The Cycle of Life

The approach of the autumn always makes me reflect on the nature of life; in particular the way the mysterious essence of life takes form and shape, ‘living’ for a while, then giving up its life and surrendering the elements of that form back to the earth from which it arose.

We all feel the poignancy of life’s seasons, but it’s useful to align ourselves with the processes of the autumn and reflect more deeply on the ‘life lessons’ that nature lays before us… quite literally.

Soon, I will walk in my muddy boots, through crisp and cracking leaves; leaves that, a few short months ago, glowed with the mysterious and magical green of the spring. These days, I cannot help but feel a kind of kinship with their fate, as the inevitable process of attrition by the wind, rain…and my walking boots, crushes them into smaller and smaller particles of their former selves, ready for the chemical dissolution that will complete their natural recycling.

But is it just the leaves that are recycled in this way–or something else? The form is a container for the indefinable ‘aliveness’ of what is inside it: its essence. We never actually see this essence, but we feel it – and it glows with the joy of being alive within that spring green which heralds the return of collective outward life. This capacity to feel what we cannot see is an important part of being human – and is really another sense.

Spiritually, we can learn from each season. We can also use our feelings to see a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

The four seasons offer us the following parts of this whole:

In spring, we feel the freshness, the new light, the change of colours, the return of milder weather. We also feel a surge of new energy as the Earth extends itself – through nature – into all the inherited forms of life. Like the leaves, each of these forms is unique; no two of them are exactly the same and yet each follows a type. The type is inherited through nature’s coding of evolution, and makes us what we are – physically.

The spring contains joy, a fundamental characteristic of being. In the spring it is made manifest.

The summer that follows is a time of fulfilment. The promise of the spring is carried to fruition beneath the calm, blue and golden skies above us. There is a feeling of completeness, a deep sense of inner rightness. The fruits of nature’s beauty are there for us to consume, so that we, in turn, partake of the bounty of fullness. In summer, we have that feeling of going outwards into the world.

The autumn is a time for reflection. Winter is around the corner but not yet with us. It is a time for gathering-in; preparing our selves – and those who depend upon us – for the harshness ahead. Our feeling of openness is replaced with the poignancy of knowledge of what lies ahead and a saying goodbye to the forms of things which have shared the spring and summer with us, such as the leaves falling from the mighty and enduring trees. Winds begin to pick up, again, completing the process of outer reduction, and the shaking free of the old.

But the autumn is also a time of harvest. We ‘plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground’ as the harvest hymn goes. Animals scatter the seeds of life for the natural world, ensuring life’s best chance for continuation away from the ‘tree’ from which they fell.

Finally, winter ‘reaps’ that which is no longer fit to contain the invisible life. But the strong things remain. The starkness of the outlines of bare trees dominate the natural landscape… but we cease to see them after a while. Trees are wonderful structures. Ouspensky described them as ‘living four-dimensional patterns’ because they show all the stages of their personal evolution.

We each have a winter tree inside us. It is the pattern of logical and emotional learning in our minds. Like a physical tree it shows us the forking and branching that our life’s journey has taken. It is a friend, an inner book; and we can learn much from its contemplation.

Nature’s key processes in the winter are beneath the ground – within the roots of organic life. They cannot be seen or felt, except by contemplation of the innermost purpose, while the bare structures of the trees above endure the cold, rain, ice and snow.

There will come a time to lay down that personal tree – to offer it and our life’s history to the greater cycle of life. We will have reached a different point of completion in this winter journey, and what we really are – invisible and ineffable – will return to the state from which it can begin a new life, restored, recharged and refreshed. Our small tree of experience will merge with the universe’s story, adding a tiny but important contribution that truly belonged to us, but which now may be read by all life.

©Stephen Tanham

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

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

The road…

I left after work on Thursday, driving north for the last Silent Eye meeting before the April workshop. The sun was shining, the day was balmy… spring had, it seemed, finally sprung after the torrential rain that had battered the land all night. Six counties, several road closures and five hours later, I had driven through spring and back into a watery world where the rain lashed the windscreen faster than the wipers could clear it.

Yet the sun greeted me again as I drove over the Derbyshire hills and into Yorkshire. Traces of white winter lingered in the lee of stone walls where the shadows preserved the last remnants of snow. Daffodils strained at the leash, wanting only a little warmth to burst forth in all their golden glory… and then I hit a wall of fog and I was glad to reach my destination and dinner.

The next day we headed back across the hills to Greater Manchester for the meeting… and later inched our way home, gripping tight to the wheel, as the fog enclosed us. We could see no more than a couple of yards ahead as we drove across the unlit hills on narrow, twisting roads and were grateful to reach the relative safety of the freezing-cold city. And then, as if that wasn’t enough…the next day, it snowed.

It snowed most of the day while we worked, but did not choose to settle until we had ventured out in search of food. Less than an hour over a late lunch and we found the car covered in a thick layer of the white stuff. And then… it snowed some more, squashing the winter pansies in their pots, covering the city in a silent shroud.

We were pretty much stuck, at the mercy of what the weather was doing, and could only wait for the roads to clear just enough for safety before venturing out the next day. The world was beautiful… but, as we essayed the roads I would have to take to drive south, full of dangers.

Roads which seemed passable were soon snow-bound. Vehicles were abandoned in drifts several feet deep. The few inches of powdery snow that had fallen was being whipped by the wind into great, white plumes that heaped fresh hazards on the road and, overnight, the packed snow and slush turned to ice.

The drive home was not an easy one and I could not predict the way I would have to go, but I was determined to get home for my son’s birthday. As long as I stayed on the main roads, it was not too difficult to drive, but beyond Bakewell, the ‘main’ roads are narrow, winding lanes across exposed moors and fields. There was a point at which I should have turned back, were I being sensible…and were there anywhere to turn.  The little car skied and skittered down slopes of packed ice, on roads you could no longer see. I could not take my usual route, but followed the clearest roads, knowing that just a few miles away was a real main road… and that would be clear. Or so I thought.

The main road was clear… except where it wasn’t. Huge drifts of snow, twice as high as the car, bounded the road. Where the wind could blow them, the road was buried. So were the abandoned cars. Such refuge as one would normally find… like the stopping places and pubs… were completely cut off. Once you were on the road, all you could do was drive.

Or stop, when rescue operations blocked the road. There is always a silver lining, if you look for it and there was a bright side to this; parked at the head of a line of waiting traffic, right next to Gib Hill at Arbor Low, was one of the few chances I had to take pictures.

The local farmer hauled the stranded car down from the heap of snow and we set off again. There was little snow on the fields… it all seemed to have congregated in the roadside drifts. This made all the usually-hidden features visible. Standing stones stood out, dark against the white. Old earthworks and medieval ridge-and-furrow fields were easy to see, highlighted by the snow and the rays of the rising sun turned whole swathes of the landscape to silver.

Leaving the hills behind, the roads became less hazardous and I relaxed into the journey.  Driving south, the snow lessened and melted in the warm sun. By the time I left my son’s and finished my day, there was barely a trace of snow to be seen. The weather that had played such a part in the past few days was once again balmy and vernal.

I could not help seeing the analogy with the greater  journey that we take through life. Even if we think we know where we are going, the road always has surprises in store for us. Some of them are beautiful… some hazardous, but all are unpredictable.

There will always be times when we are forced into taking an unplanned route, diverted from our path by force majeur. There will be times when, no matter what we do, the conditions of the journey prevent us from seeing the road ahead. We will be blinded by a deluge of tears, buried beneath the weight of grief or lost in a fog of indecision, not knowing which way to turn.

We will, without a doubt, sometimes feel that we will never reach our destination. But, just as surely, there will be a helping hand to pull us back from the brink… a ray of sunshine through the dark clouds that gather round us, or a moment of beauty to lift the spirits. And somewhere along the way, there will be the warmth and welcome of love.

All journeys have a beginning and an end, though where or when either of those may be, is a question we may never be able to answer. Does a journey begin when you place your foot on the path or long before the decision is made to travel? Does it end when you arrive at your destination, or is that merely a stop on the way? Spring has its beginnings in the deep darkness of winter. Seeds sown in spring will blossom in summer and, in turn, produce their own fruit in autumn.  The road, like the cycle of life is endless…and both will lead us home.

Everywhere…

It was, without a doubt, a glorious day. Spring had painted the world with colour. The sky was a cloudless blue, the birds were singing and the sweater had finally come off, replaced with a thin cotton top allowing bare skin to absorb the sun. Magic. Even the early ride to work had been a joy…apart from the travel-sickness. I’m not a good passenger; my little car is off the road at present and taxi drivers notoriously lack delicacy in their driving… So I am blaming the taxi for the sudden wave of emotion that grabbed me as I watched the fields give way to housing.

I understand the necessity of providing more homes, but the five miles of green fields that once separated my home from the town are now being obliterated by bricks and concrete. First they build the best homes… looking very like a rather swish village. Once sold, they fill in all the wonderful green spaces with flats and smaller streets. Next come the facilities to serve the homes…and, once the house-builders have sold everything, the warehousing and industrial units start to ring the ‘village’ in. Meanwhile, the new high-speed train line will be cutting through the landscape right next door.

The cynicism of the whole affair reminded me of the sequence in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the Vogons are about to demolish the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace expressway.The Vogons, before pressing the button, pointed out the need to look carefully at the plans…
“There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts
and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now… What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs...”

Even in the few brief years since I have lived in my own village…a much older one…I have seen it expand, nibbling away at the countryside that should be sustaining us. I even live in a new-build flat, right on the edge of the village where once there was just a field. A couple of years down the line and there is talk of another field or two full of houses behind mine…and the high-speed train, of course will pass this way too. But it wasn’t regret that made my eyes prickle with tears. What came with the utmost clarity was a realisation of how very lucky I am to have been born when and where I was.

There are still great open spaces, even in this tiny island. We will not fill them in my lifetime. The very roads and transport that cause so much pollution have allowed us to roam and see places our great grandparents might only have read about, even within our own land. We have the leisure to travel, even if we do not travel far. And there is still beauty on out doorsteps no matter where we are.

Once in the town, I was obliged to walk to the local shop for a few groceries for my son. Instead of taking the long route through the streets, I cut through the forsaken alley that runs behind his home. Graffiti sprawls across the walls, plastic, glass and the detritus of human indifference strews the ground… yet the birds are everywhere. Blue-tits and coal-tits hop from branch to branch. Sparrows, blackbirds and thrushes flit by or add their song to the chorus. Magpies are nesting in the trees and the doves sing a soft, reassuring counterpoint to the music of life.  The resident robin watches as the local squirrel scurries across the wall. A confused blue butterfly romances the forget-me-nots and even here in the town, a red kite sails overhead.

The flowers seem to be laughing at the sun. Escapees from the confines of the gardens, discarded and thrown into the alley as trash, have taken root and flourish, side by side with the wildflowers that the gardeners would call weeds. Gnarled bark creates patterns of shadows and petals reflect a light so bright they almost consumed and rendered invisible. The fresh fragrance of flowers lifts away the taint of exhaust fumes and the breeze and birdsong silence the traffic noise.

Blossom casts petals like confetti on the bridal rite of spring… a rite that will go on regardless of what we do. Mankind is a newcomer compared to Mother Nature. We have brought destruction and yet we have also created beauty. I wonder what our final legacy will be… and whether we can, as a species, live to find harmony with the forces of nature or if we will self-destruct through our constant expansion and desire to conquer the very source of our own lives. I remember a documentary series I watched some years ago, Life after People,  and find the destitute, littered alley strangely comforting… full of hope. There is a life-force in nature that is stronger than humanity’s heedless tenure. Unless we manage to wipe every trace of life from this planet we call home, she will survive us and slowly cover the traces of our juvenile destructiveness. Perhaps, like a grieving mother, she will cover our memory with flowers.

At a more personal level, I had to smile as the flowers were a reminder of how little importance may really be attached to so many of the things over which we agonise. The memories of those cringeworthy moments of youth and inexperience, for example, hidden in the undergrowth of the memory, are replaced with a greater poise and confidence as we grow. Damage that we may have either caused or felt will remain and take time to heal, hidden in the shadows beneath the leaves,. But it is often just those decaying and discarded experiences that form the basis of new growth. Yesterday is buried beneath the blossoms of today.

From the darkest corners of our lives true beauty can be born; the starker the contrast, the more it will shine, yet, without that contrast we might never notice …Spring is a season of hope and promise. Life and light drive cold winter into monochrome memory. We know that there will be dark days again, it will rain, it will storm and the seasons will continue their dance.  But there is always spring.

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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