Meditating on fire and sky
This was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.
The book North begins with the idea that the flames of the campfire were the earliest focus for human reverie. The warmth and safety afforded by fire allowed more relaxed incursions into inner worlds, and the dazzling dance of the flames themselves entranced us, and acted as a dynamic canvas onto which the contents of these worlds could be projected.
Our language carries echoes of the primacy of this fiery focus. The word focus itself was originally a Latin term for hearth or fireplace.1 It seems that the person responsible for beginning the shift from this simple meaning to the modern abstract sense of ‘focal point’, or a centred intensification of consciousness, was that key figure in the Copernican Revolution, Johannes Kepler. In discussing his laws of planetary motion, which were fundamental in the shift from ancient geocentric (Earth-centred) to modern heliocentric (sun-centred) cosmology, Kepler referred to the point around which celestial bodies orbit as the ‘focus’. In this he may have been jumping associatively from fire to geometric relations via every kid’s favourite scientific experiment: making fire with a glass lens. Where the rays of sunlight converge on combustible material, a flame leaps up. In any case, the ease with which this term sprouted its English meanings, related to attention and directed interest, from the strict Latin definition is perhaps testament to how these aspects of consciousness have been naturally associated with fire from the very beginning.
Such linguistic echoes are also found in relation to what must have been fire’s partner as a primal object of contemplation: the sky. After all, the campfire’s natural companion is the night sky, and gazing into the flames would always have been punctuated by awe-struck reflection on the star-speckled firmament. The word contemplate derives, in fact, from the ancient Roman practice of augury.2 This was an extremely important form of divination which found messages from above encoded in the behaviour of birds. Such messages governed acts of war, business ventures, and the siting of temples and cities — including, according to its myth of origin, Rome itself. The priest who performed such divination, the augur, would mark the ground with the cardinal directions, dividing the sky into areas called ‘temples’. Which temple birds appeared in would strongly colour the interpretation. ‘Contemplation’ was thus contemplation of the sky, part of the preparatory rite.3 Connotations of ‘religious musing’ persisted into medieval times.
Occasionally, traces of augury even leak into modern popular culture…
The word concentrate merely underlines such connections, foregrounding the basic structural resonance between the sky and our metaphorical grasp of intensified states of consciousness. It literally means ‘to bring or come to a common centre’,4 and easily brings to mind the concentric appearance of the sky, pivoted on the pole star.
Two very different occult sources come to mind as avenues for exploring these resonances. The late Andrew Chumbley wrote a brief, dense, poetic investigation of magical will and mystical erasure, Qutb: The Point (Fulgur, 1995). ‘Qutb’ is an Arabic word with many meanings. It can refer to a lord or chief, to the celestial pole, to the pole star, to the axle of a wheel or to the spindle of a millstone. Deeply mindful of the polar connotations involved, Chumbley explores ‘the principle of one-pointedness’ via Sufism, Melek Taus (the ‘Peacock Angel’ of the Yazidis, who pray facing north), and other Middle Eastern mysteries.
Qutb is arcane, out of print, and painfully hard to track down. At the other end of the spectrum of accessibility are Phil Hine’s notes on tantric meditation. This practice, of simply gazing into the sky and merging one’s awareness with its vastness, reminds us that while the sky’s polar structure connects with many important traditions of singular power and concentration, this is only one aspect of it. Decentred states of consciousness have their own power. Not a scattered ‘many-pointedness’, but a letting go of the focus on singularity. Such focus, while it’s a powerful route to egoless states if well-handled, can so easily be hijacked by the ego itself, and its anxious goal-orientation.
Sometimes, opening up to the sky’s expanse can be as important as moulding one’s mind in the image of its concentricity.
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