I have just come back from leading a retreat at Worth Abbey about shifting our mental gear from doing to being, from thinking to awareness. The beautiful Abbey Church has a visual parable built within it, that helps illustrate an important aspect of our awareness.
It is a circular church, and has windows running all around the rim of the circle (see photo). Attention is about what we do with our awareness. We can focus our attention, for example, on sounds – allowing whatever sounds are out there to come into our hearing. That is like looking through one window of the many we could look through in the Abbey Church.
Daniel Siegel in his book The Mindful Brain talks about us having a rim of awareness through which things can be attended to. We have our five senses on the rim, five windows if you like on to the world. But Daniel Siegel suggests we have eight senses: in the sixth sense we can become aware of what is going on in our body, in the seventh sense we can become aware of what is going on in our minds – thoughts, feelings, sensations, and in the eighth relational sense we can become aware of what is going on with other people around us.
I would also like to suggest that there is a ninth sense, that works with the other eight senses, which is about becoming aware of the presence of God.
We can focus our attention, just attending to one window, whether it is hearing or sight. But we can also cultivate an open awareness where we are able to allow all our senses to come into awareness. Using the Abbey Church as an example this is where light is coming in through all the windows, and we are aware of all the windows in the circular rim of the church simultaneously.
Often we live through only a few windows, the others blacked out to our awareness and attention. Mindfulness and contemplation open up all the windows of awareness to our awareness and attention. As this happens we begin to experience life in the moment as it truly is, which is whole and full of healthy possibilities, including the possibility of hearing the footsteps of the Invisible One in our life.
The boy on the edge of happiness is the title of a book of poetry by Matthew Hollis. I haven’t read the book, or what I am imagining to be a poem of the same name. Although I would like to. I came across a tweet by the Poetry Society saying that Matthew Hollis was a ‘terribly good poet’, so I looked him up. That’s when the title, ‘The boy on the edge of happiness’ resonated deeply. It brought into my awareness something that was on the edge of my awareness.
As a boy and a man I have lived on the edge of happiness. Why would you do that?
I have known happiness and at crucial times in my life it felt like it was taken away. So I never quite trusted it to stay around.
The first time was going to boarding school at the age of 6 3/4s for a term. We would have a day sometime during the term when your parents would take you out, called an exeat.
At the beginning of the day happiness would flood back. And my mum says I would chat to them, and be lively and excited. But as the day drew to a close, I would be quiet, not speak, just look at them with my eyes filling with tears, but without crying. Happiness was draining away, or being taken away.
In short happiness couldn’t be trusted, it was safer to live on the edge of happiness.
I remember later when we would fly out to Kenya for the holidays from the UK from another school. The first night in my bedroom in Kenya would be a strange one. I would wake up on that first morning of the holidays, as light streamed through the curtains with a sinking heart imagining I was still at school. Suddenly I would realise this was a different sort of light and I would be filled with a sense of elation – I was home.
The first night at boarding school reversed the process. I would awake imagining I was home, with a light heart, and then realise with a sinking feeling that I was back at school.
The title of Matthew Hollis’s book of poetry rang me like a bell. I was filled with the revelation that ever since those early experiences I had lived on the edge of happiness. Never quite letting myself enter in all its fullness the happiness that was there, in case it was taken away.
The reason for writing about these memories that came back was that I wondered how many other people are living quietly on the edge of happiness for similar reasons?
When my mum told me the story of the exeat she said it used to break her heart to have to let me go back to the boarding part of school. The title of a poem has given me a deep mindful insight. Poetry has this capacity.
Daniel Siegel says of poetry…’Hearing poetry feels integrative. The science of language and the brain reveals that while the left hemisphere specializes in linguistic language, the right takes a dominant role in words with ambiguous meaning. Also, the imagery evoked by poetry seems to more directly activate the primary visuospatial processes of our brains…’ (The Mindful Brain, p. 161)…poetry creates a mindful state.
I am just experimenting, right now, mindfully, with trying to enter into the full experience of happiness, moment by moment as it arises. I felt it today. A moment of happiness should not be dismissed. As William Blake says:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
There is a whole world in a single moment. Even a world of happiness.