Birds of a Feather

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That the birds were there first means little to Ani. It is, as far as she is concerned, her garden and she decides who gets to play in it. Apart from the stray babies, those she makes an exception for and will even call the cavalry to their rescue. There is no malice in her vociferous warnings to the feathered fiends who invade her space. In fact, she grins all the time she is chasing them off.

The cat next door, on the other hand, stalks them silently, moving a whisker at a time, closing in for that final, fatal pounce.

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Me, on the other hand, I like birds. I love to hear them herald the morning as I wake, the first light washing the bedroom in pale colour. I love to watch them darting around the garden, or soaring in the blue above. They are creatures of grace and beauty who carry music within and rise above the landscape, seeing it with eyes other than my own. In quiet moments imagination lends me their wings and I can rise with them to greet the dawn.

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The three of us watch the same sparrow on the fence from completely different viewpoints, with different emotions and imperatives fuelling our actions. I suppose we are simply following the dictates of our own species and nature. Yet these are neither inevitable nor unchangeable. There are many cats that never chase a bird. There are probably few dogs who warn them off quite so joyfully. And as a human being, I could simply ignore them, see them as a source of food or raw materials, or even through the eyes of myth and legend.

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The three of us are not so very different after all. It is a personality shaped by instinct and experience that impels our individual reactions to the birds every day. Ani sees them as both invaders to be warned away and playthings with which she can have fun. The cat I don’t know personally… for some reason, Ani refuses that acquaintance… so I cannot say whether it is the thrill of the chase, or a quest for dinner that drives it. For me it is many things. Memories of being taught their names and stories as a child, the simple love of their beauty and the knowledge of the thread of life that binds us, associations that run deeper than the surface, perhaps.

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I remember my grandfather explaining a picture in a book to me, when I was very young, where the heart was weighed against the feather of truth. There is more to that than the simple lightness, for Horus, the Divine Child of the Egyptian faith, was depicted as a hawk and truth was a goddess with a feather in her hair. The Egyptians, indeed, had many birds associated with divinity, from the Benu bird, a symbol of rebirth, to the protective vulture goddess Nekhbet. Odin had his ravens, a story brought to life for me on a first visit to the Tower of London, observing their curiosity and intellect in action. Christianity has the Dove and the Pelican. Symbolism,  folklore and fairytales are littered with feathers.

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Experience shapes us in ways we often cannot see. The innate nature can be overridden by learned behaviours, habits and acquired reactions that may seem obvious to those looking on, but to which we ourselves are blind until something throws them into sharp relief. These habits can be both positive and negative, overcoming inner battles or seeing us lost in a sea of fears. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

But we do not have to be a slave to our reactions, there is always that poised instant when we stand at the crossroads of choice and can break the cycle if we so will it and, to paraphrase the famous quotation, be the change we wish to see in ourselves.

Bittersweet

The misty dawn blushed a soft, rosy pink, probably  embarrassed by the number of clichés it was inviting. It had begun with a delicate glow, suffusing the rising mist with gold as I shivered on the doorstep, then painted the world in pastel colours, as gentle as an apology. As the sun rose, the temperature plummeted, the swirling mists turned to fog and you could almost see the ice crystals forming. Another morning was born…

The sudden frost highlighted every detail of plants still resolutely green, each strand of spider silk and the edge of every fallen leaf. The ordinary became beautiful. Details that are overlooked a hundred times a day were limned in crystal and became unmissable… yet, but for necessity, I would have taken the option of comfort, stayed warm indoors and seen nothing. As I scraped the ice from the windscreen of the car, I was once again struck by how simple it is to learn the lessons of life by observing Nature at work. My own experience of the morning was one of frozen fingers and yet, the bitter frost served only to highlight a beauty that might otherwise have been missed.

Necessity and inevitability so often lead us into bitter and painful situations, but without them as a contrast, would we…could we…truly appreciate all that is right in our world? Would we notice a dawn if the sky always wore the colours of sunrise or do we need to experience darkness in order to understand the essence of light? Looking around too, I noted that while some plants were still green and would remain so in spite of the coming cold of winter, others were sere and brittle, giving every appearance of being mere skeletons of the vibrant life they once wore. Yet here too, Nature teaches, for beneath the soil, those brittle bones wait only for spring to grow once more… different in appearance, perhaps, but still essentially the same.

There was nothing new in those thoughts… no fanfare, no great revelation. It was no more than a gentle reminder, a reassurance that we are never called upon to make sense of this world and its upheavals on our own. There is always a teacher on our doorstep, always a deeper wisdom than our own, older and with experience of all that has ever been. It knows the tides of night and day, of winter and summer, freedom and necessity…and it is poised to teach us, every day. We do not always listen, we are wayward students and easily distracted, but the earth knows her children well and repeats her cycles, waiting for our chattering minds to quiet and allow us to understand. And when we do…when we listen… sometimes, it seems as if she smiles.

Magical mornings

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It was a luminous dawn, the world blanketed in a thick cocoon of frost against the darkness and silence of a newborn morning. The sun rose, pale and gold, strewing a million diamonds on the tarmac path; setting a fire in the heart of ice. There is a magic in the morning light that seems to bathe even the hard edges of winter in a soft glow. Where the light streams, its gentle warmth sends showers of tiny droplets glinting to earth, yet where the shadows hang heavy, the frost lingers, clinging to the day with hoary fingers.

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Looking down, splashes of unexpected colour stand out against the whitened world… the scarlet stalks of ivy and bramble, the earth tones of autumnal remains and the vibrant shades of the evergreens. Details, hitherto unnoticed, leap to the attention, thrown into relief by the blank canvas of the frost. Shapes unseen are highlighted; fractal patterns that seem to hold the story of creation in their humble familiarity.

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Looking up, the birds are waking, stretching chilled wings against the morning. I wonder at them… their delicate frames and fragile bones kept safe through the frozen night by no more than a feather. So tiny, so light, yet they can fly against the storm winds and through the battering of the rains. This morning I watched the sparrows as they woke, fluffing their plumage as we might shake an eiderdown. Such busy little birds, clinging to the smallest perch to watch the day begin.

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Light strikes the trees, turning them golden as the sun rises higher, painting the doves pink and waking the jackdaws in a flurry of wings. On the low roof the frost crystals turn the little clumps of moss into the hollow hills and forests of a faery landscape where imagination walks, painting tales of otherworlds to be explored. Even the cars are clad in jewelled fur that makes them look like the surface of some fantastic planet.

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I love mornings like this. They truly are magical, both to see and to ponder, when the delicate overlay of a winter frost changes everything and yet the beauties revealed by the frost are always there, just waiting for us to see them. We are blind to the familiar world, habituated to its presence. It takes change to open our eyes and hearts to what is already there waiting for us. In this way such a morning reflects the journey of the seeker; turning to face the light of being and seeing that no matter how far the journey may lead him, no matter how many changes may come, his destination has always been a place he never left.

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Eyes to See

“By virtue of Creation, and still more the Incarnation,
nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I remember one hot, summer’s day as a child, laying in the long, tickly grass of the field behind my home, watching the clouds race. All around me I could hear the bees and insects buzzing away, drowning the distant traffic noise and the passing train. As I write I can smell again that particular perfume of hot earth, sweat and new mown grass, with a little tang of melting tar hovering as an afternote. I watched as a ladybird and a very strange caterpillar made their way to the tip of the burdock, neither bending the leaves, but moving lightly as if that was where they belonged.

I knew, even then, that I was lucky. I had been raised in a family where belief in the unusual was as commonplace as knowledge of the divine, yet there were never any labels affixed that limited those beliefs and I was free to find what spoke to my own heart.

I did not know what God might be, nor did it matter… It just Was. Some saw Him as depicted in the Churches, others had a more abstract idea…some took a more pragmatic view, others a spiritual one. But though I learned of their ideas, none told me this was what I had to believe. So, for me, I could, on that day, look up at the heavens from my cocoon of grass and feel myself held in the hand of a God of which I was a part.

As I grew older and learned to live with others, growing as I was, I watched and learned how beliefs are imposed by parents and teachers, even by culture. It is natural, of course, for a parent who, through faith, feels they have found the answers they have sought to pass these to their children as a gift, hoping, perhaps, to gift that beauty and spare the child the quest for answers.

But I saw, too, where people were forced to accept beliefs that did not sing to their own inmost heart and, in accepting them, lose the light in their own eyes. The faith, for these, goes little deeper than the lip-service and they are left adrift, serving an ideal from which they feel divorced.

Through my teenage years, I shied away from the word ‘God’, as do many who follow an esoteric path. It conjured too many conflicting images in my own mind, from the gentle Jesus to the avenging and jealous God that I could not reconcile. Then, too, in a nominally Christian country, I realised it would do the same for others, and each would bring their own interpretation to any conversation where the Name was used.

But I never really found another way of referring to It that everyone would understand. It is easy to write and avoid the word, a capital letter here and there makes it plain. But in speech it does not work that way.

So now, I look around me at the beauty of the world, trying once more to leave the imposed definitions behind me and simply see the glorious details with the eyes of that child, so long ago. And I can speak of God, for whatever It is to another’s heart, It is the One to me, and we are part of It and so is the world in which we live. I do not need to explain or define, I do not even need to understand. Just to perceive It and know It is enough.

Between the cracks

I wandered out into the early morning garden, clad in sandals and dressing gown, in search of The Ball. The dog had hidden the darned thing again and stood at the door grinning, while I did what I was expected to do and looked for it. The Ball… the only one of the two dozen she owns that is no longer a ball but merely a few disintegrating shreds of furry rubber… can turn up anywhere… in any room…even in a cupboard. But, in spite of the innocent looks, she almost always knows exactly where it is and, if asked, will give you clues.

I had tried all the usual places, like behind the stereo or under the cushions, and eventually found it, with a little help from the grinning fiend, tucked behind the compost bin. Thankfully, mine is not a large garden to search… more of a pocket-handkerchief affair, with one small flower-bed and a lot of digging to be done.

Between the ground baking iron-hard and having spent the past year on my son’s garden, mine needs some serious work and more materials. So, I try to keep it tidy, designing wonderful planting schemes in my head that I know will never happen. On the other hand, the little patch of green offers me wonderful surprises every year as I let Nature play. Unlike the dog with The Ball, I am happy to accept what comes.

The hawthorn hedgerow that separates my garden from the fields is heavy with May blossom, its perfume filling the morning air and its branches alive with birds greeting the day. With robins, wrens, blackbirds and the occasional thrush, it is seldom silent. There is even a nightingale that sings there some evenings.

My strawberries died in the heat last year while I was away. I thought I had lost them completely, with just the brittle remains looking rather forlorn and reproachful in their pot and yet, I have a fine crop of self-propagated plants now growing around where the pot once stood.

With a bare garden to fill, I rescued some of the ‘weeds’ from my son’s old driveway before it was ripped up. I now have a whole bank of mullein, whose pale primrose flowers will grow several feet high. The narrow spikes of purple loosestrife, real bee magnets, are growing in scattered clumps in the flower bed and in the gap between window and flagstones.

And, while I have no idea where the reeds, cornflowers or tormetil came from, the few tiny forget-me-nots I rescued now occupy any space they can find, from the drifts around my roses and across the gravel, to the spaces between the flagstones. I have always grown herbs, even when I have had no more than a windowsill to play with… now, while I have planted only sage, Nature has planted me a herb garden.

I even have the first of my tiny rescued roses in bloom, although an earwig seems to have claimed it as its residence of choice, bringing back memories of the deep, velvet-red roses that once framed my great grandparents’ gate. They had a perfume unlike any other and as I child I would sit on the garden wall and breathe in their fragrance… until the day I found myself nose to nose with an earwig.

So, although, in comparison to others I have planted and tended, I could hardly call this a garden… Nature seems to think otherwise and has made one of her own. And I like that. So will the bees and butterflies that love our native wildflowers.

I cannot help seeing how well my little patch of flowered earth illustrates one of the first lessons we learned during our adventures within the ancient, sacred landscape of Albion… ‘open up and get out of the way’. I could have wrestled with the ground, squeezing a few more traditional garden plants from the budget, hefted a couple of tons of hardcore and gravel and turned the space into a ‘proper’ garden… but would the wildflowers then have a place to grow? Would I allow ‘weeds’ to thrive between the paving slabs or smile at the paths the dog is wearing through the grass? Probably not.

We learned also that ‘leaving space for spirit’… letting the moment and the land work their magic in untrammelled freedom…  allows strange and wonderful things to happen. In consciously relinquishing the need to control, beauty creeps in through the cracks of normality…or, in this case, into every gap it can find.

Nature is a wonderful teacher and, at this time, when so much of our freedom has been curtailed, my little garden reminds me that life and beauty will always find a way.

Growing…

We took a stroll around the garden… my son leaning on my shoulders, me grateful that I am just the right height to fit under his arm. Weather permitting, it has become a daily ritual since we planted his new flower beds. I cannot help but smile quietly when my hitherto clueless-about-gardening son comments on how well the heuchera is doing and notes that the ajuga reptans is in flower.

My younger son prefers to grow vegetables and nourishes an ambition to build a greenhouse in his garden. For his birthday, a few years ago, I bought him seed potatoes, cabbages and strawberries… and that was that; he loved growing food for his family. This year, for my elder son’s birthday, just before the lockdown, I filled his wall baskets with pansies, sweet-smelling dianthus and trailing campanula, rescued from the wilting racks of the supermarket.

I love that both my sons have found joy in growing things, though one grows for beauty and the other for the table. It is interesting to see how watching things grow illustrates their different characters. There is the same excitement from both of them, but while my younger son cannot wait to show me how tall his brassicas have grown, the elder is having learn to be patient as Nature takes her time as he waits for plants to bloom.

So, every day, my son and I tour his garden, watching the progress of every leaf and bud, from the discarded forget-me-nots I rescued from the alley behind his house, to the latest acquisition, the Abracadabra rose. We have watched the tight buds swell and begin to reveal glimpses of colour. The new gardener asks ‘when’… the old gardener is just glad the roses survived being transplanted at this time of year.

Patience, I have observed, is not a trait that everyone shares. I used to be horribly impatient with most things…now it is only some things… so during my son’s recovery, I had a lot to learn. The recovery from brain injury is a long, slow process… like the unfolding of a flower, it happens at its own pace and cannot be forced. Holding back from doing something I could have done for him ten times faster than he could do it for himself was a hard lesson to learn… but had I not done so, he would have made no progress.

Not everyone is patient by nature, but watching things grow… whether it is flowers or people… helps you to learn the kind of patience that is born of accepting what is. A child cannot grow to adulthood overnight. A rose, even one named Abracadabra, cannot magically bloom before its petals have formed.

Gardening always makes me think of the well known ‘Serenity prayer’… “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time…”. Patience, when rooted in the acceptance of the moment, is often a gateway to serenity.

Accepting the gifts of the moment does not mean we cannot create change at need, or that we must accept that which we know to be wrong or harmful… like greenfly and black spot on roses, some things must be addressed as they arise… but where the moment gives us joy or beauty, it would be churlish to refuse its gift. And so I watch in joy as my son learns to wait for beauty to unfold.

Bridge of smiles

It can seem hard to find anything to be glad about right now. The news reports are dire, we all have our wings clipped and although there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, we have, as yet, no idea how far away that might be… or even who amongst us will be around to see it. We are worried for our loved ones, missing those we cannot see because of the restrictions, concerned about finances, both personal and global… and the worries just seem to keep on coming.

Yet, silently standing… the requisite two metres apart… in the long queue of people waiting to be allowed entry into the corner shop,  I couldn’t help grinning like the Cheshire Cat. The sun was playing through the leaves of the trees, illuminating the tender greens of spring. The brightness cast shadows, highlighting the textures of bark and leaf. Banks of spring flowers were in bloom, carpets of delicate blue speedwell, bright daisies and dandelions scattered across the grass and the absence of traffic noise allowed the constant, busy chatter and chirp of the birds to be heard. The drone of bees and the quick flutter of butterflies filled the air. In spite of the worried expressions and occasional masked face, I really couldn’t help myself.

A bubble of pure joy in the moment, welling up from beyond the cares of the day, made the smile inevitable.  A young man facing me caught the smile and grinned back. A couple of eyebrows were raised as if in disapproval that we could find anything to smile about, but, for the most part, that young man’s smile was as infectious as the virus that was holding us captive on the threshold of the shop… and spread even faster.

An elderly lady behind me broke the silence… just a banality, a comment about it being nice to see a bit of sun. Another woman responded. Then another. A couple of the older ones recalled the post-war rationing and one told of being evacuated from his London home. You could see tense shoulders relaxing and postures changing as, still obeying the rules on social distancing, our little group connected with each other and within minutes, were all chatting like old friends.

We may have to physically keep our distance from each other as we wait for the crisis to pass… and it will… but we do not have to forget in the meantime that we are people with stories and laughter to share, advice and help to offer and, even in these shadowed times, access to joy when the sun shines.

The perfect teacher?

When the student is ready, the master will appear.

This saying is often quoted both by and to those who walk a spiritual path. All too frequently, it is said with the kind of supercilious air that implies that the listener is not yet ready… and further, that they are in the presence of one who already knows more than they ever will. The early stages of any path are littered with those who like to think they have walked much farther than anyone else.

The trouble with that is how it devalues a principle that is, in fact, true… though not necessarily in the way the seeker might think.

A few envisage a numinous being descending in glory to reveal the inner secrets of the universe to them alone. Many expect to simply meet a person or group who can guide them, or point them in the right direction. For most of us, though, it is not even that… it is a thought, a book, a glimpse into a moment that changes our view of the path we have chosen and sets us on our way. It can be the smallest thing and its magnitude is seldom immediately obvious because it is so different from anything we thought we expected.

The clue, though, is in the proverb; the master will appear. Not from out of nowhere, in a puff of smoke… when the student is ready, the guidance they need becomes visible to his eyes. It may always have been there, indeed, there is a teacher within, just waiting for the question, but without everything he has learned on his personal journey, the student is simply unable to see it for what it is.

There is one teacher we each experience every single day. It illustrates many of the most basic beliefs upon which we have founded our complex religions and our personal faiths. It may be from observing its ever-changing face that those beliefs arose in the heart of Man in the first place.

We have only to look at the planet we call home, in all its beauty and order, to see the origins of wonder. From the rising of the sun that chases away the shadows, to the seasons of the year that lead from youthful spring to sere winter… and on again to the rebirth of spring. From the harvesting of what was sown, to the precise perfection in the design of any living organism and its place in an endless, cycling chain. There is a perfect teacher there for all of us.

If you look at the incredible design of body, leaf or crystal, even at the most minute level…and then consider how everything we know works in harmony, feeding from, nourishing and reliant upon other links in the endless chain… apart, perhaps, from humankind’s behaviour… you cannot help but marvel at the scale and perfection of the design.

Accidents, mutations and evolution, say the scientists.

Really?

Am I suggesting that there is a bearded old guy on a throne somewhere, compass in hand, drawing up plans for creation? No. I don’t discount the scientific explanation at all. But I do see it as just that… an explanation of what is and most scientific explanations are little more than descriptions of the mechanics of the physical world.  It doesn’t mean it is entirely correct… how can we, a species that is a mere blip on the face of evolutionary time, expect to fully understand the whole process of creation? Nor does it mean it is incorrect… as far as it goes. Accidents and mutations are certainly part of the evolving design… but that design is too vast for us to see in its entirety.

With the intricacy of the interwoven strands of the physical world before our eyes every day and the dance of the  heavens above us at night, little wonder that humankind percieved Intelligence behind the design. From there, it is but a short step to see the basis of beliefs such as reincarnation, karma and the survival of the soul played out upon the body of the earth. Nor is it difficult to see perfection in action.

It is worth considering. When the student is ready, the master will appear. Maybe all we have to do is open our eyes.

 

Fear and Love in the High Peak – part one

It’s not the best of photo resolutions, but the above image says it all. Briony saluting the Derbyshire landscape in her own way at the end of three days of the Silent Eye’s Tideswell-based workshop: Sue and Stuart’s creation; and a wonderful experience for the group of souls who braved the provocative title for the weekend…

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear

…and decided that they would examine the roots of their own fears… and face them in the warmth of loving companionship and symbolic danger.

It’s a time-honoured formula for all mystical organisations; one that brings us all to a point where the day to day ‘fog’ of habitual perception is cut through by the vividness of landscape and experience. That’s what we hope to achieve on these weekends. This one worked well – and in different ways for each person, as it should, for we all have different stories that have brought us to our ‘now’.

Sometimes, especially in reviewing such things, it’s better to start at the end. The picture (above) of Briony is of her at the ‘peak’ of the weekend; the last act of the formal part of our physical, emotional and spiritual wanderings across the ancient and mysterious landscapes of Derbyshire.

A short time later, we would be laughing in one of the oddest, oldest and most wonderful pubs in England…

But that’s for the final chapter of this short series of blogs. For now, let’s drift backwards in time to the sunshine of the Saturday morning. A day of ‘Indian Summer’ as good as any we been blessed with over the years.

Baslow Ridge

We were up high in a place called Baslow Ridge. Looking down on a series of valleys that lead to places like Bakewell, and the glories of the Chatsworth Estate.

The Eagle Stone – a place of proof of maturity, and a precursor to local marriage

The Eagle Stone stands alone, an outlier from a distant time of glaciation. It dominates the landscape like the monolith did in Kubrick’s film of Arthur C. Clarke’s story 2001: A Space Odyssey. People are drawn to it from miles around. It even featured in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as the place that Elizabeth Bennett visited and climbed… to get away from it all.

It is still used by local folk as a rite of passage. Those who seek the hand of marriage with the girls and ladies of the nearby town of Baslow are expected to demonstrate their suitability by climbing the stone unaided. It’s not a trivial ascent, as this second shot of the rock shows:

The Eagle Stone close-up shows how the higher layers overhang the lower; making an ascent difficult

The Eagle Stone is an example of a sacred folk-object at the centre of a local custom; a ritual, in this case. The ritual was a gateway into adulthood–and maturity. There would be real caution – if not fear- for anyone faced with the challenge. But, with some secret help from your friends, there was only an element of danger, rather than the certainty of death…

The Riley Graves

But many in the history of these parts have not been so lucky. Going back in time to our first visit of the weekend, we were brought face to face with personal fear and sadness of a degree that would be hard to envisage in modern life… and one of the most heart-rending sacrifices we could have encountered.

It’s 1666 in a small High Peak town, not far from Chatsworth. In the space of a single week, a lone woman buries all six of her children and then her husband. No-one will help her; no-one can help her. It is the most awful piece of personal history imaginable and yet the act which surrounds it is of the highest nobility.

Stuart… showing how it should be done

And so the story – the plot – of the weekend, moves from an historic example of fear and self-sacrifice – but seen through modern eyes, through the ancient stones set in the Derbyshire landscape and their cultural and symbolic use, to its finale in a rather foreboding place, high above a valley with a dark history…

Seen like this – backwards from the end, we can appreciate the careful construction of the weekend carried out by Sue and Stuart. Sue has begun its re-telling in her Silent Eye and personal blogs. She’s a great storyteller and there is little point in my replicating her excellent eye for detail.

Instead, I will pick certain moments of significance and focus on them – and hence this backwards-in-time introduction to set the scene.

It’s a long way from the Friday meeting place at Eyam to our final (small for drivers) glass of Black Lurcher at the Three Stag’s Heads near ‘Hanging Rock’, but it’s a fascinating journey. The weekend demanded a degree of serious intent… but we had lot of fun, too.

In the end, on Sunday morning, everyone was alone for a moment on that dark peak… Very Carlos Castenada, really…. but that’s just my personal take on it.

Next time we meet, it will be August 1666 and, in this part of Derbyshire, something remarkable, unique and utterly selfless will be about to happen.

 

 

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.