The spiritual minefield

“’Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought,’” said my son, reading out the daily inspirational quote he has delivered to his phone. “It says it is by Basho. Who’s he?”
“Seventeenth century Japanese poet.” It was a short answer, but enough for the question.
“Okay, Google,” he said with disgust. He was not using voice commands…that is one of the politer names he calls me.

It was a good quote though, when I had just been writing up another of our visits to an ancient sacred site. It summed up perfectly why these places matter so much to us and what it is we find there. We do not seek to return to an earlier time or belief system, but to move beyond the imposed and acquired dogma of our times. Somewhere, beyond both the beliefs of the ancients and our own, is the source of the questions mankind has asked of both his heart and the heavens; whatever path we have chosen to follow and in whatever era we have lived, ultimately our goal is the same.

The symbols we use, the stories we believe, or in which we have faith, all arose from a need to understand. We want to know about the origins of life and our planetary home, our place in the cosmos and the forces that shape all we know. We want to know why we are here, and what is the purpose of it all.

We have sought answers to how we should live and developed moral codes by which we are supposed to abide. Some are practical… if we must live as part of a community, then there are basic behaviours by which we abide. Other rules we have made and think of as universal, yet across time and culture, they too have changed and shifted their parameters so much, and so often, that mankind starts wars because we cannot agree on the basic details of how we ought to live. Or how our gods should behave.

At one point in history, gods could be vengeful, jealous, permissively polyamorous and sometimes downright vicious. Another era sees its gods…or at least their priests… exercising strict control over every aspect of their people, while yet another time sees the gods as loving, forgiving and nurturing. And sometimes, the same god, over the course of time, will run the gamut of all of the above.

Within their time and place, all these manifestations were acceptable to the populace. They filled a need that matched the era and culture… and when they ceased to fill it, new gods came in to supplant them. But the same questions remained.

There is knowledge to be had about our planet and solar system. We now know a great deal about how nature actually works. We can see brain activity and are busily engineering nano-robots to send into the body to fix its problems. The scope of human knowledge is vast, even if there is still far more to learn than we can know or imagine at this moment. But all these things are just facts.

The questions held in the recesses of the human heart and mind cannot be answered so simply and the answers must be found by each of us, in our own way and our own time. Only knowledge can be transmitted. Knowledge may point a way, but it cannot grant understanding, only show us what and where someone else sought and found their own answers.

And then there is the dichotomy of seeking and not-seeking. The only way we know how to find anything is to look for it, or stumble across it by accident. We are told by spiritual teachers and philosophers that we should seek and strive to grow… and told by just as many of them that we should neither seek nor strive, but just be. We are promised paradise if we adhere to one set of rules or another, and a thousand shades of torment if we choose the wrong path. And that path can be any or all of the ones who promised paradise in the first place.

Spirituality is a minefield. So, what is a seeker, especially when we are not supposed to seek, supposed to do?

Seek what they sought. Look beyond the stories to why they were told… beyond the dogma, the rules and conventions and listen for what sings to your heart. We may be too small to encompass the entire understanding of Creation, but we may get a glimpse that sheds enough light on our path to carry us forward. It matters little upon which path we begin, for once we have found a song of the soul that calls to us, the path chooses us and it lives in truth within us.

A Landscape of Images III

scotland trip jan 15 126

The blue pyjamas are the colour of his eyes. He smiles at his son as he snuggles closer into his arms, fingers unconsciously curling the fabric of his shirt… just as he used to play with that blanket he trailed everywhere when he was younger. The child’s eyes are wide as his father turns the page and the great Lion looks out from the magical landscape of the book. He reads the words on the page, remembering his own childhood, snuggled close to his own mother, seeing that same image look out into their eyes. She had loved the Lion too. She still did.

It is hard to see the words, eyes misted with memory, he blinks and continues the story, sharing the magic that taught him so much without ever knowing. He hopes his son will love the tales as he does and will carry them in his heart. Maybe one day he’ll share them with his grandchildren….He remembers every picture….He’d been a lot older when he eventually understood…

scotland trip jan 15 133

Our stories are images built in the imagination and communicated verbally, visually or written within the pages of a book. We hide so much in stories. Sometimes unconsciously, leaving it to the listener, the reader, the eye that sees to discern what lies beneath the surface of the tale. The teller will reveal much about themselves by the choice of word or the image created. For every tale tells not only its own story but that of the teller. How much we hear depends on how open we are to experience, perhaps, and how much we choose to see.

For a story is flat and empty until it is shared, it is the listener that brings to it the emotion and imagination that give it life. A painting says nothing until it is seen, a book remains silent until it is read. They simply wait, the sleeping beauties of imagination, for the kiss that awakens them. To hear a story is to give it life.

Yet how much we hear depends not only on how carefully we listen, but how we listen and what we can bring to our relationship with the story. You would not expect a child who has just learned his letters to understand much of a book on, say, quantum mechanics, but give the same child a storybook about the old myths and legends and he might well grasp the same basic principles at an almost instinctive level. Where the text-book would be an incomprehensible blur of words, the stories of gods and heroes paint pictures in the mind and they remain, becoming enriched with experience and understanding as the child grows.

Within the myths and legends of mankind much has been hidden, preserved in symbolic and allegorical form and they speak to us on many levels. We can relate to these ‘human’ gods and superhuman heroes by reason of our own humanity and shared experience. Their journeys are an attempt to explain, perhaps, the mysteries of the natural world… the passing of the seasons, the cycle of life, where birth comes from the apparent face of death, life follows birth and death follows life… only to be transformed into birth again.

Our earliest ancestors looked out upon this world and framed what they saw in stories that reached the heart through the imagination. As man and his questions became ever more sophisticated, the stories evolved, couching abstract concepts and ideas within the age-old tales. It is almost universal that the mythology of any culture goes back beyond memory or history to a time before time was…to the Creation and before… an attempt to answer the questions that arise in all of us.

Stories travelled and changed with each retelling, taking on the character of the teller, coloured perhaps by the season, the place, the landscape… the politics of the local priesthood or rulership… and the myths rooted in different forms in the places they reached.

Yet if we look at the stories mankind has told there are striking similarities beneath the surface. All the mythological systems have some common themes… the star-crossed lovers, the trickster, the good versus evil and the unlikely heroes. All have the slayers of monsters or demons, their tales of magic and the parallels with fertility, life and death.

Many theories have been propounded, arguing for a common psychological expression of religious impulse through to a simplistic attempt to explain the seasonal growth of vegetation. It has been argued that all the stories are poetic allegories for spiritual truth and , at the other end of the scale, that they are nothing but linguistic misinterpretations… where the functions of the gods arise from the words for their names and the stories are built upon them.

I have a feeling there is an element of truth to all of the theories and that the birth of the mythologies arises in as much complexity as the multi-layered mind of man.

What is certain is that there is something in these old tales that speaks to us at a very deep level of intuitive understanding. We can see the morals clearly in some of them, get a grip on the abstract through others and relate to all of them on an emotional level of personal engagement and life experience in spite of the passage of millennia.

With the Egyptian myths we have the most complete record of how a system evolves over the centuries and scholars can chart the rise, evolution and demise of the various versions across the landscape of Egypt in both time and space.

From the simplest of stories a cosmogony evolved which encapsulated much of Egyptian history, culture and religious change. Between the words and images that remain we have a window into the minds of those who walked the Two Lands.

We can read their stories for entertainment, much as they would have been told around the hearths of old to while away the hours of night.

We can read them as they might have been told by the priests to the populace and see through their eyes something of the sacredness of the world, learning to see once again that same wonder in our own world, where the landscape is alive and as holy as the gods themselves.

Or we can look at them as the priesthood may have seen them and read a deeper meaning behind the images and relationships of the gods, seeing in their interaction the story of all things… of mankind and his fallibility, of the relationships between man and nature as well as between man and that which he perceives as greater than all… the Source of Being from whence all arose.

We can read them in another way also, and see ourselves in the gods, understanding the fractured facets of wholeness that make up our personalities and see that as the gods are both the fragments and the product of the One, then so are we a fragmented whole…. pieces of a cosmic jigsaw puzzle waiting to be reassembled…. and in doing so might see that we too are of the same essence as the gods.

I have a feeling that the best way to read them is as a child would read, with an openness to wonder and wondering, without analysing too much, or dwelling on the apparent inconsistencies and impossibilities that the adult rejects but the child accepts without a blink.

Perhaps we just need to remember how to listen with the heart.

Appendix III, The Osiriad