Principles of Fire (5): A Tribe of One


They who set out to discover the twin meanings of the word ‘self’ must walk a certain path. The route to the deeper, real self lies only in the journey through the everyday self. Without this study – and its consequent effects – there can be no personal transformation.

We have to learn to look at ourselves with intensity if we are to begin to glimpse the false edges of what we take ourselves to be. There are many forces at work to guide and help us. This is not a journey that is taken alone. To paraphrase the ancient Kabbalists: The universe is awake to an awakening Adam. Our birthright is the state of full and inclusive consciousness, free from the accumulation of the personal past. What prevents this state of living is the power of that past…

The ordinary, everyday self is characterised by one word: reaction. To begin to examine ourselves, we begin by studying – with intensity – how we react. We react to pain, or the threat of pain, even though it is not present. We react to pleasure and the possibility of pleasure. Between these two poles our lives are strung out like a historical washing line. On this line are familiar garments, comfortable resting points in good or bad times; places we can reside and be at home with the history of reaction contained within. Many, such as those generated in our early months, are unconscious and very powerful. They can be positive (love) or negative (paralysing fear). With the latter, if seen in the light of adult discrimination they would lose their power; but to ‘sit with them’ is truly work and better accompanied.

Some reactions are more subtle. It is hard to think in an original way. Typically, each of us belongs to a kind of ‘tribe’, where the core values of that group of people are shared among thousands, if not millions, of other members. When we belong to a tribe we don’t need to think originally, indeed it is often dangerous to do so. We risk drawing attention to ourselves, and the ultimate sanction against such behaviour is to be ejected from the tribe. Finding ourselves alone is a dreadful thing. Some people fear that more than anything else in their world.

When we begin to watch ourselves on a daily basis, the very act of self-watching begins the generation of a different ‘space’ inside us. This new, differently-aware space is what brings the early results that can be so heartening to those beginning the Work. This new space is not part of the historic egoic structure of our lives, since its very existence is to watch and study how that structure operates and has formed. The techniques that begin the creation of this space are analogous to a person realising that, from the perspective of consciousness, the world is actually projected on to their eyeballs – like a movie – with no gap between the event and the reaction to that event. The egoic self is what reacts, instantly, to this projected world. The vast majority of such reactions are pre-programmed by the personal life history; in other words, they are not truly alive…

The five senses bring us the shape and behaviour of the world around us. Patterns in our personal history tell us, immediately, if there is danger in the encroaching environment, whether physical or psychological. At the most intimate level, these patterns reveal threats to our physical existence – that which threatens the body. We do not need to process the logic of a burn from a red-hot object; the automated mechanisms from our early childhood react for us. But there was a time when we had to learn it…

Beyond that, we have patterns of emotional recognition, which are largely automatic, too, but in a different way. I can bat away the approach of a wasp in Autumn, but I can’t do the same with a bad feeling; I have to think originally about its possible origins – including searching within ‘my self’. I might not want the effort of doing that. Instead, I could reach for an alcoholic drink or switch on a movie, allowing the bad feeling to pass. Sadly, avoidance teaches nothing, whereas a naked inquiry into the newly formed internal state can teach us a lot.

Beyond the emotions is the power of the intellect: that which learns by reason. This is the slowest of all; yet allows us to form patterns that deal with very deep and often complex concepts, such as how and why people lie to others and to themselves. Reason is clever, allowing us to out-think the life-forms that came before us; using the intellectual jewel of ‘what if’. And yet reason is wholly a thing of the brain, and so is conditioned by the entirety of our personal history.

These three ‘space helmets’ – each one inside the other, like the famous Russian Dolls – are the glass through which we see the world. But our conditioned consciousness does not look at the world, it looks, instead, at the movie being shown on the glass bubbles in which we live. Our egoic consciousness is nothing more than the sum total of our personal reactions to the movies… But, it’s worse: there is nothing inside those three helmets, except the history of themselves and the historic washing line of fear and pleasure.

The riddle of this is the story of our real existence – and our wonderful potential as fully conscious creatures, connected, in microcosm, with everything.

To be continued…

©️Stephen Tanham

Other parts of this series:

Part One,   Part Two,   Part Three,   Part Four,

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.

His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics