have drawn the sword.
Waking next morning, Sir Guy searched the castle for some trace of the maiden or the secret room, but none was to be found. So ardent was his determination to find and free her beauty that he spent his life wandering the castle in search of her, losing his mind and all thought of home. He wanders there still, and on stormy nights, they say you can still hear his desperate cries…
The castle is populated by ghosts. As well as Sir Guy and Earl Thomas, Margaret D’Anjou walks the castles grounds, weeping for those lost in battle. There is another story too, that seemed to fit our theme…that of a child imprisoned in the castle. The quest of the spiritual seeker…the pilgrim… is to release the inner Child from its prison. The story tells that she used the key to the dungeon, where many were tortured and killed, in order to escape. Once beyond the walls, she tossed the key into a field… and to this day that land remains infertile.
And so we wandered the empty space within the castle, passing the ruined chapel and exploring the gatehouse towers. In one, the breeze whipped through the empty windows, creating a vortex that whirled a mass of feathers around me like a snowstorm beneath the blue roof of late summer. From the other we looked out over the landscape and the castle’s tiny harbour to Bamburgh and beyond to the Holy Isle. Where next would our footsteps take us?
Two things struck me as we entered the State Rooms to look around the public parts of Bamburgh castle. The first was that the collection of objects that were on display was vast, rich and deserving of much more attention than we would have time for. We did notice, though, a shield that bore a remarkable resemblance to the crop circle we had been looking for at Cerne Abbas…
From decorated cradles to archaic helmets, ostentatiously carved furniture and delicate fans made of wisps of spangled gauze and ivory, all were displayed with no apparent order or relationship to each other. The symbolic comparison of a castle to the ego was evidently going to continue. It almost seemed as if the décor was saying there was no value to the priceless things on display except to be displayed. Now, I know that this is probably not the case at all. What can be left undefended by glass and barriers and survive the careless touch of tourists is the most likely reason for the items on display being chosen… but we had been asked to draw comparisons between the castle and the ego and observe our impressions.
I thought how many people I have met who define themselves by their achievements, success, wealth or possessions. I thought too how many of us seek to impress others in one way or another, and how our public faces reflect how we hope the world will see us… and decided that most of us fall prey to that desire in some form or another, even those who vehemently profess that they do not care a jot for how others see them; that very independence can become a ‘prized possession’.
The other thing that struck me forcibly was the lack of atmosphere. The two small salons, in spite of their beauty and décor, had no character at all; they felt unlived-in and ill at ease. It turns out that they were once kitchens before they became ‘State Rooms’, and their true nature was obviously at odds with their new finery. The castle is a grand and glorious place, though. Room after room is filled with history, art and portraiture, but it is not until you go deeper within its walls and reach the King’s Hall with its raised drawing room that there is any feeling of coherence.
Here, you can imagine the grand balls and state functions. It is supposed to be lofty, imposing, luxurious. It is not trying to be anything except itself… and, after the kitchen-salons, that gives a curious effect. Egoically, there is a statement there too; it matters little whether a place or a person is beautiful and impressive, or homely and humble… what matters is whether they are authentic… true to their nature and purpose.
I could have spent weeks learning about the art alone. There were anomalies there too. The overtly regal castle held a good many pieces that struck an odd chord. For instance, there were the portraits of Napoleon with hs two Empresses… the Emperor of France who had come by his position on the heels of the Revolution that had guillotined the nobility.
The very Catholic iconography displayed throughout the house sits cheek-by-jowl with portraits of the Protestant King James and his wife, Anne of Denmark. It was James who, after his bride had been delayed by storms that he blamed on witchcraft, instigated the North Berwick witch trials and he attended the torture of suspected practitioners of the Craft.
One picture in particular caught my eye, a sixteenth century group of the Holy Family, attributed to Marcello Venusti and titled ‘Silence’. The geometric composition of the figures is striking enough, but t was the figures themselves that caught my eye. The Holy Mother watches a sleeping Child that we take to be Jesus. He lays across her lap in a similar attitude to a Pietà. Behind her are figures we assume to be an elderly Joseph and John the Baptist, who could be Jesus’ twin. It may have been the fact that the boys are painted as older than the usual babes that caught my attention. Or that only Mary and John have haloes…. I found it curious too that the Madonna wears green, and that the sleeping Child, who lacks a halo, is as pale as death.
A little later research made the painting even odder. It was painted by Venusti, but the design was a detailed drawing by Michaelangelo. It is also very different from other versions of this painting. The ‘same’ painting at The National Gallery, for example, has the Virgin clothed in blue, the architecture and draperies completely different, none of the figures have haloes and John wears a leopard skin. And the text in the book that the Virgin holds is completely different. We can only assume it is meant to be a Bible, although that book would not be written until long after the Child’s death.
John makes a gesture of silence. Is he asking silence for the sleeping Child? Or indicating secrets…? Which painting is the ‘real’ Venusti? Are they all his? Are others copies? What does the difference in the text indicate? We would need a lot more time to unravel such mysteries… The ego too has its secrets, its blinds and confusions and it can take a lifetime to unravel them.
One mystery was solved though… although it leaves many unanswerable questions in its wake. There is a short corridor with steps leading through an arch. On one side, a huge tapestry, on the other a print of battles and reproductions of scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. It has a disquieting ‘feel’ and I found I could not easily leave it. When I did leave, I felt compelled to turn around and go back, though I had no idea why. I spoke to Stuart who had followed me and turned to face him… finding that he was not there and I was, in fact, alone.
The moment left such an impression on me that I did some research when we got home. I am far from the only one to have sensed something there. During the war years the castle served as a hospital for soldiers, and one young man traumatised beyond bearing, committed suicide and shot himself in the head. He was seen and recognised after his death, seated on these stairs.
The lower we went in the castle, the more, it seemed, the life of its people made itself felt and the analogy of the ego continued to be apt. Most personal, in an odd kind of way, was the well in the basement rooms. The life of lord and serf alike would have depended upon its waters. The simple well bound their human lives together in a way no other artefact could show.
Lower still and we made the mistake of going into the dungeon. Expecting the empty rooms one usually sees in such places, we were confronted with graphic waxworks depicting every imaginable horror. Such things should never be perpetrated on living beings… and yet the ego can suffer the same levels of torture throughout its life. We witnessed one such torture being inflicted upon a child as we hurriedly left the room. You can imagine the scars the careless comment will leave. “This,” said the small child’s father, “is what happens if you don’t behave…”
Far from the pomp and circumstance of the stately halls, there were real treasures though, tucked away in tiny rooms and easily overlooked. These were not just the objects that affirmed power, nor were they all the creations of gifted artists… many were the small and practical things that had held a place in the lives and hearts of the castle’s people. Simple carved stones from the chapel of St Peter where a saint’s relics were housed. A lost key. Fragments of intricate metalwork going back to the Anglo-Saxon fort. And tiny, glowing specks of worked gold, smaller than a fingernail, bearing the serpentine design of the Bamburgh Beast.
In just the same way, you have to work to get beyond the layers of ego to see the spark of gold that lies, often unregarded, at the centre of every being. It may be buried so deep that it is impossible to see, but, like the castle, the ego is both sanctuary and prison for the treasure at its heart.
There was one more thing we had been asked to do and that was to find within the castle a place we had imagined from the beach below. We were almost ready to leave before I found mine and understood its personal significance. The great black-leaded range reminded me of the one in my great grandmother’s scullery, and so I left the ‘State Rooms’ with a fond smile for remembered warmth and the aroma of oven-bottom bread.
Anyone who wishes to have a virtual wander around the castle can visit their website for a 360° tour here.
Have you ever stopped for a minute to consider how much you do because of other people? Not for others, but because of them? There’s a difference, and it is a big one. Doing ‘for’ can have many motivations; love, duty, obligation, care, to name but a few… But what about the ‘because’? And how easy is it to separate the two? The lines between are often blurred and what we grumble that we have to do because of others, we may be doing for them… while things we think we do for others, or even for ourselves are often motivated by more subtle reasons.
I was discussing the question with Ani as I was tidying up today. She is an intelligent listener and a great leveller of ego. My housework always used to be done first thing in the morning… I’d get up early to make sure it was ready for the day before work, then tidy round before bed, plumping cushions and washing cups. These days it gets done… or it doesn’t… whenever I choose. Why should I bother if no-one is here and no-one is coming? Ani doesn’t care if I have polished today… in fact she would probably rather I didn’t because the polish makes her sneeze and as far as cushion plumping is concerned, there is little point as she immediately rearranges them to suit herself anyway.
But why did I do it? Was I always doing it for the family, to make them comfortable, or was it because I wanted it that way? Maybe I was motivated by the expectations or needs of others to live up to an accepted ideal … or maybe I wanted their tacit approval for being a good housewife. Maybe what I really wanted my own approval. Maybe I felt I was never good enough and had to make the outer show reflect and compensate for an inner need?
The same with getting dressed on a morning. If I am going from here, to my son’s and home again, do I need the hair and make-up immaculately done? Or if I am giving a presentation in public… would I turn up in my scruffs and unwashed? And who would really be behind the decision?
They are all such basic things, but serve as an everyday example of the way we are driven, coaxed and coerced by our own inner needs as much as the requirements of living and the needs of others. When we think we are doing things because of others, we may, in reality, have an underlying motive rooted in our own needs, insecurities or desires.
If I am having visitors I will clean, hoover and polish till the cows come home… I will cook and delight in the opportunity… I will dress better and the hair and make-up will be done. I even look different… oh yes, I made a point of checking that. When there is only me and the dog the masks come off, the barriers come down and the face I see in the mirror is not one many others will see. Only the very closest, the most trusted get to see our private face. Not through choice … it is an acquired habit of self-protection, a reaction to our experience of the world. And we are very good at hiding even from ourselves, whether we consciously want to or not. There is a part of us, the deepest part, however, that knows exactly who and what we are.
The public face we wear is seldom about who we really are, even when we are sincerely determined to be ourselves and have no barriers in place… they close in on us unawares and the presence of others makes us unconsciously assume a role; face, voice and demeanour adapt to how we want others to see us, how we think they want to see us… and critically how we want them to reflect our desired image of self back to us…and this is how we define the ‘rules’ of a relationship of any kind with others. We gravitate towards those who hold what we think is the ‘right’ mirror… until we have grown enough to see that sometimes the right one isn’t always comfortable and soothing. It is the one that does not lie to us.
Pretty much all we do is because of others, in some way, but we forget that we ourselves are ‘others’ also. We are multi-layered beings, from the innermost core to the faces we wear as masks to hide the inner child and all its fragile fears. ‘Not good enough’, ‘not worthy’, ‘could do better’, ‘you don’t deserve..’ the litany of fragility goes on in infinite variety, shaped by our individual and well camouflaged fears and this is the ‘other’ that motivates so much of what we do… The mirror of the soul does not lie, but it must cringe when it sees how many fears we succumb to, how many ways we find to barricade ourselves from the acceptance of the true self.
Fear is a paralysing emotion and stops us from doing so many things. Some fears are rooted in the need to avoid genuine dangers but most of the fears by which we live pertain only to a percieved threat to self.. to our image of self… and we guard ourselves in so many inventive ways that we end up being unable to express who we really are, or bring to life the gifts we have to share.
Yet, until we look, until we find the deep seated wound or canker that has shaped so much of how we try and project ourselves into the world how can we begin to heal it? Until we acknowledge what we already know is there on some level we will shy away from anything that may highlight it to consciousness… like a child with a grazed knee pulls away from the antiseptic that stings, avoiding the short, sharp pain that promotes healing.
We would not berate a child for being a child and afraid…we would teach it with love, understanding and patience, we would reassure it that though its fears were very real, the cause of them was not; the dark doesn’t hide vampires, and nothing lives under the bed that will bite its ankles and drag them under… But we still wouldn’t let a child indulge in destructive or cruel behaviour unchecked, knowing that some constraints are needed for healthy development. If we look for the child within perhaps we can begin to understand ourselves with similar love and compassion… and apply a similar discipline to our reactions and fears, accepting that while we may fail sometimes, the ‘other’ within is worth everything we can give to help it grow.
It is late. A warm bed and a cosy book await, yet I still have a lot that needs to be done.
Or that’s what my mind is telling me.
It has been one of those days. The day went as such days do, with a series of minor annoyances. For a start, I slept through the alarms. Or turned them off in my sleep and given the rigmarole involved in turning off the second alarm, that’s pretty impressive. Especially as I had to get out of bed to do it. Normally I am up before they go off, but they are no more than a fail-safe for the occasional lapse. Thankfully, the dog never sleeps through the alarms and eventually woke me by snorting at the door. It was still long before dawn, but that loss of time would have been a problem any other day. Thankfully, I was due to start work several hours later than usual, so I still got to sit down with a coffee and open the email… where I found a request to start at my normal time after all.
My son’s cat, when I arrived at his home, had been busy too. It liked the new, wood-based litter in its tray and had decided that it would make a good plaything. I fed the cat and swept it all back up, refilling the tray while it ate. I swept it up three times over the next four hours. The cat objected and bit me, but I persevered… then gave in and went to the supermarket in search of the old type of cat-litter to replace the lot.
Grumbling to myself, both about the cat and the necessity of crossing the supermarket threshold at all, I made a bee-line for the pet aisle and grabbed the litter, stocking up with the dog’s requirements while I was there. Might as well but myself a little time…
Which I lost when I finally arrived home to a seriously depleted fish-tank. I dealt with that…again… fed and walked the dog, cleaned all the muddy footprints off the nice, clean floor, and realised I should have bought something for me at the supermarket too. I was about to nip to the village shop for provisions when the phone rang. By the time the call had finished, the shop was shut. I fielded another phone call from one son and sat down to talk with the other, all the while fielding the ball for the deliriously happy dog who goes loopy when one of her boys turns up. And suddenly, the day had gone.
By eight thirty, I was ready to eat and start on work I had hoped to have finished twelve hours earlier. Some of it is stuff I am desperate to finish. I could get really stressed about now, especially with a crashing computer and a brand new set of muddy pawprints tracking across the living room floor… and the level in the fish tank steadily dropping again. I could stay up all night and get it done…or not.
I think not.
What is the point of getting stressed?
The animals taught me a lesson today. The cat, annoyed by my constant interference with her game, sunk her teeth in my arm and drew blood. The dog, over-excited by her visitor, barked and bounced like a lunatic in her joy, making conversation impossible until she had calmed down. Both of them had reacted to the emotions of the moment and neither of them were particularly pleasant to be around, though for opposite reasons. Do I want to be like either of them at this moment? Or fighting like cat and dog, either with myself or with time? There would be only one loser.
There will, inevitably, be more pawprints in the morning. There always are. The inboxes will be full regardless of how efficiently I empty them. There will still be writing to be done even if I finish the to-do list tonight. The PC always crashes and always has. And if the leak in the tank wasn’t solved earlier, there isn’t much more I can do. The fish are safe, the cat is five miles away, the dog is asleep and I have cereals in the cupboard I can have for supper.
There is nothing that has to be done tonight; none of it will shake the world if it doesn’t get done by morning. Were I subtracted from this world overnight to some alternate universe, this world would carry on without me quite nicely.
We acquire this sense of obligation to the tasks we set ourselves quite early. ‘Conscientious’ is a word often used on school reports and a quality prized in an employee. It implies responsibility, both as a duty and a quality. We carry that idea and ideal with us and call it ‘doing our best’, even into tasks and areas of our lives where there is no real necessity for it.
None of us, and few of the things we feel we just have to get done, are really that important. I think that is at the root of much of our daily stress… this sense of obligation to some unwritten timetable that we impose upon ourselves, coupled with the unconscious feeling that we have to meet our own expectations. We can project those onto others too, convincing ourselves that they have expectations where that may not be the case. Perhaps it is partly the ego asserting its own sense of self-importance that makes us feel ‘we have to’, when actually, we don’t. If a few hours won’t really make a difference, really and truly, we can let the stress go.
There are so many tasks we see as important, through a habit of mind or a habit of routine, that are not really earth-shatteringly important at all. Things that could easily wait until we have eaten or rested or slept…and which would probably benefit from our taking time out before completing them.
Stress is a killer, both in physical terms and where the quality of our work is concerned. Things completed under pressure are seldom as well done as those completed with a little time and consideration. Sometimes just letting go is the best thing we can do for that to-do list.
It is late. A warm bed and a cosy book await. They won’t be waiting much longer.