Learning from the non-self to #StandWithAleppo in the Dholpur wilderness

Learning from the non-self to #StandWithAleppo in the Dholpur wilderness

According to Buddhist belief, three karmic poisons – symbolised by a pig, bird and snake – power the revolutions of Samsara. These poisons are moha (delusion or ignorance), raga (greed, sensual attachment), and dvesha (aversion, hatred). And the mechanism by which they turn the wheel of life is in building the illusion between them that we’re here for the duration. The way this works is that, because we allow ourselves the idea that our beliefs are truth, that our loves were made before time and will outlast it, and that our hatreds are undying also, it’s no great leap to believe that there are parts of us (our souls) that are eternal too. The poison in this is that, frankly, we’re not here forever: nothing is. And if we imagine that we are, then it’s going to sting every time life brings us up short by showing us that, actually, all is flux.

Foundationally, say the Buddhists, ignorance is the most insidious of the three poisons and its only antidote is wisdom. The wisdom they speak of is a particular sort. It is the knowledge that there is no permanent essence underlying human existence. In other words and in respect of yours truly here, there’s no Helen-essence held inside this vessel I call my body. Instead, I’m a Helen-shaped accumulation of experiences existing only for the space of one breath. Now, as I breathe, another Helen-shaped accumulation has taken my place…and another…

The point is that I just am and there is nothing to add to me – neither what I might become nor my possessions. And there is nothing to subtract either – neither what I used to be nor anything that I’ve lost. I simply am…and then I won’t be.

Pure Buddhist pain-free wisdom is holding this knowledge of impermanence in the consciousness constantly – and I hope you noticed that non-sequitur…Ridiculous! Hold knowledge of impermanence permanently?! LOL!

Of course, the standard religious discourse is now to argue the equivalent of how many angels dance on a pinhead: “The soul is immortal!”; “No, you lie!” and so on and so forth. But I’m not going to do that because I consider it far more interesting to enter the void of Śūnyatā and explore the wisdom of the non-self in context.

This exploration will have to take place by means of a thought-experiment. So, now, indulge me by pretending that you’re starving and lost in some Indian wilderness in, say, Dholpur. I’ll give you some background so you can better feel your way into your role:

You’ve been wandering for days without food or water; the rivers boil with crocodiles, angry rhinos are beyond every bush, families of warthogs regard you ominously with beady red eyes… You’ve picked up some bug and have vomiting, diarrhoea and sweats and really can’t afford to lose all these fluids. The nights are so cold they freeze crystals into your marrow as you huddle on the ground with the tics and biting mosquitos. The days are hot as hell – maybe 50c. Your mind is sometimes clear, mostly foggy and misted and you’re so weak that you can barely walk a mile a day. The population in this area is sparse and mostly suspicious of you but, some days, some poor farmer will share a meal with you, offer you chi, or give you a spliff or a biri, a poor man’s cigarette. And, so, somehow, you walk on. Maybe tomorrow it will all get too much and you’ll die. Maybe tomorrow you’ll reach a town or city and there will be a Missionary of Charity where you can beg for help. Maybe…

When you started out and were strong, you woke to the golden sunrise with a leap of joy in your heart. This heart would also swell with gratitude for humankind when someone, obviously very poor and hungry too, broke their chapatti to share with you and invited you to dip in their dahl. But your heart would sink with the sunset and the onset of dark. And when you first got sick, you were afraid that you’d die without medical help.

But, now, you’ve learned something that eases all the pain: if you greet the sunrise with joy, you’ll mourn its setting; if you look forward to receiving tasty food from some humanitarian farmer, you’ll regret when it doesn’t come and you have to chew indigestible leaves as the only alternate; if you decide you want to find medical help, you’ll despair that there isn’t any. So you teach yourself to remain unmoved by any of it. You become strategically depressed because what this Advanced Lesson in Insecurity has taught you is that things like anxiety, joy and attachment are a great drain on resources you do not have. You know that the greatest likelihood is that you’ll die but, just now, you are not dead and that is that.

What this means is that you have reached your destination. It is a place called Dhyāna(translated into English as “No Hope, No Sensual Attachment and No Aversion”; also “meditation”) and it has a tranquil beauty. It is culturally very different from our own society since, even despite that we may dwell there, we’re not expected to contribute anything. Actually, this is what makes it such a popular spot and many of us will make our journey’s end there as we disengage from life in the weeks, days and hours before death. Its peace is due to the fact that it is a place of limited mortality and, thus, there is freedom from long-term consequences. It’s the only earthly dwelling-place we’ll ever inhabit where we can be authentically ourselves without worrying about being amenable, working, making a living, caring for relatives, curing our sicknesses or any of the other obligations we have if we’re living in normal society.

In mindfulness, we all journey always towards Dhyāna, the illusive home of the non-self. But our progress is inevitably slow. The fact is, the better fed we are, the more secure, the more sparkling our career and healthy our drive, the slower our progress will be. We can only hope to reach that state of perfect equanimity and awareness when we have the end of our line clearly in view.

But that’s not to say that mindful contemplation of our arrival at Deaths Door after much suffering (even if this is imaginary, as above) is wasted effort for all but itinerant Buddhist monks. Not at all! Compassion is learned by connecting with our own pain and fear of mortality; we have to understand the nature of suffering in order to know how to cure it. This being so, a second but more apposite thought-experiment might be to imagine in the fullest sense possible, sparing ourselves nothing, what it might be to be in Aleppo just now #StandWithAleppo

A Super Moon led astray

A Super Moon led astray

I figured I’d share my view of tonight’s Super-Moon with you. In my location, she was modestly veiled at her 5ish o’ clock rising. Later, though, I got to see her after she’d performed her Dance of the Seven Veils. By this time, she’d risen to 26 degrees Taurus to join the red and evilly-blinking Algol in Perseus, purportedly the most dangerous star in the heavens.

According to diverse legend, Algol has never brought anyone any good. At times, it was Rosh ha Satan to the Hebrews, which is to say, Satan’s Head. At others, it was Lilith, Adam’s wayward first wife who abandoned him to become a vampiric demoness announcing her presence with the call of a screech owl.

Thus, tonight’s full-moon is severely tarnished by the company she keeps and astrologers of old would fearfully have pulled their curtains against her!

Interpreting the Trump Card: The Tower

Interpreting the Trump Card: The Tower

Now and then, particularly shocking world events open up wormholes in the spacetime continuum. What happens is that a moment of emotional intensity constructs a bridge between then and the future so that memories later trigger a violent return to that instant after which nothing would ever be the same again. I suspect that the moment we all heard that Donald Trump has been elected as the next American president is one of these.

So what was I doing when I heard?

Well, I’d just returned from my morning run and was greeted by the news which was given to me by my husband. My words: “FFS!” I was like, “I know it wasn’t much of a choice American but, honestly, Trump?!” BTW, I’m sorry about the bad language but it was an emotional moment.

But it shouldn’t have been a shock – not to an astrologer worth her salt anyway. She could comfortably have predicted all this on 19th July 2016 when Trump was nominated by the Republican Party to run for president. How? Well, it was writ large in the full moon that rose that day in 27’Capricorn 40’’.

Now, I will admit that, on the face of it, with all planets within their bounds and the moon ambling back from her apogee, it was an apparently unremarkable syzygy. But all that humdrum would not have rused that clever astrologer I mentioned above. She would have noticed that the moon was in the antischion of the fixed star, Yed Prior, in the left hand of the Serpent Bearer, Ophiuchus, and that this was a portentous sign in conjunction with Trump’s nomination.

A couple of reasons: First, the star is associated with the Hebrew letter, ʿayin ע (correlating to the Greek Omicron) which is one of the seven letters which receive a tagin, a crown when written in a sefer Torah (a handwritten copy which is stored in the holiest spot of a synagogue). Second, it is associated with the tarot card, The Tower: Trump would clearly get the opportunity to set the cat amongst the pigeons when, despite all early signs, he makes the Whitehouse on 20th January 2017(coincident, within three days, of the related new moon on 17th @ 26’ Capricorn 54”).

With this, The Tower is, of course, an oft-repeated symbol of disaster and it was clear that, globally, we’d reached a critical point even before Trump’s victory. But perhaps it’s not the best time to dwell in too many End of Days narratives. Perhaps it would be better to focus on how The Tower can also be interpreted in terms of the Descensus Christi ad Inferos or, in other words, Christ’s “Harrowing of Hell”. You’ll recall that his assault on Hell’s demons happened, according to the Bible, during the three days following his Crucifixion when he descended into hell. And you’ll also remember that the end result of a miserable time for him was his triumphant release of hell’s captives. Thus, when the heavens pointed their yad to July’s full moon, perhaps therein was the possibility of a happier kind of liberation. Anyway, it’s an interpretation we ought to work with.

Is Stella Polaris the Star of Bethlehem?

Is Stella Polaris the Star of Bethlehem?

Over the circling years, I have come to realise two things: the first is that size doesn’t always matter; the second is that shape always does. I will admit that I wasn’t convinced of geometry as the axis upon which the earth turns when I was at school. But I have become so.

Still, I can’t deny that I must be slow on the uptake because this idea that configuration is meaningful is foundational to human culture. I guess that’s why we argue about it. Take the shape of the earth for example: haven’t we ever argued about this?! Shape really matters here! Various ideas are floated. One comes to us from Ancient Greece where the earth is pictured as a disc adrift on primeval waters. Not too dissimilar to this is the notion of a hollow earth which is something like an amethyst geode within which life passes a gloomy subterranean existence. Then there’s the inference drawn from the Biblical Revelation (7:1) that the world is square and has angels posted as the Royal Stars of Persia to guard its four sharp corners. But the majority of us have finally resolved to agree that the world is a sphere. True that even in agreement there remains dissent on the central point of whether our whirling progress happens in the centre of the universe or at some forlornly forgotten outpost. But, still, the fact remains that the world is to most of us a spherical gyroscopic spinning top.

So our earth turns widdershins on her unique axis once every 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds. Within the daily round, she spins to the east and the sun, moon and starry backdrop circle towards the west and, accordingly, our world organises chaos. But, above us, at the two poles, circle a species of celestial life that is, symbolically, immortal. These are the circumpolar stars which neither rise nor set.

The name and number of these circumpolar stars depends on individual latitude. As an incomplete list, at 51 degrees 27 minutes north, I have the best part of Bootes always in the heavens, plus Auriga, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, Draco too and, of course, Ursa Minor. If your northern latitude is lower, you will have more circumpolar stars than me because a greater number will never reach the horizon. If you have southern latitude, then the water snakes of Hydra will encircle your zenith. But, wherever you are, if you find your celestial pole, north or south, you will be gazing at the axial point of steady stillness on which the world turns. This axial point is the bottomless well of eternity…or, at least, that’s the story.

Finding the northern pole is easy on a starry night. All you need to do is locate the two ‘pointer stars’ of the Big Dipper, Merak and Dubhe, and follow their line into Ursa Minor, to Stella Polaris. This great star marks absolute north or, at least, almost absolute north, since its latitude is +88°8 (maximum latitude, or declination, is + or -90°). The constellation, Draco the serpent, coils around this because he, in never setting, never sleeps either. For a good long time it has been his job to guard eternity from those whose hearts, when weighed in the balance, are found wanting.

But finding the Celestial South Pole by way of the stars is harder. It’s easy enough to find the general area since it, too, is surrounded by serpents – those of Hydra and Hydrus – and the actual star to look out for is Sigma Octantis, in the modern constellation, Octans. The trouble is that this star is 25 times dimmer than Stella Polaris so that, even despite its very close proximity to the pole, Sigma Octantis is a useless navigational star. Instead, it’s left to the Southern Cross, or Crux, to point seafarers into the Southern event horizon of a gaping eternal void that is the black Coalsack Nebula.

As an aside, I would avoid the colonialist crime of reading the universe in exclusively western terms by pointing out that the ‘Crux’ is obviously a western name and concept. The indigenous Australians don’t see a cross here. What they see, instead, are various animals offering useful cues to foragers. For instance, they make out the head of the Emu in the Sky in the Crux and Coalsack while our Milky Way is its body. It is important to note that this difference of opinion doesn’t undermine the sign. It just tells us that signs are only universal in a wholly standardised world. In anything less, the sign requires a contextual purpose like, for instance, a seafarer seeking a beacon as opposed to a forager requiring a tip-off to say that emu eggs could possibly be on tonight’s menu.

Be that as it may, back to the celestial poles and the fact that, despite symbolic appearances, these don’t actually possess the geometric properties for timeless eternity. What they do, instead, is provide the coordinates of the aeons. This is because, rather than being permanently fixed against a set backdrop of stars, the poles of our gyroscopic earth trace out celestial circles of 25,700 years in circumference which we call Great, or Platonic, Years. Within a standard solar year, of course, there are 12 months. In just the same way, there are twelve Platonic Months in a Great Year and these are around 2160 years in length with each one amounting to an astrological age. It is mooted, of course, that we are on the cusp of the Aquarian Age having now left the Piscean Age through which we have travelled since Classical Antiquity.

And what this means is that, as the poles plot their circles, so the proximity of the stars alter in respect of them. We’ve turned upon Stella Polaris since Late Antiquity but, come the 22nd century CE, this ‘ship-star’ of ours will lose its compass and drift for an entire Great Year before finding its moorings as the Lodestar again. In the meantime, Samsara will prevail as a ceaseless round of stars take turns on the world axis. And, sometimes, there will be no guiding northern star at all just as there is presently no real southern star – as there was nothing on the northern celestial pole during Classical Antiquity after Thuban in Draco abandoned its post.

So cutting to the chase and speaking of being firmly guided after a period of making our own way, it occurs to me that Stella Polaris’ credentials as a candidate for the Star of Bethlehem aren’t terrible and actually have merit. This theory of mine could only come from an astrologer since it requires no small amount of post hoc analysis! But, never mind that, hear me out:

Before the Common Era, Stella Polaris was nothing more than Kynosoura to the Greeks – their “Dog’s Tail”. Sure it shone brightly in the ancient world, and offered much as a navigational star too, but it was one amongst many. However, in the second century Kynosoura found its way into the stellar catalogue of the second century astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy, and, lo and behold, a new star had risen: gone was Kynosoura; in its place was the pole star, Stella Polaris, the first amongst equals!

By this time Christianity was a star in the ascendant too. For the first century or so following Christ’s crucifixion it was on a low, slow burn but then a milestone was reached in 312 when Emperor Constantine converted. A year later he used the Edict of Milan to legalise Christianity. A hop and a skip after, Emperor Theodosius the Great made it the Roman state religion. Thus, the Classical Roman religious world was transformed because, thereafter, the countless little tutelary spirits and gods who, until then, had rustled every leafy tree and grass and flower were progressively swallowed into the belly of the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths. Hence my thesis:

When there was no pole star in the northern hemisphere, pagan religions abounded; the rise of a powerful pole star brought a jealous god which led to one faith and; since the south has no bright pole star, the conversion of that hemisphere into northern-themed religiosity has gone unchecked.

Truthfully, I’m not expecting to receive academic honours on the strength of this thesis so it really doesn’t matter if you can’t swallow the notion of steady Stella Polaris as the wandering star leading the Magi to Jesus. But, anyhow, the Piscean Aeon of Eternityis either drawing to a close or has already ended. For the record, I don’t think the Age of Aquarius is actually with us yet because Stella Polaris has yet to perfect her conjunction in declination with the Celestial Pole. But, be that as it may, it’s star like all others and must submit to the wheel of Samsara and eventually fade.

Physician, heal thyself: focusing on psychological dyspepsia

Physician, heal thyself: focusing on psychological dyspepsia

When I was eight, my best-friend, Sarah, was a child of unimaginable privilege. As the towheaded poppet of elderly parents who owned a confectioners, her great privilege was that she was allowed the run of the shop after it closed. Thus, in the evenings she got to raid all the treats she wanted! Imagine! Well I could imagine because, when I went home with her to play, her privilege was extended to me. I can’t tell you the joy of this when, ordinarily, my sweet-treats were restricted to once a week. Gotta admit though, I always went home with bellyache!

Anyway, I’m reminded of Sarah and her nightly out-of-hours sweetie-shop sweep whenever I think of self-care concepts. Self-care is, of course, a fundamental of human existence. All of us who are well and beyond being infant must take it upon ourselves to eat, drink, breathe, avoid hazards, exercise, seek periods of solitude after periods of active socialising and so on. But that’s Basic-Package Self-Care. There are many levels above this and, at the pinnacle, there’s Platinum Level Self-Care which is for the professionals – clinicians, first responders, psychotherapists, and so on. The reason for this is that these have special needs.

To elucidate: “As a psychotherapist I know that I have a limit on how much suffering and sadness I can hold and my after-work time needs to provide pleasant, soothing, joyful energy to replenish myself from being empathic with my patients’ struggles.” In this case, self-care might include “Surrounding yourself with great people”, “Having something pleasurable on my calendar”, regular massages and weekly appointments with a trainer.

In and of themselves, these things are lovely, but viewing them as necessary for proper functioning feels somewhat analogous to demanding the run of an out-of-hours sweetie shop on the strength of some vicarious suffering. Still, it is true that those who care for the mental and physical health of their fellow humans must take special care of themselves because, after all, isn’t there the ancient proverb “Physician, heal thyself”? So there is definitely something in the need for a Platinum Level Self-Care. This being so, I thought I might look at this proverb a little deeper. And, because the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, considered the notion of self-care to be twofold – first, comprising an attitude towards everything ‘other’ in our global community; second, as a form of personal attention exemplified by another ancient proverb, “Know thyself” – I’ll look at that maxim too.

The injunction, “Physician, heal thyself” is found in a number of forms in the Bible. This should be no real surprise since it is a Jewish proverb which reaches back to a time before reckoning. In Latin, it takes the form Cura te ipsum. Cura came to Latin from the Proto-Indo-European *kʷeys- ‎ which is “to heed” but, amongst the Romans, developed connotations related to general concern: when used to speak of agricultural things, it was to do with rearing; when speaking of written work, it was the writing; when it made reference to relationship, it was about offering attentiveness or feeling grief, anxiety or sorrow; and when it had to do with medicine, it was medical attention and healing. Some grammatical gen: in this proverb, cura takes the nominative case or, in other words, is marked as the noun which is doing something. Meanwhile, ipsum is the accusative form of “itself” (so te ipsum = literally “you, itself”). All in all, the proverb is saying (in a rather strident tone) attend to yourself before you start imagining yourself any use to others.

Meanwhile, the Latin for “Know thyself” is nosce te ipsum. Te ipsum we are already acquainted with, while nosce is the second person singular present tense of the Latin transitive verb noscere. It means “to know” or to come to know, to get to know…except that, given the present tense, becoming acquainted with oneself is, in this case, a continuous duty. As a transitive verb, noscere takes a direct object and, in this contextte ipsum – or “you, itself” – is so nominated. All things considered, “Know thyself” is too succinct a translation to get full meaning across. Better, if less pithy, would be “You (fill in your own name) have been nominated the eternal, unending task of becoming acquainted with yourself.”

So it is written in the annals of medical and religious history that those called upon to be concerned for other humans definitely do require a Platinum Level Self-Care package. But nowhere is it written that this package involves a stream of treats only interrupted by the day’s tasks. Instead, healing thyself and knowing thyself are demanding and rigorous on-going commitments. And to understand how one fulfils them, we need to return to Ancient Egypt whilst refusing to be diverted into the Biblical world.

This is because, by the time the proverb “Physician, heal thyself” appeared in the New Testament, it had become associated with the so-called “discourse on judgmentalism”.  As such, it had been co-opted to the tough Biblical stance against self-righteous, bigoted hypocrisy. But, as above, the maxim is not simply to be understood in this way. As we saw, the idea, coming to us all the way from the Proto-Indo-Europeans down at least 5,000 years of history, was that paying attention to oneself is necessary preparation to paying proper curative attention to others and the key to understanding the nature of this attention is in the motto, “Know thyself”.

Again we are not to be distracted by any old popular belief here. We must not jump onto the bandwagon and accept easily that “Know thyself” came to us from the Pythonesses of Delphi in Ancient Greece.  Nor should we share the vision of one of these, in her mania, breathing the words as an Ancient Greek stonemason chiselled them onto the Temple of Apollo. Instead we should give greater credence to the argument that it came from the Ancient Egyptian Temple in Luxor which was dedicated to a divine nuclear family consisting of the god of the wind, Amun, his wife, Mut, the lady of heaven, and their son, Khonsu, the moon.

Some words on access into Luxor’s temple complex which was limited and gradated: religious novices were allowed only into the external temple and could not proceed to the internal temple until they’d proved themselves ready for the advanced lessons on the cosmos that they’d find there. One of the inscriptions on the external temple was “The body is the house of God.” That is why it is said: ‘Man, know thyself’”. On the internal, this had developed into the radical “Man, know thyself, and you are going to know the gods”. Thus, knowing oneself was to know the gods and this knowledge involved treating the body as though it were a temple capable of delivering knowledge and insights.

Of course, we should not be surprised that we allowed the Ancient Greeks to draw our attention away from the Egyptians because we threw our lot in with them and their rationalism way back when (Pythagoras was around, to be precise). But it was them who convinced us to know ourselves through intellectual, mind-driven means only and they got it wrong. So we can put things right if we like but we’ll have to leave their atomistic views aside and indulge the holism of the Egyptians by means of meditative practices and the modern concept of focusing.

There are a number of meditative practices that bring the individual’s close attention to their whole being. For instance, pranayama combines breath-control with yoga-practice while Tai Chi is an ‘internal’ martial art and meditation in movement which heightens awareness whilst regulating and improving the flow of qi, or life-force. These practices both use our physicality actively as the means to deep awareness of body and soul. In contrast, Eugene Gendlin’s psychotherapeutic Focusing is passively meditative. It is receptive attention to an internal preverbal sense of knowing which is directly and viscerally experienced. As focused attention, Focusing has family-resemblances to meditation where this encompasses those self-regulatory practices that train awareness and bring ‘unconscious’ processes under greater voluntary control. But those who meditate tend to have goals: they might want to foster capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration. Focusing is a little different insofar as it is a kind of ‘hanging-out with’ one’s self solely in order to gain familiarity: it is a non-judgemental welcoming of what is being processed subliminally in our guts or, in more usual psychological jargon, our unconscious. Of course, I am being slightly disingenuous because people do focus for specific reasons but the idea must always be that the gut responds to this focus in its own way in its own good time. When ready, something shifts, what is preverbal finds words, and fresh insights arrive to unstick us from bogged-down thinking with indications of steps to take.

So, a Platinum Level Self-Care package begins with contemplation of self and what it is to be oneself. And this package takes us through a plethora of meditative techniques through which one learns about one’s strengths and weaknesses and, through growing self-knowledge, develops resilience and empathy in the recognition of one’s reflection in a troubled world…Of course, in this package there are also expectations of getting sufficient sleep, eating well and exercising regularly. But this self-care package simply cannot and should not involve limiting the amount of sadness and suffering one encounters because that is an unreasonable expectation to place on life.

So, those involved in caring for others who always surround themselves “with great people” out-of-hours whilst having pleasurable things always on the calendar are unimaginably privileged in the way of my friend Sarah since they, like her, may sweep the Cosmic Confectioner night after night. But this does not make them great clinicians because, right at the outset, they mistake self-indulgence for disciplined self-care and this error is likely to lead them at least to psychological dyspepsia.

* If you would like to learn more about Focusing, contact me @ http://www.helenbeers.com/#contact

Gematria: adding literacy and numeracy to more than the sum of their parts

Gematria: adding literacy and numeracy to more than the sum of their parts

Literacy and Numeracy were born in Mesopotamia as conjoined twins. And it wasn’t until the second-born twin – Numeracy – convinced our forebears that it would be better alone as the Hindu-Arabic Numeral System that the two were cleaved apart. Both twins survived the operation – performed in 8th century CE – that split them and, ever since, have led separate lives.

But, before Numeracy’s defining moment, numerals were predominantly alphabetical. At any rate, they were within the Assyro-Babylonian-Greek system of alphanumeric code which is, as the name suggests, a composite of earlier writing codes. The classical Greek alphabet emerged in the 8th century BCE as an adaptation of the earlier Phoenician alphabet. This was an abjad writing system of all consonants and no vowels and it was understood as the job of a reader of Phoenician script to insert vowel sounds as appropriate. But, on adoption of the Phoenician alphabet, the Greeks designated new roles for some consonants so that these became vowels. However, underlying this innovation was an original sense of something missing that needed to be filled in by the individual. Apart from this, the letters of the Phoenician alphabet were assigned numerical values, although there was also a written numeral system consisting of strokes. But, nevertheless, the classical Greek alphabet developed with the implicit idea that words and names with shared numerical values bore some relation to each other and that, contrarily, values were in relationship with words and names. Moreover, it was understood that these relationships had something to say about the essential qualities and innate dispositions of numerically/semantically related things. In other words, numbers and words carried coded information about the occult nature of the cosmos. The name for this understanding is gematria.

Now, gematria isn’t about attaching deep meaning to single letters. Such depth comes out of the construction of words and phrases because meaning is relational and additive. But, still, I’ll consider the value of the first letter of my given name, Helen. No prizes, this begins with the consonant /h/ which is breathed as herb is pronounced in English-English with a voiceless glottal fricative. It derives originally from the Phoenician het which is the eighth letter of their abjad but returns to base as the hieroglyph for “courtyard”. It became the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet too as eta. Both het and eta carry the numerical value 8.

And the Phoenician het looks like a boxy version of our number 8. This, as both a value and a shape, is inherently positive in a way that has to do with right timing – which is what good fortune is essentially all about. As a gematriacally-meaningful coincidence of value, shape and timing, the figure of eight is traced by the annual path of the midday sun and called an analemma. This figure was known, at least, in ancient Greece, but it was the Roman engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (who lived in the last century before the Common Era) who explained how to reconstruct the eight-shaped curve for the sundial at any time of the year. Tying in with eight’s association with serendipity, the reason the sun traces an annual figure of eight is entirely due to the fortunate fact that the earth’s axis is tilted in respect of the sun. This fact produces the ecliptic (and our seasons and, thereby, the type of world capable of nurturing us) and, from our perspective, gives the sun declination at all times of the year except the equinoxes. If the earth’s axis was either perfectly upright or perfectly vertical there would be no ecliptic and the Sun’s annual path would then have the shape of a zero. But, as the earth’s orbital tilt is, the invisible path of the Sun has the shape of the figure 8 when the noontime position of the Sun in the sky is plotted over a year. This is such that the lowest and highest points of the 8 are the winter and summer solstices while its waist amounts to the equinoxes. The north–south factor of the analemma shows the Sun’s declination or, put another way, the latitude on the Earth at which the Sun is directly overhead. Its east-west orientation shows the difference between solar time and local mean time. Thus, the figure of eight and its relationship to the annual path of the sun shows us that we are blessed.

In terms of numerical value, the ancient Egyptians of Khmun (translation: “eight-town”) revered the Ogdoad there. These were the eight deities – four couples of four male gods and four female goddesses – who created Atum, the Sun-God. In preparation, they put together a structure similar in looks to a swan’s nest with the primeval waters lapping it. On this ‘nest’, they placed an egg and from this young Atum eventually emerged to begin the process of creating the world as we know it.

Pythagoras also honoured eight and understood its qualities as foundational to existence. Particularly, he revered the octave which is the seven-tone journey of 8 diatonic degrees from one musical note to another (above and below). The first and last notes are related by being half or double in sound frequency. But what he claimed was that he had proof that the octaval interval gave our planet its shape because his experiments showed that, when an octave is sounded, the sand on a plate of glass arranges itself in the form of a circle. What he knew of the octave, Mesopotamian musicians from Ur understood before him, at least in their own way. We know this because, while neither the Akkadian nor Sumerian words for “octave” are known to us, still, their stringed-instrument tuning systems substitute the number 1 for 8 and 2 for 9 to represent the octaves of strings 1 and 2.

Following on but dipping now into Neo-Platonism, we have the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres. This also speaks of the octave’s harmonic seven-tone journey but this time in mathematical, religious, astrological terms. The journey, which is heavenly, moves away from the sun (unity) along a path which is either masculine and heading towards cold, dry darkness (Saturn) or feminine and heading towards cold, moist darkness (the moon). Both endpoints are polarised death, but of differing natures, and they lead to rebirth because they don’t get to 8 but, instead – since we’re speaking of the octave – to One and unity with the sun. The fact is, in Neo-Platonism, 8 is the Octad: completion. But it is experiential completion because, by being divisible by two into four and four into two, it is related to the Dyad. As such, the Neo-Platonic Octave counts in the earth which is the sphere of appetitive urges and irrationality. It is the place where the zodiac, the animal-bearing ecliptic, lives out its divine destiny in a cycle of growth and decay.

So, no surprise to the Chinese, the number eight has to do with material existence and, hopefully, good fortune, prosperity and wealth. Thus, in dealing with what is earthly and manifest, the number eight is, by nature, mundane – albeit that, because each of us contains the entire cosmos, our material existence is simultaneously the spiritual story of the entire universe. In these terms, when the 360 degrees of the circle are divided by eight we have our quarter days, as the summer and winter solstices and vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and our cross-quarter days, which are the midpoints between these. The cross-quarter days mark turns in the seasons – give or take given differing latitudes – while the quarter days mark the midpoints of the seasons. This eightfold division is the guts of the agricultural calendar which, ever since the Agricultural Transition which started something in the region of 12,000 years ago, has powered human cultural development. Of course, the moon also adds to seven-tone-journey-symbolism through her quarter phases, but I’ll leave that for another time since this blog has been entirely the sun’s moment and I don’t want to take away from that.

But now I feel I have come full circle in a gematriacal sense. Personally, I have added together 8, the sun’s annual journey, and the Phoenician het so that they are now the sum of each other. Encompassing each other as they do, they are a harvest-filled courtyard and, through this association, farming, agriculture and earthly wealth. Now I’ll leave you to reckon all things eight for yourselves.

All roads lead to Rome…in a way

All roads lead to Rome…in a way

I thought I’d share a selfie with you. There you see it – posted at the top. It’s of my boot-clad feet.

I realise that there are significantly more captivating selfies out there but please stay with me. What you see is that the toes of my boots edge onto what is Spain’s Kilometro Cero. This is the point in Madrid from which all of Spain’s roads radiate. Therefore, most unlike my boring boots, it is very noteworthy, placed there, at the Puerta del Sol, as the country’s beating heart, pulsing the equivalent of freshly oxygenated blood around the rest of the country along arterial links.

Still, while important it may be, Spain’s Kilometro Cero is just one amongst many Kilometre Zeros all over the world. There are symbolically-centred beating hearts in city capitals everywhere. Nevertheless, they all lead back, as roads do, to Rome…

…Although not so much literally, more metaphorically. This is because Rome is the home of the archetype. Madrid isn’t the home of the archetype, nor yet are any of the other countries that have Kilometre Zeros because it was Rome’s Milliarium Aureum, or ‘golden milestone’ that started all this off. It is that symbolic heart that formed the centre of what was essentially the Compass Rose from which all other points of the Roman Empire took their bearings and established their place in the world. It’s Rome’s centre that supplied outlying satellites with their individual spatial, political, hierarchical, religious and cultural orientations.

So it’s from the Milliarium Aureum that we get our idiom, ‘All roads lead to Rome’ and, with it, the notion that everything leads back to some central point. So, for instance, we say all roads lead to Rome in respect of mystical or religious practices with the idea that all these, irrespective of who has them, lead back to The One. It’s as if it doesn’t matter that, most of the time, between us all, we speak the 101 names of God because when push comes to shove and we experience spiritual union, we return en masse to a single spiritual home.

But there are difficulties with this and these are understood by pushing the analogy a little further. So, just as there are certainly many roads leading out of Rome, so there are many paths leading out of each religious or spiritual tradition too. And, more than that, just as there are a multitude of Kilometre Zeros across the globe all mirroring Rome in having many roads leading out of them, so there are many, many religious and spiritual traditions all with many paths branching off them too. Sometimes I play a game with this idea: the point is to plot a return journey back from where I am now spiritually-speaking to where I began and, I tell you, it’s not easy. I guess it’s for this reason that I can’t, for the life of me, see how all the billions of us can get back to one single, central spiritual point, something like St Augustine’s City of God. I think in reality there must be a network of crisscrossing paths with myriad ‘spiritual homes’ dotted as nodal points all over the place. Sure, these spiritual homesteads approximate each other in various ways but, still, none are the same.

Spiritual traditions are often seen as ‘paths’ which, if followed, lead back to rather than away from. For instance, in the Christian Bible’s New Testament, Matthew (7:14) talks about the narrow road that leads to life. Then there’s the Tao which is a path too by definition, and following it restores and maintains universal order. But to follow the Christian Road is not to parallel the path of Tao. Of course, some might argue that this is because one or other of these paths – either the Christian or the Tao – has taken a wrong turn. But, then, how to reconcile the differences between, say, the Christian path followed by an anti-violence Quaker with that followed by an American evangelical who interprets the bible and their constitutional right to bear arms as linked, inerrant, literal truths? And, I’m wondering, if there’s one heaven and if both the Quaker and the American Evangelical pass the checks and get through the pearly gates when their time comes, how on earth will they rub along for eternity? I’m not imagining perpetual bliss!

Mystical experiences occur during times when external reality is less than usually distracting because something has happened to alter an individual’s state of consciousness. It might be that the individual has drifted off in a daydream, is sick and hallucinating, has taken drugs, is meditating or praying, or is in a psychotic or trance state. But, however it happens, the hegemony of external sense-perceptions is suspended in a way as to allow objects that usually exist only in an individual’s understanding to become reified and made supra-real and, thus, more imminent and demanding of attention than physically existent objects.

However, the thing is, objects of supra-reality arise within a person, and a person is a product of their environment which means that mystical and religious truths are, by nature, situated. This isn’t to downgrade them to mere wraiths because the very subjectivity of their inexistence makes them mighty. Even so, the supra-real objects of the mystical experiences of an anti-violence Quaker will have an entirely different quality to those of an American evangelical who believes that the world is a battlefield between good and evil (and, as an aside, I’d prefer to meet the former ‘egregores’ on a dark night than the latter!).

In any case, it’s true: all roads do lead to Rome…in a way.