As lockdowns around the world continue, we are reminded every day that we have a personal responsibility to help slow the spread of the virus. The sacrifice of our personal liberties is small in light of the many thousands of people suffering with this illness, and the medical staff working in extreme conditions to help others. But the reality of lockdown is different for everyone. Many of us cannot get out into the countryside to visit our favourite places. In the UK food bank use has increased by 300% compared to this time last year, and more than a million people have lost all their income. We have been forced into a sudden change of circumstances, and might be struggling to come to terms with the impact of this change. I saw a post on Facebook just recently, from a mother with a young child, wondering what she can do now that the last green space within walking distance of their house has been closed to the public. “Is there anything I can do through mindfulness?” she asked. The answer is “Yes”.
I am going to begin with some words from Eckhart Tolle, whose teachings inspired this post. In a recent video titled ‘There is Another Way’ (to watch click here), Eckhart began with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’. The ability of our mind to cast a situation in a good or bad light can have a considerable effect on how we perceive our situation. In the video, Eckhart suggests trying to discard the narrative created by the mind – what is essentially a set of judgments about our situation designed by the ego (good, bad, unfair, too difficult, etc) – in order to be fully present in the Now. In doing so, he says, we can access ‘another dimension of consciousness’ that is often easily overlooked: ‘awareness… that is consciousness without thought’, ‘a deeper identity’ the ‘unconditioned consciousness’.
Eckhart’s teaching, in addition to some passages of Jefferies’ words, might be able to help us through this period while we are unable to reach green spaces. Working together, the two teachers might be able to help us reconnect with a place in the natural world that is special to us, to create a calm and grounded inner space that we can return to whenever we need it.
In the 1880s Richard Jefferies made notes about his need for thinking places – he records spots in the landscape where he would go to be alone. When he was working as a reporter on the North Wiltshire Herald in Cirencester, he would, during his lunchtime, go to stand beside the River Churn, by the remains of the old Roman wall. Here he made some of the earliest notes for his spiritual autobiography. Some of his regular thinking places were beside trees. When he went to stay with his Aunt Ellen, in Sydenham, he would spend time beneath the Deodar, a great cedar tree in his Aunt’s garden. As a teenager, seeking a quiet place away from the eyes of the hamlet or the workers at Coate, he would stand beneath a row of elms that stood at the edge of the garden at Coate Farmhouse, from where he could look out to Liddington Hill. These places are recalled in The Story of My Heart, and in the draft version:
“I was not more than eighteen when an inner and esoteric meaning began to come to me from all the visible universe, and indefinable aspirations filled me. I found them in the grass fields, under the trees, on the hill-tops, at sunrise, and in the night. There was a deeper meaning everywhere. The sun burned with it, the broad front of morning beamed with it; a deep feeling entered me while gazing at the sky in the azure noon, and in the star-lit evening.”
“I used to look now and then, from a window, in the evening at a birch tree at some distance; its graceful boughs drooped across the glow of the sunset. The thought was not suspended; it lived in me always. A bitterer time still came when it was necessary to be separated from those I loved. There is little indeed in the more immediate suburbs of London to gratify the sense of the beautiful. Yet there was a cedar by which I used to walk up and down, and think the same thoughts as under the great oak in the solitude of the sunlit meadows.”
“So long since that I have forgotten the date, I used every morning to visit a spot where I could get a clear view of the east. Immediately on rising I went out to some elms; thence I could see across the dewy fields to the distant hills over or near which the sun rose. These elms partially hid me, for at that time I had a dislike to being seen, feeling that I should be despised if I was noticed. This happened once or twice, and I knew I was watched contemptuously, though no one had the least idea of my object. But I went every morning, and was satisfied if I could get two or three minutes to think unchecked.”
As he later explains in The Story of My Heart the feeling that grew from these moments was a sense of being immersed in the Now; of being ‘in eternity’. He records an awakening through the senses – to ‘esoteric meaning’ – a realm of consciousness without thought.
“It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity”
Conversely, though, as Jefferies was a writer attempting to put these experiences into an entirely new form, he struggled to find the right words through which to convey them; this was to become a long process that required much thought and focus.
On developing awareness, Eckhart says that humans ‘need the challenge to be driven there’, which is why what we are going through now is potentially helpful. Jefferies experienced great difficulty throughout his life due to continued ill health, poverty, and a calling to express his spiritual ideas, which were considered radical and unpopular by the late nineteenth century society of the time. From his struggle was born some of the most beautiful and luminous writing in the English language. It is especially pertinent that some of his greatest works were written while he was trapped indoors, confined to bed, with only glimpses of the outdoor world visible from his window.
So, during this difficult global time how might we combine Eckhart’s words with Jefferies’ experiences? We can first try to connect with our own personal thinking places. Try to remember a favourite tree, hill, or spot – a place where you have felt at peace – and hold the image in mind for a time. Put aside the ‘narrative’ of whatever emotion or opinion that you might have about your current situation, and allow the original feelings of connection to come to the surface. Try to remember the weather, and the season, when you were last there. What can you see around you? What colours are the leaves, the grass? Try to recall the sensory reality of the experience – is the air warm or cold? What can you hear? Become aware of the ground beneath your feet, the sense of rootedness that grows the longer you stand there. Focus then on the centring pull in the core of your being that is slowed and lulled by the rhythm of the natural world around you.
Without the clutter – that might be your ‘narrative’ about yourself and your life, or distractions that the mind can easily be diverted by – focus on discovering the fullness and potential of each moment. Here Jefferies offers another example:
“Certain it is that it is extremely pleasant and grateful to breathe the sweet fragrance of the fir deep in the woods, listening to the soft caressing sound of the wind that passes high overhead. The willow-wren sings, but his voice and that of the wind seem to give emphasis to the holy and meditative silence. The mystery of nature and life hover about the columned temple of the forest. The secret is always behind a tree, as of old time it was always behind the pillar of the temple.” (Field and Hedgerow)
This passage, written about an experience in Ashdown Forest, suggests an inner space opening up – a space heightened in Jefferies’ consciousness by the sounds of the willow-wren and the wind – that is perhaps redolent of Eckhart’s ‘unconditioned consciousness’. Jefferies writes “The secret is always behind a tree, as of old time it was always behind the pillar of the temple.” What does he mean by this? There are some key spiritual principles inherent in this passage. Trust and acceptance accompany being present – trust that although you can only see what is around you (the tree) at the same time you can sense the presence of much more – a ‘fuller wider existence’ (the secret behind the tree). Jefferies seems to be on the cusp of deeper insight; he knows he cannot get there through using the vehicle of the intellect – he needs the ‘meditative silence’ of the deep woods, which evokes Eckhart’s ‘deeper identity’ and ‘unconditioned consciousness’. In this condition of awareness, Eckhart suggests that you can ‘face the situation with the power of your presence, which is true intelligence…instead of being reactive and complaining about what you are experiencing.’
Turning now to Jefferies’ essay ‘Hours of Spring’, written when he was confined to bed, it is evident that an important change is taking place. From being somebody who spent hours walking out of doors every day, Jefferies has grown used to an indoor life that has been imposed upon him:
“To-day through the window-pane I see a lark high up against the grey cloud, and hear his song. I cannot walk about and arrange with the buds and gorse-bloom; how does he know it is the time for him to sing? Without my book and pencil and observing eye, how does he understand that the hour has come? To sing high in the air, to chase his mate over the low stone wall of the ploughed field, to battle with his high-crested rival, to balance himself on his trembling wings outspread a few yards above the earth, and utter that sweet little loving kiss, as it were, of song—oh, happy, happy days! So beautiful to watch as if he were my own, and I felt it all! It is years since I went out amongst them in the old fields, and saw them in the green corn; they must be dead, dear little things, by now. Without me to tell him, how does this lark to-day that I hear through the window know it is his hour?”
Jefferies is having to accept that he doesn’t need to be physically out of doors to know that spring is unfolding – he has to trust that it is there, and that he can still be part of it. In partial consolation for this loss, and to find peace in the present, he seeks to reconnect with a past experience, when the lark sung ‘high in the air’ and chased his partner over the low stone wall of the field. Later in the same essay Jefferies refers to ‘the old, old error: I love the earth, therefore the earth loves me—I am her child—I am Man, the favoured of all creatures. I am the centre, and all for me was made.’ This mental narrative, created by the ego, which places so much importance on the individual, has to be cleared in order for meaningful awareness to grow. But it comes with the melancholy realisation that Nature places no special value on human life: “Nature sets no value upon life, neither of mine nor of the larks that sang years ago. The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead.” This was not the end for Jefferies – he went on to write the manuscript for a new spiritual book. In this manuscript the ‘I’ or ego is notably absent, and he no longer uses words such as ‘bitter’ or ‘difficult’. He has successfully discarded the mental narrative.
I hope these quotations might be helpful for the current time. I hope that we can find some reassurance through being present and trusting that the situation in which we find ourselves, however difficult, is somehow the right one; that we are here to learn. As Eckhart says, ‘the situation is as it is…life is not here to make you happy, the world isn’t here to make you happy, it is here to awaken you, to make you conscious’.
All photos by Rebecca.