I have been reading Julian Hoffman’s ‘the small heart of things – being at home in a beckoning world.’ It is a book full of epiphanies, the opening up of time to insight, understanding and a sense of unity.
One such moment occurred reading his description of seeing a pod of dolphins in a chapter entitled ‘An Accumulation of Light’. An accumulation of light is a good description of an epiphany. I don’t want to quote the whole section, because I want you to buy the whole book. But I do want to share two sentences which brings to an ecstatic climax the writer’s epiphany, but which also became an epiphany for me.
As he watches the dolphins he says, ‘I later realised how time had dissolved while we watched the dolphins. Past and future, and all the weight they carry, had folded into one clear, immeasurable moment.’
In the moment that I read this, and the moment still resonates with me, I was aware of the thoughts and feelings I was carrying, rooted in the past and the future, and how heavy those thoughts and feeling were. And then I realised I could let them go. This was an intuitively natural mindful moment.
To become aware how heavy the thoughts and feelings can be that are ruminating or worrying about the past and future is a great gift. Because then we can put them down. The lightness of being is in the present moment.
In poetic terms what Julian writes is what Edward Thomas, the nature poet, would call a ‘thought-moment.’ Edward Thomas was once called an ‘ecstatic walker.’ Julian Hoffman gets his inspiration from ecstatic walking, and in a mysterious process of alchemy, his nature writing becomes ecstatic writing. Ecstatic writing can become ecstatic reading.
I like the requirement in the reading rooms of the British Library to write only in pencil, in order to protect the precious books. Ink marks the books and is indelible. It stains and cannot be removed.
When we speak to each other we should speak in pencil, kindly, compassionately and gently, as one learner might talk to another, as one beggar might share bread with another.
We should not talk to each other in indelible ink, as know-it-all’s speak to know-nothings, as angry, and self-righteous – believing there is only one perspective, ours and that it is right.
Speaking in pencils we don’t leave angry marks on other people, who are more precious than books, but mark as easily.
Early yesterday as I went outside the car was covered with sticky ice. The sort of ice that takes 10 minutes to scrape off. Often on the school run you can see cars driving along with the driver peering out of a small cleared hole in the windscreen, with the rest of the windscreen and windows still clouded with ice.
It’s a picture of how the windscreen of our mind is much of the time and how we rush around with limited perception. Rowan Williams in his beautiful little book ‘Silence and Honey Cakes – the wisdom of the desert’ talks about this inattention, ‘the failure to see what is truly there in front of us – because our own vision is clouded by self-obsession or self-satisfaction.’ (p.26)
We rush along in the icy morning without clear vision, and we do the same in life. If we pay attention to the ice, truly pay attention to it with a de-icer we can clear the windscreen of our car. If we pay attention mindfully to the sticky cloud of self-obsession or self-satisfaction, or any other ruminative pattern that stops us seeing clearly, this mindfulness de-ices the windscreen of our mind.
Then we begin to see clearly.
I was leading a retreat at Worth Abbey on watchfulness over the weekend. On the Sunday morning I got up early and walked to the Abbey Church at 6.15. There is very little light pollution and the night sky was very open.
The stars beckoned me to look at them, stopping me in my tracks. Their beautiful silence brought tears to my eyes. I have always liked the Don McLean song Vincent (starry, starry night) about Van Gogh. The opening lyrics came into my head as a refrain:
‘Starry, starry night,
Paint your palette blue and gold…’
The rational part of my brain said, ‘the words are not right’. The actual words are:
‘Starry, starry night,
Paint your palette blue and GREY..’
But a voice came back to me saying, ‘no, you paint your palette blue and gold.’
It felt like a message from the stars for the New Year.
For me blue speaks of faithfulness and stability and sticking with people, God, the way of watchfulness and mindfulness. Gold speaks of the brightness of hope.
What mindfulness has taught me is that I can choose the palette of colours I paint my life with. Each thought and feeling has its own colour. Sometimes I have painted with grey, allowed depressed thoughts to become a ruminative pattern in my mind. I have learnt that they are passing events in my mind, that they are not me and that I can let them go.
As I have noticed them and let them go, blue and gold thoughts have sprung up. The message of hope came as a gift from the stars, ‘paint your palette blue and gold…’ I can mindfully choose the palette of colour I paint with. And so can you.