The Diamond Mirror and the Four Worlds – Part 1

The diamond mirror is a map of our faculties, based on the experience of explorers. It’s an interpretation and a simplification of what is actually there, so that we can get a grasp on our own experience as we explore the range of being human for ourselves. The map is not a substitute for the experience but it helps us organize it and understand where the experience is coming from.

My life as a ghost

We usually operate with only a small part of our capacity. We see what we expect to see and repeat learned actions without thinking very much. I’m a modern-day hunter-gatherer. I go to the supermarket and I walk around, looking for the things on my shopping list and putting them in my basket. Then I queue up, put my shopping onto the conveyor belt, pack it away, and pay the bill. But how aware am I of the other people in the supermarket? They have their own lives and shopping lists, but I’m not really interested in them unless there’s something unusual about them. It’s like we’re ghosts in each other’s worlds. And how much attention do I pay to the process of packing up my shopping? I’ve got my particular method. The heavy stuff goes in the hessian bag, and the cold stuff in the plastic bag, squashy stuff at the top. I don’t think about it that much. I’m usually thinking about something else, like what I’m going to have for dinner. It’s almost as if I’m not there.

Of course, all this is a choice. I can choose to be more aware of the other people and I can pay more attention to what I’m doing. Try it sometime. How does it feel to be more present? How long can you keep it up for? What takes you away from being present?

In order to work with the mysteries, you need to be present.

Mindfulness practice can help us become more present. For example: https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/

The Familiar World

Most people, most of the time, live in quite a small, familiar world, a slice of reality that we’ve learnt about over the years, the home of ‘I’. It’s like a bubble we’ve built around ourselves, a bubble of perception we’ve learnt to deal with, a place of supermarkets, phones and clothes, flowers, friends and nights out, woods and seaside and stories. It’s made of everything we know about. We need the familiar world. We’d literally be like newborn babies without it, struggling to make sense of our perceptions and not knowing how to act. But it’s not all that there is.

Being more present can help us to be more aware of how we operate in the familiar world. We begin to see factors at work, such as conditioning and associations.

On the way to Bull Tor

Conditioning

Conditioning is the set of habitual patterns and learned responses to things, built up over the years, often accidentally, sometimes useful and sometimes not. For example, when I’m going to the supermarket, I usually take the same route. It’s not necessarily the best route, but it’s the one I found when I first went there. The good thing is that I don’t have to spend energy thinking about how to get to the supermarket every time I go, but on the downside, maybe it’s not always the fastest route.

One of the main problems with conditioning is the way that it limits the way we see things.

I sit watching a tree blowing in the wind, but that’s my conditioning. I try to watch without conditioning, and I see the tree alive, moving, and I feel its movement on my skin, hear it talking. Is this true seeing? Conditioning wants me to say yes or no, but if I say neither what happens then?

Associations

The associative or formative mind is the system we use for a lot of our thinking. This level of mind is organised by links or associations between different memories, in the form of feelings, thoughts or sense impressions. One thing leads to another. The associative can work well in some circumstances. For example, in the supermarket I see some lemons and a whole bunch of associations fire off – kebabs, aubergine, hummus, celery. My associative mind is thinking about what to have for dinner. The operation of the associative mind can be seen sometimes when we are trying to be mindful, and sit and watch the thoughts that come and go. When you realise you’ve drifted off, you can often trace back the steps by which you became distracted.

Sitting watching the pond, and a bird calls. Is that a Chiffchaff? Maybe it’s one of the Iberian Chiffchaffs that all those bird watchers came to see. That couple conducting the bird survey last month were nice. Maybe I should join the group. Do they meet in Surbiton? I’ve got to go there tomorrow. When do I have to be there? *I remember what I’m doing, and go back to watching the pond*

Watching the pond

The usual way the mind works in the familiar world is through a kind of flow. It works automatically, using conditioning and associations, linking one thing to the next so that our thoughts flow in a misleadingly named ‘stream of consciousness’.  

I can be more aware of what I am doing and where I am (being present) through for example practicing mindfulness, but only for a few moments, and then I am carried away again by the stream.

Interaction

It is possible to be more aware of the raw interactions we have. I can try to be aware of sense data for example, before it is processed by conditioning and starts to trigger associations. By maintaining awareness I can try to act on a different level.  This is not entirely unfamiliar. For example, sometimes when I wake up and open my eyes there’s something in my field of vision, but I don’t recognise it. It takes a few seconds for it to click that I’m looking at a chair. This can also happen when you’re out and about and maybe see or hear something but can’t place it. That moment before pigeon-holing the impression has a different quality. Scary perhaps, but full of potential and energy.

I’m out walking in the dark, in the woods. I can’t see much at all, but every now and then a shape or a rustling sound triggers a fear reaction. My body is alert, I am aware of my breath. I half see something and my mind wants to identify it: is it an animal, a branch, another person? Can I hold back from making it into one thing?

Night walk

Eating is another good field of practice for getting to raw interaction. Usually I gulp my food, not really paying much attention – perhaps reading or watching TV at the same time. If I try to pay more attention to the eating, I can literally get more out of my food.

Meaning

Another way of extending the familiar world is to become aware of a level beyond associations, where instead of being taken by the flow from one association to another, we can step back to watch the associations a little bit. We can sometimes see this in dreaming. A dream can take us from one scene to another, following associations seemingly at random, but sometimes there is some pattern behind the dream, a meaning which can perhaps be difficult to put into words. Maybe there’s one character in the dream that has a particular quality, or maybe a situation that seems to be significant. We can also use this level to create meaning in writing poetry.

I used to have many dreams about tidal waves, where I would be by the sea, and then suddenly a huge wave would rush in, swamping everything, including me. I kept a dream journal partly so that I could learn more about this type of dream. It seemed to me that a dream that repeated must be significant. After a while, the dream began to change.

To be continued…

Working with the Abstract

Nowadays people often favour working with the complexity and variety of nature, rather than the simplicity of the abstract, but in our work we need both.

Mind strives for simplicity. It transforms our complex experience into simpler but perhaps less tangible mental images, thoughts and feelings.

At its deeper levels, beyond the rational and verbal levels, mind works with symbols and archetypes. Rich with meaning and significance, these archetypes are in some sense the pillars of mind, the building blocks of meaning.

Beyond even this, the mind works with the pure abstract – with number and pattern.

One way of working with the abstract is what we now call sacred geometry. Some of the oldest examples of this activity are the 5000-year-old stone balls found in Scotland.

Stone balls, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (via Wikimedia)

Hundreds of carved stone spheres, roughly three inches in diameter have been found over the years in Scotland. Many form regular polyhedra, and some depict platonic solids, long before the Greeks wrote about them. As to the purpose of the stone balls – no one knows. Perhaps they were used as weights, as dice for oracles, in ball games, or just as ‘prestige objects’. Or maybe the Neolithic people used them as objects of contemplation.

Stone ball from Towie in Aberdeenshire, dated from 3200–2500 BC. (via Wikimedia).

I have a replica of the Towie stone. It has four large knobs on it, each decorated with a different pattern. It forms a tetradedron – a triangular-based pyramid.

All of the stone balls are of a size to fit comfortably in the hands. I sit in the dark with the replica, feeling the shape with my fingertips. After a while it warms from my body heat. I sense the fine patterns of decoration. There is nothing to say about it, except that something in me responds to its shape. I wonder if our ancestors made a similar use of the stone.

Walking

Walking can be a useful technique, either as part of a pilgrimage to a special place, or just a walk by itself. Walking can be a meditative practice. When you want a special walk, be quiet and don’t daydream. It’s often best to go alone. Put your awareness on your surroundings, your breath, and your feet touching the ground – one, two, one, two… Make sure all your senses are open, and keep the attention wide.

Try to adopt a steady rhythmic gait, and empty yourself so that as you breathe, you breathe your surroundings in and breathe them out. There is no you, just the breathing and the landscape.

Sometimes it’s good to push yourself. Go further than you feel comfortable with, or walk in bad weather.

Sometimes it’s good to wander aimlessly, letting the sights and sounds draw you on.

Sometimes it’s good to sing or chant as you walk.

Slow walking is a meditative practice. Take small steps, as slowly as you can. Slower than that! Feel the weight move as you step and be aware of the moment that the weight switches from one foot to the other.