Rattling the chains

“It’s what’s called a floating floor,“ had said the workman who had come to remove yet more chunks of my son’s wet room, “but that will mean absolutely nothing to you,”
“Actually, it does.” Not only is the term fairly self-explanatory, but I was heavily involved in the gutting and redesigning of my son’s home. Had I not known before, which I did, I would certainly have learned about floating floors back then when we had ripped the place apart.
“Oh,” said the workman. “I just assumed…” Yes, he had. And why would that be, then? Because I am a female? And a middle-aged one too?

It was on a par with the other workman engaged to do some maintenance on Nick’s decking, who condescendingly explained to me, several times, how wood swells when it dries in summer and shrinks when it is soaked by all the winter rain. I too had shrunk… from correcting this misapprehension, for I too had made an assumption… that it was a simple mistake and that he really did know how it worked and had simply said it wrong. It was an assumption that would cause havoc with my son’s woodwork…

Making assumptions seldom works out well. My son is very fond of the old saying about what happens when you assume anything, yet we are really good at taking things for granted where other people are concerned. Even with open minds and the best of intentions, we almost automatically work out what we would think, know or do if we were in what we perceive to be their shoes. The trouble is, we are not… our perception is partial at best, faulty at worst and we have no way of knowing the entirety of another person’s experience and knowledge, nor do we have their character. All we are doing s projecting our own onto theirs and expecting it to fit.

We are just as good at making assumptions about ourselves… and often get them just as wrong. The surface levels of the mind are in constant dialogue with each other,  and at least one of those levels is replete with what we think other people will, or might, think of us. Much of this comes from a learned, but  often erroneous, perception of who we are.

“A real man wouldn’t do that…”
“Women can’t change a tyre/put up shelves/lay bricks.”
“You’re too old/too young/too fat/too slim to do/wear/be that.”
You’ll never be able to/be as good as/be good enough to…”

These and a thousand other negative judgements, most of which are blatantly untrue, are picked up from many places as we grow up and grow older and colour our opinion of ourselves. We assume them to be true, even when there is a niggling doubt about their veracity. They can be crippling, often to the point where  we begin to believe they are true and never make the attempt to prove otherwise, even to ourselves.

If the judgements and assumptions that others make about us and superimpose upon us are based largely on how they would behave in a given situation, why does it never occur to us that the perceived flaws that they are projecting onto us may, in fact, be their own?

Those who feel they have no control over their own lives may try to control those more vulnerable than themselves. Those who feel that they are not good enough will often pass that feeling on to those over whom they have authority. It is not necessarily deliberate… it  is the ego’s mistaken attempt at self-defence.

Maybe, if we could see beyond the accumulated assumptions about ourselves that we have simply accepted over the years, we could be and do far more than we think. Why should gender or age define our talents or how we allow ourselves to express our personalities? Maybe confident curves would totally rock that little black dress…and maybe that dream you have held in your heart is no so impossible after all.

It makes all the difference if you have someone who believes in you… someone who is ready to support you as you try and celebrate the attempt as much as the possible success. A little genuine encouragement and belief can make the improbable possible. But we do not all have the blessing of a supportive friend or partner in our lives. Or do we?  Well, maybe we could.

There is one person who is with us every step of the way, from the cradle to the grave and who knows our story better than anyone else… and that is our self. We are never wholly alone, no matter how lonely we may feel; there is always a part of us that exists at a deeper level than the surface chatter of the mind. If we can free ourselves, even a little, from the chains of assumption and judgement that we have accepted from others, we can learn to believe in ourselves. And that makes so many things possible.

The Mystery Schools, from ancient Greece to modern schools like the Silent Eye, have always taught that we should learn to know ourselves. It is a common misconception that this simply means learning to know our own faults and weaknesses so that we can address them and make progress as human and spiritual beings. It also means learning to know and embrace our strengths, gifts and talents…celebrating our lives as whole and entire beings. Works in progress, whose faults are part of the unfinished learning process and whose gifts show a glimpse of the spark of true beauty that can be ignited within each of us.

Change can begin at any point in our lives by challenging the assumptions about ourselves that we have accepted over the years. Next time you say ‘I can’t do that…’, ask yourself ‘why not?’. Is there a practical reason… or do you ‘just’ believe that you cannot? Belief in yourself is a door that only you can open, and when you do, others will believe in you too. You may even find that they always did.

North-easterly II – Beyond the walls

Next morning, we gathered at the gates of Bamburgh castle. We had seen it from beyond its walls, considering how we could glimpse our own ‘inner fortifications’ from a perspective beyond the control of the ego, and now we were about to voluntarily enter a place that could be, like the conditioned defences of the personality, both a haven or a prison.

We had a little time to explore the outer shell and the façade that the stronghold presents to the world, as well as to see how it sat within, yet dominating, the landscape… a landscape largely shaped because of the castle’s very presence. Its landward face looks over the moat to the village that grew in its shadow. The old beehive dove-cote seems a reminder that the homes that cluster close to the castle walls once housed those in thrall to the castle’s lord.

To the seaward side, the imposing defences and lines of cannon send a clear message to any invaders seeking to attack. While where the land and sea meet, a medieval burial ground holds the memory of the dead. As an egoic analogy, it could hardly have been better chosen.

Passing beneath the arch of the gate, you are funnelled through a narrow and easily defended lane, where any visitor to the domain is immediately taken under control.  Our own defences are very much the same, allowing others to approach us only through certain channels, even though our ‘gates’ may appear… even to us… to stand open to the world. It is only when you have gained entry …or approval… that there is the freedom to explore.

Climbing the winding path that leads into the courtyard, you are met with defences of another kind. Although the walls are high and thick, especially on the Norman Keep, the real power that is now on display is that of wealth and position.

From the Tudor windows to the ornately carved shields, the inner facade of the castle seems designed to assert social dominance. Magnificently restored and well cared for, there are reminders of its martial past as well as its political position in history writ large in its stones.

Yet, for all it may be amongst the best of its kind, it looks very much like every other restored castle. Castles are serious. They evolve over time, taking on the forms and fashions of the day and yet the plans, well-tested by the centuries, conform to a relatively rigid form; one that serves its purpose admirably, but which appears to leave little room for joy. We see the desire to make a strong statement or to create an impression of solid and established power. The outer face of the inner castle leaves you in little doubt of how its lord sees himself, and here too the analogy is pretty apt.

We ‘let people in’… but just a little way at first. We still have our defences… often prominently displayed. But we seldom let anyone all the way in… not at first. We still have an image of ourselves that we project, a subtle and almost invisible line of defence that hides the reality behind something that looks interesting and attractive… but what happens when you look a little deeper?

Quite appropriately, given the symbolism we were exploring, we would have to wait to see beyond the inner doors, as the interior opens an hour later than the grounds. Stuart sat on the throne of Northumberland… a reconstruction based upon a carved stone found close by… and shared his first reading from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Then we wandered the grounds for a while until the State Rooms were opened and we were allowed to delve further.

I was drawn to an odd rectangle of grass, surrounded by some broken stone walling. There has obviously been another building here once upon a time, and the curved end of the space looked like the remains of windows in the apse of a chapel… which is exactly as it turned out to be.

St Peter’s Chapel was an important place of worship long ago, the spiritual heart of the castle. It held relics of King Oswald, a saintly ruler credited with much good during his lifetime and many miracles after his death. He died in 642 in battle against the pagan king Penda, who dismembered his body on the battlefield. Amidst all the glory of temporal splendour, this sacred place has been left unrestored, open to the winds and with a congregation of birds. The apse, where the altar and relics once stood, now holds only a bell that was taken down because it annoyed the lady of the castle and the villagers… and piles of small change, like a dragon’s hoard, now replace the votive offerings.

There may well be a new chapel somewhere within the castle, where there is indeed a wealth of religious symbolism, but for the purpose of our weekend, this sacred space left derelict in favour of worldly display seemed a poignant symbol for the unchecked ego that cannot see beyond its own projected image to the sacred heart within.

And yet, the chapel was not entirely barren, for within it is a single grave…or so I thought. The cross bears an inscription to ‘The first Lord Armstrong… a genius in his time’. He had loved Northumberland, had bought and restored the castle… it seemed only fitting that he should be buried within the chapel and remain at its heart. The records, however, show that he was buried at Rothbury, some miles away. Is the apparent grave no more than a memorial? An empty tomb… or a sign of love and respect? Perhaps the castle has a heart after all… and if so, it is a very human one.  Perhaps I had not looked far enough? And who am I to judge what any heart may hold… even that of a castle?

Over the centuries, many people have used the symbolism of the castle to explore spiritual and psychological concepts.  The intellectual exercise is, however, nowhere near as graphic as when you walk through these spaces and get the feeling of an idea built in stone. It was proving to be an interesting experience… and the State Rooms were about to open…

 

Five minutes of film

He wasn’t feeling too good so I carried his breakfast through into the lounge where he was watching TV and sat down with him on the sofa for five minutes. He was watching a wildlife programme and, as the small polar bear weakened and failed through starvation, I watched through a veil of tears. My own son beside me, it was easy to recognise the encouragement in the way the ursine mother tried to raise her cub to his feet. That was bad enough. Realising the little one could no longer stand she and his twin snuggled up with the dying cub, sharing warmth and comfort; nuzzling him gently and curled around the little body. Just waiting until the end. I can’t even write it without tears.

There was the debate about how the camera crew could simply stand by and watch, filming the tragedy, but the general policy is that they do not interfere, only observe the natural unfolding of life and death in the wild. To have provided food, had any been available out there in the snowy wastes, would have inevitably meant the taking of one life to sustain another, and while it might be argued that some species face less of a threat of extinction than others, Nature has her ways and it might only have been a postponement rather than a salvation if the young cub was weak.

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I do not, for one minute, think that the cameraman watched without an ache in his heart, having followed and filmed the bears for so long. You could feel the human emotion in the delicacy of his touch as he filmed those final moments, capturing the body language of maternal grief that seems to carry universal understanding. It was so gently done that it is one of those sequences I shall not forget.

The next sequence of the film showed a seal pup washed away from the herd in a storm and the determination with which its mother and aunt searched for her…. And the very obvious joy and welcome all round when they found her. Sequences like these highlight how closely the threads of life are bound together and could teach us of our similarities with other species, rather than our differences.

It is very easy to say that we project human emotions onto animals and believe them to feel in the self-same way that we do, arguing that this is a human trait and we understand the world only when we see it through our own peculiar lens. This may be true, if a little simplistic; we can only see through our own eyes after all and at least the projection argues some attempt at understanding. .

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With domestic animals I have a feeling some of those humanly recognisable behaviours are learned as a form of interspecies communication. Ani, for example, certainly makes herself understood. The vocal signals we call language… the words my dog understands… may indeed be reduced by science to mere association of audible cues. But her own body language, eyes and expressions speak volumes, as do the range of vocal signals she expects me to respond to. I don’t think anyone who has ever shared a home with a dog would argue that communication happens. Just not on our normal terms.

The social structures and imperatives of one species may seem alien to another, and there can be no doubt some of the protective instincts of motherhood are attributable to the simple necessity for ensuring survival. Even so, I wept for the grief of the mother bear. We may well project human emotion onto other species, but this does not mean that they have no emotions of their own. Somehow, we still tend to see ourselves as separate from the animal kingdom. I suppose it is the difference between compassion for another’s emotions and feeling with them. While we are separate from other species, we cannot empathise, only look on with sympathy. But why not empathy, after all? Humans are animals too and if a human mother feels grief at the loss of a child, why not a bear?

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There are many well documented examples of grieving in the animal kingdom, particularly for the loss of mates and young. Stuart and I, walking back one night through the darkened city, watched a fox, desperately trying to get its mate to get back on its feet… but it had been hit by a car and was beyond help. To attribute grief might well be deemed projection, but not if you were there and saw the foxes. I also watched a sad farewell when a pigeon’s mate had died… and understood the grief. There are also many examples all over the internet of the strange inter-species friendships that develop; pictures of unlikely pairings where you cannot help but smile at the images, even though many of the stories attached to them hold the darker shadow of orphaned creatures.

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Those of us who live with animals undoubtedly read more into their expressions than behaviourists would allow. But I wonder if calling our understanding of animal emotions ‘projection’ is simply our way of continuing to distance ourselves from the creatures around us? We do not wish to see ourselves as animals and have historically taken the position that they are somehow ‘less’ than humans, particularly as their behaviour is learned, conditioned… not an emotional response from which they can learn… a least, not as we would understand it. Yet, is not our own idea of ourselves formed in the same way? Over the past few decades, much work has been done to establish whether or not animals are more than the organic machines science posited for centuries; do they have emotions and do they have anything we can accept as consciousness? To anyone who has lived with animals, this seems a little late in coming. Science, however, requires that proof be demonstrable, repeatable and conclusive in scientific terms before it admits to anything. Consciousness itself is still ill-defined and yet a number of animals have passed the tests designed to demonstrate self-awareness, while dogs have been shown to have an emotional range similar to that of a human child. It may be that we are not so very different after all.

To feel empathy for a mother bear or a bereaved fox is not projection, in my eyes. It is a simple recognition of fellow-feeling.

As I was researching this article, I watched again the short video of how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone dramatically altered both ecology and landscape as the natural balance of predator and prey was re-established. Another thing I saw posted was the endangered species list, populated by some of our most beloved wild creatures… as well as top predators whose presence in the ecological chain affect the balance of nature in ways we are only just learning to understand. We share this planet with an unknown number of species. We do not even know how many. Species reach the natural end of their evolution all the time and become extinct… that is part of the natural cycle of life on earth. Yet the WWF estimates that the current rate of extinction is between a thousand and ten thousand times higher than it would be without human action. I wonder how long it will be before we ourselves are on the endangered list, having so far overset the ecological balance of the earth that it can no longer sustain us?

And what mother will weep for us then?

Hidden reflections

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Camera in hand, I was watching for the baby fish, but my attention was drawn to the little waterfall that tumbles into a corner of the pond, adding an extra dimension of sound to the garden. The water is closer, more insistent and attractive, capturing the attention and drawing it away from the busyness of the town and the noise of distant traffic. It is a tranquil spot and fish of all shapes and colours dart beneath my feet as I stand on the bridge.

It wasn’t until I got home and uploaded the pictures that I realised what I had captured in the ephemeral bubbles… reflections of me.

It wasn’t a deliberate shot, just a lucky one. The angle had been right and the sun glowing through the corner of the railings added its light to the image. Even so, looking at it on the screen, I couldn’t help thinking how this accidental image of the bubbles, each holding its  reflections from a slightly different angle, captures the essence of something we seldom really think about.

We cast reflections of ourselves into every situation and onto the screen of every life we touch. Each person sees us differently, through their own particular lens, yet there are multiple facets to the image they perceive… Not only their vision of us, but anything they may know of us through others as well as our own presentation of ourselves in that moment… all come together to form the person they will see when they look at us.

Just as we can never look at ourselves save in a mirrored surface, what we see is our reflection in their eyes and behaviour towards us and we react accordingly, warming to one person, helping another or walking away… all without considering that it is, in many ways, our own reflection with which we are engaging.

Not surprising, then, that the psychological phenomenon of projection, where we see our own unadmitted characteristics in others, holds up a mirror for us into which we prefer not to look too often or too deeply.

To make things even more complicated, that person looking at you is also projecting their own reflection, with all that carries… so they are seeing both themselves as they think they are… as they would like you to see them… all mixed up with the things they don’t want you to see, or even to admit to themselves… a multitude of mirrored reflections playing backwards and forwards through the infinity of a moment. And each one is seen from an angle that differs slightly… obscuring some details, revealing others…

It is no wonder human relationships are open to such confusion!

The complexity of this perpetual interplay is such that there is no quick fix solution. What we can do is look in that mirror and learn to know ourselves, exploring our being in such a way that there are no dark corners we dare not see, no patches of light too bright to gaze upon. Knowing ourselves means the whole self… not only an admission of our failings, but of our gifts and strengths also.

That way, what we see in another is not coloured by our shadows of denial and each person we meet is allowed to shine a little brighter … and may see a true reflection of their own light in our eyes.

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Lucky birds

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“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” J.M. Barrie

When I was a girl we often spent New Year’s Eve with my great grandparents. Unless a neighbour could be relied upon to spontaneously perform the service, the tallest, darkest man of the company would be ushered outside via the back door at five to midnight and the door locked behind them… Heaven forefend that a woman should enter first by accident!

Duly armed with a silver sixpence, a piece of coal and a slice of the rich, dark fruit cake to make sure the conditions for first footing were met… that there would always be wealth, food, and warmth in the home throughout the year…. They would be welcomed back in through the front door, not able to speak until the gifts were distributed.  These first footers were called ‘lucky birds’ in my neck of the woods. The symbolic gifts were kept all year in a small box on the big mahogany dresser, while the old year’s cake and coal were given to the fire… and the old sixpence to the youngest.

As a young wife I kept this tradition, not through superstition but because it is a tradition… a bit of sympathetic magic that reaches far into our history and is backed by the centuries of its own evolution as a custom.  I also kept an adopted one, learned from a Glaswegian friend, that as the house be on New Year’s Eve, so will it be all year… which meant a thorough clean, a well-stocked larder and those you love around you.

There is a lot in these old traditions, even on a purely practical level… it was absolutely true, of course, that there was always silver, coal and food in my great-grandparents house all year… even if only in the little inlaid box… and the care with which the household was prepared for the family celebration says a lot about how the family is likely to live for the rest of the year.

Beyond the practical though there is something deeper… an almost instinctive belief. These traditions have a hold on a pretty visceral part of our collective imagination and though we may dismiss them as superstition, especially when we fail to meet the conditions, we feel an unreasonable, almost guilty satisfaction when all is in place. It doesn’t matter if traditions differ region to region… whether the black cat that crosses your path be a harbinger of luck or doom where you were born… the tradition you know at your roots will always linger at the back of your mind.

Of course, none of us really believe in these things these days… do we?

Yet isn’t this precisely what is behind all the self-help and motivational books? Hasn’t the power of positive thinking become a bit of a buzz –word? They have a point though, the power of the imagination, of belief, is not to be underestimated. It changes our world every day.

“What is now proved was once only imagined.” William Blake

Everything we are, everything we achieve in our lives, from the great to the small, depends upon a belief we create within ourselves… a belief in possibility. This is the basis of superstition on the lowest end of the scale, of psychology at a practical level and of the magical, creative, incredible things we are capable of bringing into the world. How others see us reflects only how we have chosen and learned to see ourselves in an endless exchange of projection and reflection.  Imagination is only held captive by belief…  We may accept that if we can truly believe in our dreams we can achieve them… We can work for that promotion, save for that holiday, lose those extra pounds… we do what we really believe we can.

But the same applies at the deepest level of who we are… we are who we believe we are, we alone limit the horizons over which we can fly. When imagination and belief are allowed to play together, anything is possible.