An iceberg universe

Image by Uwe Kils Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Image by Uwe Kils

Fat little fingers hold up the toy as she peers at her reflection, laughing at herself. That she is, at two years old, very self-aware is evident in the way she plays with her own and her family’s reflections in the big, night-darkened windows. It is evident too in her naming of people and creatures, differentiating them from herself and recognising their unique individuality. She has already learned who to turn to at any given moment to have her needs and desires met and twists her father round her tiny finger with no more than a smile. She knows her own mind, there is a real and distinct personality and a playful sense of humour developing and showing in her offering and withholding of kisses and objects… and in the very definite ‘no’ with which she has established both her right and her ability to make her own choices.

She kisses her reflection and passes the little toy mirror to her father, quite obviously expecting him to look. I wonder… does she think her image will still be there for him to see? Or does she realise that he will only see his own reflection?

Her language skills are still too limited to discuss such a complex concept, so the question goes unasked, but it is interesting and delightful to watch her emerge from the cocoon of babyhood and become a person. This infant Eve, whose hair matches my own baby locks perfectly and whose look of mischief mirrors certain treasured photographs and her big sister’s mischief, is bidding fair to become a force to be reckoned with. Watching her and sensing the dancing echoes of the future, I am glad I only had sons to raise…

But it left me wondering… when do humans become conscious of selfhood? How do we know? We can see and measure certain reactions… like the recognition of the distinction between object and reflection, for example. We can put an age to various calibrated steps that show self-awareness. But I got stuck on the word ‘show‘…

Just because we cannot find an understandable way to measure a demonstrable self-awareness, does that really mean that there is none? A coma patient, locked in an unmoving body may be unable to communicate the activity of the mind, yet we are beginning to realise that often that mind is active and conscious. Like the case of Rom Houben, and, for a time, my own son. It is only now that our technology allows us to see and confirm this… it is no new phenomenon, only our methods are new.

The mirror test is the standard for assessing the awareness of the self. Very few other creatures have passed this test. Magpies pass it and are accredited with self awareness, even though they do not actually possess the bit of brain where it was supposed to reside… the neocortex. Dogs, on the other hand, fail and have officially no self-awareness. I and millions of dog lovers would strongly disagree. So would my dog.

She is not officially self-aware. But she does understand a ‘foreign’ language… mine… and chooses whether or not she wants to do as she is asked. She creates games and remembers them and expects you to do so as well. She has distinct tastes and preferences, feels and expresses emotion, including empathy, understands people very well and can communicate her needs and desires quite effectively. But her prime mode of communication is subtle and non-verbal, including everything from pointing with her eyes, to the rate of breath, her stance and facial expressions. But she has no self-consciousness… according to a vision-based test on a species for whom smell and hearing are the primary senses and far more acute than our own.

Maybe the tests we created half a century ago, when our view of the world and its creatures was somewhat different and rather more limited, need to be reassessed…

Perhaps the definition itself is vague… or flawed… or just plain wrong…

How do we know that a newborn baby is not aware of its own being? Because it doesn’t have the tools to define and demonstrate that awareness in a manner we can understand? Because we can’t measure it? Is that really a sound basis for such a judgement?

If we were to accept that a thing cannot exist because we cannot see, measure or replicate it, then we would live in a poor universe indeed. Can we measure hope? Quantify empathy or dissect kindness? They are just as abstract as self-awareness yet their results in the world are just as concrete.

We live in an iceberg universe, where most of our home, and even our understanding of ourselves, is still hidden from our view. In evolutionary terms, we are little more than babes… exploring a room where the cupboards are too high for our infant hands to reach or our eyes to see.

I would like to think we can preserve a childlike sense of wonder at the magic and mystery we encounter every day without giving it a single thought… and see what still waits, unknown and undiscovered, beneath the surface of our current knowledge as an adventure to be embraced. If the library of creation is written in a language we cannot yet understand, the inability to comprehend should not make us dismiss what we find there as being without value or existence… it should only encourage us to learn how to read.

The Feathered Seer – Part 3 (No. Really. The Feathered Seer!) by Running Elk



During the exploration session on Spirit Animals, presented during The Silent Eye (a modern mystery school) “Leaf and Flame: the Foliate Man” weekend in 2016, one of the companions enquired about “Shape-shifting”. Since this was outside the scope of the discussion, the concept was briefly addressed without going into any real detail. It was, therefore, with some surprise, that I found myself agreeing to present an exploration session on the topic during “The Feathered Seer” weekend in 2017.

As April approached, the usual buzz of anticipation built towards the day that the work-book was released, and roles revealed. Most surprised, therefore, when an email arrived indicating the “costume” arrangements for the weekend. Other than the, at this stage, mysterious “Weaver” and “Spinner”, only I would be required to be costumed: in the role of Shaman. This made it easy, as I probably had a few things lying around which would foot the bill.

As it turned out, this was a double blessing, as neither Robe, nor Shell were to be found. Ironically, both would make a reappearance, pretty much where they were always believed to reside, before the weekend was out!

The work-book, when it arrived, proved to be a masterful crafting of ritual movement, wrapped in a touching storyline; at once intimately personal, and, ultimately, Universal. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was fully “ready” to experience the Temple energies that the unfolding of such a story was likely to unleash, particularly when viewed from the perspective of the Shaman of the Raven Clan.

Did I mention synchronicity?

The exploration session I’d outlined focussed on the reasons why shape-shifting appears so difficult. It isn’t that we cannot do it, indeed we do a form of shape-shifting on a daily basis, without ever really thinking about it. It is only when we come to consider shifting into a form other than human that we become stuck: in a variety of fears, ultimately centred on the persistent illusion which we fear most. The weekend, unknown to me, would approach an inspection of the root, and illusory nature, of these very same fears.

The tale of a fish

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I’ve inherited an aquarium, for the second time. The first time it was a gift when a friend’s husband passed away…she needed to re-home the fish and, knowing my younger son had a keen interest in them, she gave the tank to me. My son however, had unexpectedly acquired a lovely little flat and moved out. Which left me with a huge aquarium of which the dog did not approve.

The dog too was a recent acquisition at that time. My elder son had decided an assistance dog might be a good idea, so Ani had come into our lives. He too had found a lovely home and moved out, but the small dog had remained with me. You may detect a pattern developing here. My younger son, rather liking the tank and in the interests of appeasing the confused canine (who thought it her duty to protect me from the fish) adopted the aquarium and took it home, leaving me fishless. Meanwhile, my elder son created a huge pond for me to clean enjoy at his new home.

It should, then, have come as no surprise that when I finally moved out of the old place and into my younger son’s little flat, while he and his family went on to pastures new, the aquarium remained behind. Five years on, and although there are a number of fish in the tank, most of its original occupants have departed for celestial seas; only two of them are still with us. One is a small sucker fish whose presence I am aware of but who I have never really seen, the other is Mad Fish.

Mad Fish was a bit of a mystery. My son thought he might be some kind of tetra, but was not at all sure. There had been two, but one had died, leaving the other fish on his own. He was referred to as Mad Fish not as some vague insult, but because his behaviour was very, very strange; he spent almost all his time swimming in circles with his nose to the glass, particularly at night. “I think he’s lonely,” my son had said. “Missing his mate.” I watched him for a couple of weeks while, at the same time, learning about the various fish, how to look after them and trying to identify Mad Fish’s species. I learned a bit about fish behaviour and, when I finally found out what Mad Fish was, I began to think my son was right.


He’s a Buenos Aires Tetra… which meant nothing to me, so I looked them up. They swim in shoals… maybe Mad Fish was trying to be a shoal with his reflection? Was he lonely? And was that just instinct… or emotion? Do fish have emotions? My relationship with the fish in the pond certainly makes me think so… but I looked up the science of if too.

Until very recently, we didn’t even know for certain whether fish felt pain, let alone had emotions.  It was discovered that they had a nervous system equipped to feel pain. Then came the next question… in order to suffer from pain, rather than simply react to it from self-preservation, there would need to be a level of consciousness. They experimented some more and found that fish could learn. Well, I could have told them that… Simon, the bubble blowing koi and his cohorts, have learned exactly how to get me to feed them whenever they choose. And anyway, it’s on Youtube… just look up ‘fish playing football’.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for the scientists, so they had to go for the labyrinth solving techniques…and found that fish can solve complex tasks, plan, co-operate and use faculties human beings don’t begin to develop until they are four years old.  Which, according to the scientists’ criteria, means they have not only a level of intelligence, but also of self-awareness… consciousness.  And science has a hard time explaining the essence of human consciouness, let alone that of creatures we have, for so long considered the epitome of mindlessness.

Consciousness and the ability to be aware…of joy and suffering, of pain and belonging… it is something we share with so many creatures in this world, many of whom were considered ‘dumb animals’ until so recently. Science does not know where consciousness comes from, nor how it arises…nor how far consciousness may extend into the natural world. We do not have the language to communicate with most of our world, we can only observe. Lives that are so very different from our own may well be showing levels of consciousness we simply cannot see or understand, but we cannot dismiss, simply because we do not see.

Do fish have feelings? If they are self-aware, then it would seem possible and must make us begin to question our attitude towards them and their treatment at our hands. After watching Mad Fish today, I, for one, am in no doubt.

I managed to find a local supplier of Buenos Aires Tetra and introduced a tiny shoal to the tank. I’m not ashamed to say I cried watching Mad Fish’s reaction. He stopped, mid dash… then dived across the tank, swimming in figures of eight through the shoal, over and over again at top speed. They followed him around the tank for a couple of hours, nose to tail. He is definitely  the top fish… and a happy one. Now, they are a shoal… and he hasn’t swum in circles or looked at his reflection once. He is not alone, he belongs… and it has changed his behaviour completely. I wonder how many people suffer that kind of emotional isolation…and what would happen if we all felt  that sense of kinship and that we truly belonged to the human family…and the greater family of Life.

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