On reflection…

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I woke this morning with the image of a dream imprinted on my eyelids. The image was a simple one… an empty landscape with a lake that held the reflection of a tree.

I could replay the dream in silent freeze-frame. The image was divided in two by the shoreline of a lake.  A tree stood tall and straight as a Scots pine, wide as an ancient oak, right on the edge of the empty shore. Below, the calm waters held its reflection with barely the shimmer of a ripple.

The thin line of the land, a horizon drawn by a child, never changed, no cloud marred the pale, immutable luminescence of the sky. Only the tree, as if dancing to the song in its branches and the rising and setting of the light.

I watched as the birds flew and sang through the bole and children played at its feet laughing. I saw the seasons paint themselves in green and gold, scarlet and black on its limbs. I saw the children grow,  saw their trysts beneath the branches… and saw their children return in their turn to laugh and love and pass.

After an eternity, men came with axes and tried to fell the tree, but they could not. Later, they came with chainsaws, yet still it stood. Then I watched as the tree, whole and healthy, seemed to fall of its own accord, yet where it fell, no trace of it remained, only an empty horizon.

Yet in the clear mirror of the lake, the reflection of the tree still stood, tall and straight as a pine, wide as an ancient oak.

The birds flew above it, and their reflections played still amongst the branches. Children leaned from the bank to play amongst the reflected roots. The seasons still painted the reflection with green and gold, scarlet and black. But on the land, the tree was nowhere to be seen.

Men came and called it sorcery and poured oil and ashes into the waters to obliterate the reflection, but the water retained its clarity. They built a tall fortress, surrounded by a city, to replace the reflection with something of their own creation, something that they did not fear, but the mirror of the lake showed only the tree. The masters of the fortress forbade the people to look out over the city walls, forbade them to approach the lake on pain of death, creating a fear to mask their own, until the lake and its tree became no more than a myth.

When the drought came, many died of thirst in the city on the shore, but the branches of the reflection were still brimming with life in the pure water.

But there were those to whom the lake called… the madmen, the dreamers and those whose hearts played like children… who heard the song of the birds in the branches and the whispering ripples on the shore. Some marvelled at the magic of the shimmering image, captivated by an unattainable beauty. Some believed the reflection to be the truth and gave themselves to the waters, drowning in ecstasy. Some turned away, weighed down by sorrow at the passing of the tree from the world. And some saw that the reflection was no more than an image cast by something they could not see and, turning their backs on the lake, sought the source of the image. For these, the tree still stood, straight as a pine, wide as an oak, its branches still painted with green and gold, scarlet and black…the reflection no more than a promise and a shadow of reality.

When I woke, it was one image that remained… of a tree on a shoreline drawn by a child, an empty horizon and a perfect reflection below.

The long night

The seasons turn as we approach the turning point, the Solstice… the longest night… just three short weeks away. And yet, the sky is beautiful this morning, a clear, deep blue graced with the lights of heaven. The world is still and silent, even the birds are hushed as dawn creeps over the horizon of a rain-washed world. The moon lights the village and touches the rooftops with silver. Branches are down in the lane and few are the leaves that still cling tenaciously to the trees, most stripped away by the vicious fingers of winter winds.

There is such strength in the grasp of leaf to twig, both so fragile they can be plucked and broken by a child, yet the bond of life so strong it can withstand the most inclement weather. Until it is time for them to fall.

Even when the leaves fall it is part of a greater renewal, the confetti of the marriage of the seasons, nourishing the earth and the tree from whence they fell. The tree sleeps through the winter, seemingly lifeless, husbanding its resources against the coming of spring. Beneath the skeletal surface of this dying time the life within shapes new leaves and blossoms, waiting in pregnant patience for the warm kiss of the sun.

northagain 064Leaves fall, branches break… the old and sere stripped away by the turning wheel of the year, clearing the way for a green birth.

There is so much laid out before us, even in the avenues of our city streets. The life of nature is so strong and so beautifully balanced. So easy to damage when, with careless hands her children grasp at her skirts, taking anything that claims their attention and desire… yet strong enough to recover when we are no more.

In the little wood where we sometimes walk, the small dog and I, man has left his traces. From the earliest times, track and road have passed this way. From the air, the circled marks of ancient homes can be seen in the fields, the line of a Roman road, lost now to plough and furrow. And still we carve this little patch of green to serve our needs. Yet as soon as we turn our back the wild things cover our tracks, reclaiming the earth for themselves, our little lives more fragile than their delicate blooms.

In towns and cities, sites and factories that were once hives of industry fall silent as technology moves on and we are proud of our advances, not noticing the quiet crown of plant and sapling our forgotten edifices wear, the gentle but inexorable hand of nature taking back her own as soon as we depart.

The seasons of the earth are echoed too within our own lives… we are part of the cycle, our bodies dance to the same natal song of the seasons. Life springs from death, death from life in an endless round.

northagain 108The cadence is echoed within us as we laugh for joy beneath the sun of summer and weep in grief when winter touches our hearts. In the dark days, we too may feel as if leaf and branch are being stripped from us, battered by the winds of change and the storms of emotion. Yet like the trees only the damaged and broken falls from us… the green heart is strong and holds the pattern of renewal within itself.

As the wheel turns it is easy to become lost in the dark days, feeling a verdant spring to be too far to reach, fearing in the shadows that it will not come. Perhaps, like the trees, we too are then husbanding our strength, withdrawing within where growth and renewal can work their magic unseen, ready to blossom at the first touch of the sun.

When the Solstice comes, the world, still facing the worst of winter, turns almost unnoticed towards summer. We know this, yet the winter is still to be endured. The days will lengthen, the light will be bright on days covered in snow, ice is yet to break open the cracked stones, and we will huddle by our hearths as if there is no warmth in the world, forgetting that we have passed the nadir and the eternal dance of the seasons carries us onwards towards a brighter dawn.

When we are lost in grief, gripped by the cold of fear, it is hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, hard to believe that we have passed the worst point when we see a dark road still looming ahead. Yet this is the rhythm of life itself, as the earth holds us in the reassuring and loving embrace of a Mother and shows us that not all is lost in winter, it merely endures the frost while within, nourished by the fallen leaves that were stripped away by the storms and the turning year, the green life springs anew.

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That was then…

Laughing with my son today I could not help but notice as the light caught a faint scar on his shoulder. It is so faded now that no-one else will ever notice it. I do, and it breaks my heart and fills me with joy in equal measure.

The scar was where the various tubes were sewn into his flesh as he lay in the coma. There were others, more dreadful, more horrifying, but for some reason this was the one that caught at my heart and broke it. It was through these tubes that they had pumped in the drugs that held him in stasis, that protected him as much as possible while withholding him from life. They came to symbolise the possible permanence of his state of being, poised between hope and despair, caught between life and death, with both, at that point, sustained and denied artificially.

I seldom notice the scar these days, but when I do I am taken back to that time and the conflict of hope and desperation that seemed to tear me in half. Such words say little… they are over used and trite. The emotion was raw and vicious, feeling physically as though a clawed hand held my heart and was ripping it slowly in pieces.

As I write I can feel an echo of that pain in my chest, somewhere beyond tears. I will not forget that rending, that feeling of being dragged between the polar opposites of willing his recovery and hoping for him to be allowed to die in peace if that end were to be inevitable.

Survival would not be enough for him: he would need more than that. I would have settled for him opening his eyes and holding my hand as I sang the childhood lullabies and told him over and over how much he was loved. How very much. And because of that, I told him over and over that it was okay. If he came back it would be to love and care. If not, he could go if he needed to go, taking my love and blessing with him.

That pain was long ago and survives now only in memory. It is past, not present and has taken its place as part of the foundation of today. Something upon which to build. So why do I write of this time again? Well, I was thinking as we laughed together, acutely aware of the joy of being able to do so.

Back then, I was powerless to help. All I could do was wait and pray. Talk to him, hold his hand, just be there and hope he knew. I stood, day after day, beside the immobile body that was at once the child of my flesh who had grown beneath my heart and yet was not, in some indefinable way, my son. He was more than that tortured flesh. Somewhere the essence of my son was both learning and teaching through the plight of his body.

We cannot know, nor can machines tell us, what that elusive part of us is that holds the essence of who we are. There is something more than just the body and the brain. The flesh is, I believe, the vehicle with which the soul moves through this life. The brain perhaps the exchange where the Self and the physical vehicle communicate. As with anything else, when you break the vehicle beyond repair, it ceases to function. If the exchange goes down there is no means of communication between the two parts of being.

It does not mean the messages cease, only that they cannot get through.

None of this can be proved, but I had always believed it. But there was one day, one heart aching day, when things changed. My son was just as immobile, just as far away as he had been since the attack. There was no difference in the readings on the life support machine. He was incapable of blinking as much as an eyelid, still unconscious.

Up till this day, in spite of the apparent lifelessness, there had been an indefinable sense that he was fighting back, a desperate yearning on his part to find a way through to us. A completely improvable, unmeasurable thing, yet it was something we had all felt.

Yet on this one day he withdrew. I cannot put it clearer than that. The presence that was my son drew back from the body and the husk that remained was empty. The nurse who sat at the end of his bed felt it too. It is a common thing among nurses to sense when the end is near. She warned us gently. There was a peace about him, as if he had stopped fighting what was to come.

Although he was expected to die, I was not so sure. It felt as if he had withdrawn to regroup, to seek a peaceful place where he could take a deep breath and take stock. Make a choice. And the next day he began, beyond all hope and reason, to improve. When my son came back, it was with sleeves rolled up and a determination to make things happen.

There is a lesson in this, I think. We fight so hard against life and the events it can pile upon us, lose ourselves in worry, panic about the inevitable or the possible. We forget sometimes that there are things we can change and things we cannot. Those we can change may need a clear mind in order for us to act. Those we cannot alter, we can at least meet face on, toe to toe… and this too requires a mind free of the fog of fear.

There is a moment where we can stop fighting all the ‘what ifs’ and accept gracefully that things will come if and as they must, perhaps in order for us to be able to learn and grow, perhaps in order for us to understand enough to teach by who we can become. By taking ourselves out of the mire of fear and finding a clear, calm place above it, we can see a wider picture of cause and effect, of possibility.

To accept and embrace what comes is not simply to be a victim of fate or circumstance. It takes a certain kind of courage to face and deal with things that have held us in thrall to fear. And it is a courage we can all find within ourselves. There is a belief that we are never sent more than we can handle. Just more than we think we can. We do not have to wait for the drama of unusual events to measure our courage against our fears. It can be as small as a mouse or a spider, or as daunting as that pile of bills. At the deepest level, the only thing we have to face is ourselves. Yet there is the seed of a greatness of soul in every single one of us, if we give it chance to grow in the clear light of the sun.

Walking the line…

“… 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.”
“How so?”

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?

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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.

Stickman, Handshake, Gun, Aiming, SmileWhat 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.

Outside in

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It was odd. I look at this particular blogger’s page every day…and every day there is a reblog button. On every post. Except today. I clicked into the title, hoping that by going deeper, I would find what I was looking for. Nothing. I couldn’t understand it at all. There were, in fact, few of the usual options and I could not imagine what had prompted the blogger to make this particular piece unshareable. Or why I suddenly had to fill in a form to leave a comment. Or why, when the theme had not been changed, it should look so different.

They must, I decided, have been the victim of some online horror… trolls, ID theft, hackers… all sorts of scenarios began to roil around in my mind. I thought about my own online presence and its security and wondered if I ought to take the hint and tighten things up. I hoped my friend was okay. These things can be nasty and upsetting. Perhaps I should email to check?

In those few seconds, my reaction to the lack of a simple button was going a long way…and the possible causes and consequences were already starting to pile up in my mind and imagination. Until I realised what the problem was. Between clicking the link in the daily email and arriving at the site, somehow, I had been logged out of WordPress. There was nothing wrong with my friend’s page at all. What was wrong was how I was seeing it; as an ‘outsider’.

I was looking at the page in the same way as any casual visitor to a WordPress blog, if they had no account and therefore did not possess the magic password that admits them to the privileges of the ‘inner circle’. It was an interesting lesson. Because I remain logged in unless WP logs me out, it is a world I never see. Equally, there is a world unseen by non-account holders that contains much more than they would see or could know. They might get intimations of it… reading references to reblogging perhaps or seeing the ease with which the exchange of comments can flow, but it is a world to which they do not have the keys. For a moment, I had joined them, looking at my ‘world’ from the outside in and not only was the perspective strange, but it made me realise  how quickly I had accepted a different reality, becoming used to what I do know and forgetting that I haven’t always been ‘on the inside’.

It was obvious as soon as I realised. With any group, of any kind, those on the inside are privy to knowledge that the uninitiated cannot see clearly, even if there are clues of its presence. It doesn’t have to be anything of great importance… it can be as simple as showing the office newbie where to bang the coffee machine to get it to work…. but there is always some level of inner knowledge that brings a group together and binds the individual threads to a common centre.

We’re all aware that looking at someone else’s life from the outside in only shows us part of the picture…and not always a true one. Even though we know that we cannot see the whole story, we can forget it too. We may not see the tenderness of a father when we look at tattoos and bling…yet it may be there. We do not always see the hidden grief behind the outward smiles. As a species, we are not only adept at assuming masks, but we are pretty good at forgetting they might be there and react by forming an opinion based solely upon the surface; for reaction is instinctive, not considered, and springs from that basic fear that fuels our instinct for survival.

It seems even worse in some ways when you consider how often we judge ourselves in the same way. Even just looking at physical surfaces, how many of us feel we are the ‘wrong’ shape, size or style to fit the mould that others deem good? How much more confidence would we have if those comparisons were never made or thrust upon us?Instead of looking at ourselves from the inside out, we rely on the world to mirror ourselves back at us, accepting that incomplete image as the whole truth and basing our actions upon it. We learn to value ourselves by the reactions of others to the partial person they can see, instead of looking at ourselves as whole and unique, with inner depths not visible to those who see only a glimpse of our true selves.

We are not our reflections, we are ourselves. The world looks from the outside in and sees but a fragment of our being. We can learn to look from the inside out, privy to all our secret depths and gifts; knowing that for every weakness there is a strength that is ours alone and that we are more than the two-dimensional trigger of reaction seen by a passing stranger. And if we look deeper still, to the very core of being, we may find that we are more than we had ever thought.

Open wide

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To love and be loved… something that sits at the heart of every child. It is only as we grow that the accumulated disappointments, the rejections large and small, teach us to shield our hearts against being hurt again. We all get hurt as we grow… even the happiest childhood will carry the shadows of events, unnoticed and unintended perhaps, that have squeezed the little heart tightly. It may be no more than a ‘Not now’ from a busy parent engaged in something that is not safe for the child… with the best of intentions… but to the small person wanting to show that parent a caterpillar they found, it is a rejection. We all suffer them and learn, brick by brick, how to build a defensive barrier around our emotions.

We are taught that emotions have a time and place too. Some are socially acceptable. We can be calm or happy in public… as long as we are not too happy for other people’s comfort. Tears, however, should be a private affair and we learn to swallow them… hide them… except from those to whom we are close enough to let the mask slide. Romance is only acceptable in youngsters… old people may, perhaps, hold hands in public and draw an ‘awww’ from us… but heaven forbid that they have a proper cuddle or kiss. Even our own children see us as too old for ‘that sort of thing’.

Yet is it wrong to have emotions at any age… or merely to display them? For many that becomes an uncertain balance of suppression and repression. Is it wrong to weep for beauty…or for grief? No more so than to laugh out loud for sheer joy… yet both make many uncomfortable. Of course there is a need for self-control… we cannot be ruled by every emotion, displaying and acting upon them at every turn; the world would be untenable. A certain amount of appropriateness must be learned as we go, though our tendency as a society is to stifle all emotional displays.

For all of us there will come a moment when something starts picking away at the defensive walls we have built around our hearts. Something, or someone, will begin to breach our defences… and then we are faced with a choice. Do we let them in, knowing that we leave ourselves defenceless against possible heartache? Or do we shore up the walls with anything we can find to keep our vulnerability protected?

It isn’t always obvious, even to ourselves, how many ways we can find to strengthen the barricades of the heart. We can throw ourselves into a career, with perfectly legitimate goals, seeking security and the rewards of industry…the ‘things’ that distance us from the emotional depths. We might pursue a dream or a cause with a passion… and that passion is fuelled by the same source that we might lavish on a relationship…if we dared. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the dream, the cause or the career in themselves… on the contrary, we need those people who will focus and become the movers and shakers of society. Where it falls down is the ‘why’. Is the focus due to a pure intent to attain the goal, or is it being used to shield a vulnerability that dare not allow a chink of light into the inner fastness of the barricaded heart?

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

On any spiritual path, a path of consciousness, it is through the emotions that we begin to see a wider Love that it is possible to touch. We cannot do so whilst we are immured within the prison of our own fears. We have to live fully, embracing every part of our fragile, beautiful, vulnerable humanity before we can feel what lays both beyond and within us.

When we open ourselves wide to love, we open ourselves to every imaginable heartache as well as every conceivable joy. If we could hook our emotions up to a monitor as easily as we can the heart, for most of us the needle would trace a graph that looks remarkably like a heartbeat as life swings us between the two extremes with periods of quiescence in between. I don’t think that is coincidence… it means we are alive; fully alive, whole and living an emotional journey. That has to be better than flatlining ourselves through fear… don’t you think?

In the shadows

P1110792I woke from little sleep to glorious sunshine and crawled blearily from my bed, which seemed the most comfortable place in the world at that moment, even though it might as well have been a bed of nails the night before. Odd, isn’t it, how the same thing can look so very different depending on how you feel at the time? Take the sunshine… if I was going out to play, instead of heading to work, it would be a gorgeous day! If I were taking the camera out, not that I go anywhere without it, but you know what I mean, I would be delighted to have the backdrop of clear blue as a foil, for instance, to the mellow gold of old stone.

There is something about the stark contrast of the shadows thrown in sunlight, silhouettes dark against warm… that chiaroscuro created by the interplay of bright and sombre. It gives a scene life and texture… even when it is simply crumbling stone. Vistas of long empty spaces, punctuated by doors full of unknown and exciting possibilities yet painted on the canvas of memory, lead the eye and mind into adventure.

Imagination takes flight and spaces are populated with images and stories, flights of fancy or the quest for a deeper understanding of the vision before us. Thought meanders off at a tangent, exploring darkened doorways or gazing from the shadows to the clear sky framed above. Memories are created, images that take up residence in the mind, linking themselves inextricably with emotions and sensations, and the imprint of place remains long after the event has receded in time.

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The darker the shadows, the greater the contrast, the brighter the light appears… which is something we all know, though even that, too, depends on how we feel at the time. We may only notice the shadows, diving or tiptoeing from one dark and unknown doorway to the next through a landscape painted by fear… wondering what monster may lurk around the corner, seeing only a tenebrous labyrinth. The bright patches on the ground then leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable and offer no respite, serving only to mark yet another threshold into the shadow that awaits.

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Yet that light is cast from somewhere. Beyond the shadows there is a source of brightness. It is inescapable. The shadow is cast when something comes in between, blocking the sun. Yet there can be no shade without that source of light. It is always there. Shadows, no matter how deep, are intangible, they are effect, not cause and on the other side of the obstacle you can guarantee the sun is shining.

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We may see the shadows and enjoy their cool respite from a sun too bright. We may be grateful for their softening of the marks of time upon our face. Perhaps they allow us to look up and see the source of light in all its beauty, glimpsed through a window. Sometimes, I think, they are just there so we can see it, be aware of it and understand its presence as we walk through the alternating brightness and shade, enjoying the adventure in all its twists and turns, looking back on the shadows from the warmth of the sun.

The photographs were all taken at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire some years ago.

Uncertainty and renewal

It is spring. The sun is shining. Everywhere there are flowers, trees are heavy with apple and cherry blossom, hedgerows are white with a bridal veil of blackthorn and alive with small birds. It is as if the earth herself is reminding us that this is a time of hope and renewal.

And yet, we are living a through a time of deep and anxious uncertainty. Families and friends who would normally be gathering to celebrate this weekend, whether for religious or social reasons, are now kept firmly apart. Police patrol the streets, the media disseminates fear and, in spite of the known health benefits of fresh air and exercise, and the detrimental effects of loneliness and social isolation, we are all locked away in our homes.

It seems hard to believe and even harder to accept that this is happening. Many of us feel helpless, afraid for our countries, for our loved ones and for the future.

We are not helpless. We can each take responsibility for our own actions and make the most of each day. We can use the time to take stock of how we live and realise what we truly value. We can look at the changes that have been imposed and ask ourselves if any of them might be worth pursuing. We can keep an eye on elderly or vulnerable neighbours… something that was once a part of every community, but which has been largely lost in the hustle and bustle of modern life. And, if we are at home with family and loved ones, we can take the time to be with them in ways our normal busy lives seldom allow.

While our bodies may be restricted by the rules of the ‘lockdown’, our minds and imaginations are free to roam. Our minds are our own and can only be locked down if we let them… we can do with them as we choose. Whether we choose to read, learn, do something creative, virtually visit new places, daydream or make plans, our minds are our own and we do not have to let them succumb to the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that seems all too ready to descend upon us. Both laughter and fear are contagious… and we can spread either.

We can use imagination as a means of finding calm in the swirling sea of emotions too. Meditation benefits health by reducing feelings of anxiety, depression and anger as well as lowering the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. There are many types of meditation… one of the easiest is simply to build a scene in imagination, whether it is an image of a real place or not, and imagine yourself within it… rather like daydreaming. You can take as long as you wish… or just a couple of minutes. There is no time in the realm of imagination.

Sit comfortably, relax, breathe deeply but easily, close your eyes, and build the scene, little by little, until it is as real as you can make it without forcing. You can take a place from memory, from a photograph… or just imagine your ideal haven.

When you have the scene fixed in your mind, try to imagine the sounds and smells, the feel of what is beneath your feet. Then sit with the image for a while in peace.

When you are ready, feel the energy and renewal of spring rising up through your body and draw down the light from the sky… bring them together in your heart. Feel their presence. Let it fill you like an empty vessel. Then, send it out into the world again… as love, or healing, joy or peace… whatever seems right to you. Just offer it back and let it work.

Try it and see how it feels. Or perhaps you might prefer to create your own along similar lines. It is one small way to hold hope, peace and renewal and the calm that you feel will touch others too.

The predator within

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“Don’t worry…”  “It’s probably nothing…” “I’m probably just being daft but…”  How often do we hear words like these, keeping a bright smile firmly glued to immobile faces as fear strides in and starts clawing at our entrails? We recognise fear at those moments, we know its name. It is uncompromising, blatant, uncaring of our fragile mask of polite pretence. We want to act, do something… yet nine times out of ten we are shackled by circumstance, powerless to do anything at all except sit and wait, hoping, praying that the fear is groundless.

There are the fears we call worry that stalk us, like feline predators, silent and sure footed, circling ever closer while we are frozen, eyes locked on those of the beast, waiting for attrition to render us helpless, prey to our own imaginings and anticipation.

Sometimes it feels like we are being slowly gnawed, nibbled away from the ground up while we are chained in a dungeon of other fears… all our attention on the teeth that bite, not seeing that the chains we believe hold us are illusions, wisps of smoke born of unnamed terrors we refuse to look at.

Fear, in all its guises, is a dreadful thing to feel.

Of course, it has its uses. Fear was a very early part of our evolution and served to keep us alive in a hostile world. It still does… though we may not be running from a sabre-toothed tiger, we are beset by physical dangers we barely even notice, being so conditioned to care by our fears at an early age. We don’t consciously fear crossing a quiet, village road… but we still check for the truck that could squash us.

We are very conscious of the ‘big’ fears… and are acutely aware of those which are ‘lesser’, though they may not feel that way when they have you in their grip. They do not have to be reasonable to be painful and punishing. Anyone who saw Jaws when it first came out will probably have thought twice about sea bathing regardless of the fact that the chances of being a victim of a shark attack are one in 11.5 million, whereas one in ten thousand will die of flu, which we regard as a misery rather than a danger.

Fear can be useful in keeping us alive. It is, after all, what evolution designed it to do…protect us from danger. With our complicated lives, however, those primal fears have mutated and gone underground, taking us by stealth like an assassin in the darkness of our minds and emotions; silent, deadly and with little warning or chance of escape. We are conditioned by our own inner ninja.

These fears are more insidious, very difficult to pin down and understand; elusive shape-shifters that are so good at changing their outward appearance that they can be as difficult to see as the wind… we see them only by their effects, when they ruffle our branches or slam our doors. They clothe themselves in other guises, pretending to be things they are not… a fear of flying that is more likely the fear of crashing, a fear of dentists that may be the dread of pain, helpless at the hands of another… and they are just the simple ones.

What of the fear of death? Do we fear death itself… or what might come after? Is it the fear of hellfire, or the loss of our own identity… the ‘who will I be if I am not I’? The fear of commitment that may be the fear of losing control… or of being left alone again. The loss of status, things acquired that show who and what we are… yet mask the true fear that we are not. The layers of fear are so intertwined with our individual experience that they may be impossible for another to unravel completely, triggered as they are by unique combinations of events and experiences. Rather like making a cake. The same basic ingredients, varied infinitely by proportion, skill and the inclusion of flavourings.

It is said there are only five basic fears: extinction, loss of autonomy, separation, mutilation and ego-death… and that all can be attributed to one or the other, or a combination of these. When you think about it, in spite of our seeming multitude of fears, they all fit within these frames. The thing is, we seldom do really think about our fears, we react to them, allowing them to lead us blindly, often preferring to accept the apparent fear than to look beyond to the true root cause. In their purely physical terms they are easily understood, justifiable in the evolutionary attempt to secure survival. Yet they are far more insidious at the emotional levels.

Extinction… worse than just dying; ceasing to be. It is, from the level of our consciousness, unthinkable. Autonomy… powerlessness… to be restricted, subject to the will of a force beyond our control. Separation… utter aloneness, abandonment, exclusion… no longer a person. Mutilation… the loss of self-image through physical, emotional or social damage. Ego death… shame, dissolution of the image we build for  and of ourselves… leaving us unfit, unworthy, unloved. These fears, unrecognised, unseen, affect almost every corner of our lives, shaping our actions and interactions.

When you look at them from this angle, all the emotional fears lead back to one thing… the way we see ourselves. Yet, just as the fear that makes us run from a predator can save our lives, or pain alert us to a potential problem that needs to be addressed, so can these quiet, insidious fears be used to show a way forward. Our fears may stop us falling off a cliff top, but they may also hold us back when adventure beckons. Every good sword has two edges.

Our fears give us something to learn from. They are signposts that we can read, following their trail and finding their lair. As with many things the fear itself may be far more intimidating than the cause, bigger in appearance than in actuality. A mouse wearing giant boots and leaving a false trail.  Finding the mouse can be the beginning of an adventure, a voyage of discovery. Unravelling the tangled web we may face our fears, one by one, measuring ourselves against mouse or monster, and finally learning to see who we really are… and who we might become.

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