Synchronicity and going off the map.

Synchronicity and going off the map.

Synchronicity and going off the map.

Life as a journey is a bit of a cliché, really. I said once, “If life is a journey, then any short-cut is a death trap,” and I stand by it. My own journey has been an odd one. A long time ago, I looked at the metaphysical map and I saw that at the margins, around the edges, away from the established paths and well-known routes, there were areas marked “Here be dragons,” and I thought, I’d like see dragons. Ever since then, I’ve made forays into those areas of the maps that the map-makers couldn’t fill in properly because too few people had been out and explored them and come back with useful information. Most came back babbling about strange things they didn’t quite have the language for, and travellers’ tales that defy belief and rational understanding.

About ten years ago, I really set off in earnest, leaving behind any adherence to defined paths. You cannot step off a path without stepping off it, if you know what I mean. Real adventures do not come with a guarantee of ever coming home, or of safety or security. It’s hard to explain why I did it; I imagine that you’ll either understand or you won’t. I could talk about calling, vocation, daemon, destiny until the cows come home. Initially there were constant signs and hints and hunches and intuitions. I’ve long had an affinity for the phenomenon known as synchronicity. A week or so ago I finished a book on it, which irritated me. Synchronicity by Chris Mackie was heavily hyped as being a guide to synchronous living, but the author had become bogged down by a fascination with the phenomenon itself (despite being warned in no uncertain terms in a synchronous meeting with someone who really understood the matter) and lost his grip on the purpose of synchronicity for him. It’s absurdly easy to become fixated on the method of delivery rather than on the message itself, because it’s one of the things that can be mind-blowing when you first encounter it. There’s a saying that when a wise man points at the moon, a fool looks at the finger.

As my exploration took me further and further from known landmarks, I have been obliged to rely on my own inner compass. I have a decent sense of direction, not infallible, but solid enough for most things. But like any explorer, you need to get your bearings, take soundings and check from time to time that you’re not going the wrong way. Once you leave the beaten path, finding signposts is unlikely. You have to start relying on other senses, and other knowings. Sometimes you see traces of someone who’s gone ahead of you, a bent twig, Indian-fashion, a note left in a tree-hollow, cairns of stones carried up mountains by other pilgrims who’ve gone this way. On occasion, you see the bones of those who have died en route.

The further you go, the fewer the signs are until you can find, as I did, you are in a wilderness, a barren, mountainous land and there is no evidence that anyone else has ever come this way. There’s no obvious way to proceed, and when you stop to rest, you lose all sense of direction.

This is what happened to me. It began about five years ago, this nagging sense of unease and of disquiet. The questions began, and so did the doubts and then the fears. It’s reached desperation point, painful and unpleasant. What if I’ve gone the wrong way? What if all I have been exploring is a waste of time and energy? What if all my cherished beliefs and principles are all moonshine and bullshit? Should I go back? Should I give up and die, here, amid the empty lands, the wastelands?

Round and round the questions fly, never letting up, never letting me just move on. I read last year of Jung’s descent into his own personal hell, of a breakdown that became his breakthrough, and his insight that he had to do something and it didn’t matter what. His explorations using active imaginations started from mundane things, and no matter how humble the starting point, each led him deeper into the matters of true importance. I did a fair bit of active imagination work last year and yet, I have still found myself asking, am I doing the right thing, am I going the right way?

The problem is there is no one to ask, who is able to give me a clear subjective answer from a point of understanding, of having been to the same places I’ve been. Jung recommended working closely with someone who has been through the same sort of journey, and while I have good friends in the same line of exploration, they’re all folks who live half a world away, and whose kindness I could not presume upon, except as an occasional event.

So I am alone in the wasteland, unable to proceed because of fear that I am going the wrong way (which then brings with it the whole host of agonising extras, like has my entire life been a waste, and other such delights). I’ve recorded and worked with dreams, journaled, painted, drawn, meditated, played, sat in nature, done everything from the mundane to the ridiculous and yet, I am so bogged down by doubts and fears that I cannot move.

Then yesterday I went somewhere. It’s a place I’ve never been to, despite growing up not far away, and driving through the dank winter fields of Cambridgeshire, with the vast skies and the tiny winding roads hemmed in by hedges, past tiny stone built churches that date back eight hundred years and more, amid villages that have dwindled to almost nothing.


There was a pair of buzzards calling when we got out of the car, and bird song that held the first notes of spring, though it was still early January. The ground was wet as an old bath sponge, rich with moss and algae, and the unprepossessing facade of the church did not hold much promise.


Inside, it felt more like a college chapel, with pews face to face rather than facing the altar. I walked round, feeling the stillness, the moment of time that seems held like a drop of amber that holds millennia within its shining core. I took photos, I read the embroidered banners. There is a small room just off the sanctuary, a vestry originally but now a sort of inner room. I went in and looked up in shock at the window. Vivid stained glass, quite old, but simple and striking. One side held a quartered circle, a cross made of ears of wheat, in coloured glass; the other side, in another roundel of glass, some words:

It is the right, good old way you are in. Keep in it.”



Embodiment ~ muscle memory, belief and the complexities of the human soul

Embodiment ~ muscle memory, belief and the complexities of the human soul

Ever heard of embodied cognition?

No, me neither till the other day when an article in Church Times caught my eye. Don’t underestimate this paper because of the title. While some of it is inevitably the dull warblings you might expect, they have some very intelligent columnists who turn out some excellent articles. Here’s some snippets from the one I read by Mark Vernon:

But what if faith is not primarily about facts and theories? They may come, but only after time spent exploring a way of life, committing to practise. …[redacted] But surely most people are likely to find faith because one day, perhaps by mistake they walked into a holy place or were helped by a Good Samaritan or were caught by a visceral experience of love or loss. Thinking about what it means is vital, but belief rests on, and stays alive because of the embodied experience.

A new area in science suggests these intuitions are right. It is known as ’embodied cognition’ which roughly translates as: what we think, feel and do depends not only on the brain but also the body. We are not brains in vats. ‘It is not the brain alone that gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness is grounded or contextualised in the body,’ says psychologist Canon Fraser Watts.”

I’d love to reproduce the article in full but there are copyright issues at stake. However, the ideas had chimed with things I’ve been pondering.

As many of my readers may know I have very long hair. It’s long enough to sit on, and I started growing it when I was in my mid teens. For the first year or two while it grew long enough to play with and try out myriad different styles, I used to use a dressing table with winged mirrors that meant I could see the back of my head. Not to style my hair (because that’s incredibly confusing in mirrors) but to view the results. It’s probably thirty years since I did this now. I get asked by folks whether it’s hard to style your own hair and the answer is no, not really, once you have done it a number of times you can see with your fingers. Recently I watched a video of how a very ancient hairstyle was probably done. A comment thread developed on Facebook and most people were dubious that the style could be done by the woman herself. It looks incredibly complicated (and it is, fairly) but actually, I feel sure that those Vestal Virgins may well have done it themselves, with perhaps a friend to hold an end from time to time. I know this because when I was about twenty, I recreated a style very similar, to try and imitate the style Roman brides wore (which is pretty much that of the Vestals). I’d intended to perhaps have it for my wedding. But the results were not pleasing and I didn’t go ahead. After many years of French plaiting and other apparently fiddly styles, my hands and my fingers and my senses could perform tasks without being able to see visually what they were doing.

We do not have the five senses we are accustomed to thinking; there are over twenty senses accepted by science, and others less well accepted such as the sense of being stared at (also a book by Rupert Sheldrake, whom I met last year )

It would appear that belief is not merely an intellectual thing, but something that becomes viscerally real. Like memory, which it is becoming increasingly clear is not stored exclusively in the spongy matter of the physical brain but also within the muscles and even the guts, belief is lodged deep within the physical matter and the experiential layers of the human being.

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

This excerpt from T.S Eliot’s Little Gidding (from The Four Quartets) illustrates this well. The act of kneeling in a sacred space creates or recalls embodied experience, links to things deeper and more ancient often than we realise.

Even words, those things were throw around so carelessly, carry this embodied cognition in a way. Check out this article. Brains viewed under MRI scanners have been shown to light up in the same areas when certain words are spoken as light up when the actions those words represent are performed. Thinking the word SMILE, for example creates the same effects in the brain as actually smiling.

I’ve been pondering about the concept of therapeutic literature. That’s to say books or poetry that have a measurably beneficial effect on the reader. I’m not talking about books that are all sweetness and light and which steer clear of dark topics, but rather ones with an indefinable something that triggers a change in the reader. It might be infinitesimally small but cumulative. I’ve always found poetry(not all poetry but some) to do that for me, where the sound of the words is like a balm on sore skin, and some novels have been an authentically beneficial experience. Do you have any books that do this for you? I’d love to find more. I want to explore the experience of letting words take me places but without the imposition of heavy handed directive narrative because embodied cognition is something that takes place in the body, not in the bright, shallow, brittle thought processes. I can talk myself out of benefits of ideas but not out of the feeling of them, and it’s the feeling that speaks longest and loudest when the darkness draws in and intellect falters. 

Doors within Doors ~ deciphering the dreaming

Doors within Doors ~ deciphering the dreaming

Last year I found myself taking lots of photographs of doors and doorways, some open, some closed and some even bricked up.

 The best ones (visually anyway) were ones that were taken from the inside looking out. The view is framed by the doorway and the view is enticing.

The real reason I am fascinated by doorways is not merely aesthetic but symbolic. I dream a great deal about doors; often in the dream I try to exit a building only to find that the doorway is somehow far too narrow to squeeze my bulk through. Or I dream that my door to the world will not fully shut and remains stubbornly open and vulnerable to intrusion by the exterior world. Or that I am unable to open a door to escape from a house. Many of my dreams see me exploring, often fearfully in darkened rooms and corridors, a great house, vast in size and packed with rooms full of wonders and terrible things. I go up stairs that never end, trying to find a way off the exhausting ascent. Often stairs are for the trigger for realising I am dreaming and then I can take some control and enjoy “lucid dreaming”.

A common door dream I have at regular intervals is one where I find a secret door in my home, that has been there all along but I have forgotten about, and which leads to a series of rooms that are hidden but somehow familiar. I discover what amounts to a second house, annexed to the main one, and I explore that avidly. I wake feeling disappointed that these extra rooms are not really present. The extra rooms have the feel of having been recently inhabited but I never meet anyone there.

But the dreams that end up haunting me most are the ones where I am trapped within a building and cannot find a door that takes me out into the open air, and into nature. Sometimes I go through doors that seem to take me outside but in fact they turn me back to the inside. I often wake distressed and claustrophobic from these.

About a week or two back I had one of these dreams but it had a rather interesting twist. I was in a caravan and I wanted to go out. The door was there so I opened it. Behind it was another door. I opened that. It went on, opening door after door without ever revealing the way out. A voice, just off camera, said to me, “This is a spirit door, it is there to confuse the spirits.” It made perfect sense and within the dream I seemed to remember some Tibetan practise of putting in fake doors to trap evil spirits. I lost the dream a moment after that but I do recall I may have tried to exit via a window and the dream went elsewhere.

I woke with a sense of having been given a clue.  A door is not always a door; sometimes it is a trap. In the last novel I wrote (not yet named or published) the main character ended up in a catatonic fugue state, as a result of extreme stress and trauma but the final straw was moving through a gateway in his own garden. Now previous to this, he had experienced a deep shamanic trance state where he had met and talked with his dead mother herself stuck in between worlds, and captive by her own choices in a moment frozen in time in that same garden. Their conversation finally freed her from this self-imposed imprisonment and the son acted as a kind of psycho-pomp for the dead by allowing her to pass from the garden into the next world via a seldom-opened gate in the garden wall. His own desire to escape from the travails of his life meant that the next time he passed in reality through this gate, it sent him back into a limbo world like that timeless night-garden and trapped him in a non-responsive state.

I’ve battled with this desire to escape, escape from myself and my life and who I am for a long time. I think this is what fuels these dreams of doors and doorways and why my unconscious plays these tricks on me.

I somehow feel that perhaps within my dreaming I have been so focused on going through doors I have not considered (like the hero in my novel) where they actually lead. Do they lead to the open air, the wide skies and freedom or do they lead like the gateway in my hero’s journey to a limbo land of nothingness and waiting?

I do not know.

Last night though I dreamed a slightly different dream. Without conscious action I moved within a dream from an interior setting to an outside one. I had no awareness of the transition from being at a computer holding an instant messaging conversation with someone who will probably never communicate with me again, to being outside and at the foot of an impossibly steep hill. Others (I don’t know who) were with me and while I thought the hill too steep to ascend, someone showed me that it was only the first six feet that were hard, and suddenly, I was hauling myself up onto a path that was far higher up than I expected to be. It was a hill that seemed to have been a sort of ancient hill fort that had been built upon and used for a long, long time and once I was past a certain point, I was able to stand at the low walls and look out across a vast and brightly lit city below me. I wasn’t at the top, but I was a good halfway and the rest of the climb didn’t look that hard at all.

The following lines are from T.S Eliot’s East Coker, in the Four Quartets

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before. I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

It seems to be about a form of conscious unconsciousness. Maybe like my hero in that novel, I need to go through a form of dispossession of self.

Doorways ~ an open and shut case?

This one?

or this one:

“Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage we did not take towards the door we never opened into the rose garden. My words echo thus in your mind. But to what purpose  disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves I do not know.”

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton (Four Quartets)