The Book that Changed my Life
Learning that our own soul is way ahead of us
Books. Carriers of wisdom from another dimension, seeking out their reader, as if Mercury himself had flown in, like a fabled stork with a baby, to make the most precious delivery imaginable.
In childhood, I would light them up under my sheets at night like some budding dope smoker, eager for their transport from this world to another, thrilled to be a participant in a journey into a different reality.
This week, on a sun-bleached balcony, I watched as shadowed leaves danced and bobbed around the whiteness of a page, a captivating chiaroscuro, focusing everything into a needlepoint present.
I suddenly remembered at 18, I had received the book that changed my life, the progenitor of all the others, forensically focused on what my life was for and the understanding — contrary to all my public-school training — that it was not for myself.
It was a book of magic — the kind of magic that is essential to get at the deeper meaning of life, the real reason we are all here (or appear to be) which has nothing to do with the surface life I call the day world, but everything to do with our mysterious subterranean depths.
The book was The Magus by the Dorset writer John Fowles, perhaps more famous for the film adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, starring Meryl Streep.
In the spring of 2014, before I made the 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain with my daughter Meg, I visited the temple dedicated to Apollo at Stourhead in Wiltshire near where I lived in England, prayed for protection and guidance on the journey ahead.
It was there I remembered that in Greek mythology even the Sun god is taken down into the Earth each night, the sky thickening to a starry black.
The book was a birthday present and I knew it was meant for me — if not then but later — because it came out of the blue from a girl at school I hardly knew.
The strangeness of its appearance suggested it was an urgent matter, Sian a simple intercessor delivering something I must have.
When she was taken by cancer a few short years later, it didn’t feel like a coincidence.
The magician of the title is called Conchis (pronounced conscious) and is the antagonist to the book’s young anti-hero who goes to teach on a Greek Island at the end of an unhappy affair, and is led through a series of gripping mysteries.
Their ultimate aim is to turn him into a human being, while the reader sees in his treatment of women, and his frozenness following the death of his parents in a plane accident, he is not.
Fowles is highlighting that the journey to becoming a real flesh and blood, heart-led human is not for the faint-hearted, many of us remaining solidly in the deep freeze for an entire lifetime.
Even then I knew from the people in my life, they couldn’t bear too much reality and that I would have to swim against the tide if I wanted to get back to the source and not be swept like flotsam downriver and into the world.
And although I was utterly captivated by the book (I still have it, now yellowing and faded with print I could not possibly attempt), it was summed up by a quotation from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding, which appears as an epigraph:
‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’
It was as if 655 pages were distilled into one sentence and yet I had to read the whole book, just as we all must go on that journey of exploration Eliot captures so well, only to return to our beginnings utterly changed.
Our individual journey is man’s fall from paradise and each one must live it. There are no short cuts, no quick fixes, no backhanders or pay-offs.
We must all walk the road home on our own, garnering support where we can.
Ask Adam and Eve. A cushy existence, all needs provided, in lush tropical gardens beneath a beneficent god and they had to eat the apple.
We all take the apple, every one of us, until we discover there’s always a maggot. We may even turn back towards Paradise just as they did, only to find it barred by angels with flaming swords.
The desert road, the pangs of childbirth, grafting for a living, stretches way out in front, until we find a way past those pesky angels. It’s the ultimate riddle.
But first, we have to know what we are missing and most of us don’t know we are missing anything at all.
That takes a long time; the baubles, the goodies, the glitter, cast their spell until the point of re-entry slips away, angels with them.
But finally, something shifts. Tiredness sets in, perhaps a sense of meaninglessness. What grabbed us or lit us up in the past simply won’t cut it any more.
We begin to scratch our heads, may even turn around. Stillness and peace that used to bore us starts getting interesting. We no longer need to climb K2 or run a marathon.
Occasionally, we might meet a teacher who tells us the unvarnished truth, which is that from a certain perspective ‘birth is a calamity’, our prized individuality spawning a world of troubles.
So often driven people mistake their spiritual malady for depression when really it is calling on something much deeper. Many are those who have everything yet are puzzled and later contemptuous with themselves.
They cannot fathom what is wrong: golden children and careers at a certain stage in the soul’s development leave a profound emptiness and a gnawing dissatisfaction, which makes absolutely no sense to the thinker.
The truth is simple — the soul is way ahead of the mind which has yet to catch up; although the body, often distressingly, speaks up on the soul’s behalf.
Literally, armies of individuals have committed suicide under such circumstances because no-one could help them comprehend their malaise and, in painful bewilderment, they fell down the well of self-loathing.
We have devalued the unconscious to such an extent, we do not see when it is knocking on the door of our heart with a despair that simply masks a longing for the next evolutionary leap.
We live at a time when the veil between the two worlds is perhaps thinner than ever, portals all around.
In some places, it is diaphanous.
More than 40 years since I first read The Magus, we go to Crete, home to a goddess and the last culture on Earth run by women. I will see what she has to say about where modernity has brought us.
I imagine she will tell me that not enough of us know our end is really just a beginning.
Copyright Simon Heathcote
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