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i chingSo far as I can work out, finding the centre of one’s self is to attain a state of mind in which we are able to view our selves at the centre of a universe rich in personal meaning. We identify events in the external world as reflections of currents within our own psyche. We feel a detachment, virtue of a transcendent perspective, while also sensing our interconnectedness with the universe and everything in it.

We seek signs, symbols, messages of personal guidance, for clues to guide our way, and we receive them – or at the very least we are comfortable in suspending disbelief and acting upon irrational sixth-sensical notions. Everywhere, and everything becomes alive, numinous, our lives suddenly enriched with a sense of purpose and meaning. We feel calm, awed by the beauty and the mystery of both the inner and the outer worlds.

There are many labels for such a state of mind – pathological, perhaps, but more positively, we could call it living the religious life, or we might call it “Dao” or the “the way”, or in more contemporary terms we might call it living magically. Living the magical life we are armoured against calamity. This is not to say misfortune does not befall us, more that we are not harmed by it, psychologically, emotionally, in the same way. We are also less likely to create calamity for ourselves by unskillful ways of thinking and being.

But the journey to the centre is not a straight line. We circle inwards some way towards it, then back out again, gaining and then losing this cosmic perspective as the ego’s dominance over us waxes and wanes. But each time we circle in, we approach a little more towards the centre. Thus we progress in a spiralling, cyclical manner. Each cycle might take a year, or a decade – there is no way of knowing for sure, and no certain method for gaining progress or holding onto it. We move when we are ready. And when the cycle turns back to winter, there is nothing we can do but shield our flame in anticipation of the storms to come, while trusting in the more fruitful season’s eventual return.

I came upon my own guide to this phenomenon by chance in a book called the Yijing, or Book of Changes. It’s not the only guide. There have been many down the ages, and the one that’s right for each of us will show itself when we’re ready for it. The Yijing has a powerful mythic and symbolic underpinning, and through its use we learn the art of acting powerfully by not acting at all, other than by correctly interpreting and negotiating change. Through this art we come to understand our position within a pattern of existential dynamics, a flow of time – the times when we have influence but don’t realise it, and the times when we think we have it, but don’t. It requires a suspension of disbelief, a humble spirit and a faith in the generally benign nature of the universe – but these are not easy things to hold onto in a world as materialistic and cynical as ours.

It was a favourite of the hippy generation, but we can trace its origins back to China’s Neolithic period and the proto-writings of the Shang dynasty. It first came to the west in late Victorian times through the missionary James Legge, but was largely ignored. It came again in 1923 in a German translation, thanks to another missionary, the great sinologist, Richard Wilhelm, and was championed by Carl Jung who recognised its power as a psycho-analytical tool. A later English translation of the Wilhelm edition appeared in 1950 and is still in print. It’s this version you are still most likely to find in bookshops today.

Every generation has reinvented the Yijing somewhat, re-purposed it to its own times, its own myths and symbols. I collected as many versions of it I could find and boiled them down into my own interpretation, which I laboured over long and lovingly, and still use.

After a promising start though, and a significant change in direction as a result of the book’s counsel, I lost my way with it as a consequence of ego reasserting itself and demanding to know how the book worked. And then, as time, passed, ego began questioning my use of it on rational grounds, effectively calling me a new-age flake, and to get a grip.

To be sure, taking the lid off the Yijing is like opening Pandora’s box. You will never understand how it works, and greater minds than mine have been broken by it. To try is to fall into it and then its alchemical vortices will suck you down and tear you limb from limb. But ego tries, because it must, it abandons humility and loses the centre, is recoiled full circle, leaving us bruised and bleeding, the egoic, “poor me”, cast out once more into the demon plagued wilderness of the old life, the old way of thinking. And there we languish, vulnerable once more to the mortal woundings of every day calamity.

But then the season of the heart changes, and we pick it up again, blow the dust from it, somewhat chastised, and seek to remake the old connections. The book is hesitant, testing us for sincerity, but slowly lets us back in and we resume the journey.

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greenbeltOne of the recurrent emotional themes in my life’s story is that of lamenting the loss of green spaces treasured since childhood and, by association, I presume a good deal of my self with them.

I was fortunate growing up in rural England, meadows and woodland on my doorstep, an ancient space I could disappear into the whole day long, a space that responded to childhood imagination and to the later private poet – the spirits of place alive and well and taking me into their confidence.

As I grew, the woods and meadows seemed an immutable fact, an anchor to a solid bedrock, holding me steady. No matter what else happened, they would be the same, their familiarity a salve for the occasional humiliations meted out by the pitiless ogre of growing up. If I felt threatened, anxious, lonely, I could simply walk those familiar ways, pick up the company of my ghosts and emerge easier in my head.

Life has not taken me away from my roots. I settled locally, settled into a career within easy commuting distance, married a local girl, bought a house, had children. I realise I have somehow existed well into my sixth decade in this small circle, in the north of England. It feels familiar, intimate, safe. But in that time those meadows have also suffered from the scourge of greenbelt erosion. There are now vast housing estates intruding upon my past, and I curse them, because I want my past to remain inviolable. I’ve watched the diggers moving into one meadow after the other and felt something akin to grief at their destruction – each bit of green a life taken, a spirit of place evicted. Precious,… irreplaceable.

The other side of this argument runs that as populations increase there is an inevitable demand for new houses. There is nothing we can do to prevent it. If it were not ‘my’ meadows disappearing, it would be someone else’s. And lately it’s made me suspicious the way I become angry at this thing I cannot possibly do anything about. So I ask myself, is it that I treasure the place, or merely the past versions of my ‘self’ I imagine it represents? Do I champion the breathing space and the freedom it affords me, or is it more I am imprisoned by it?

There is a world of beautiful, open space out there – just not on my doorstep. All I have is that bit of space I’ve got. So the question is, in my lament for its loss, am I restricting the person I might otherwise be?

I read a line in a book recently, that we are indeed whomever we allow ourselves to be, that through fear of the unknown, we risk keeping ourselves small. We choose the familiar path, keep to the places we know rather than venture abroad, try out the new, the unfamiliar, and grow. This is the mantra of the entrepreneur of course, of the big-shot businessman – nothing ventured, nothing gained. You too could be a millionaire, and all that,… and if you’re not it’s because you didn’t think big enough, that you wasted your life, that instead of lamenting the vast housing estates blanketing the once virgin green, you should be the one building them!

It depends how you measure success of course, but I take the point.

But still, I suspect the bigger point is this, that the obstacle to self growth is more the inability to let go of what must inevitably change – change into a form we no longer recognise or connect with. Everything changes, and we must change with it, and not view the change in it, or in us as being in any way important. It may cause us deep regret, but it just is.

Small circles, big circles – they’re are the all same. Live your whole life in one little town, or circle the globe. But it is the singularity at their centre that’s important, also that we take the trouble now and then to seek it out. How to find the centre of a circle? Euclid might give us a clue, something to do with bisecting chords is one method I recall, but that’s for the circles other people draw for you. The centre of our own circle is always wherever we happen to be standing at the time.

blake-newton

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watchwordThe Watchword technique is method of self analysis. Its origins are obscure, but find themselves formalised in this 1990’s title by Michael Daniels, senior lecturer in what was then Liverpool Polytechnic’s Department of Psychology. The book has a very Jungian grounding, and aims to give the reader a clear picture of the forces at play in the currents of the psyche – where we’re going, what’s holding us back, what are the dominant forces driving us, what areas we need to work on, to let go of and so on.

If you’re of a New Agey, self analysis, Jung-fan bent, you probably already have a number of methods for getting inside your head. Tarot cards are popular, as are Runes. For a long time I favoured the I Ching but, like all oracular devices it can be misunderstood and, like the Tarot and Runes, is somewhat tainted by an occultish aura which does not appeal to everyone.

Oracles do not foretell tell the future. It’s a common misconception. Instead, they read the psychical landscape and make projections from it. They grant us a look inside our heads, revealing what might otherwise be hidden. All methods have their attractions and drawbacks and we should feel free to take them up and set them aside as and when the mood takes us, never adhering to them too slavishly, but rather listening to our own instincts for what’s right at the time. In this way the Watchword technique can be looked upon as another thing to try, perhaps when answers are failing you elsewhere. The method is direct, and carries none of the occult baggage associated with other methods, though this is not to say its intuitions are both startling and mysterious.

The technique involves writing down sixteen words – whatever comes into one’s head – then pairing them off and looking for an association with the linked words, then pairing these off. Reminiscent of a Jungian word association test, and dream amplification, what we end up with is a grid of highly charged words which, like dream symbols, represent the archetypal forces, or a kind of psychical weather forecast. As a method I find it very powerful, though as Daniels cautions in the book, it is not something to be read too literally or follow too slavishly.

So, our sixteen seed words are boiled down by a process of association into a square matrix which we then interpret using a form of directional symbolism. In short, the up and down directions indicate progressive and regressive tendencies, the left and the right involve the more subtle interpretation of inner (left) and outer (right) psychological urges. The overall balance of the square therefore comes to represent a map of the forces within us and the complex dynamical churn between them. A further pattern of three words emerges in the centre of the matrix, the middle one of these being taken as the ultimate direction implied from the interplay of all the other forces in the mix.

While this may sound dubious to anyone not versed in symbolic or archetypal thinking, I find the method has an uncanny way of homing in on the key dynamics. The answers arise from our own thought processes, it’s just that some of them are normally hidden from view and the method tries to tease them out. At its most basic level the Watchword technique can be treated as a word game, as a bit of fun, and when beginning with it, it’s perhaps best to treat it as such. But at its deepest level it can aid us in coming up with some profound insights into our own strengths and failings.

A more individual analysis of the words we’ve chosen can also reveal our Myers Briggs type, and the book goes into this in some depth, but I’ve found the technique less reliable in that respect, probably due to my own failings in grasping the symbolic significance of the words we use, better to use the Myers Briggs method itself, but in all other respects this is a valuable tool for anyone on the path towards self discovery.

 

 

 

 

 

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George and the Dragon  - Rosa Corder D G RossettiWe have seen how the material path in a man’s life is ultimately self defeating, and its rewards potentially poisonous to the quest for contentment and meaning. The other path, the quest of a man in search of his soul, is no less exhausting, but those men bound upon it can at least sit down for a minute in order to gather their nerves and catch their breath, without fear of being swept away by Ego’s ever pressing timetable.

The quest for Soul is something open to all men but it is a lifetime’s journey, no matter what stage of life a man embarks upon it. And we must be careful of our expectations too, for Soul is not another thing to be acquired and ticked off on the list of life’s little necessities. Indeed a man cannot “acquire” a soul at all, because he already possesses one. It is more the degree to which he is intimate with it that is the important thing, or failing that it is the degree to which he even knows it’s there. The soul is a man’s secret and most perfect lover. Pay her sufficient devotion and she will transform you; indeed she will at times blow your mind. Neglect her though, and she’ll make you wish you were dead.

For every man, images of Soul are projected out into the world in many forms, but the most recognisable is in the shape of the human female. It can come as a shock to many men that women are not as perfect and divine as our early infatuations with them would have us believe. I’m sorry girls but you can be as stupid, vapid, shallow, mean and vain as any man. You also snore and make the same bathroom noises. Women are, in short, human, but a man’s attraction to them, once piqued, can take on the proportions of a holy devotion. For a fervent seeker of Soul, in the guise of womankind, this can turn out to be,… disappointing.

In psychological terms, though he may not be aware of it, a man projects the soul he already possesses onto the form of another human being. He looks at the woman, but does not see the actual person before him. What he sees is an image of his own soul. If he’s lucky the woman will do the same with him and there is created the potential for a happy-ever-after story, provided the process of actually getting to know one another doesn’t upset the fantasy. But it doesn’t end there. Just because a man pairs up with a life mate, does not mean he is now intimate enough with his own soul to have finished with the quest. No. The quest is just beginning.

A man can be happily married, then discover to his surprise a deep attraction for another woman, or perhaps several other women. It’s important at this point he realises his soul is still at work, shape-shifting, drawing his attention to other aspects of himself, and to which he has yet to awaken. But these aspects are not to be explored by literally engaging with the object of his projection, more by withdrawing those projections and releasing the energy back inside of himself.

To be sure, this is a dangerous stage for a man. It can bring him down, ruin him on a string of affairs, or he can rise above it, withdraw his projections from the material world and give strength to the soul growing within him. Make no mistake, let loose into the material world, a man’s soul might easily destroy him, but recognised instead as a valued psychical partner, along with a man’s ego, she can transform him. In the alchemy of medieval Europe, this marriage of the King and Queen (Ego and Soul) gives birth to queer offspring and much else that is mysterious, even terrifying, but no one said this quest was going to be easy.

Withdrawing one’s projections from the world is a tricky business, and requires first of all the taming of one’s ego. Ego is an analytical genius, and will act on the evidence of its findings. Once it realises women are simply human, it can play ahead to the end scenario of divorce and acrimony, and hopefully step back from the brink before blood is spilt. Age helps too, also the realisation that there are certain things in life worth more than yet another failed relationship: a comfy sofa, a glass of red wine, a good book, a fine cigar. Yes, material things are sometimes to be appreciated, but a wise ego treats them also with circumspection.

Mythical quests in storybooks often involve the hero doing battle with a fearsome creature, say a dragon, in order to rescue a beautiful, flaxen haired, gym honed, damsel in distress. (George and the dragon nfor example) For dragon think Ego, for damsel think Soul. But a slayed ego is neither use nor ornament to a man, for in dealing with a freed soul a man needs his wits about him. In the alchemy of the East, if the female yin is allowed to dominate, the result will be a disaster. More properly the female receives the male yang, softens him, applies her wisdom and directs him in useful ways, but she is careful never to dominate the dance, or the direction of the whole will be subverted to an unfortunate end. An ego dancing entirely to Soul’s tune is not a pretty sight; it takes a man out of the world, makes him doubtful of his place in it, and narrows his horizons to no further than the rim of his spectacles.

Returning again to the Eastern alchemists of the Dao, man is seen as inhabiting a universe that is as much inside of him as out. He is seen as straddling the worlds of Heaven and Earth. Each informs the other, and a wise man pays heed to the dynamics of both. Too much of the material world and a man loses himself in the forms of the earth, finds himself trapped without a starship to blast him back home when the time is right. Too much soul and She reaches up from the dark lake to drown him in his own thoughts, overwhelm him with his own tortured imaginings. He dies to the world, before it has taught him all it can – for such, say the Daoist sages, is the only merit in living a long life.

A safer place for abstractions of Soul is away from women-folk altogether. Wise men have found it in the retreat afforded by the natural world, in the beauty of nature, the quiet of the forest, in the shapely mountain peak. All these things bear the likeness of Soul and she will call to any man who is sensitive to her presence. She will make him yearn for a thing he knows he does not yet possess, yet infuriatingly it is a thing he cannot see or touch or even adequately define. When I was younger I responded to such things with an eye for conquest, but conquest, like all ego-driven acts, leaves one hungry for more. Nowadays I see it more in stillness, and can rest more easily in the knowledge it is not a thing to be grasped by the intellect, nor through physical effort. It is an opening, both in and to nature. And through it, through this guidance of Soul, we realise the glimmerings we see in the mind’s eye are glimmerings of our own deeper identity, that the infinite beauty of nature is a reflection of our own God-given nature, one of infinite complexity, depth, and potential.

In choosing our way through life no matter which path a man takes, life is going to kill him in the end. But one path brings with it the essential knowledge of his immortality, while the other denies it entirely. The mythical quest is a journey whose outcome is far from certain, and most of us who attempt it keep getting eaten by the dragon. But to fail in one’s search for Soul, is not really to fail – indeed, it is to be expected, for how else are we to learn and grow? To fail on this path, is more to stumble by the wayside, but we find a faith in Soul is sufficient armour for the Dragon’s worst excesses, and no man who has at least once chosen Soul over gold, is going to be down on his knees for long.

She simply won’t allow it.

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waltham 3This is a favourite little pocket watch of mine. I bought it off a market stall for twenty quid in 1996 and it’s one of the few in my collection I use on a regular basis for telling the time. I usually wear it with a short chain in a casual waistcoat pocket, though my children insist I must have my jacket buttoned up if I’m to walk with them. It seems waistcoats attract so many brickbats these days there’s even a risk of collateral damage.

Anyway, a little research reveals the mechanism of this watch was made in Waltham, Massachusets in 1888. I think the gold plated brass case is a Dennison, shelled out by the millions in Birmingham UK. The case proudly announces it’s “guaranteed to wear 5 years”, so it’s not done too badly, though most of that gold plate has by now worn away.

The mechanism is of reasonable quality, having a jewelled lever and a split bi-metallic balance  for automatic regulation of the time over a range of temperatures. There’s also a bit of filigree detailing which I think is rather nice.  But given the utility of the case,  I don’t think this was intended as a “Sunday best”  watch,  more something that would have been used during the workaday week – a workaday watch for measuring the hours at the office or the factory and for judging the trains.

The amazing database of Waltham serial numbers – entirely the work of volunteers at the NAWCC archive, confirms this, telling me the movement is of a fairly basic standard with seven jewels, and was unadjusted for accuracy. But even after 125 years, and with no obvious evidence of restoration, it’s still capable of telling the time to within a couple of seconds a day, so I’m not complaining. How many consumer devices can you think of that are being put together today and will still be working 125 years from now?

waltham 4I’ve had a fascination for pocket watches since I was a boy,  and my collection now consists of nine pieces, some inherited, some picked up as I go about my travels. None of them, however, are worth much, other than in sentimental terms. But my intention here isn’t to bore you with the details of another of my obsessions. What I’m trying to get at is what  this fascination for old timepieces might yield to a little over-analysis.

The watch or clock face is a good example of a mandala. This is a psychological archetype,  said to represent aspects of the unconscious self, and their drive towards integration, or wholeness. Mandalas are usually circular – either a painting or a drawing, or a physical object like a ring or a watch face, or even an arrangement of objects like a stone circle or a fairy ring. And they fascinate us. They usually feature some form of geometric division, commonly into quarters, but not always. Indeed, they can be quite abstract and if we draw them ourselves they can form a basis for psychoanalysis, because they weave a story of the psyche at a moment in time, one indicative of both a state of mind, and a direction to be taken if it’s wholeness we’re seeking. And whether we’re aware of it or not, wholeness is what we’re all seeking.

Sometimes, like with the Waltham, I’ll encounter a watch syncronistically in the wild, so to speak, at a “time” of auspicious transition. At other times – times of introspection and self analysis – a watch from my collection will unconsciously find it’s way into my hands,.. or my waistcoat pocket.  I’ve looked at all of this before, but that’s another thing with mandala’s – they tell us we cannot measure psychological progress in a straight line. Progress always involves a circumnambulation of the centre, encountering the same lessons, the same insights time after time – but hopefully with each full circle bringing us a little closer to home.

The time element might also be meaningful of course – especially the idea of being tied to it, indeed literally chained to it. The watch measures out the passing of time, the passing of a man’s life. It speaks from the past, also speaks of the future. It speaks of order, precision, regulation, of a desire to be on time. But to be on time also implies being lost “in” time. You’d better solve this, because “time” is running out. You can’t do this now because you haven’t got the “time”. How much more “time” must I wait? How much more “time” before my life improves, before I gain the satisfation I crave?

You get the picture?

waltham 1At this level, the watch is more obviously a projection of one’s Ego with it’s ability to measure out, to analyse, to rationalise, to regulate. And there’s nothing like the fear of not having enough “time” for placing a strain on our nerves. The urgent and all pervasive sense of “not enough” is Ego pointing out our inadequacy. We become slaves to time. Look around: we’re obsessed by it! There’s a watch on our wrist, a clock on the wall,  a clock widget on our ‘phone, or a readout on our computer screen – reminders everywhere that we should remain in time and that time is constantly moving, constantly in danger of running out, and we need to keep up with it if we don’t want to be caught out and shown to be less than who we otherwise like to believe we are.

But on another level a pocket watch is different. You don’t see them much any more. They’re disappearing from general use, having been discarded long ago for being too slow, too fancy, too fussy with the time. But then there are people like me seeking them out from the junk stalls,  saying hold on; I think we’re missing something here.

But what is it?

waltham 2Well, I was in the woods the other day, at a local beauty spot, down by the river – a weir roaring, sunlight filtering through bare trees, early daffodils nodding. I was lost in the motion of the water, leaning on a fence, breathing the air, not thinking of anything.

Then someone appeared at my elbow with an urgent enquiry: “Have you got the time, mate?”

A snatch at my sleeve revealed an empty wrist and a reminder I was “off duty”, wearing the waistcoat under a jacket, carrying the Waltham. So I had to unzip my jacket, feel for the chain, draw the watch up. I did it hurriedly, snagging my zipper, and altogether making a terrible fuss in order to get at the watch, when all the guy wanted was the time – instantly! Hurry. Hurry. Time is running out! He was even poised on one leg as if ready to bolt back into time, as soon as he got the time, and the time was soooo slow in coming. No wonder they invented the wrist watch.

“Half past twelve,” I replied, eventually, and off he went like the Mad Hatter, already late, because for too long I had delayed his re-entry into time.

But what time was it, really?

When he’d gone, I felt time slowing down again, and I wondered why I’d been in such a hurry. Half past twelve, said the watch. It felt warm and vital in my hand, having absorbed so much heat from my pocket. I flipped open the back and watched that balance bouncing. It felt alive. I could feel it through my finger-tips. The sun was shining beautifully, the water making a mesmerising roar – a little rainbow forming in the spray. A thrush was singing. I snapped the case shut, put the time back in my pocket, and settled once more into the moment. We become more aware of life, I think, when we can put the time away, and in doing so find the space in any moment, space enough to expand and rediscover the pleasure of simply being.

What time is it? Well, it’s a trick question and you shouldn’t fall for it. The time is always “now”. Not in the future, at some imaginary time that never actually arrives, a  time we might easily waste our whole lives waiting for. Our lives are not a destination but an experience to be perpetually explored – and this does not mean the more extreme or exotic the experience the better – you can find it in nothing if you know how to look, even in the beating of an obsolete timepiece, so long as you can see past its mere function and realise its inner beauty.

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The question of identity is one that reaches to the core of who we think we are, obviously, but it also has a bearing on how we view the nature of reality and our place within it. It’s unfortunate then how we often misinterpret our identity, mistake it for the mask of what we think we are, or even what we think we’d like others to think we are. We parade this mask every day and we sell it on the world’s stage, trying to convince even our own selves it’s the nearest thing to who we think we really are.

When seen through the eyes of this mask, however, the nature of reality becomes distorted, our vision clouded. It renders us vulnerable to seduction by things we should value the least, vulnerable to injury from things to which we ought to be naturally impervious, and it renders us prone to discarding as worthless the keys to unlocking a deeper understanding of the authentic nature of our selves.

When tested, when challenged by life, our imperfect mask can slip, it can tear, fall apart, disintegrate. If we identify too closely with the mask, we imagine it is our own selves under threat, our own selves tearing, falling apart in the face of the seemingly insurmountable pressures reality imposes upon us. We see it as a battle for our lives against a myriad unseen foes. It can be a terrifying experience.

We lose our footing, and we fall.

It’s important then that we pause occasionally, lift the mask and look beneath in order to get a glimpse our original self, our immortal and indestructible self. We needn’t worry; we are none of us as ugly as we fear – unlike the mask which is guaranteed to be a misshapen parody of our life’s potential, our true self.  Seeking our original face, remembering who we really are, and being content with that, is the only way of being truly grounded in the world and, being grounded, impervious to its storms.

I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of now” again, a much thumbed copy, one I borrowed from a colleague who has already loaned it out to various people, countless times, but always seeks its safe return. In its current condition, you wouldn’t get ten pence for it in a charity shop, so battered and creased it is, but I take its fragile state as a testament to its resonant power, that people want to come back to this precious little book, time and time again, in order to refresh themselves, and remember who they are.

Like many spiritual teachers, Tolle is at pains to point out that we are not our thoughts. He tells us it was Descartes who coined the phrase: “I think, therefore I am”, but he urges us not to listen, that who we are is actually not defined by our thoughts at all. A more accurate phrase then might be: “I think, therefore I forget who I am.”

This is a difficult concept to grasp in a culture where we are taught from an early age to identify very strongly with ego consciousness. Ego is easily bruised, and then we find ourselves pointing fingers at the bruiser, seeking redress or even financial compensation for our woes. I’ve read and written about, and pondered on this over the years, but reading and writing, and pondering aren’t the same as getting it. I’m still in the process of getting it, and it looks like being a lifelong journey.

When we sit down to meditate, we are immediately confronted by the rush of our thoughts, chattering, nagging, slipping in under the radar of awareness, so that suddenly we wake up in the middle of our meditation, realise half our time is already gone and we’ve been lost in a storm of anxieties, instead of forgetting them – which is what we originally sat down to do.

Once in a while though, we catch ourselves. We say, no, I don’t want to think about that right now, and we brush our thoughts gently aside. They always come back, but in the between times we eventually become aware of a mysterious part of our selves observing our thoughts. This silent observer seems to sit in the background, watching their ebb and flow from a perspective that is one step removed from the self we think we are. This observer, this silent watcher, is clearly a part of who we are and it’s interesting to note how disconnected from the material world this normally hidden part of our selves is.

To this mysterious, and possibly higher self, all the worldly goings on are no more than froth; all the wars and the famine and the strife are no more than the fleeting interplay of a moment’s light in the deep, dark stillness of eternity. Finding our way into the unambiguous presence of this almighty sense of inner knowing is one of the hardest and most ambitious adventures any human being can undertake but, unlike climbing Everest or voyaging to the moon, it is an adventure open to any one of us.

Such existential musings have been brought into sharper focus for me recently – this business of who I think I am. It started when I saw some of my self-published novels for sale on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace. They were being sold under my name, but I’ve no idea how they got there or who was really selling them. For a moment, it was like staring at myself from across the threshold of an alternate reality – and even though I knew someone had simply stolen them, my sense of identity had been sufficiently shaken to make me think again about who I am and what my purpose is in the world.

The novels – three in all – were the sum labour of about five years work – pleasurable hours gleaned in the evenings and weekends of my day to day life. I’m not saying they’re great novels. They are what they are, I write the way I write, and when I’m done with my stories, I give them away. Certainly, they are of personal significance to me, but only in so far as the events and dialogues they describe are the roadmap of  a personal psychical journey. They plot my trajectory from the immature and egoic masks of youth, to this middle aged guy who sits blinking up now into the starry skies of an evening, partially unmasked at times yet still, it seems, none the wiser for any of it.

That someone else came along, cut and pasted those five years into a hastily cobbled e-book, called themselves Michael Graeme, and tried to make a few bob by pirating stuff I give away for free, should be neither here nor there to me – that is if I’m thinking straight and can avoid my ego feeling bruised. Even the fact that I have to prove my identity, and my legal right to call my thoughts my own, to the almighty Amazon, again, should be of no account to me,… that is if I am sufficiently secure and grounded in the knowledge of my own identity.

On this matter, the muse quietly takes my ego in her arms. She soothes away the angst with the warmth of her embrace, then she brushes off the dirt and reminds me I am not my thoughts, not my words. I am the silent watcher, she says, and like her, always a few steps removed from the tangled web of collective hope and expectation we mortal beings cling to, and which we call reality.

My mysterious Amazon doppelgänger did not make that journey. Their actions betray only the fact that they have not evolved emotionally, spiritually, or philosophically very far at all in human terms. Their life’s journey has been perverted by a misidentification with a mask they take as being the most fitting, but sadly one which makes them only ugly to the rest of us.

One of the hardest things to grasp in the quest for  maturity, and a sense of groundedness is that the right thought, the right deed, is right whether anyone bears witness to it or not, whether you profit personally from it, or not, whether the intrusive cameras of that reality TV show are switched on, or not.

The existential contract outlining this, our three-score years and ten of material reality, requires no verifying witnesses, and the presence of only two signatures, in order to make it valid and spiritually binding – our own, and that of the eternal sense of being rising beyond even the silent watcher of our thoughts.

I am, but what I am none cares or knows (John Clare, 1848) – we are each the self consumers of our woes. For “woes” here, we can read “thoughts”, which are for ever poised ready to warp into woes at a moment’s notice. We must all try therefore to remember we are not our thoughts, otherwise we end up consuming what we perceive to be our only self. This in turn results in a distorted vision of reality, one in which we see only a barren wasteland of broken promises and ruined hopes – or to quote John Clare again – the shipwreck of our life’s esteems.

But much as I revere John Clare, it really isn’t like that.

The times when reality comes most sharply into focus are the times when we are thinking about it the least, when our thoughts are stilled. Then a truer vision comes rushing in, presenting the nature of all things in their sublime glory – not as separate, but as an integral part of who and what we think we are.

It’s always been this way. It’s just that we’ve forgotten.

Good night all.

Graeme out.

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Let me begin by saying the following essay has nothing to do with religion. I mention this because my researches on this evocative trio of words, when conducted through the Google box, throw up two kinds of website – either the new agey type or the biblical scripture type. If either of these are your bag, I apologise, but I tend to approach spiritual matters from the psychological perspective and this entry is no exception.

So,…

I was introduced to spiritual matters through the writings of Carl Jung, who managed to convince me of the objective reality of the spiritual dimension. He did this by plunging me into a dialog with the contents of my dreams and thereby equating the spiritual with the imaginary world.

Normally , if we imagine something, we do not think of it in literal terms – we do not grant it the status of a tangible reality. Whether what we think of comes from dreams, hallucinations or waking reveries, we tell ourselves they are just images we created in our heads and they are not important. To imagine things in our heads is all right for children, but if we’re still doing it when we grow up we are either a poet or there’s something wrong with us. This is the contemporary, rational viewpoint, and it is well embedded in the Western zeitgeist. Scientists, religious agnostics and pious churchmen alike would all look with suspicion upon anyone who took their imaginings seriously, or attempted to argue that they possessed any form of autonomous, objective reality,… that the characters they met in dreams were in any way real.

Yet it was just such an idea that developed in early Greek culture, in the days of Plato, and became the basis of a philosophy that shaped the minds of generations of intellectuals, right through to what might be called the end of the Romantic period in the early nineteenth century. At this point, the so called “Enlightenment” of Scientific Rationalism finally forced it out of any serious intellectual debate and relegated it instead to the underground journals of the mystics, the die-hard romantic poets, and the new age gurus. But for a long time before this, it had formed the binding thread of the secretive practice of western alchemy, and it survives as such intact up to the present day. To the uninitiated alchemy the ludicrous practice of attempting to transmute base metals into Gold, but this is a trite and overly literal interpretation of the philosopher’s art. There was considerably more to it, and if the alchemists had been found out they would have been burned as witches.

Jung was more than a dreamer, more than a plagiarist regurgitating the works of past generations. As a psychiatrist, working in a mental asylum, he encountered people who were mentally lost,… irrational beyond hope of remedy, and all Jung could do was listen to their apparently incoherent ravings. However, he sometimes noticed patterns in these ravings, and eventually realised these ramblings were in fact the retelling of ancient myths, that the voices speaking through these poor lost souls possessed a Daemonic quality – not “demonic” in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religious sense, but Daemonic in the Platonic sense, in the sense of the old philosophers, the alchemists.

The mythological symbols and patterns of ancient man were alive, in an independent sense, in a substratum of the unconscious minds of people whose consciousness was apparently broken and therefore unable to filter out the bizarre imagery. This led Jung to formulate a model of the human psyche which included a collective aspect to the unconscious mind, through which we were all linked. What Jung seemed to have uncovered was evidence of what the alchemists knew as the Anima Mundi, the world soul.

The world soul, if real, suggests that the one thing underpinning all of reality, as well as the totality of the psyche of each and every one of us is a deep unconscious stratum of thought. It is teeming with pattern, symbols and myth, and it exists independently of us. We do not think it into being. It came before us. It was already there when we arrived, and became conscious of ourselves in a physical reality.

Biological evolution has given us a physical form with which we obviously identify very strongly. We are fond of our bodies, and sexually attracted to the bodies of our fellow humans. The human form then is impressed upon us as a primary image. When we dream, we encounter psychic energies which we interpret in the symbolic language we understand and therefore grant form to these energies as other human beings, male, female, sometimes distorted, or modified in ways both beautiful and repulsive. Other images we encounter in reality – our landscapes, creatures,…. all of these things are embedded in our minds and used to form meaningful pictures from the seething mass of symbols in the unconscious mind. We see a dragon in our dreams, but it is not a dragon in a literal sense, more something that has suggested to us the form a dragon. We need to be careful then in our interpretation of imaginary things, cautious of reading only the literal interpretation of what we apparently see and should try instead to get at the meaning behind the image, try to interpret the symbol, for therein lies the truth of it.

These ideas have held me in thrall for many years now. Unfortunately, Jung, though popular in his lifetime, is not for the fainthearted, and you are unlikely to find any of his works in the high street today – more likely it will be trite self help books, if you’re lucky enough to find a bookshop at all. But if you have the time and you’re serious about uncovering some of the more curious aspects of the nature of reality, then I suggest you look him up on Amazon. Start with his “Selected Writings” or “Dreams Memories and Reflections”, but avoid “Mysterium”, which reads more like the Magnum Opus of a wizard than any mortal man.

Modern learned writers on this subject are hard to find. The self help industry is massive and many of the writings you will discover are just reworkings of ideas from Jung, the Theosophists, Blavatsky, and a long list of other post Romantic mystics. Their works are suspiciously self serving, being more about making money for the gurus by selling books and seminars than attempting to sincerely further our knowledge of this important subject.

One exception I stumbled upon recently are the works of Patrick Harpur, whose Philosopher’s Secret Fire, Compete Guide to the Soul and Mercurius, arrested my attention in the summer of 2010, and had me thinking back on my interpretation of Jung. Harpur picks up on Jung’s works without slavishly worshipping them, and his books have granted me a fresh perspective on ideas that have haunted me for a decade, allowing me I think to move on a little further towards a better understanding of these things. I ground to a halt with Jung some years ago, because I think I fell into the trap of wanting to take him too literally. But through the work of Harpur, I’ve begun to feel things moving again, and I’m very glad indeed that I stumbled across him. To tread the spiritual path outside of the mainstream, we all need to be alchemists.

So,… soul, spirit, self,…

These are words bandied about in books and poems and seem to be used interchangeably – meaning the same thing, but what that thing is is never made clear. There is a clear difference however, and understanding it helps us to understand both the nature of the human psyche and our place in reality, because there can be no understanding of reality without understanding the psyche.

To begin then, the Self is the totality of the human psyche. It consists of both who we think we are, and who we truly are, but are not necessarily aware of being. In other words it consists of our conscious awareness, and our unconscious. This dichotomy also divides the psyche into the two opposed elements, the yin and the yang of it, or the spirit and the soul.

We feel Soul as a stirring inside of us. Soul’s nature is feminine, regardless of our gender and her domain is the unconscious which itself is rooted in the collective unconscious, or the soul of the world, the Anima Mundi. The soul bears aspects that are both shared and individual. It is our souls that connect us to each other. When we look at another person and feel an attraction, an affinity, it is through the aegis of our soul.

The unconscious aspect of the psyche is vast in comparison with the conscious, and it is from here our imaginary life swells. We sit down one day, take up a pen and begin to doodle a pattern, or a human character forms in our mind’s eye, and we write down a few lines of dialogue for a story. We do not consciously think these things into being. They appear spontaneously. They are at best teased up from the unconscious, then given a coherent shape by the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of them. When I write my stories, I do not base them on real things that have happened to me and can pluck from memory. I do not base my characters on people I know. They come from my unconscious as images ready formed, and I puzzle over them, I try to fit them into a pattern that conveys something rounded and satisfying. Sometimes it works and the story finds its way into the public domain. Sometimes it doesn’t and the unsolved puzzle remains on the hard drive of my computer, perhaps to await the one piece that my unconscious is witholding from me.

Spirit on the other hand is a conscious energy. We say a man or a woman has “spirit”. They are animated, driven, lively, beguling. Spirit is the urge to explore, to create, it is the drive behind the quest, be it physical or spiritual. It is the desire to learn, to understand, to broaden the horizons of our thoughts our beliefs, our understanding of the world. It is the animating drive behind my fingers as I type, but it is the unconscious, and my inner dialogue with Soul that I trust to deliver up the answers to the questions Spirit asks.

And it works, but only if I am patient and respectful of Soul’s wishes. Soul is mysterious, dark, sinking down into the sea of being, the dark seething cloud of the Anima Mundi. She is Yin. Spirit however, is soaring, bright, thrusting. It is Yang. It is also always a work in progress.

As a conscious energy, Spirit has much in common with the Jungian term “Ego”. Ego gets a bad press. “He’s so Egotistical!” It has become a byword for combative self importance, and a pathalogical belief in one’s superiority above others. It’s perhaps understandable then that some self help books teach us that Ego must be broken at all costs if we are to enter into the spiritual bliss of enlightement. But I think this goes too far. We are here in physical reality for a reason. Spirit is the name of our vehicle, Soul our navigator. Without Ego we would sink into a state of catatonic listlessness, our physical bodies wasting, our minds permanently arrested by daydreams. Without Ego, our Spirits can be broken.

A hard ego though is a brittle thing. Like heated steel quenched in water, it becomes very hard, but is also easily broken when tested. Ego is better when it’s tempered by reheating a little and cooling slowly. The tempering flame of the spirit is communion with the soul. Taking her seriously allows us to heal up the deepst cracks of the psyche, to heal neuroses and to develop a more complete self, a self that is flexible, resilient, respectful of both physical and non-physical realty,… and thereby content.

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