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.

Space and Time

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Consciousness flickers round the edges of dreaming and I become vaguely aware of the delicious luxury of warmth and comfort and a body relaxed and sleepy. It is dark and silent, the dawn will be long in coming, and dreams hover on the edges of mind. The eastern horizon waits for sunrise… and the thought flits through my sleepy mind, that actually, there will be no ‘sunrise’.  The sun does not rise. Ever.

Okay, that woke me up.

It is neither as radical not as weird a thought as many that occupy my mind… it is simply true. The sun does not rise. It hangs in space and we, our planet, are the ones that move. Yet in language, thought and imagery we paint a moving sun that arcs across the heavens, marking the dance of time through our days.

I wonder for just how many millennia we have accepted that idea unquestioning? For a long time we accepted a geocentric model that placed the earth at the centre of a revolving universe. Before that there was a flat earth… and earlier still was the poetry and wonder of myth. Heliocentricity didn’t emerge as a fully formulated idea till Copernicus in the 16th century… and it probably didn’t make its way into the popular mind for a long time after that. Even now, knowing that the truth is other than the evidence presented by our eyes, we still watch the sun ‘rise and set’ aware only of ‘its’ movement, seldom ours. Although we all know the planetary dance these days, few really need to understand it in any depth or detail. We don’t, on a day to day basis, even care whether the sun moves overhead or we circle it.

Perhaps it is more comfortable that way.

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It is a similar story with time… physicists, mathematicians and philosophers all have their own ideas that we, the general public, are unlikely to ever question enough to understand. We look at a clock and that is enough. We do not have to understand Newton, Einstein or Hawking in order to know the moment we have to leave for work or make dinner. Between the apparent motion of the sun and the hands of our clocks we can function within the frame of days.

As the kettle boils, Ani pretends she is a cat, leaning against my legs and rubbing, with one soulful eye on the milk carton. I wonder if she is any more aware of her place in the universe than we are. In some ways there seems little difference. She is aware of what she needs to know… and although insatiably curious and willing to learn, the patterns of behaviour … or misbehaviour… go deep. She knows she will be fed without recourse to a clock, knows she has warmth and cuddles and tennis balls… why should she worry about any more than that? Yet she does and is always on alert. Though that may just be being nosey.

We are not all that much different in many ways and spend our days focussed on the needs and desires that move us through the hours from dawn to dawn. ‘Had we but world enough and time’ what else could we see? Sometimes something will catch our attention and we find ourselves considering new things, or new ways of looking at old ones. Sometimes we make that conscious decision to step outside of the tramlines of need and begin to question a world we seem to be seeing for the first time with a new awareness. It doesn’t take much to bring us to these realisations of possibility if we are open to them… it might be no more than seeing an object with fresh eyes or questioning a long-held belief. Or realising that the sun never rises… it is always there in the heavens.

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A common misconception?

 

“….so, this year it is Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Court, and next year we’ll be in Sumeria.” Running around getting things organised for the workshops always involves the attempted acquisition of some strange items. I frequently get asked what I’m hoping to use them for and that inevitably leads to questions about what we do, how and why.

“Sumeria?” The face was blank.

“An ancient civilisation, goes back five thousand years and more…” The face brightened with understanding.

“Oh.” There was a weird sort of relief too. “Cave men,” she said, thereby dismissing the great city of Uruk with two words.

“Not exactly…” But where do you start? The great walled city of Uruk, home to around eighty thousand people, was founded six thousand years ago, predating the rise of ancient Egyptian civilisation by a thousand years. The Sumerian culture had been growing for a long time before that too.

Say ‘Egypt’ and everyone thinks of the fabulous art, the gold and the temples that remain. We have no problem accepting that ancient Egypt was civilised, but unless there is a particular interest, most of us don’t have much of an idea about dates. Say, ‘five thousand years ago’ and ‘cave man’ is still the image in many minds. Say ‘prehistoric’ and that conjures dinosaurs, say ‘stone age’ and you are probably thinking Fred Flintstone.

Prehistoric means simply that period before written history… and written language first began, we believe, in Sumeria… over five thousand years ago. Archaeology has revealed the beauty and artistry of the culture, from musical instruments to fabulously worked gold and miniature carved seals. Prior to the beginnings of written history, the prehistoric culture was already exceptionally rich.

The various ‘Ages’, like Stone, Bronze and Iron, refer in brief to a leap in technology. Thus, the basic advance in the Bronze Age was the ability to work with metal. Before that, stone was the prime technology and, while it may have begun with the use of a simple rock or a worked flint arrowhead, it ended with the complexity of the enigmatic monuments that still draw us today.

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Stonehenge is perhaps the best known in this country. No mere pile of rocks, but a fantastic feat of engineering by any standards, where mortice and tenon joints allow the stones, weighing tons apiece, to ‘float’ above the circle. The construction of Stonehenge too was begun five thousand years ago. What remains suggests a complex mathematical and geometrical understanding, even though it may not have taken the form we now use. It also implies a knowledge of astronomy as well as an established culture strong enough to build the monument. And Stonehenge is just one of over a thousand known circles in these islands…

But why does it matter? That is another question frequently asked regarding the workshops. What possible benefit can there be to delving into the past for our workshops, be it the few hundred years back to the Elizabethan Court, or a few thousand?

We could answer that there is no particular benefit at all… that the stories we weave through our workshops are no more than frames for the spiritual concepts we explore. That would be true, but not the whole truth. Although we spend months crafting detailed and researched scripts, it is not the stories that matter, any more than it is the frame of a picture that holds the true value. On the other hand, those stories allow us to capture the imagination, engage the heart, mind and body, and bring our whole being to the concepts we explore. Instead of dry lectures, we learn through experience, laughter and through play… and that is always the best way to learn.

Nature has designed her children to learn that way; from lambs in a field to humans in the playground, we learn and experience hard lessons within a relatively safe world of play. The Inner Child can learn and explore the inner realms in the same way…and that is one reason why we craft such stories, taking our cue from the ancient Mystery Plays that brought the stories of the gods to life… and the gods, be it remembered, represent the cosmic principles behind the natural forces of the universe.

So, and that leads on to the next common question, are we saying that the ancients knew more than we do?  That they had a lost knowledge that we lack? Well, the obvious answer there is that if there were a ‘lost’ knowledge, then by definition, we do not have it and cannot know what it was. We can, however, look at the fragments they have left and infer that they had a different and more personal relationship with their environment, seeing divinity made manifest in the hills, rocks and streams. Would it be a bad thing to renew that relationship with the earth as a sacred and living being? Given the parlous state of the environment in this industrialised era, it could only be a good thing.

Did our ancestors have an inner knowledge that we lack? Again, in the absence of written records, we can only infer and intuit. Given that, in the days before antiseptic, disinfectant and antibiotics, life and death were separated by the most tenuous of threads, it is entirely probable that their only fear of death was of the pain of dying and loss, and the practical problems posed by decomposition. Today, as a society, we fear death and the dissolution of the personal ego; we seek ever to deny and defer the ageing process and in doing so, we create for ourselves an unsettled, dissatisfied world.

Whatever our ancestors saw, whatever forged their beliefs, is still there, in the natural world, waiting to teach us. By taking the time to look and to explore our relationship with Nature, we may glimpse the world through older eyes…for our ancestors are not separate or different from us, they are part of who we are, both in the concrete terms of genetic coding and in the accumulated knowledge and wisdom handed down to us over the centuries.

Whether, like the emerging scientists of the Elizabethan Age, we choose to take a logical and evidence-based view, or whether, like our ancient ancestors, it is the beauty and tides of Nature that speak to us, there is a path that may call us to a turning point in our own lives, echoing those pivotal points of history that have heralded a new age and a new beginning.

The stories we have woven over the years have been set in both past and future, rooted in the land as well as in myth. Each one has told a different tale, each from a different era. They are held together by a single common thread… Strip away the characters, props, and costumes designed to transport the imagination, and they are all fragments of the same story… that of the journey of the human heart and soul.

Frankenstein, Gollum and the unseen will…

“I’m re-reading Tolkien,” said my son.
“Cool. How far have you got?”
“The riddles in the dark bit.” That made me smile, as we’d taken inspiration from that chapter for the December workshop.
“What do you reckon… when Gollum says ‘my precious’, is he talking to the ring or himself?”
“I asked myself the same question when I first heard that story.”  Our teacher, Miss Bedford, had read The Hobbit to a class full of ten-year-olds, sitting silent and enrapt on the library floor. I remember quite vividly being struck by that anomaly, even then. “Both.”
“Hmm…” said my son, settling back with his morning tea. “Elaborate…”

The character of Gollum is a moral tale all on its own. Greed and desire cost him his home and his place amongst his people. He murders his best friend to obtain the ring and is driven to slink away invisible, into the roots of the mountain. There, under the cloak of darkness, his only company is the ring and himself; his personality fragments, with the Gollum aspect taking precedence over the lonely Sméagol. Falling ever further away from his origins, he feeds on raw fish…or whoever else he can catch… and considers the more civilised idea of frying fish as ‘spoiling’ it. He is, in every way, an outcast from his own kind… and from himself, for deep down, Sméagol remembers another way of living.

The name, Gollum, always intrigued me. Given the magical background against which I was raised, I was already aware of the Jewish tradition of the golem… a man-form made of clay, animated and controlled by another will, usually via a magical charm. There is a theory that Mary Shelley drew upon this tradition when she created Frankenstein and the monster… and I have often wondered whether Tolkien too found inspiration in the tale. The tradition carries echoes of the biblical creation of Adam and it is not dissimilar from our own earth-born state, animated by the living soul via the intermediary of heart and mind.

It is an interesting concept. Some see the creation of a golem as representing hubris; bypassing both the natural process of generation and the spiritual aspect of creation. Some have seen it as an attempt to eradicate the role of Woman… though they still cannot dispense with Mother Earth if clay is needed. Others see it as Man setting himself as equal to his God. While Dr Frankenstein uses a more scientific method for the creation of his monster, he still robs the earth of her dead for the components of his creation. The role of the mother may be disguised, but She still plays an integral part in the generation of life. And while science seeks to deny the role of deity, even Frankenstein relied upon an unseen force to animate his creation… a force whose effects are known but whose nature remains a mystery.

Sméagol, through his own actions and desires, is all but consumed by the Gollum aspect of himself and, in turn, Gollum becomes little more than a golem… animated by the will of the Dark Lord through the medium of the ring. He no longer sees himself as independent of the ring… calling both himself and the golden shackle his ‘precious’. He identifies with the ring and in doing so, he is lost.

Identification, in the psychological sense, means to be transformed by taking on qualities, property or attributes from another. As we grow from infancy, through childhood and into adulthood, this kind of identification contributes to how our personalities are formed. We observe, learn from and emulate those around us and react to circumstance. It is a natural process, though it is easy to see how a dominant character or traumatic event may skew what we absorb and change the way we are growing. When the ring called out to Sméagol, something within him was ripe to answer…but we do not know the story of his early years or what made his character fertile ground for corruption. Knowing that would not excuse his actions…but it might explain them; bullies are usually weak characters who have themselves been damaged by the actions of others.

We can identify too with inanimate things… like the roles, the labels, the societal expectations that are imposed upon us, or which we choose to impose upon ourselves. If we define ourselves by our roles, we become subservient to them and, like Sméagol, we are lost to ourselves.

Yet, by the end of the story… when the ring must be destroyed, it is not the apparent hero of the tale who is able to act. Although he knows best the destructive power of desire, he too has fallen prey to the lure of the ring. Even the best can be corrupted and twisted by the illusion of power. It is a battle of wills, the triumph of despair, that inadvertently saves the day. Gollum’s life is forfeit… as is Frodo’s ring-finger; an interesting bit of symbolism in itself.

And the Dark Lord? So complete was his identification with, and investment in the ring that its destruction brings about his utter annihilation.

The real hero, I have always thought, was Sam… the simple gardener whose loyalty and quiet courage cared for Frodo, every step of the way. At the end of the tale, it is he who, exhausted, carries both Frodo and the ring the final steps of the journey… and he who comes home to heal the ravaged Shire. Sam had no desire for the ring, though he had both witnessed and felt its power. His heart was in the green earth and the woods of the Shire. Love for another set his feet on the road… and love carried him home.

A Conversation with a Friend – Anonymous

I was sent this piece by a fellow writer who asked if I would publish it anonymously, because, “the message is more important than selling a few books.” I’m inclined to agree.

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A Conversation with a Friend

I was hanging out the other night at the Tiki Hut, minding my own business, when a voice behind me said, “Hey, man. What’s up?”

I should first explain that the Tiki Hut is an edifice at the marina where I live. The denizens of said marina congregate there on occasion to commune with one another. I, on the other hand, avoid it like the plague. It’s not that I don’t like people; it’s just that I don’t like being around people. But that particular evening, I had the place to myself.

I turned around, and standing there was this dude I had never seen before, although he did look somewhat familiar.

“Hello,” I said in response. I was a little perturbed at having my solitude interrupted, but decided not to be rude. “Are you new here?” I asked in a friendly manner.

“Kind of.”

I mentally shrugged. I didn’t care one way or the other. I was just trying to be polite. Well, I had done my part and started to head back to my boat. I had a six-pack of cold beers waiting for me, and I thought it about time I paid it some attention.

“Want a beer?”

It was the dude. He was holding a plastic grocery bag that I had not noticed before. It definitely had the outline of a six-pack. Figuring the guy might be lonely, and thinking I might as well do my Christian duty, I said, “Sure, why not?” I would have a beer and we’d shoot the shit and then I’d get the hell out of there. I reckoned I could put up with him for the time it would take to drink one beer.

He reached into the bag and came out with two bottles of my favorite beer. Things were looking up. He did the honors of popping the caps and we both took a long pull of that cold, good-tasting beverage.

“So,” I said, “you moving in?”

“I’m thinking about it. I wanted to get a feel for the place first. Do you like living here?”

“It’s okay. As long as you pay your rent on time, they leave you alone.”

I’ll not bore you with the rest of the mundane conversation. That first beer led to a second and then a third. I was starting to warm up to the guy by the fourth. Then it dawned on me. We both had had four beers each, but we had started out with only one six-pack. When I mentioned that fact, he said, “No, you must be mistaken. There were two six-packs in the bag.”

Another mental shrug on my part.

As I popped the cap on my fifth beer, he asked me, “So, what do you think of the state the world is in?”

If I had been asked that question on the first or second or even the third beer, I would have bolted. I don’t get into conversations like that. Truth be known, I generally don’t get into conversations at all. I live alone and I like it that way. I don’t have to please anyone and I sure as hell don’t have to answer stupid questions. But . . . I was on my fifth beer and the guy was buying. So, what the hell?

“It depends on what world you are talking about. My little world is doing just fine. I eat every day. And when it rains, I’m dry. What more could a man ask for?”

He nodded, but said nothing. Fueled by Guinness Stout, I went on.

“Now, if you’re asking about the world in general, I would have to say that for the majority of the people in it, the place is a shit-hole. Wouldn’t you say so?”

“I would say that the vast majority of the people on this planet are living the lives that they want to live.”

Now the guy was pissing me off. Being of Irish descent and having four and a half Guinnesses in me got me up on my soap box.

“Do you believe in God?” I asked with a drunken sneer.

“I have heard of Him, but I don’t know if I believe in Him.”

“Well, if God is real, how can he let the suffering go on? How can he allow a baby to get cancer? How can the son-of-a-bitch let the world get into the mess that it is in today?”

“Good questions, my friend. Very good questions.”

“Don’t patronize me, and hand me another of those goddamn beers.”

I was in rare form.

When I had been placated with my sixth beer (but who was counting?), my new-found friend went on.

“Many people feel as you do. They use the same argument. ‘If there is a God, how can He allow the suffering?’ I think the answer is that there is no God. There is only the Oneness. There is only us. Perhaps we are God. And if we are God, how could we allow ourselves to suffer?”

That was it for me. Free beer or not, I was out of there. The guy was crazy. But first I would finish my beer . . . just to be polite.

Then he went on.

“It’s a shame that we don’t believe in reincarnation, because that would explain many things. If reincarnation was for real, that would mean souls exist before birth. It might even mean that we choose our lives. That life is not a crap shoot.”

About then, I was thinking, You’re a crap shoot!

“Do you know that physicists have proven, mathematically at least, that there is no such thing as time and that we are living in a hologram? And if that is so, then what does anything matter? Look at it this way. We live in a dimension known as space-time. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot have time without space and you cannot have space without time. Right?”

“If you say so. How about another beer?” We were now into the third six-pack that wasn’t there. But what the hell?

“Think of it this way. Space-time is a manifestation only of the physical plane. Off the physical plane, there is no space-time by definition. Correct?”

“Please stop asking me to confirm what you are saying. I’ll admit it makes sense . . . so far. So, I’ll sit here and listen to you as long as that magic bag keeps popping out Guinnesses.”

“Okay. Now visualize this. If you were to look into a dimension of time-space from a dimension of non-time-space, meaning a non-physical universe, what would you see?”

“Your momma!”

He smiled at me with such forbearance that I felt ashamed at having made such a flippant remark. And I sobered up instantly. “I’m sorry I said that. Please go on.”

“I take no offense and I assure you, ‘my momma’ takes no offense.”

I pushed my half-finished beer aside and waited. He didn’t seem drunk, yet he had had as many beers as I had. He took another deep swallow of his Guinness and continued.

“What you would see is all time happening at once. That is what you would see. Now, here’s my point. If all time happens at once and we are living in a hologram—a false reality if you will—and if we exist before we are physically conceived, and if we know the lives we are going to live, and if there is no time, which means the duration of our lives are as one-millionth of the time it takes to blink an eye . . . then how are we harmed?”

A good question to which I had no answer. But I had to ask, “Who the hell are you?”

“I’ve been known by many names over many lives. My time on the space-time plane is over. I just come to visit once in a while because that’s what I do. I am a teacher. Sometimes to the multitudes, sometimes to just one lonely man thinking of drinking a beer by himself. In my last incarnation, I was known as Jesus Bar Joseph, or Jesus, Son of Joseph. In parting, let me say this. There is no God. There is only the Oneness and we are all fragments of that Oneness, playing out our existence. Working our way back to the Oneness where we will be reunited. There is no hell and there is no heaven. There is no loss, there is only us. Peace be with you, my friend.”

Then he glowed with such intensity that I had to cover my eyes. The brilliance was filled with love. I have never felt such love. I have never been so loved. It was all I could do to not break down and cry right there on the spot.

Then he was gone.

Now I sit here pondering his words. If we are all One, then hiding from my neighbors might not be such a smart thing. I think I’ll invite that nice young couple who live a few boats over for a Sunday brunch. If I can make it through that, perhaps I’ll visit the Tiki Hut a little more often.

You never know who you might meet there.