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Posts Tagged ‘spirit’

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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hubberholme churchReligion is a big thing in human affairs. Unfortunately much of what we hear about it in the media dwells upon the negative – the violent, the bigoted and the perverse. Religion indeed, for all but those who practice it, can seem uncompromisingly repulsive, and at times a very dangerous thing indeed.

My own repulsion from village church going as a child was more on account of bum-aching boredom and a failure of religious language to connect with the affinity children have for the magical dimension. Any potential I might have had for awakening to the more traditional forms of religious expression was blunted, and though I remain sympathetic to its aims, I remain also, at least thus, far immune to evangelism. What I see of religion then will always be from the perspective of an external observer, and the first thing one notices from the outside looking in is that there is a clear dichotomy between matters of spirit and religion.

Those who break with religion scatter into a number of camps. There are those who rail against it aggressively for the rest of their lives, while others don’t think much about it at all, residing contentedly instead in the rational ephemera of the material world. Others set out to roundly disprove the claims of the religious life, only to conclude from their deeper studies on the matter there’s perhaps something in it after all. Thus they are drawn back, supercharged, into the fold, often to number amongst religion’s stoutest champions.

And there are others who spin off into the eclectic and mystical avenues of the so called New Age. This is a potentially dangerous field of study, but there is ground to be made from it. Of course the term “New Age” is a misleading one. We might think it started in the Sixties, with flower-power, LSD and fornicating hippies and all that, but its origins and its underlying philosophies go back much further, to the encounters of western minds with eastern thought in the nineteenth century, also further still to the European Romantic movement, and further, along the trail to where our written accounts peter out on the edge of the impenetrable, into folk religion, into paganism and myth.

The “New Age” is often dismissed as a childish aberration, invention of decadent, spoiled westerners, purloining from the world’s faith traditions the things they like, while ignoring the things they don’t. This may be so, but in its defence I would add what the New Age seeks above all is connection, it seeks the metaphors, the symbols that would translate the words of all spiritual traditions into a single, inclusive and coherent story of life.

MinotaurusBut is such a thing possible? It might seem unlikely with so many stories now purporting to be the word of God, but the work does enable us to pare away the obfuscating trimmings of culture and power politics, to reveal the underlying spiritual ideas. And religions, when mined deep this way, do reveal themselves as essentially the same at root, no matter how different in the flowering of their liturgies – at least if interpreted with a broadly sympathetic and impartial mind. And from such analysis comes a thread, like the thread of Theseus, laid to lead him safe from the labyrinth of the beast man. This thread is the Perennial philosophy, written of with such eloquence by Huxley, a philosophy first taught to us at the knees of Thoth in the days of ancient Egypt, and an enduring idea in the philosophies of the east throughout history.

But while all these things might seek to explain the world, and with diligence we might uncover them and learn them and quote their tenets by rote, the one thing they possess that is exactly the same in each case, is that the philosophy, the thought, the state of mind, the belief, if you will, must be lived for it to mean anything.

Belief is a difficult and a dangerous word. We must have a reason to believe that goes beyond fear – fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be punished until we say we do; fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be ostracised, that we will not be accepted into the group, that we will be stoned to death, our heads cut off, our living bodies set on fire. True belief is about seeing, it is about feeling, it is about an innate knowing.

Belief, in its broadest terms, is an inner knowledge that while the Cosmos will remain for ever pretty much a mystery to us, it is not indifferent to our lives, and it is benign. It is at least well meaning in the general thrust of its direction. Also there are ways we as individuals can make representations to it, and in return receive wisdom, guidance and comfort, like a lamp in the darkness. If we can accept such a thing, if we can go with the flow of it, then we align ourselves with the Cosmic will  and are rewarded with a sense of peace that is rooted in the soul.

This means living a life in one sense always at least partially through the eyes of the Cosmos and measuring our actions accordingly. It makes a difference to the feel of life, to live that way, but it is not essential to life, and even once found and enjoyed, it is easy also to fall away from it, if not exactly to lose faith, but to forget its power to heal in times of personal crisis. The science fiction writer PK Dick was once asked if he could define the nature of reality, and he replied that reality is simply the bit that’s left when you stop believing in it. Stop believing in the spiritual dimension, the physical life, reality, goes on pretty much the same. So who cares?

durleston wood cover smallBut the spiritual life does add immeasurably to the nature of reality, to the way it is seen and felt and experienced.  In my story “Durleston Wood” the protagonist is an agnostic teacher working at a Church School, and to maintain appearances he attends church every Sunday. If all it takes to be a Christian is an hour a week, he tells us, then even he can do it. But our hero has a secret, is cohabiting in the depths of Durleston wood with a dark skinned girl called Lillian, a thing that would upset his largely irreligious, bigoted, and racist fellow church goers. Religion has done little to educate them in the ways of spirit, or even basic decency towards others. But then as Lillian says, the religious life is easy, it is spiritual matters that are much more difficult.

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Hartsop old wayThursday evening, came home from work early. Long weekend in the offing, glad to have nailed it after a pig of a week. Walked in, looking forward to savouring every moment, only to find my Broadband router showing a stack of red lights instead of the usual blue. Everyone is glum. No internet. Looks like a call to BT, except I need to go on-line to get the number.

Ah,… right.

So I burn a few precious minutes of 3G data on my phone. Number in hand I call the help-line. I’m connected to India in a matter of seconds. I’m half an hour on the line, and across five thousand miles they’re testing my line, testing the router. What a marvellous thing it is we have invented, this global computer. Or is it?

What devices do I hook up to, sir? Couple of laptops, several tablet devices, iPods, phones, a couple of  Playstations,… I realise the list is endless, and this surprises me. My entire life has moved on-line.

Test results inconclusive! They need to send an engineer to poke about with a screwdriver, to tug at the wires, to test the physicality  of my connection. How about next Tuesday? What? That’s nearly a week! How am I supposed to manage a week without internet? I don’t say this to the guy in India of course – he’s doing his best. My heart quaking, I just say okay.

There’s a pall of silence when I end the call. Tuesday? We’ll have to manage until Tuesday! We are a family of four, and I am not alone in my total dependence on the world wide web for passing the time, for entertainment, for education, for news, for pseudo-nourishment, for information,…

When did this happen? At what point did so much of my life begin pointing in at this window? When did so much of my life become aimed at shaping an imaginary world online, of adding to to the info-glut of words and pictures and video, writing a blog, writing fiction, playing MYST? Dammit, I’d been looking forward to chilling out for a couple of days doing nothing but playing MYST!

So,… nothing for it then. No Internet. For days and days and days.

What now?

Well, what did I used to do? Sits down to think? Write! There was always the writing, sure and most of that ending up double spaced on A4, either in the post or in my bottom drawer when I’d given up on it. I used to draw too, and paint,… I used to read – and I mean PAPER books.

So I pick up a PAPER book I’ve had since it came out in 2012 – Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’d begun the book enthusiastically, but left off a few chapters in, not because I found the book dull, but because my head is always being lured back inside the online world. And the lure is strong. But in the space of a few minutes I reconnected with the book as Macfarlane took me a walk along the Broomway, off the coast of Essex. Then he took me up to the Western Isles, to Harris, then a sail into the Atlantic in an ancient open sailboat, to a tiny speck of the British Isles that doesn’t always make it onto the maps – North Rona. This is a voyage with a salty crew who know their way around the old sea roads. I spend a night on an uninhabited island in the Minch, belly warmed by good company and fiery malt, and I meet characters who still speak the stories of place, of physical places, places I touched once, a quarter century ago when I passed this way myself and which lit up my life in ways unexpected.

A few summers and a lifetime of memory.

And I remembered my old novel, the pre internet “Singing Loch”, which was about how I felt the land die whenever the old stories were lost, ripped up, forgotten, concreted over, and how the world descended then into a kind of grey. I remember how I’d once burned with the lust of the old ways, and believed with all my heart it was important we kept a spiritual tryst with the land. Then I remembered the books of Patrick Harpur, and again the tales from the mysterious north, the lore of the Norse and the Celt, of the spirits of place and of the mysterious Shee, whom only the Irish, full blood or part descended have the eye to see. And all of this is important because, although the stories are in our minds, we meet them in the land, because the land is where we are supposed to be, and when we honour it on bended knee, the spirit of it comes to guide our way.

And then I’m looking at my father’s old maps – crumbly and curly now – Ordnance Surveys of the West Pennine Moors, six inches to the mile, mapped in the 1840’s. There are marks on the map, old ways we once walked together, and the broad arrow benchmarks we came upon upon chiselled in stone by the sapper men upon the peaty moor – days of mist when the whole world was a figment of imagination, and summer days when the larks were aloft and time stood still.

And then, as I slept the shee were whispering in my ear what I knew already, that the Broadband Router is fried, and that’s all a week’s wait for the BT guy will tell me. Inscrutable race, the Shee – wise, curious, sometimes mischievous, sometimes helpful even in their misdirection. So then I’m off to Tesco at dawn break for a new router. £50 and I’m plugging it in. Blue light is on, and we’re back online,…

But I’m not sure this is a good thing any more. Maps, books,… memories of walks, of the old ways, set aside, forgotten again. For a moment last night, the spirit of the old days, the old ways crept back in at the door, and Shee had begun to look over my shoulder, guide my hand, my heart, my mind,…

But there are no spirits of place in here, no old ways to be explored. It is a place where the Shee do not venture for old things are like as not simply deleted. There is no archaeology on the Internet, no myth, no folklore. It is a dead place! What do they mean opening this portal again and pushing me back in? I write this piece after playing MYST till my eyes bleed. I tag, I click, I post,…

What is the internet for?

And is it friend of foe?


					

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warrior girlMy dream takes on the sound of the sea and the feeling of a warm night. At some point Rebecca and I have spooned up, and even through my closed eyes, I know her by her heat and by her scent. And keeping my eyes closed I carry with me the impression of dawn breaking, and of waking with her beside me still.

My spirits lift.

It’s enough, and I don’t care where we are now, nor what point in time we have emerged back into an ordinary waking reality, so long as we are together. But the sea is still washing on the shore, a reminder of last night’s dream, also harbinger of the fact I have not truly woken, that I am likely still dreaming. Then someone is touching my arm and I open my eyes to see Emma crouched in the sand, looking tenderly down.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” she says.

I turn to Rebecca but she’s no longer there. She’s waking, somewhere, and I find myself once more alone in the dreaming, with Emma. I’m afraid, because Emma is usually the herald of much strangeness, and I can bear it no more. I want simplicity. Pray God, I want the coherence of a single line in time. I must escape her.

I must!

I cannot force myself awake, and dare not ask it of the dream to take me back in time again, though ironically this seems the easier thing to do if the last occasion is anything to go by. Instead, I do the next best thing, the safer thing; I close my eyes and ask it of the dreaming for a change of scene. But even as I feel the giddiness of the transition, I am aware of Emma’s hand upon my arm; it is therefore no surprise when I open them to find she’s still there.

“You must be wide awake to loosen my grip,” she says. “And you are not for waking yet. You’re so tired of the world and all that’s in it; it’ll be a while longer, I’m afraid. If ever. But what is this, my love? Anyone would think you did not trust me any more.”

I do not like it, the suggestion I may never wake up. I wish she would go easy on me, but that is not her purpose.

We are back in the mythic levels, as we were before, the pair of us seated in Sunday best, upon a cold flat rock by night, facing the lake. I did not ask for this location, and why the dreaming thinks it is important I do not know, other than the fact it is but one step removed from Rebecca and her prayers for deliverance. Is that where she’s gone now? Is she not waking to a fresh dawn somewhere, but still sleeping, like me? And is she still dreaming of delivering the world, through her ministry?

I need the protection of my girls.

They are already disembarking from the skiff; bronze breastplates glinting beneath cloaks of Phoenician purple. They draw swords and fan out cautiously, prepared to do my bidding, but looking all the while hesitant, unsure, as if afraid I would command them injure a vital part of my self. Then Emma’s own entourage emerges from the shadows, all leather Basques and straps, and fishnets and whips, like a comical teen fantasy.

My girls draw swords, Emma’s unfurl their whips.

Emma laughs. “Gracious, what a curious stand-off. How shall we resolve it, I wonder?”

She yields, lets go of my arm. Her girls withdraw into the shadows. My own sheathe their swords and step back to the shore. I see the glitter of relief in their eyes.

“There,” she says. “That’s better. Now we can talk.”

“Please,… no more talk, Emma. Can’t you see how overwhelmed my senses are with all of this?”

“Then let me show you something,” she says. “It shall make all things clear at last. And afterwards, I’ll let you wake up. I promise.”

Thus the scene is set for the denouement of my story. We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, so it’s been a long time coming. What will Emma show me that’ll make everything clear and lead me into the final chapters? I can’t say, and for the simple reason that, although I am the author of this story, I don’t know, because she has not told me.

What she has told me is that a damaged life is not a ruined one, that it is upon the whetstone of adversity the human spirit is most keenly sharpened. Yet, naturally, if given the opportunity to invent our own realities, we would edit out all forms of adversity, all forms of pain. We would invent for ourselves a paradise of pleasure. But pleasure is a thing we do in resting. Adversity, suffering, is the thing we do for a living. We cannot help ourselves. Lives are broken on its harsh anvil, while others are made more meaningful, and rise more beautifully from the ashes of suffering, redeemed, enlightened,…

And eternity is a long time to be spent merely resting in pleasure.

Is any of this true?

What’s true is the world is a place of immense suffering, and at times it’s impossible to see the good in it. Our ignorance sows an ever more bitter harvest, one spotlighted with brutal efficiency by our global news media, which shall surely one day put a camera on the very tip of a bullet. A hundred years ago, we were less aware of the suffering in the greater world, unlike now, when there is no end to the live commentary by which we might probe its ills, from the very comfort of our living rooms. And our analysis reveals what? That the innocents run from the juggernaut path, that it careens blindly, scorching vast swathes of the earth, returning them to barbarism. Our capacity for the creation of suffering immense, yet seemingly the work of mere moments of madness. Conversely our ability to subvert the suffering of the world is pitifully weak, itself fraught with conflicting opinions. And it is the work of generations.

But if we could realise the dream, what kind of earth would it be? Easy, one might say. There would be no living in fear of our neighbour; there would be plenty to eat, and everyone would possess a secure roof under which to make love and nurture children. Returned to such an Eden, we might then vent our energies and our intellect in the creation of what? Great works of art to uplift the spirit? Contemplation of God’s will? In such a world no man need fear being anything other than his true self, and he would certainly not fear his neighbour might rob him of his goods, or his life.

From such a secure foundation, a man might then exercise his ingenuity, coupled with his spiritual instincts, and all so he could explore the million and one ways he might do good, and express his loving nature in the world.

But Eden has fallen.

In schizophrenia, the sufferer experiences a breaking through of unconscious energies from deep within the collective mind. They manifest as voices, as a dire urges, as a debilitating cacophony of destructive thought that burst with uncontrollable fervour upon the defences of the personality. They overwhelm us. Literally, they swallow us in madness. And these energies are amoral, grotesque, irrational, the very antithesis of order and calm. We see this too in the world, this breaking through of hitherto unimagined disorder. We see it night after night on our TV screens – a veritable daemonic orgy of death, destruction, and the ever more imaginative ways one human being can do harm to another.

One might have thought ten thousand years of civilisation would have yielded some defence, a key, a wise philosophy by which we might all live in harmony, and in doing so turn back the tide. But if such a philosophy exists, we have rendered it in so many layers of myth by now we can do no more than argue over its interpretation. Meanwhile the earth burns; and the pace of this awful breaking through of banshees from the dark depths accelerates.

As with schizophrenia, there is no cure for what ails man’s dominion over the earth. It might be controlled somewhat, moderated in its worst excesses by targeted therapies, but the overall prognosis is rarely positive. It is something we have to live with, something we must manage as best we can.

Is it this, the thing Emma would show me?

Would she take me on a tour of Bedlam to show me only the hopelessness of it, the absence of any cure to mankind’s most pernicious malaise? One might be tempted to say yes, except there are some humans who dare to look the daemons in the eye as they tear screaming though the gates of hell, and to ask them their names. If these are the denizens of the nether world, their residence in that abode seems only to have rendered them all the more destructive to a higher purpose. And the more we dream of Utopia, the more we seem only to feed their appetite for chaos and destruction.

But is Emma not herself a daemon?

She has all the qualifications, existing solely in imagination, her form rising from the archetypal foundations of the psychical sub-stratum of experience. Semi-autonomous, she draws me into her world, reveals to me forms that are infinitely malleable to my will. Meanwhile her brethren invade my own realm to torch the forms I cherish, to torment the living even as they flee from the shadows. And she reveals to me how readily I would escape the world, escape the madness, when my place is still firmly rooted in it.

“It is as Lao Tzu taught us,” she says, “that a man stands most strongly when he has one foot in the outer, and one foot in the inner world.”

If we shut ourselves off from the inner world, it’s excesses will lay waste to the physical, to the world of forms. Its energies exist, whether we believe in them or not, and their natural tendency is to flow into the world, through us, regardless of our will. If they do so, untempered by our communion, the result will be a world always falling to chaos, no matter how carefully or rationally we have built it. If we turn our backs on the physical, sink back into the inner world from whence we came, seek escape in our dreams, we will lose our selves, and our purpose, and all meaning, in its infinite possibilities.

I have betrayed my kind. I have betrayed my self.

“Time to wake up,” she says. “You’ll be late for work.”

And then, as she said to me at the very opening of my story:

“The most vital issue of the age is whether the future progress of humanity is to be governed by the modern economic and materialistic mind of the West or by a nobler pragmatism guided, uplifted and enlightened by spiritual culture and knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo 1872-1950

So, after all of that, am I any nearer my conclusion?

Don’t count on it.

Thanks for listening.

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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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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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