Fooling ourselves…

As soon as you start to mention the whole mind over matter thing, scepticism immediately cuts in like an automatic safety mechanism to keep you on the right side of reality and sanity. Vague visions of objects floating across a room by the use of telekinetic powers are accompanied by the eerie strains of 70s sci-fi TV and straight away, you are unconsciously looking for the wires.

As an idea, it isn’t quite so far-fetched though. There are good reasons to believe that the mind can influence matter and that the body can influence the mind.

Smiling is a good example. We smile when we feel happy, yet it is equally true that we feel happy when we smile. Even if it is a forced smile, by activating the muscles around the mouth and eyes in imitation of a smile, the brain is fooled into thinking we must have something to smile about. Our internal chemistry adjusts accordingly, stress levels drop and we actually feel happier. Research done over the years suggests that the smile, even forced or faked,  can affect how we interpret and feel about the world around us too. The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that we create a feedback loop with our facial expressions that are not just an effect of emotions, but which, in their turn, affect emotions.

It is well-known that depression alters our appearance. So does happiness. Even simple things, like the way we dress, can influence our mood and self-confidence dramatically and, in turn, that influences the way we see ourselves in face of the world and crucially, how the world then sees us.

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In this day and age where so many of have access to the latest scientific theories, we can hardly avoid the debates that rage around certain areas of science. Most of us, for example, will have at least a passing acquaintance with the idea of the observer effect in quantum mechanics where it is postulated that the act of observation alone may alter the movement of particles. The scientists get very excited about the whole idea and the philosophers pile in with their speculations on the nature of reality. The trouble is that for the vast majority of us, such high-flown stuff is of little practical use and, regardless of how fascinated we might be by the theories, they are unlikely to change our day-to-day lives any time soon.

There are areas of science, though, that do profess to be able to do just that. One of the most popular TED talks is a presentation given by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, where she discusses her findings  about the effects of non-verbal communication, or body language to the majority of us. Although her scientific findings have been questioned by other scientists seeking to replicate the results, the talk is interesting in itself. It highlights the use of posture and how, even by faking it, we can make ourselves feel more confident and, as she puts it, more powerful. She looks at the way the animal kingdom uses posture to express personal power and relates it to human body language. It isn’t at all far-fetched… we too are animals and there is no reason to suppose that Nature has given us a special dispensation to break away from the basics of animal behaviour.

One of the phrases that Ms Cuddy uses takes the idea of faking it one step further than the usual ‘until you make it’. “Fake it until you become it”, she suggests. It is an excellent phrase with which to end the presentation, but as an idea, it is far from new. Íñigo López, better known as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who was instrumental in the founding of the Society of Jesus in the mid 16th century, suggested that we should put ourselves in the position of prayer and we would soon pray, which is simply another way of saying the same thing.  The Jesuits, following the principles outlined in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, engage the imagination in order to enter into creative visualisation and experience, rather than simply read about, the life and mission of Jesus. The psychological principles are sound as the brain and emotions react to what is seen and experienced by the mind’s eye in a very similar way to how it reacts to a more concrete reality. This is why guided journeys such as we use in The Silent Eye, meditation and creative visualisation are such powerful exercises… and why the pictures of the feelgood ‘cute kitten’ is always a winner on the internet; both allow us to experience emotion in the safety of our own imagination.

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In the Mysteries we learn the techniques for the creation of the ‘magical personality’. It is through this that we learn how to function effectively in our role. On one level, this persona is a no more than a construct built in the imagination, but imagination alone is not enough to make it real, for it to be effective in the ‘real’ world, we must believe in it and the strongest belief in ourselves comes from seeing that belief mirrored back at us through the eyes of others. Just like the smile, a feedback loop is created that, once set in motion, picks up momentum and continues to reinforce itself.

Just as an actor dons a mask of wears the make-up and costume of his character in order the ‘feel the part, we too can assume a mask. Not to hide behind or pretend that we are something we are not, but to show to the world and ourselves what truly lies within, buried beneath the fears and insecurities that have held us back and stifled our possibilities. We can change our own perception of ourselves and how we face the world.

Does it matter if scientists and philosophers spend their time arguing and seeking the validity of reproducible evidence or demonstrable theories? All most of us want is to feel better about ourselves, more confident, happier. We want to feel we can face the world with our head held high and a smile on our face that comes from the heart. Maybe all it takes to begin that process it to wear the smile we want the world to see and, looking into the mirror of each other’s eyes, we too can see that smile and begin to believe it.

Troubled reflections

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.

“All the world’s a stage…”

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Photo by Nick Verron

“I remember them mainly by their character names…” We were talking about the people we had met over the years at various workshops we had attended before the birth of the Silent Eye and how the assumed persona of their roles overlaid memory.

“I don’t remember ‘my’ name from Alchemy…”

“I do… and I was scared stiff… but when it was my turn to introduce myself as my character, it wasn’t me who stepped forward, but the opera singer…”

It is odd how these things work. Talk about casting against type! Back then, I was quiet, shy, inexperienced and completely lacking in self-confidence… and, as far as I was concerned, couldn’t sing at all. Yet they had cast me as an internationally renowned opera singer; a diva with absolute confidence in her fame and sure of her place in the world. We were poles apart… about as far as you could get. Yet… I managed to portray the character, stepping into the role with surprising ease in front of a room full of people I considered my superiors in knowledge, experience and confidence. I even managed to make them laugh! And my surprise was complete when several people complimented me on ‘her’ grand entrance. Thankfully, I was supposed to be ‘resting’…I didn’t have to sing…

We talked about that… about how easy it is to leave the day-to-day self behind when we assume the mask provided by such a role. It is one of the reasons we use this method in the workshops, after all.

And we had, of course, been looking back on the River of the Sun … and looking forward too, to Leaf and Flame, next year’s April workshop, already underway as far as the creative process is concerned. As we have the broad outlines of the story we will be using, as well as a number of bookings, there was the almost inevitable pause as we considered who would be best in some of the ‘roles’ we will be writing for Leaf and Flame.

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The annual workshop is played out in the form of a ritualised story. Each person is given a fully scripted ‘role’ for the weekend. Unlike a theatrical production there is no requirement to learn lines or to be able to act. Just to be there and read from the script. Of course, the more we enter into the spirit of the role, and the more we get to know our ‘characters’, the more vivid the experience becomes. Robes and costumes simply add to the ‘alternative reality’ we create…and these roles are never allocated at random, though we may sometimes think that they are.

For example, there was, in my mind, only one person who could ‘be’ Amkhren, the young man brought into the Temple in River of the Sun to be initiated into his role as a priest in the Egyptian Mysteries. Which was odd, as we weren’t even certain he was coming until quite late in the day and the role had been ‘his’ from very early on in the writing process, long before I, for one, knew how the story would unravel. As it turned out, the personal journey that unfolded for him, and for those closely involved with it, could hardly have been more appropriate in symbolic terms. Yet outwardly, you wouldn’t necessarily pick the tallest person there to play a child… yet somehow the role ‘fit’ in a way that transcends logic.

The roles are not simply theatrical constructs; they are portrayals of the principles with which we work and shadow forth in symbolic terms aspects of the way human consciousness aligns with spiritual principles and the nature of the divine essence behind life itself. The assumption of one of these roles can leave a deep and lasting understanding at levels beyond logical thought. What is learned may take a while to bubble back up to the surface, but for those who attend, it is a magical experience in more ways than one.

Image by Matt Baldwin-Ives
Image by Matt Baldwin-Ives

All of these roles present you with a ‘mask’… a persona that lifts you from the everyday world and allows you to express yourself without the normal constraints of modern society. This is, after all, a fictional world we create. To be ‘typecast’… playing a role that aligns with your own character or spiritual journey allows you to explore your own psyche and its relationship to the world in ways not normally possible. You can observe the interaction from a unique and fascinating angle. To be cast against type allows that exploration in new and uncharacteristic ways, highlighting those interactions through contrast between the role and the world beyond the workshop and such roles have an empowering effect that lasts long after the weekend is over.

Add to that the effects of working in a group, where a shared and sacred intent and the combined energies of those present raise a simple room to a temple of the Mysteries and you have a recipe for true magic… and magic has been defined as creating change.

I thought back to the ‘mouse’ who had been cast as the opera singer… and had once been cast as a queen of the Fae who had ‘forgotten her origins’. That too had been apt. Then I thought back to the birth of the Silent Eye and the woman who had worn vivid red and orange robes the same colour as her hair… a woman who had opened the very first weekend workshop by singing, in public… and in tune!

Does magic work? Define your terms… If what you ask is ‘does what we do create positive change?’ then my personal answer would be a resounding ‘Yes!’ I am no longer the mouse I used to be, but the woman I am supposed to be. Still a work in progress, but nevertheless… whole. And happy.

But don’t just take my word for it… come along to one of our events and meet us… and see for yourself.

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