The Pole Star Within

The inner meaning of the title, The Pole Star Within, is that there is something within us which can give us unfailing guidance for directing ourselves in thought, word and deed. By it we can guide our experience in this world, and our spiritual progress.

The Pole Star is in the north. The sun rises in a different place every day. We usually direct ourselves by knowing the marks of the locality where we live. But if we travel abroad, we do not know the locality, so we cannot find a fixed direction. A fixed direction is given to us by the Pole Star, often called the North Star. When we list the directions, we say north, south, east, west; north always comes first. But the Chinese list them quite differently: east, west, south, north. North comes at the end. East (they say) is where the sun rises and wakens the world, and west is where it goes down and the world begins to sleep. South is the direction of warmth and cities and trade and social life. It is full of interest. Only north has no interest: the Chinese say, “What is there in the north, after all? The further you go, you find snow and ice and barren wastes. There is nothing useful or interesting in the north. Why do you Europeans put north first?” Most of us do not know.

A Japanese scholar explained it to me. He said: “You people are voyagers, travelling round the world, whereas the Chinese called themselves the Central Flower Kingdom, and did not want to go elsewhere. They thought other people would come to them, to the superior civilization. But you British, for example, were sailing all round the world, exploring, and then converting to Christianity, and then conquering and then colonizing. You plundered nearly all the countries you went to. The British Museum is the biggest robber’s cave in the world – full of things which you have stolen from other countries. I admit (he added) that you did respect what you stole: it is all beautifully preserved and catalogued and studied. No doubt many of those things would have perished if they had been left where they were. But the fact remains that you stole them. So in a way you were a nation of pirates. That was why you respected the north: your Viking brigand ships needed the North Star to guide them. The crest of your hero, Sir Francis Drake, shows a North Star in the sky, then the water, and the star reflected in it. Did you ever wonder what the Spanish thought of your Sir Francis? Just a pirate, just a robber.”

This is the sort of thing a foreign scholar knows, which we have forgotten, or rather, we never knew it. It was not in our history books. At any rate, it is true that they needed a fixed direction, and the Pole Star gave that. But only at night, and only when it is not clouded over. So they needed something else.

There is a nearer Pole Star, which we now call the compass. That tiny magnetic needle points to the north, or to the south, as the Chinese prefer to think. Even here, some special conditions have to be provided. It has to be kept steady, and it has to be protected from the presence of nearby masses of metal, whose influence will bring it off line.

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