Another country…

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Claude Nougaro

“…and Claude Nougaro,” said my boss, brandishing the baguette. Her husband nodded. The three of us were at the dinner table, lingering over the cheese as usual. My employers had asked how I was managing, living in France. I had been there a couple of months, arriving with no more than schoolgirl French and was getting along quite well. I had made friends of many nationalities in Paris, shopped, dined and travelled in French and was fast learning the difference between the stiff formality of the language I had been taught in school and the laid-back colloquial version as spoken by Parisiens. I was even getting to grips with the local ‘argot’… those slang terms which, if they are in the dictionary at all, are used in an entirely different way from that suggested by their definition.

One thing I could not do, though, was grasp song lyrics. If I could read the words as I listened to music , I had no problem, but plucking the words from the music? I had no chance.

The French like music and my employers were passionate listeners. From jazz through pop to the classics, music was very much a part of our lives. I learned a huge amount from them about areas of music I had barely touched upon before and I had the use of their enormous and eclectic collection of vinyl and cassettes. But I struggled to understand anything with words. Music felt, quite suddenly, as though it was a world to which I had no key. I would see eyes filling with tears or sharing a glance sparkling with laughter at the lyrics of a song… and have no idea why. I knew this other world was there, just waiting for to be explored… but to ears unused to the nuances of its expression, understanding seemed as impossible to reach as the Otherworld.

I explained this to my employers and they came up with a list of singers I should explore. It started with artists whose diction was clear, but soon became a lesson in the music and poetry dear to the national heart… laying out before me yet another world, another layer of reality.

So I started listening, really paying attention, catching phrases here and there. Sometimes, although I could mimic the sounds, it would take a while for the words to separate out enough for me to recognise them… and sometimes they were words not yet in my vocabulary.

And then, one day, I was doing the housework and not thinking about the music at all. I realised, quite suddenly, that I had been singing along to the tape that was playing. It stopped me in my tracks. Not only did I understand the lyrics, but I also grasped the layers of meaning implied by them, could see the way the writer had played with the words, understand the symbolic landscape painted by the song. When had that happened? After that, there was no stopping me. I eventually married a French musician, wrote songs with him and my reality became a world of music.

It was driving home from work yesterday that took me back. I was singing along to an album by Claude Nougaro and, although it is now more than thirty years since I was last in France, neither the language nor the lyrics have left me. Some doors, once opened and stepped through, never close.

It occurred to me that the same leap of understanding happens in many areas of life. We struggle to grasp a new concept, a new and pertinent language… without which we do not even have the most basic chance of the proverbial lightbulb moment. And then, very often at a moment when we are neither concentrating nor struggling to ‘get there’, the light comes on. It is as if some unconscious process has synthesised all the random bits of information we have gathered, all the groundwork we have done, all the hints and intimations… and, deciding that the sum is greater than its parts, assembles a whole from the fragments, filling in the spaces between scraps of knowledge with intuitive understanding.

It is the same when you study the Mysteries. Those moments of utter illumination that come out of the blue and with no prior, conscious knowledge do happen, but they are rare indeed. There is a theory that such moments come from unlocking the memories of previous lifetimes, from the unconscious mind that pays more attention to life than the surface mind, or even that something is  passed down at a cellular level as part of the genetic memory.

For most of us, though, such clarity of vision comes only after putting the foundations in place. We study, meditate and learn, accumulating knowledge about ourselves and the path we have chosen until we come to a fork in the road. For some, it is that accumulation of knowledge that matters the most and they may go on to become lore-keepers, hoarding or making knowledge available to posterity, adding to its store for others.

Many, though, will take a step onto an unknown path, and, like the Fool of the Tarot, carrying unseen treasures in his knapsack, will walk towards a new landscape in trust. That journey is very much like setting out into a foreign land, where the ‘vocabulary’ of reality is different. And, although knowledge is necessary as a starting point, it is understanding… that unteachable knowledge of the heart… that leads to those moments of clarity when the doors of perception are opened.  And those doors, once opened, never close.

Thought without words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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