Your Stories: Stirring the Embers of Self-Discovery
Aug 15, 2017 | Comments Off on Your Stories: Stirring the Embers of Self-Discovery
My Trip To Delphi © David Batts
I take a short step back to my boyhood and time served at St Edwards School Oxford (aka‘Teddies’). My mother was persuaded to enroll me there shortly after the death of my father. I remember the explanation for this move being that the school offered a ‘safer’ environment. Safer for whom and from what was not made clear, either way, the investment was to fail us both.
Boys Will Be Boys
I gazed down from the third-floor of the Work Block below. Boys streamed across the quadrangle along the four paths that neatly bisected the lawn, meeting at a kind of roundabout decorated with a gaudy floral display. They clipped, tripped and jostled each other at every opportunity, temporarily straightening at the bark of a patrolling teacher. It was a daily scene but entertained me none the less.
Imagine my delight one morning, looking down to see that the whole quad had been meticulously painted with white road markings! Boys embracing the new game, honked loudly, pausing at junctions, indicated wildly with their arms and generally created a decidedly ‘un-Teddies’ like chaos. I looked for the Warden (headmaster) and found him framed in the bay window of his study, observing the scene with seething impotence. Victory complete, the perpetrator was the champion of the world!
was drawn back in the classroom. “The Ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the navel of the earth.” I hadn’t considered the earth as having a navel at all. “Zeus sent out two eagles, one to the furthest point east the other similarly to the west and bid them fly to each other. He then hurled a great rock from Mt Olympus, to mark the spot where they crossed. That place boys was called Delphi, the center of the classical world”.
Fair enough, and easy as that I was hooked.
I was subsequently gripped by the adventures of Greek gods and their culture and felt real alarm at the looming destruction of my new world by the invading and overwhelming Persian armies. The Greeks had a brutally simple decision to make; stand together and fight (at the time Greece was a collection of autonomous city states), or flee every man for himself leaving their civilization to be destroyed.
I braced myself, but the Athenians did something that caught me
completely by surprise.
At this most critical moment in their history,
they took a time out,
setting off on a two hundred kilometer
trek to consult an oracle that lived at Delphi.
To understand this decision, I had to do a little extracurricular study. I already knew that Delphi was the ‘belly button’ but learnt that for over 2000 years it had also been the spiritual center of the ancient classical world. Even before that, in prehistoric times, a temple to the earth mother Gaia rested there. It was not only the center of the world but also, being situated in the mountains, the place where heaven and earth met, where a man could be closest to the gods!
Apollo Gets A Temple
In Greek myth, the earth spirit Python guarded the temple for Gaia, but Apollo pursued and killed him, capturing the shrine for himself. Python’s foul smelling corpse then fell into a fissure (this is where The Oracle comes in). The Oracle sat on a tripod in a pit next to the fissure inhaling the vapors arising from the decomposing body and made her prophesies, Intoxicated by these fumes, she fell into a trance and made her pronouncements which were recorded by her priests and passed on to the supplicants.
A temple for Apollo was built around the pit where The Oracle sat. Her visions were subsequently attributed to his spirit for the next few thousand years and became part of daily life. Her prophesies were sought on all matters including morality, love, constitution, and wars.
By the time of the Persian invasions, it would have been unthinkable
for the Greeks to have made any decision without first seeking The Oracle’s guidance.
What boy couldn’t be captivated by such a tale?
I even cut out a copy of the painting ‘Priestess of Delphi’ by John Collier which accompanied me with my other prized items for a good number of years until it eventually fell apart along the line where I had folded it. It is this picture on the right that heads this “chapter.”
Okay, back to the Athenians.
They were to be bitterly disappointed. The Oracle’s forecast was bleak, declaring that they were certainly doomed. I like to think that on observing their despair, she added the caveat that there might be the faintest chance of avoiding catastrophe if they put trust in their ‘wooden wall.‘ This addition was to cause one of the most significant events in world history.
Themistocles’ jumped up declaring that the ‘wooden wall’ was plainly a reference to the Greek fleet (rather than the more obvious wooden barricade defending the Acropolis). He must have been one heck of an orator as the other Greek states all agreed!
Combining their forces, they attacked the Persian fleet near the island of Salamis, a stunning
victory was won, and Greece was saved!
I came 1st in that years’ Ancient History exam
and last in all of the other subjects.
In stark contrast to the Greeks, this remarkable spike in performance was not enough to save me. I was asked to pursue my education elsewhere. In the event, I joined the jumble of similarly detached teenagers finding mischief amongst Oxford’s abundant and fertile distractions.
Returning to the present,
I have for years been running, in a more or less permanent state of underlying unhappiness.
that if I had wits enough to recognize this condition why not the solution and cursed my failure, obscuring further examination through booze and other diversions. I tried to embrace the predicament, redressing my inactivity as a virtue. I stumbled across an article with the header “Inaction is the Perfect Action” and adopted it as my mantra. In presentations, I included a section, “if you want to save don’t spend, if you want to lose weight eat less and if you want to keep your husband, don’t sleep around,” oh dear, you see how bad it was!
In the event, this ‘turn’ only made matters worse, my knowing it to be born out of bitterness. The situation deteriorated further still when dear David killed himself. He left me a note ending with his earnest hope that I at least should ‘be happy.’
It struck me that I had not given value to the passage of time in my dithering. Uncle Richard (the lawyer) often amused me when, from behind his oversized leather topped desk he quotes the expression, “tempus fugit, tempus fugit!” (“time flies, time flies!”) and fixes the intended recipient with a purposeful stare over the top of his wire rimmed glasses. These expressions come towards the end of the month when the fee earner is behind on his billing! The phrase is something of a misquote from Virgil’s “Fugit inreparabile tempus,” “it escapes irretrievable time,” which I prefer, either way, I now understood the message better and resolved to take action.
But what action to take?
There were some options that I won’t list. The choice is no good if you don’t know which path to take. I moaned, better to see just one and get on with it rather than sit on your arse! A passage from Alice in Wonderland says it better. Alice meets the Cheshire Cat at a fork in the road and asks, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends on a good deal on where you want to get to'” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where– ” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “– so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
So, I started walking;
I enrolled for a ten-day silent, meditative retreat at the nearby meditation center. What better environment to begin clearing one’s mind and trying to figure things out? Cueing at the reception desk, an attractive Asian woman with an expensive leather jacket draped across her shoulders, turned to me, “Days 3 and 7 are the mad ones,” I raised my eyebrows “I should know, I’ve done the course five times!” She laughed freely, collected a complimentary bag of vitamins then joined the others. I stood in front of the clerk “so it’s still okay to speak then?”
She was right, on day three my sense of smell exploded to the extent that
I could actually identify the individual scent of each rose as I walked through the rose garden!
It’s true that the faculties become sharper when you starve them, but there was something more to it than that.
We were discouraged from allowing intense sensations to disrupt concentration whilst meditating but outside,
I allowed my mind to run free.
Colors became vivid, and tears ran down my cheeks as I experienced moments of what I can only call a bliss. I once invited me to look at a brick wall and say what color it was “Browny Red” I replied “Is that all? Look closer”.
I looked and began to see white and gray mortar, greens and browns, grays and yellows, mosses and discolorations and darkening deposits of pollution.
It took me a while to understand that if you looked with attention,
there was an awful lot more to observe.
At the retreat, this lesson came back to me as I saw,
smelt, touched, tasted and heard everything that it was possible for my senses
to perceive and more,
I felt part of everything and was simply entranced.
On day seven
I decided to quit my job, purchase a camper van and take off. But where to? (That old which path challenge again!) I sat in the cafeteria with a pot of liquorish and peppermint tea, looking in front of me at a bookcase crammed with cookbooks and dog-eared recipe sheets, I stood up walked to it, turned, extended an arm behind me, selected a book and cut it open.
“Greek Island cookery: The Island of Alonnisos.”
A pastel picture of an unassuming, charming bay headed the page, and my destination was set.
In his opening address, the Teacher observed that students should believe nothing unless they experienced it for themselves. “If it is for your well-being you can accept it. If it’s not for your well-being, then you will not” I could follow that! I expected a harder sell at some point but it never came, even the ‘book sale’ on the final day amounted to no more than a few books placed on a table next to an honesty box.
I had an unbelievably positive experience at the retreat and accepted it.
Through meditation and abstinence, I saw the separation between my
sense based self and a deeper consciousness
and saw that the more I lived in that consciousness based world,
the more I would be at peace and find more than happiness.
(Shouldn’t this be taught at school or something rather than by chance to stumble upon it decades later?!)
On the final day,
students were free to talk once again. There was a collective euphoria. I thought to add my voice to those already declaring that their lives had been forever changed by the experience but hesitated, distracted by the resident cook calmly observing this ‘coming out’ from a chair in the shade beside the kitchen wall. I asked what he thought; he spoke mildly “why not wait and see.”
So I waited, and I saw my resolve and joy crumble into the sea.
As I appeared back into the ‘real world’ old habits rushed forward to greet me, overwhelming the sand sculpture that I had built so that I feared it would be lost altogether. We didn’t just practice meditation during the retreat; it was the combined effect of a whole bag of precepts which amounted to living in an exemplary manner, a life I was embarrassingly unfamiliar!
I was vividly aware I would have to lose something of my egoic self
to attempt the goal but had no idea how hard he did not want to go anywhere (who’d have guessed!)
None the less, I believe some small part of the message did remain
for all of my shortcomings, and I tried to maintain a kind attitude towards my ego and a positive perspective towards change. I’ll quote an uncharacteristically upbeat quote from Noam Chomsky here, “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” Well said! I was still perfectly aware of how grim the world was, but why not look at how to make it better anyway.
It took a little longer
than I anticipated to wind my affairs up so that it was a few months before my odyssey started. At Dover, I took the car ferry to Calais and headed East. At a service station near Palma, I pulled in to make a coffee and consult my collection of maps. (by the way, Italian service stations are the best, fresh pasta and pizza, stylish interiors great garden areas, I could have popped the roof up and stayed for days!)
So, how to get to Alonnisos? I sat in the back of the camper leaving the door open with an old road map spread out across the pop-up dining table. I hadn’t noticed that it only had one supporting outer leg, the inside two edges clipping into a rail below the sink unit. It had the advantage of making it easier to get in and out I guess but allowed it to sway alarmingly. I put my coffee on the lid concealing the sink unit making a note to speak with the garage on my return.
Within a minute or so an old metallic green Jaguar salon pulled up alongside me. The cream leather back seats were piled with all kinds of paraphernalia, most visibly a collection of various wooden toilet seats. The disheveled driver hooked his hands over the roof rail to pull himself out of his seat and following my eyes laughed, “a decent bog seat costs a fortune in Greece” he winked, “first thing she’ll ask me is if I’ve remembered she’ll be made up with this lot!” His companion kicked his foot free of a tangle of bags around his feet in and sparked a cigarette. “we’re on our annual provisions run to the UK” patting the roof plainly delighted with his booty.
The driver stooped to peer around the interior of the camper. “Nice Camper, noticed the Brit plates, where are you travelling to?” I told him Alonnisos and that I had no idea how to get there. “Easy” he replied, “Drive to Ancona, take the ferry to Patras and head east to Volos. You can get the island ferry from there. We’re going to Ancona if you want to follow us.” Easy indeed. After I shared a coffee with my new friends, we left in convoy.
Weird how you start to remember so much when you start writing and at length!
I was exhausted,
other than on the ferry crossing, I hadn’t stopped driving since leaving Wiltshire. The next sign post announced my approach to a place called Galaxidi. I liked the name and took the right turn towards the coast. The town holds the small harbor in its palm on the Gulf of Corinth. The campsite was not open, in fact, it appeared abandoned, so I looked for a small hotel.
At the next junction,
a signpost directing me towards the Hotel Ganimede . Having missed it twice, on a third pass, I noticed a faded tin sign nailed into the brickwork creating an arch above the entrance. I parked up opposite and proceeded down an unpromising passageway. With a final look over my shoulder towards the Camper, I turned into a small, pretty, sun bleached stone courtyard, a bit shabby but charming for all that. Shrubs ran wild, birds nested in the guttering and the place could do with a sweep.
A striking woman
with nut brown skin sat in the shade of a trellis that sagged under the weight of an old vine, looking like it might collapse at any moment. She was evidently unconcerned and observed me steadily. With a draw on a roll-up that made her cheeks hollow, she charged me “English?” I shrugged apologetically and replied with the phrase I had been practicing like a parrot for an hour. “Gai, legome David, herw poly” (in case your Greek is a bit rusty “Hi, I am David pleased to meet you”).
I offered my hand which she ignored, standing to give me a warm hug “Chrisoula”
she smiled gesturing to the chair beside her “sit.”
I was allocated a blue and white painted room on the first floor. This first-floor room was apparently a kindness because the higher ceilings kept the room cool in the absence of any air conditioning. It had a vast iron bed and also benefitted from a stone veranda with iron railings overlooking the courtyard.
Chrisoula handed me a key “we will see you later” she added more as a statement, hugged me once more and left me at the doorway. I felt immediately at home.
After a siesta,
I unfolded the tourist map that I had collected from a shoe display on my tour through the hotel, spreading it over the bed. Any weariness quickly left me, as I saw the word ‘Delphi’ printed boldly in the center with a line to a box in the margin with a picture of my childhood dreamland.
I checked the scale of the map, and to my astonishment found that having driven some three thousand kilometers my first stop was at a hotel less than 16kms north east from Delphi!
I clattered down
the wooden stairs to find the proprietor who had resumed her seat under the vine. Flapping the map in front of her I asked “is that THE Delphi, you know the one where The Oracle is”? “Was” she corrected calmly, pausing to look at me in her measured way once more. She laughed good humoredly “You are late, she left two thousand years ago.” “Come to breakfast, and I will show you the best way” and as a compensation added, “our breakfast is very famous you know.”
I was far too excited
to sleep, so walked down to the harbour, taking a table in a bar with a view of couples and families promenading along the quay. After a couple of beers and a plate of stuffed onions (I have been working on the technique and recipe), a thought came to me.
What if The Oracle was not a fraud, what if the voice of some spirit, actually spoke to people for all those centuries?
Is it likely
that the spirit was scared off by an earthquake or fire or got shoed away by a mob of early Christians? Why not ask a question even now and see what happened? I emailed a friend asking what they thought and received the following advice “I would just ask her to tell me anything, whatever crossed her mind. I wouldn’t want to predetermine what she talked about by asking a question.” I took this advice and content fell into a deep sleep!
I searched for Chrisoula, but I couldn’t find her while a stout woman nervously approached my table and asked me if her students had woken me up. She looked pointedly towards a group of her students. There had been a bit of a rumpus going on when I returned, but I was distracted and rather liked to hear the happy singing and excited voices. I put her at ease by replying, “No, I didn’t hear a thing” I looked at the subdued students eyeing me, “You will have to try harder tonight!” Their eyes sparkled accepting the challenge.
Good grief the ‘Olympic breakfast’ certainly lived up to the proprietor’s billing. Six courses the highlights of which included an amazing tangy home-made lemon curd with freshly baked crusty rolls and a delicious deep pan omelette rather like those one finds at La Mere Poulard’s! I fear I did the breakfast no justice and persuading Chrisoula to pause long enough for directions and departed. Time for my journey to Delphi!
The Temple Complex
is situated on Mount Parnassos nested within the angle formed by the twin rocks of the Phaedriades. The views across olive and cypress trees to the bay of Corinth are protected so that no industrial construction is to be visible from the area of the sanctuary.
An offering to The Oracle was expected in classical times, that at least hadn’t changed. I paid a €12 entrance fee, and then I made an additional gesture by purchasing a tourist guide. I found a spot on the map where The Oracle’s sanctuary was marked and started the steep walk holding myself in a calm and clear mind. After a short time, I arrived at the temple of Apollo and sat on a warm rock (It is this picture on the left that heads this “chapter.”). Here I am, the place where the heavens met the earth and I would ask my priestess to awaken once more.
The best opinion is that the pit where The Oracle sat is situated at the center of the picture. It has been covered with granite slabs, but you can just make out a couple of holes underneath the bottom right-hand edge leading into it.
I looked up to see,
a thick legged American woman in tight fitting knee length shorts and a polo shirt, marched up the hill towards me, holding a plastic jacketed guide book in front of her like a standard, her family lagged behind, littered down the dusty trail behind her. The last of her children cried out with delight “look a lizard!” she ran to the rock, but it scampered into a deep crack where she peered after it. “Keep up Hope!” shouted the mother without turning and continued her formidable advance.
I fancied the group would not have been sad to lose their leader to face the forces dug in at the top of the climb. But it was not to be as she checked her assault, shielding her eyes and cried “Catch up please, we’ve only one hour to see whatever there is here.”
At the marker post
in front of me, she read loud enough for us all to hear, of Python, Apollo, and The Oracle. Slapping the book shut she concluded with the pronouncement ‘charlatan‘! The guide dropped momentarily to her side, allowing everyone to momentarily relax before she raised it once more for the purpose of orientation to her next target.
Hope hung back
and peered into the dark holes under the slab.
“I wonder if she is still in there?”
She looked at me startled; I raised my eyebrows, she smiled sensing that I was teasing her, but we both looked again searching the darkness. The moment was broken when her mother brayed “Hope!” and my co-conspirator was lost once more. I settled back on my rock and waited for another bus load of tourists to pass through with a curious one, but no one showed up.
And then the site fell oddly silent.
Delphi is second only to the Acropolis as the most visited site in the whole of Greece, and yet I was entirely alone.
I cleared my mind and concentrated
“Is there anything you might wish to tell me?”
I waited, nothing,
“Is there anything you might say about the path to peace and happiness”
and I heard a calm voice as clear as if it was coming from a friend
sitting on the rock beside me.
“Fix yourself and then live as it pleases you too.”
Simple as that.
I was stunned. I hadn’t really thought about receiving an answer. The same feeling of bliss then came over me that I had experienced at the meditation center.
I rested there
and after I don’t know how long, began to come out of my trance.
What to make of it?
I picked up the guide, flicking through pictures and settled on a page that referred to three inscriptions that were said to have been carved at the entrance to the Temple. They read,
‘Know thyself,’ ‘Temperance,’ and the symbol ‘E’ (awareness or being).
It was evident to me,
through the practice of meditation, I had begun to know myself; through observation of the precepts I had tempered egoic cravings and that these two practices had started to awaken an awareness or sense of being in me.
The message I had been given
was a reminder of what I already knew. To fix myself I needed to apply those same disciplines, and an inspired life lay ahead of me, one out of which good would come.
I left the temple
believing that I had the courage and strength I would need, I didn’t know that my first challenge was to come sooner than I thought on the slopes of Mt Olympus!
David Batts gave up being a lawyer to move to the country to find himself. He decided to contribute a chapter of his story to the Write Heart Memory Community and hopes you will do the same.
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