Field of dreams..?

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Long, long ago, when the world was still young and I was younger still, I moved into a house with a garden. It wasn’t much of a garden, long-deserted, overgrown and gone to seed, but my mind painted it in rainbows. Since getting married, we had lived in a flat and a ‘street house’ that opened straight onto the pavement. My only forays into gardening had been herbs on the kitchen windowsill. It was the first time I’d had a garden of my very own, though there had usually been one at my parent’s home and my grandparents’ long-established gardens were places of magic and mystery.

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It is odd to think that although I remember every home I have lived in very well, as well as those of my grandparents,  I remember the gardens better. I have but the vaguest of memories of my father’s family home. We probably did not visit all that often as my father was stationed in Kent where we lived in married quarters and I cannot have seen Longfield after I was about three years old. I recall the tiles on the floor of the porch, the billiard table in the cellars, and being helped to slide down the great oak bannister that framed the huge staircase in the hall. Outside, though, my mind still paints the shadows cast by the rhododendrons, the slopes that ran down the hillside into the woodland and the wide expanse of the croquet lawn below the terrace.

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I can still see the garden of the married quarters where we lived in Maidstone until I was three and  where I searched for an absconding tortoise. I could sketch, plant by plant, the gardens of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. It was here that I first began to learn the names of plants as a child and had my first lessons in herb-lore. I learned which were poisonous, which could be eaten or used in the kitchen or for medicinal purposes, and best of all, some of the folk traditions that went with the plants.

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When I finally had a garden of my own, I remember standing outside the back door one winter morning and looking at the mess we had acquired. I had no gardening tools other than a trowel, no plants and no money. All I had was a dream of life and colour.

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I took the kitchen shears to the vast meadow that had once been a lawn and to the overgrown privet hedge twice as tall as me. It took me days to cut the stuff back. Then I started on what had once been flower-beds, removing the obvious weeds, softening the hard, squared corners and trying to identify what might be in there that was worth saving. Dead wood was removed from old roses, unidentified shrubs pruned and woody stems that still bore traces of life cleared of bindweed. By the time I had it tidy, the snow was falling… and I was in love.

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My love affair with plants blossomed through the dark winter days as I read every gardening book I could get my hands on, delved deeper into herb-lore and planned impossibly expensive planting schemes in my mind. In reality, our meagre budget would not run to plants, so I set about nurturing cuttings, raising seedlings and collecting spare plants from everyone I knew. Even so, the huge empty beds were going to look bare for a long time to come.

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As winter deepened and turned the corner into spring, I began to learn the most valuable lesson of gardening…patience.

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With the winter rain and snow, Nature watered the mutilated garden well. The threadbare hedge I had hacked put out new leaves, filling the bare patches and becoming a dense, dark backdrop against which my few flowers would glow. As the seasons turned, the lawn became a vivid green starred with daisies and crocus. Self seeded lupins, dug up from the old railway line, were steadily filling out and patches of pretty ‘weeds’ I had encouraged to grow, like yarrow and loosestrife, were showing promise. I planted what I had acquired and waited.

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Spring brought clumps of snowdrops and aconite, followed by daffodils and tulips. They had been hidden, invisible beneath the soil and were a beautiful surprise. I recognised the poisonous but beautiful leaves of monkshood. The scarlet leaves that had prompted me to leave an untidy clump of plants alone in winter revealed themselves as geraniums. ‘Dead’ roses and an ancient hydrangea recovered and bloomed and a drift of lily of the valley filled the air with fragrance and memory. By midsummer, the dismal mud-patch had become a riot of life and colour, buzzing with bees and a paradise for butterflies. It had done most of it itself, in spite of the efforts of the novice gardener. All I had done was the groundwork.

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I learned a lot from that garden and the lessons have stayed with me, rooting themselves and flowering, bearing fruit that I have plucked and tasted in many areas of my life. The perfect visions I had created in my mind were surpassed by the hand of Nature when she was allowed free rein. But, no matter what had been hidden in that garden, it would not have thrived, nor would I have been able to see it, had I not cut back all the dead and dying material, letting in the light.

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I had worried about the empty beds; I did not realise that the seeds of beauty had been sown long ago and were silently waiting to bloom. So often we think we must strive to achieve something, only to find it is already there, dormant within us, waiting only for our care and attention to grow.

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In the movie, Field of Dreams, there is a phrase oft-misquoted as ‘build it, and they will come.’ I have read the sentiment before, if not the exact words, in Dion Fortune’s book, Moon Magic, when ‘Lilith’ speaks of building the temple in order for it to be indwelt by the gods. No sacred space, be it temple, church or our own being, is truly alive until it is a home for something more than its physical form, no matter how beautiful. No gardener creates the beauty of a flower. We can only clear and create a space, enabling the conditions in which it can grow and bloom.

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Where I now live, I have a small space I laughingly call a garden. I have planned the garden I would like to make, right down to the last detail… knowing it will probably never be anything other than a dream. For now, there are only a handful of rescued plants, no flower beds to speak of and a threadbare patch of grass that cannot be called a lawn. I doggedly exercise a gardener’s patience, waiting to see ‘what happens next’, trusting that when the time is right, the seed of purpose will grow and reveal itself.

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Even so, there is beauty. I need not lift a finger to see the seasons turn, the light change hour by hour or the stars illuminate the night. I need not dig and toil to create what is surpassed by every blossoming dawn. I need only watch to see the birds and insects at work, the dew scatter diamonds on the grass or the small dog fill the space with joy. Dreams are wonderful things, but you have to choose to make them happen, and you have to work to bring them into being. And sometimes, we work so hard chasing dreams that we forget to see the beauty of what is already there.

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Living knowledge

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“Crepuscular!” He was getting desperate now, having exhausted his list of the most obscure words. His face fell as I gave him the definition. He tried another and scowled… “How do you do that?”

“I read.” The words he dangled before me, trying to catch me out, may not be common in verbal usage, but they have cropped up often  enough in books to learn their meaning through meeting them in different contexts and from different angles. Except for unfamiliar technical terms, I don’t look up words when I read. It isn’t necessary to fully understand every word to experience a story… you need, instead, to enter fully into the tale and feel it as you read.  Over decades of reading, you encounter words in so many phrases that your understanding of their layers of meaning evolves and eventually becomes clear.

For me, that seems the best way to expand the vocabulary. It is easy to reach for a dictionary and have some else tell you the skeletal meaning of a word, but a dictionary can only go so far. It cannot teach you about the way an individual writer used the word… or the feelings their characters were going through… the personal interpretation or emotional overlay that goes with a word when it used rather than taught.

A dictionary is a useful tool that gives a cold, clinical definition that gives you a basic sense of a word… a story makes it vivid, bringing a depth of emotion and association to the self-same word. The one teaches from someone else’s perspective, taking a consensus of meaning that allows you to learn about the word, the other allows you to learn from experience and makes it personal… and experience is always the most effective teacher.

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I watched my granddaughter learning the other day. “No!” said her Mum as the little one extended a tentative finger. “Hot.” The small explorer has no concept of ‘hot’. So far, she has not burned herself. She did stop though, because she does have experience of that firm ‘no’. She will undoubtedly burn her fingers one day regardless of parental vigilance… hopefully no more than it takes to understand that ‘hot’ is not good in that particular context. Yet she will also learn that a hot day means sunshine and ice cream…  and that eating dinner while it is hot is also good. One day, she will grow up and learn that ‘hot’ can have a whole other connotation of which she had no idea too.

Life teaches through a process akin to osmosis. It is a natural learning that nourishes understanding, rather than being force-fed and learning by rote. Experience teaches with an immediacy and conviction that cannot be found in knowledge alone. Yet add knowledge to experience and understanding is deepened and enriched, the two working hand in hand to elucidate and illuminate.

When we began to build the Silent Eye, it was this dual approach that we felt would be most useful for those who decided to seek answers through the school. It is of no use to offer answers where there is no question. By the time you are able to formulate a question, you are already aware of a very particular gap in what you know…  and the questions of the spiritual seeker are born largely from pondering a life experience that is unique and personal.

In order to ensure that we could structure the course, Steve created stories, with characters, landscape and scenarios that exemplify and illustrate the spiritual principles we share. These are read and ‘lived’ in the imagination, with intent, and provide a way of exploring things that would be impossible in daily life as, to the mind and emotions, the engaged imagination makes the experience of these inner journeys real. Each month, over the three years of the course, another chapter of the journey is added that deepens the experience… and each month, knowledge is shared that allows the student to add another dimension to their understanding.

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The student submits a brief, weekly journal, working closely with their personal supervisor, a companion who has already walked that part of the path themselves. There is a shared experience that forms the basis for exploring individual experience of the shared journey.

It is a system that not only works well, but expands the creative imagination while adding to understanding… and can be fun too. Instead of dry facts dogmatically taught and learned by rote, the student ‘lives’ an experience, adds knowledge and draws their own vivid and vibrant understanding from each lesson. Such understanding is then as unique and personal as their life experience and far more relevant than the imposed view of another.

Since the birth of the Silent Eye, we have had the privilege of seeing students unfold and stepping into a life both full and aware. It is not by what we teach that we measure the success of the school, but in how the course allows our students to realise their own potential in their daily lives and embrace their own inner joy.


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Click the image to view a free PDF brochure about the Silent Eye’s supervised home study course.

Back seat driver

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The cyclist sailed straight off of the pavement and onto the road. Thankfully, I’d seen him look over his shoulder and was already braking, otherwise it could have been messy. I drive a fair bit and have, over the years, learned, as you do, to read and anticipate what is going on around me. It doesn’t mean I’ll always get it right, it just means I am, like the vast majority of drivers, keeping my eyes open and hoping that if I get it wrong, it will be no worse than an embarrassment.

There is a design flaw in my car too; the pillars either side of the windscreen are so wide that from the driver’s seat they can block an entire car from sight if it is, for instance, coming round a bend or a roundabout. After the first close shave with that, I became even more careful at corners and junctions. It would only take a momentary inattention for a disaster to happen. You could say that by paying attention to known potential problems, I am much more likely to avoid them.

What you can’t predict are the unexpected actions of other road users or unforeseeable events on the road. Then, all you can do is allow that instinctive reaction that has been shaped by habit and training to take over and hopefully avoid an accident. There may not be time to think and it is that training that saves the day when a deer runs out of the undergrowth… or a cyclist sails into the road.

We do the same sort of training through habituation and experience with our personalities too. We learn early when to ‘put on the brakes’ or slow down for a corner. We learn how to pause and observe at a crossroads, considering our options and trying to see our way clear beyond the choices that are presented to us. It is all part of growing up and our underlying character… daring, timid, curious or blasé, will determine how fast or how slowly we take our corners as our personality grows into itself.

There are always the ‘blind spots’ too… like the windscreen pillars that prevent us from getting a clear view in certain situations. They are personal to each one of us and are determined both by experience and how we have first reacted to it, then learned from it, as much as by what really motivates us and the underlying needs of the personality.

Most of us come up against those blind spots with alarming regularity and quite often it is others who see them before we do… just as a passenger riding alongside us in a vehicle will have a slightly different view and perspective of the road than we who are driving.

It is not until we ourselves become aware of the blind spots that we are able to factor them into our choices and behaviour, but once we are aware, then it is difficult to overlook them when they come into play.

We may find ourselves going round in circles; the circumstances different every time, but an underlying current is essentially the same and stems from our own inner needs… for reassurance, for love, for freedom or validation. The real reasons for these cyclical events are not external but lie deep within our own heart and mind. The only way to stop going continually round the roundabout is to break the cycle and find an exit… and we can’t do that till we know where we are… and where we are trying to reach.

Anyone can make a car move by learning the basic controls, but it takes training to learn how to drive safely on the roads. You can learn on your own on private land, read the books on road safety and observe what others do, but it is not until you are in heavy traffic and driving at speed that you really understand what driving a car is all about. And at that point it is both useful and reassuring to have a qualified driver sitting next to you. It only on the roads that you truly become aware of the potential problems and develop the habits and training that let you see them before they occur and know how to either avoid or lessen their impact.

Although the analogy is close, it isn’t perfect where life is concerned. You can learn from experience… there are no private roads, as everything any of us may do with have some impact on others. Books alone can do nothing to teach us how to live, but books in conjunction with our own understanding can teach a very great deal when we apply what we have learned to our lives. And sometimes it is both useful and reassuring to have someone beside you who knows the roads and its pitfalls.

Friendship is a great teacher, founded as it is in trust. Experience is an effective teacher… but it is not always painless. Schools, groups and organisations, such as the Silent Eye, can travel with you and provide guidance. But the best teacher is the unseen presence of the back-seat driver in every one of us, who sees both the driver and the road and just happens to have the perfect map. Learning to listen to its silent direction will get us where we need to be.

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The bike sheds of heaven

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It wasn’t always the bike sheds. Sometimes it was the tennis pavilion. Or, in winter, the air vent near the boiler room. We fondly imagined that the teachers had no idea, of course, that it was here that we congregated to gossip, apply illicit lipstick, smoke forbidden cigarettes or meet one of the boys from the neighbouring school. It was here that romance lurked in the shadows…or occasionally in the bushes… where the abhorred cherry-red beret, otherwise worn at the regulation angle, was discarded and where the horrid white socks were exchanged for more womanly hosiery before we left the premises.

Whilst the majority of the girls still studiously spent their time on more acceptable pursuits in the library or debating society, we were the rebels… the bad girls of the Grammar School… the ones who would be regularly hauled in front of the terrifying deputy headmistress for our perfidy…

Except, we weren’t of course. We were just prototype women on the verge of adulthood, stretching our wings within a cage of rules and regulations. We were doing what countless generations of teenagers have done before… what, perhaps, even the dragon of a deputy head had also done in her day… We were learning about life. Making mistakes, learning how to deal with them… but we were learning through experience, the best teacher of them all.

I never thought of myself a rebel. I was just lucky to be part of that particular group. It had a vibrancy and a life that was lacking within the prim corridors of the school, where uniforms encouraged uniformity. We were expected to leave those hallowed halls fluent in Latin, Domestic Science and socially acceptable mediocrity. It was an era where, in spite of the burned bras of the previous generation, the majority of women were still expected to simply marry and raise children after a few years of suitable employment. And, of course, the heads of the school were of an older generation still.

I had moved to the school less than two years before, when my parents had moved home, leaving the progressively modern school I had attended with its excessively modern syllabus and had been forced to rethink all my exam options… “We don’t do art here, dear… How about Latin instead?” More than that, the stringency of the social expectations the place raised irked me. I couldn’t wait to leave and get out into the world. The headmistress was horrified when I chose to leave and become a window dresser at the earliest opportunity. She would have been even more appalled had she known the team I travelled with were all male!

I still didn’t see myself as any kind of rebel and ended up following a fairly normal and domesticated path. It didn’t last long. It is only in retrospect that I see that the Bohemian decades, painted in shades of Paris and music, became rather more unusual. Then, I embraced the normality of my days without a second thought.

Yet a glance over my shoulder at the path I have followed shows it to be peopled with rebels, misfits and the extraordinary people I have been privileged to meet; ordinary people living their own unique journey, extraordinary minds and talents… people whose stories could fill book after book with unusual tales and viewpoints. People who are, in spite of how the world may see them, anything but ordinary….and who are and have been my friends.

While my body, to all outward appearances, walked the long-accepted path of womankind, my mind, in the company of those friends, was led to explore strange avenues, discovering in both the gutter and the stars a joyous and exciting beauty in life itself. In many ways, it is not I who have shaped myself … it is the trail of sparkling thought left by others for me to explore.

These are the rebels… many whose lives conform to utter respectability and some who choose to conform to no societal standard… ‘ordinary’ people from all walks of life… yet their minds and hearts have found the freedom to fly. These are the people who embrace life and experience and live it to the full and in doing so touch a wider existence than the neat lawns of suburbia. These are the ones I hope to meet one day, congregating behind the bike sheds of heaven.