Making sense of it…

We have this interesting phrase: ‘Making sense of it…’ But we may never stop to think of its origins, or what logic is behind it.

(870 words; a five-minute read)

(Above: the setting sun reminds us that there is a single reason why all things are ‘seen’.)

There are at least two interpretations of what ‘sense’ means. The first refers to the domain of our five physical senses: sight, hearing touch, smell and taste – all but one of them centred directly in the head – the seat of most of the brain.

Physics tells us that we really live in a vast electromagnetic world, and have a meagre five narrow windows onto its expanse. Whatever our true ‘beingness’ is, these five windows are obviously important… to us, and possibly beyond. We pride ourselves on being a ‘dominant species’ of life on Earth, so we assume that the five senses and the information and context they bring are an important part of that eminence.

The other use of the word is when we get a ‘sense’ of something. This refers more to understanding than any individual sense, like taste. A novel may refer to a character, say a detective, ‘smelling fear’ on someone; a phrase that evokes a whole series of images in our minds. These draw on our past direct experience of such things at the composite level. We may well have been in fearful situations and ‘smelled’ our own fear… Sensory experience can often be unpleasant, so we build a life in which this aspect is minimised.

It’s a useful exercise to go through a week and deliberately try to experience one or two key situations with all the senses alerted. We may find connections we hadn’t thought about as the delicate hues of the rose blend with the ‘ebb and flow’ of its perfume, and the tiny noise as the breeze vibrates its petals.

The five senses continually ‘stream’ a vast amount of information to the brain, whose initial job is to get rid of most of it. If it didn’t filter it in this real-time way, we would go insane. To do this for us, unconsciously and continuously, requires that the brain learns what is important for us. These ‘heads of importance’ (the expectations of our mother, for example) become central to how we collect, filter and refine our experience. The refining stage recognises that the heads of importance may change over time – my mother may become old and suffer memory loss, so the way I gather and process her ‘data’ may need to revert to a more child-like model, effectively reverting backwards in time.

Making sense of our world, and continually refining it, is therefore a high-state process centred on memory. The structures in the memory – these heads of importance – are sophisticated ‘silos’ of information that go to make up living images of our world; in fact, they are our world…

Our ‘self’ is derived very much from how we feel about theses images. Those to which we have attached importance have a sense of belonging to us and we move towards them. Things we don’t like will be attached to a sense of rejection, and we move away from them – often building sophisticated barriers so we never have to meet them, again. As children, we may not have had that luxury… and suffered in silence. But our adult life is entirely shaped by being able to put force behind these preferences.

From a brain perspective, this is all well and good. We feel protected as much as our lives can allow. Poor people may live a life of horror, in which they are forced to live adjacent to the unpleasant. Very rich people may live in gated communities and feel a sense of disconnectedness with their worlds. This is not moral comment, simply how our brains are wired to drive our lives.

The problems arise with the self. The self is a composite image we hold of what is really important to us. It is what we identify with: ‘Yes, that’s who I am’. The self is double edged sword. A strong sense of self is essential to have a stable and successful life.

But… by its nature, being based upon memory’s structures, it is formed only from the past. Our existence in the present – in the now – is not consciously lived.

Thankfully, our senses are still working in the present; still gathering and passing data to the brain so that our heads of importance can be updated and fine-tuned (‘that Tony Johnson has turned out to be okay, despite my initial dislike of him!’)

One of the long-standing exercises in mystical training is to deliberately dwell on the senses, as we mentioned in the opening. When we first approach this, we may think we are ‘going the wrong way’; dwelling on the mundane and physical rather than turning to elevated thoughts and concepts. It is only when we experience the sudden influx of the truly new that we gain the contrast between our supposedly present state and the truly present

We may, then, have some life-changing choices…

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

Distorted reality

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I stood outside my son’s bedroom, bundled up against the cold that was dropping a few meagre snowflakes on the morning. Camera in hand, I was snapping away happily when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window. The double glazing caught a pair of misaligned reflections, within which was caught yet another reflection from the infinity mirror on the far wall. You could see both the garden outside and the inside of the bedroom too; the one indistinguishable from the other to the eye that caught only the two-dimensional image on the glass.

At first glance, the eye saw what the lens sees, a single flat image. It took a few moments for the mind, filled with its knowledge and experience of the three-dimensional world, to begin to tease apart the various overlapping images and make sense of what they eye was seeing. I was conscious of the process and couldn’t help but wonder what someone from a different dimension would make of it. A two-dimensional being would be quite happy with the initial impression. Except that a two-dimensional being wouldn’t be able to distance themselves from the image in order to see it at all…they would, of necessity, be part of it, just as I am part of this image and reality.

What if there was a being that moved through more dimensions that we do? Would our three-dimensional image of the world look just as flat to it as the image on the pane of glass did to me?

Do we really live just within three dimensions though, when time has been posited as a fourth? The softly falling snowflakes were a visual representation of time as I watched them move through space from one place to another. And as I was in those dimensions, watching them, where was the ‘I’ that was able to watch? It cannot be within those nominal four dimensions, for if it were, it would be unable to separate itself from the image in order to observe it.

After proving, to my own satisfaction at least, the necessary existence of the fifth dimension, things got more complicated. While holding a conversation about cats with the son dangling out of his window, I wondered about the fact that the observing consciousness can always observe itself in the process known as infinite regress. Even in that moment, I was aware of the layers of my own consciousness as I chatted about mundane ideas while exploring an inner vision of infinity. And I wondered about the implications of that. I wondered too whether time was simply space observing itself… and if you view space as consciousness, which is far from a new idea, that opens up some intriguing and mind-boggling lines of thought.

While all this was going on, I was looking at the reflections in and through the window. In itself, it was a perfect illustration of both the distorted perception of reality we may have and the many layers it holds. Multiple reflections came together as one image. It is only my experience of those layers of reality that allow me to distinguish between bedroom and garden, inside and outside, mirror, glass and lens. It is only that experience that lets me know what is the image and what is the object.

Without such experience, my mind could not tease apart the various layers as it would not know where to begin. If I had never seen the world before, never learned the rules of its reality, what would I make of it?

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…” We dismiss such a lot of things simply because they are so far outside our range of experience that we cannot perceive them. If we did see them, we may not recognise them because we don’t know what we are looking at. We have no frame of reference. Even with that simple snapshot of the reflections it is difficult to make out the reality if you don’t know what you are seeing. Is one arm really that much shorter than the other…or is it a trick of perspective? Am I wearing a printed skirt, or is it the bedspread through the glass? Even I can’t guarantee what you will see… and I was there.

Reality goes far beyond what our physical senses can show us. I look out of my window and see the garden next door. Except I don’t. What see in reality is only the fence. Memory fills in the gaps of perception. I know there is a garden beyond the fence. In truth, I know nothing. A sinkhole could have opened in the night and swallowed the garden. The neighbours could have released a pet crocodile onto the lawn. There could be anything beyond the fence. But I do not question my version of reality because it is the vision of my own experience. The oddest thing is that even being aware of how many of the gaps I am filling in by assumption and memory, it changes nothing… except my openness to possibility.

It makes me wonder just how much we do miss or dismiss, both in our dealings with each other and in our observation of reality, simply because we have bounded our acceptance and perception with a wall of experience.

Sensory Deprivation?

I was no more than five years old. We were staying with one of my great-grandmothers for a while. She was an old lady by that point, with a sharp mind and a wicked sense of fun. She was also blind, having lost her sight quite suddenly one day on her way to work. We were there to make sure she would be able to manage on her own. My mother had gone out to get some shopping and Grandma and I were alone.

“You’d better go watch the cat,” she said, quite suddenly. Whether it was her hearing or her sense of smell that had alerted her, I never thought to ask, but she knew the moment that the resident moggy went into labour. The cat was curled up a cardboard box lined with clean rags. Grandma had me watch and keep up a running commentary, explaining to me what was happening and what to watch for in case the little mother needed help. Thankfully, she seemed to know what she was doing and, before my mother returned, six damp balls of fur were being licked clean and stretching uncertain limbs. It was the first time I saw a creature born into the world, the first time I held a newborn being. The second came soon afterwards when her son, great-uncle Wilfred, placed a half-hatched egg in my hand and I felt the new life emerge. Warm and damp, the tiny, ugly squab was the most beautiful thing in the world.

Five years later, I was privileged to help my baby brother into this world. I will never forget the wonder of that moment, nor that mine was the first loving touch that he felt. Later, I gave birth to two sons of my own, and the breathless magic of holding them for that very first time is etched in my memory. Many people will experience and recognise that feeling, but each time that ‘feeling’ is ours alone as it is through our senses that we experience the world as a unique and personal journey.

My sons, growing up, would bring me all sorts of injured creatures they had found. Some we could help, others died in my hands and I felt the life leave them. It seems more than the cessation of breath and heartbeat; one moment there is a living thing in your hands, the next, no more than an empty shell. When my partner died of cancer many years ago, it was the same. The much-loved shell remained, but holding his hand as I waited for the ambulance, I could feel the last flicker of life leave him and knew the moment of that final parting.

I have known the beauty of the sense of touch at both ends of life. I have clung to a hand that called me back from the confusion of illness and the blackness of grief and held out that same hand for my sons. I have known the gift of a friend’s arms, the warmth of a lover’s embrace and the joy of a child’s hand in mine. Touch is our first welcome and our last farewell in this world. It is a common human language that, in spite of cultural differences, we all understand and respond to at a level deeper than logic.

Our sense of touch is incredibly important. While the simple, sensory function allows us to learn about and navigate our world, the type of touch that evokes an emotional response plays a huge part in our health and wellbeing. An affectionate hug or a hand holding yours can change everything, from offering reassurance to easing both emotional and physical pain. It alters the levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and cortisol, the stress hormone, as well as having a beneficial effect on blood pressure and helps protect the heart’s physical health.   It helps shape our children’s ability to interact with the world, bolster our own self confidence and sense of self-worth and creates the social bonds of trust that we, as a species, all need.

I remember a time when I had first moved to Paris, wandering the streets… loving every minute, but desperately missing contact with another human being. It took all my self-control not to hug a stranger in the street… a wholly inappropriate impulse, but one that arose from a primal and gut-wrenching instinct. That feeling too is etched in memory.

I recognise the beginnings of that feeling now, when touch is being denied to so many, especially those who live alone and who rely on time with loved ones to fulfil this human need. People are beginning to notice and talk about the lack of affective touch and the longer this situation goes on, the worse it will feel. It is one of the tragedies of the pandemic that so many people are being starved of its comfort and reassurance.

I wonder how much collateral damage is being done to our mental and emotional health, just for lack of a hug. How much less stressful the current situation would be if we could hold those we love, instead of being taught to fear any kind of physical closeness. And, perhaps more importantly, how much damage prolonged social distancing and emotional isolation could inflict upon young children, learning to live and love in a world kept two metres apart.

When you open your arms to someone for whom you care, you are opening your heart to them too as you welcome them into your personal space. It is a gesture of trust and acceptance, a sharing of life and love, even just for a moment. For those who see Love as the heart of Creation, it may go deeper still, expressing and affirming the oneness of all.

A contract with wonder

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The glamorous sky seems an incongruous backdrop for mundane chimneypots and washing lines. Veiled by the pallid grey of low cloud or with a symphony of shades, the sun rises over the fields, painting the morning with impossible colour, every single day. Sometimes I can watch…sometimes I am occupied elsewhere… sometimes there is nothing to see beyond a gradual lightening of the sky, yet every morning, the same miracle unfolds, whether I can see it or not.

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The young rabbit really doesn’t seem to mind our presence, but carries on with the serious business of lunch as we watch. There is no hurry in its movements, no panic…no fear. As if it knows we mean no harm, are no threat, but are simply delighting in the privilege of a shared moment. Rabbits are always around… a common enough resident of the countryside, though they usually scatter at the approach of man.

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It is a perfect spring day. From inside the five hundred year old pub, sheltered from the underlying chill, it looks like midsummer. People sit on the tiny village green enjoying the sun. It is Midsomer though, not midsummer… the Lions at Bledlow, once two adjoining pubs, the Red Lion and the Blue Lion, is well known to fans of Midsomer Murders as the fictional  ‘Queen’s Arms’, while the village church has played the part of ‘Badger’s Drift church’ in the series. I have frequently seen the crews filming around here; the area is beautiful and full of historic hamlets, perfect for creating a magical illusion for the small screen.

We know most of the hamlets… know their churches and village greens, their old crosses and the folklore that meanders through their hedgerows like wild honeysuckle. We have spent a lot of time exploring the region and learning about it, our sense of wonder open wide for the gifts we have found by the wayside. From the unfurling of spring petals to the continuous unfolding of human history that is written in the stones of follies, castles and churches or the burial mounds of the ancients that mark the horizon, we are surrounded by an everyday magic that delights.

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The world is a place of wonder to a child, seen up close and through eyes alight with the joy of discovery. They are aware of every leaf and feather…every experience is new and full of potential. As adults, we tend to lose that capacity for wonder for the most part. The cares that hang heavy on our responsible shoulders can drag our eyes away from the wider vista of possibility to focus so closely on the task in hand that the magic of the world around us escapes our attention.

It doesn’t take much, though, to reanimate the heart of wonder. Just a simple walk in the woods and fields, a moment lying on the grass watching the play of light on a beetle’s wing the iridescence of a starling’s plumage…  or to stand on a hilltop and see the counterpane of fields far below. Getting out into the natural world seems to recharge our ability to see, feel and marvel at the beauties and little miracles around us, but the charge is easily depleted again when we return to the everyday world of work and need. It doesn’t take much, though, to renew the contract with wonder that we are given as children and bring that feeling home with us, keeping the eyes awake to the everyday magic of the world in which we live.

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

There are mysteries just beyond the doorstep, sacred places and hidden stories in every landscape. From the five thousand-year-old track that once crossed the country to the enigma of the secret orders that have hidden their true purposes behind sanctity or debauchery, the landscape of rural Buckinghamshire abounds in unsolved riddles.

Join us as we ask why a medieval church was built upon the site of a prehistoric settlement… Why Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club met beneath a sacred hill… and how the landscape beyond your threshold can open the door to adventure.

The weekend will be based around Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. There will be a moderate amount of walking across field paths.

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Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

A pattern in the night

Image: Pixabay

I couldn’t sleep. I’d gone to bed sleepy, read until I could read no more, then snuggled down expecting the inner lights to go out within minutes. An hour later I was still waiting… and wide awake. It might have had something to do with the discomfort in my hand. Nothing to do with typing too much of course… not possible. I gave in and got up, heading for hot milk and more of the damnable painkillers. I wasn’t best pleased about the whole affair as I need to be up by six at the latest, Sunday or not, and it had been after midnight when I had finally gone to bed in the first place.

The previous night it had been the wind howling outside. It is odd, I have no qualms about being high on a hilltop in the wind, buffeted by gusts and struggling to stay upright. That I enjoy. But I don’t like the noises the house makes in a gale. I hadn’t particularly cared for the creaks and groans of the trees either when Ani and I had been out for our walk. But I had slept as soon as the rain began to batter the windows. That I find soothing.

It is strange the associations we make with sensory impressions and how deeply they are ingrained and affect behaviour. The smell of candlewax I find both comfortable and uplifting. The sound of rain on an umbrella is happy… and on canvas the memories of camping trips and laughter come back. The list is endless…

I was thinking about it when I was cuddling my granddaughter. The small sounds of a sleepy child seem to trigger the competence of motherhood again. The body knows what to do…how to lift and hold, how to rock and calm. Probably with far more confidence now than when the skills were first learned. The smell of paint reminds fingers what to do to create an image. The touch of flour tells them how to make pastry. The sound of a waltz reminds the feet how to dance.

I wondered how much our memory is rooted in the physical. All of it in some ways, as we can only experience through the senses. We know there is muscle memory, a pattern known to the body that it can repeat with increasing ease and accuracy as we learn new skills. Then we add the overlay of emotion, of course… a context that frames and defines each memory and colours our perception each time they are triggered. It is all part of the constant programming that builds up the layers of individuality that make us who we are.

Our experiences of the world are pretty limited really… limited by the portals of the senses themselves as to how we can perceive. Yet even if we experience the same event, emotion will make our perception of it different for each of us. A lifetime of such differences makes each of us a unique combination… individuals.

It shouldn’t be a surprise really, that pattern of infinite possibility born of limitation is all around us. Nine numbers can go on indefinitely producing other numbers that are unique unto themselves. Twenty-six letters of the alphabet combine to make over a million words in English alone… three primary colours combine with light and shadow to produce millions of tints, hues and shades… seven notes create every song ever sung, every symphony played…

It is within this limitation itself that harmony is established. Paradoxically, their very restriction creates the relationship between them that permits harmony, dissonance and growth and gives their distance both meaning and beauty as they spiral outwards towards infinity, allowing us to trace their patterns and begin to know them.

Within ourselves the five senses allow us to ‘harmonise’ too, understanding each other through the empathy of common experience. Seven billion humans alive today, have common ground through five shared senses. Untold numbers of other creatures share those senses too, and by their presence or absence, their experience is defined. Yet every single one of us is unique, perhaps solely because of the thoughts and emotions with which we respond to those experiences. The jury is out on which of those two come first… whether emotion gives rise to thought or vice versa. I’m not sure they are separable or separate, regardless of precedence. Perhaps they are the manifestation of the same process on a different arc of the spiral.

Looking out of the door, open to the night at the insistence of the dog, I look up at the stars; visible traces of our own spiral galaxy, and wonder of what it too may be a part… what its relationships may be to other galaxies… what harmonies might be brought into being out there in the blackness… Billions of point of light. From here they all look pretty much the same and yet I can discern the patterns of the constellations; remember their stories and mythology… know that man is already out there exploring…

My senses have taken me from pain to infinity; my thoughts have travelled the universe, through both the inner uniqueness of man and the vast wonderment of space. My emotions have spiralled from annoyance to awe… all in the time it took to recognise a pattern in the night.

Being Human

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Cave of the Hands: artwork created up to thirteen thousand years ago. Image: Mariano CCAS3.0

Shadows dance in the firelight. A hand, warm upon cold stone, where many other hands have rested. The breath of the shaman, blowing ochre, staining the wall at this moment of passage. Rite of recognition within the tribe. Kinship and continuity indelibly inscribed upon the body of earth

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The restaurant is quiet now, many of the tables are empty.  Sunset gilds the weathered stone of the window frames and casts ghosts of a beautiful day across the table, igniting the ruby heart of the half empty glasses. The woman tapping away at the little keyboard glances at her companion. There is an expression of deep concentration, emotions flitting across the unguarded face… She smiles. He is lost in the story, seeing it played out on the screen of imagination, reading from the heart, feeling the joy and grief of the characters. The book in his hands is a dream made concrete, the ephemeral made real. Her dream, his reality. From the back cover her own face smiles back.

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An old story plays out in images on the flickering screen, acted to perfection by movie stars, long dead perhaps, but here, forever, captured in an unending moment. The story may have no basis in reality… or perhaps it does…but the grief of she who weeps for her son is that of every mother’s tears. Alone in the dark, tears course unstoppable…rivulets of pain and compassion… from cheek, to throat, to breast… back to the heart that watches, a mother’s heart who knows that grief. The acted emotion evoking a response, a mirror, in the reality that observes the fantasy.

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Faded photographs, a tapestry of images… instants in time captured by the lens and brought back to life by the sight of the heart. Memories carry presence from the now to the then as eyes read the story of the past. The emotions are not then, but now.

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Paint rushes across canvas, swirling and curling like dust-devils in the heat of summer. You can feel it beating down on the unprotected head. Energy flows in every line and curve…passion made visible, calling to something deep within your being

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The music begins and you are lost in images born of sound and emotion, carried upon wings of imagination shared across centuries, heart to heart with unspoken words….

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School dinners. It is not the same smell… but so close you are instantly transported back to childhood, feeling once more all the small details of that moment, recalling the taste of a favourite sweet, perhaps, or the comfort of a touch. For a scintilla of conscious time you are a child again.

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You will have noticed a bit of a theme going on here… images, brought to consciousness through the senses and evoking emotions that are not images or memories in themselves, but, here and present now. Many spiritual paths over the ages have advocated a leaving behind of the things of the flesh, divorcing ourselves from the senses and focussing our attention firmly upon the higher and ethereal realms of spirit. I cannot, nor I think, can anyone say with any certitude, except that of personal conviction, whether this is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about things.  There are and have been mystics of all faiths and paths that have embraced this concept with their whole being and who have come to a personal enlightenment. There are others who have embraced the world and all it offers and who have also reached that level of spiritual beauty.

For me, personally, and for the Silent Eye, we have chosen the latter path…or perhaps it is closer to the truth to say it has embraced us. The idea of turning away from the world, for me, implies a separation from the Divine, by whatever name we choose to call It. The world in which we live, the bodies we inhabit, the creatures, great and small, with which we share this planet… our home… to me are all expressions of the One.

Even as a child the idea that we should turn from ourselves… away from how we were made, the tools we were given with which to experience the world… seemed odd. Though I was raised in a rather unusual family with wide ranging religious and spiritual beliefs, I live in a nominally Christian country, went to Sunday School and learned from the Bible. It says, quite clearly, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1:27. KJV.  In fact, in the same phrase, the point is hammered home  thrice.

Now, the Sunday School child, with the child’s simplistic viewpoint, could not quite grasp how, on the one hand, we were being taught that God was omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent… yet had obviously got it all wrong, because we had to be ashamed of our bodies and their functions, deny human emotions and senses and try to become perfect. Surely, I thought, if God had created us in His image… like a mirror… we were already perfect in His eyes?

Ah, said the Sunday School teacher, smiling beatifically… but there was the Fall… the expulsion from Eden…sin….

Hmm… thought the child, rapidly learning to keep quiet… but didn’t God create the Tree, the Apple and the Serpent too? Maybe He knew what He was doing? Maybe, they too were part of His plan, His perfection?

Decades passed, symbolism and abstract thought were engaged upon and explored, beliefs changing and evolving as life added to the store of knowledge and understanding…yet this idea always stuck, unshakeably, in my mind.

Maybe, just maybe, the things of this earth were meant to be experienced and learned from? And perhaps the senses we use to move blindly and often blandly through life were the gateway to a deeper understanding? And when I realised that it is through the senses that we touch the deepest emotions that began to make sense.

There is a difference between being a slave to the senses and using them… the same difference perhaps between using opiates for medical purposes and for the recreational escapism that ends in addiction. The one offers release from pain, the other dependency.

There is no guarantee that the reality any of us sees is the same as that seen through another’s eyes. We all see the sky is blue… but how can we tell if what I see as the colour I call blue is the same as the colour you see? We agree, by consensus, that it is blue.. and can replicate our own version of blue in other things… but who is to say my ‘blue’ is not actually your ‘green’… just called by the same name? Our perception of the world is unique and personal, but we have a consensual language with which to share experience.

Perhaps the only area where we can touch each other’s reality at a deep level of true understanding… where we can communicate heart to heart, wordlessly and in all simplicity… is through the emotions… and our emotions are accessed through the senses. Think about that; without the physical senses we could not feel… indeed, most of the language of emotion describes sensation… we feel, are touched, we hurt….

There is another phrase from the Bible that also stuck, “…a sword shall pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke  2:35

Emotions are universal, timeless and understood by all. Once experienced they are part of us and we recognise them in ourselves and in others. Empathy, not sympathy. Compassion answers grief, eyes meet in joy, tenderness meets need… a wordless understanding that transcends all other forms of communication. Who among us that has experienced the heart-piercing sword of loss cannot feel it in another? The thoughts of many hearts, indeed, become clear when we allow ourselves to listen to our own.

Maybe just being human can bring us closer to each other than we realise…across time and space, across all political and geographical divides, leaving an imprint of emotion that others can understand, miles and millennia apart.

Saving for a rainy day …

The fish need feeding… their food cannisters need refilling too. The bird feeder needs completely restocking…and it is freezing outside. Not only is it cold enough to make a snowman shiver, it is raining… the kind of rain that falls as stinging darts making the presence of each drop sharp and immediate. I shiver, watching the blood withdraw from my fingertips, feeling them shrink and stiffen with the cold and I wrestle with the frozen metal of the lock. Raindrops trickle across my scalp, slithering down my neck. It is not a day to be outdoors… but the fish and the birds need to be fed, regardless of my misery.

Opening the shed, I squeeze past my son’s wheelchair to reach the feed. I remember, just for a moment, coming onto the hospital ward one day and seeing the longing on his face as he watched the raindrops on the window pane. I’d give anything to be out there, he had said. To feel the rain on my face again. Back then, we had no idea if he would ever be able to do so…at least, not without help.

What if, I wondered, this were the last time I ever felt the rain? I know, all too acutely, how life can change between one moment and the next. How normality, freedom…even life itself… can be snuffed out without warning. Such thoughts may seem morbid to some, but I have found that an awareness of the finite nature of the life we know only enhances our ability to appreciate its beauty. Yet, here I was complaining.

I asked myself the question once again. What if this were to be the last time I ever felt the cold of winter or the rain on my skin? Would I really want to remember it through a veil of misery? Or would I want to remember the clarity of the moment? The sparkle of rain on the first, burgeoning leaves of a nascent spring… the ever-expanding circles drawn by the raindrops on the silver surface of the pond… the aliveness of my skin, tingling beneath the touch of winter… the freshness of the rain-soaked garden and the smell of wet earth…

Some ‘last times’ we are aware of… we know they will be the last. We see them coming and they make an indelible impression on memory. I will never forget my last, tear-blurred glimpse of the Sacré-Cœur as we left Paris, thirty years ago. I didn’t know then that it would be the very last time… I still do not yet know if it was, for that matter… but it was the end of a chapter in my life and the beginning of a new story. I remember the final hug shared with a friend and his final words to me, hours before he died, as clearly as I recall the last time I closed the door on the family home.

Sometimes we only realise it was a ‘last time’ once the moment has passed… and those memories too entrench themselves, kept alive by emotion. But most ‘last times’ only become clear in retrospect… we will not know until it is too late to give them our attention and store them up in memory.

As we grow older, any farewell, no matter how temporary, takes on a new layer of meaning; as the years pass, the chances that some of these farewells will be ‘last times’ cannot help but increase. I would not wish to waste such moments in sentimentality, regret or in the imagining of some dire future… I want to enjoy them, storing them up in a treasure house of memory where life, love and laughter are the true riches of living.

There is a reason we are here, in this life, in these bodies and with these senses. Our lives are short… seconds, minutes and hours tick by, heading towards an unknown point, for few know the span of their days. For any one of us the world can change at any moment… yet we live our lives taking so much for granted or, as I was doing, railing against the downside instead of carrying away with us all the moment has to offer.

Living in England, the chances are that I will see and feel more rain than I could possibly wish for… but I do not know what the future holds. Would I really wish to be stuck behind glass watching the rain fall beyond my reach… and knowing I had wasted my ‘last time’ grumbling?

I fed the fish and the birds, smiled at the Indian airline label still attached to my son’s wheelchair… and went out to enjoy the rain.

All images in this post were taken in India by my son…where he felt the rain.