In The Psychology of Religious Mysticism (1925) James Leuba refers to twenty-six definitions of mysticism including ‘anything marvellous or weird… beyond human reason’ which may well be the standard definition when we’re faced with something which escapes understanding. For his purposes, Leuba settles on a neat uncluttered definition which appeals to me because it can be given a practical meaning: the union of self with something much larger than self. This can be achieved by anybody with a bit of simple but earnest practice. Meister Eckhart advised something like don’t bother about God – just go out into the night and look up at the stars to know that there is something infinitely larger than your meagre view of the world. Marcus Aurelius suggested something very similar. Otherwise the abstract concept ‘mysticism’ comes with a barrow-load of hocus-pocus – things pulled out of a magician’s hat to satisfy the rabid imagination.
Here’s Richard Jefferies, thinking of ‘the drift of time’, in Field and Hedgerow (Hours of Spring) identifying with Spring, something much larger than himself, not for any kind of self-aggrandisement but simply acknowledging that as recorder of Spring’s blossoming forth he is the Spring.
I wonder to myself how they can all get on without me – how they manage, bird and flower, without me to keep the calendar for them. For I noted it so carefully and lovingly, day by day, the seed-leaves on the mounds in the sheltered places that come so early, the pushing up of the young grass, the succulent dandelion, the coltsfoot on the heavy, thick clods, the trodden chickweed despised at the foot of the gate-post, so common and small, and yet so dear to me. Every blade of grass was mine, as though I had planted it separately… Day by day a change; always a note to make. The moss drying on the tree trunks, dog’s-mercury stirring under the ash-poles, bird’s-claw buds of beech lengthening; books upon books to be filled with these things. I cannot think how they manage without me. 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?
Later Jefferies has it that…
Never was such a worshipper of earth. The commonest pebble, dusty and marked with the stain of the ground, seems to me so wonderful; my mind works round it till it becomes the sun and centre of a system of thought and feeling.
Contemplating the pebble bathed in sunlight which ‘shone and glistened on the particles of sand that adhered to it’ reminded him of the ‘thousands of years between finger and thumb… sunlight shining all that time…’; his mind takes on the form of the pebble and in turn becomes the sun and the centuries; again he is at one with something considerably larger than himself… For me this is the essence of Jefferies’ visionary practice: moving attention from the microcosm to the macrocosm, whether in terms of the centuries or the immensity of space but wholly inhabiting both. Given practice & appropriate focus it’s possible for everybody to make the cognitive leap.
Though there were many previous thinkers who, without knowing it, contributed to the eclectic art of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) the starting point, somewhere in the 1970’s, was to take somebody you admire, look up to, hold as a hero-figure and seek to model on their behaviour by asking questions about how it is they do whatever they do. In this essay I’m asking questions about just that in relation to Richard Jefferies. Of course it has to be done via his writing output.
He sometimes finds it a challenge to take his insights on board as when he contemplates a poppy: ‘I wish I could do something more than gaze at all this scarlet and gold and crimson and green, something more than see it, not exactly to drink it or inhale it, but in some way to make it part of me that I might live it…’ (Field and Hedgerow: The July Grass)
When he’s on top form, however, he does know how to manage the process. We may look at things and derive facts from them but ‘…having raised ourselves up upon these huge mounds of facts, we shall begin to see still greater things; to do so we must look not at the mound under foot, but at the starry horizon….’ (Field and Hedgerow: Nature & Books)
Though Jefferies is quite sure that there will come a time when they will be found, his problem is having the words now to express what for him were new thoughts:-
I fully anticipate, in years to come, a great development in the power of expressing thoughts and feelings which are now thoughts and feelings only. How many have said of the sea, “It makes me feel some thing I cannot say!” Hence it is clear there exists in the intellect a layer, if I may so call it, of thought yet dumb – chambers within the mind which require the key of new words to unlock. (Nature & Books)
Jefferies has suffered from being described as ‘mystic’. In the 1947 edition of The Story of My Heart Samuel Looker rightly calls the book ‘the autobiography of a mind’ but then describes it as ‘esoteric’, somewhere along the ‘mystic way’, the result of what happens when ‘the eye turns inward’.
Esotericism suggests something having an inner or secret meaning, emerging stealthily from some otherworldly realm or reality and reserved for a select number of privileged disciples. The word ‘mystic’ seems to me to be a word that is all too glibly applied to something that the user just doesn’t understand – in other words a straightforward mystery one has not been able to come to terms with yet.
I would argue that there is nothing mystical or mysterious or esoteric about Jefferies’ natural vision; his process is perhaps what appeals to the psyche of so many people without their realising it, or understanding how it works. I maintain that the process is relatively easily available to anybody when they turn their eye inward – Looker is exactly correct when he says that. What happens when Jefferies turns his eye inward? How might we ordinary mortals follow suit, to understand him even better? Such questions have occupied my pondering for many years. Simply to describe him as ‘mystic’ runs the risk of wrapping him up in impenetrable mystery forever.
Although Paul Brunton frequently seems to me to lose the plot, collapsing his thinking into the abstraction ‘God’, in The Wisdom of the Overself (1943) he has a very useful set of thoughts about the mind and the way it works that can help to illuminate Jefferies’ process.
Information comes to us through the senses; that’s the starting point: Jefferies’ essays & novels are obviously grounded in this; he constantly records what he sees, hears, feels, smells & tastes in order to vivify events. Brunton draws a distinction between the way science would be able to tell us how the senses work individually but not be able to deal with the way they combine to provide an experiential composite. Science gives facts but not meaning – simply chops things up into what it can manage, defining how we see/hear/feel/smell & taste the outside world but never approaching the ramifications of doing so in holistic fashion; Jefferies sought to explain them but found just what Brunton asserts – that the meaning of an observation is something other than the words which are supposed to represent it.
Jefferies often laments the inability of ordinary words to convey exactly what he means – ‘One of the greatest difficulties I have encountered is the lack of words to express ideas…’ (SOMH). If we were to admit it, we might all say the same: presupposing we know what it means, for example, we refer to something we call ‘the mind’ but it’s an empty abstraction, a word that seems to designate a thing that functions for us since birth to make sense of the world; it’s not a thing as the existence of the word might suggest but just a bunch of psycho-electro-chemical functions; the word ‘mind’ is just a convenient shorthand. Whatever it is, ‘mind’, the ultimate reality (‘everything is mind’), deals in the totality of experience which in the end is unthinkable, untouchable and unnameable, says Brunton. Jefferies, striving to use words to say what he means, picks up from this. For example, because ‘human life is no more to the universe than that of the unnoticed hill-snail in the grass’, he says we have to think for ourselves with a new set of words – ‘think ourselves into an earthly immortality’… Deciding what this might mean is a real challenge. Is it the opposite of an unearthly immortality – living forever spiritually? Or living forever & ever on earth, not subject to death? Something to do with the totality of experience right now? Experience that never dies? All happening now so that living in the Now means one lives forever; the individual self expanding to encompass all of what we call ‘time’. In The Story of my Heart, contemplating the soul buried in the tumulus, Jefferies says:-
There is no separation – no past; eternity, the Now, is continuous. When all the stars have revolved they only produce Now again. The continuity of Now is forever. So that it appears to me purely natural, and not supernatural, that the soul whose temporary frame was interred in this mound should be existing as I sit on the sward. How infinitely deeper is thought than the million miles of the firmament! The wonder is here, not there; now, not to be, now always. Things that have been miscalled supernatural appear to me simple, more natural than nature, than earth, than sea, or sun. It is beyond telling more natural that I should have a soul than not, that there should be immortality; I think there is much more than immortality. It is matter which is the supernatural, and difficult of understanding. Why this clod of earth I hold in my hand ? Why this water which drops sparkling from my fingers dipped in the brook ? Why are they at all ? When ? How? What for? Matter is beyond understanding mysterious, impenetrable; I touch it easily, [but] comprehend it, no. Soul, mind – the thought, the idea – is easily understood, it understands itself and is conscious.
Following from strenuous external consideration, this is ‘turning the eye inward’, making the simple clod of earth something way beyond its natural cloddishness; the soul (psyche) grows the clod of earth, the sea, the earth, the planets, the sunshine into something larger than self. Microcosm into macrocosm…
The supernatural miscalled, the natural in truth, is the real. To me everything is supernatural. How strange that condition of mind which cannot accept anything but the earth, the sea, the tangible universe! Without the misnamed supernatural these to me seem incomplete, unfinished. Without soul all these are dead. Except when I walk by the sea, and my soul is by it, the sea is dead. Those seas by which no man has stood – by which no soul has been – whether on earth or the planets, are dead. No matter how majestic the planet rolls in space, unless a soul be there it is dead. As I move about in the sunshine I feel in the midst of the supernatural: in the midst of immortal things.
Here, for Jefferies, soul (preferably Psyche) and mind are interchangeable abstractions, working together: intellection coupled with all-embracing sensation. Brunton asserts that mind can know that stuff exists but not that it is this or that describable entity. But mind (the airy thing that will be working for you, reading this, right now) can return wholly to place attention on itself, unrelated to anything else; just as in the trance of reading, we can go inside the mind and separate it completely from action, from the daily grind, from intellection, feeling whatever’s there by shutting our eyes and squeezing ourselves inside; that way we are aware solely of identity, sense of being, and silence. Try it! When it simply walks around silently inside the way things are (sun, moon, sea & forest and so on) mind is everything; it gives a unity to the whole of experience; it is ‘in the midst of immortal things’ – ways of conceiving things which last forever. The distinction between observer and thing-observed has to disappear; to know something one must become it. What normally insists on pushing itself forward & closing the mind down is Personality which plunges us in physical sensations, memories, anticipations, beliefs & opinions, being committed to the ever-changing spectacle of the outside world.
The question is – how can we train our thinking apparatus to cash in on the silence of Mind? Intellect just gets the shadows on a screen. We have to get to the mind within the Mind of just Being, which might well be what Jefferies calls Psyche, which he did in order to leave all the soul-baggage behind him.
What we call ‘Mind’ is in itself silent, timeless, spaceless, entirely on its own. In itself it is a great No-thing which can become everything – the close at hand and the far distant – not by intellect which works things out over time, totting things up, but just by suddenly ‘getting it’… Just like that! To understand this there are deliberate exercises one can do as a matter of habit in ordinary life circumstances, non-grasping, wordlessly, not trying very hard, not aiming at anything, just doing the exercises daily to get to a place which might be The Other Side of ordinary life; in ordinary life putting things into words is just a ‘thought construction’ (Brunton’s words) fit only to be placed with all the other thought constructions we build in order to imagine we’ve got ‘understanding’.
Brunton says the question is: How to get to a personal realisation of Mind and leave behind the dry desert of merely thinking about it?
Though there is apparently still much to learn, in modern times, with technological advances, the way the brain works has been more thoroughly investigated. I’m a bit old-fashioned and still think of the brain as being divided into three parts that work together via the corpus callosum: (1) Left & Right sides – Left for logic & language & totting things up, Right for intuition, pattern-making & gut reaction – (2) the Limbic system regulating memory, emotion & sex and (3) the old Reptile part which deals with movement and keeping the organism safe. It’s recognised now that Left & Right brains operate very closely – intellect & emotion tied together. It’s more complicated but I’m not a brain surgeon and rest content with my simple view.
I think that Jefferies’ writing & sorting things out in linear fashion was fundamentally Left-brained but that he was in and out of the Left & Right brain & Limbic system to work the micro-macro switch. The location of ‘soul’ is anybody’s guess; for me it’s an abstraction (the test is whether you could put it in a wheelbarrow or not) that combines many functions; Jefferies is not at all sure about ‘soul’ – somewhere he talks about ‘using a scalpel to find the soul’ and prefers to call it Psyche… In any case what’s required is a big dose of unlearning. That way we might arrive back at an uncluttered notion of the way the mind works.
…unlearning, the first step to learn… I had lived quite certain that I was surrounded with [books]. It is nothing but unlearning, I find now; five thousand books to unlearn. Then to unlearn the first ideas of history, of science, of social institutions, to unlearn one’s own life and purpose ; to unlearn the old mode of thought and way of arriving at things ; to take off peel after peel, and so get by degrees slowly towards the truth – thus writing as it were, a sort of floating book in the mind, almost remaking the soul. It seems as if the chief value of books is to give us something to unlearn. Sometimes I feel indignant at the false views that were instilled into me in early days, and then again I see that that very indignation gives me a moral life. I hope in the days to come future thinkers will unlearn us, and find ideas infinitely better… [It will be] ‘almost remaking the soul’… (Nature & Books)
If anything ‘soul’ is a word that could be redefined as something like ‘an emergent something or other from the functioning of the various objective tide-marks of the brain & body working together’. But it might be more useful to abandon the word altogether as just an invention of people who, had they had the benefits of neuroscience, might know better.
Jefferies is interested in thought as something of more significance than the ordinary manifestations that pass for it in everyday life. In ‘Winds of Heaven’ (Field and Hedgerow), he writes ‘…the great hills are but a thought at the horizon; I think them there rather than see them…’ Thought has to be redefined:-
The thoughts of man are like the foraminifera, those minute shells which build up the solid chalk hills and lay the level plain of endless sand; so minute that, save with a powerful lens, you would never imagine the dust on your fingers to be more than dust. The thoughts of man are like these: each to him seems great in his day, but the ages roll, and they shrink till they become triturated dust, and you might, as it were, put a thousand on your thumb-nail. They are not shapeless dust for all that; they are organic, and they build and weld and grow together, till in the passage of time they will make a new earth and a new life. So I think I may say there are no books ; the books are yet to be written. (Nature & Books)
We could think in a different way. A great truth.
In the Field and Hedgerow essay ‘July Grasses’, Jefferies describes how to find them in ‘out of the way places’ but adds that ‘like everything else that is looked for, they are found under unlikely conditions…’
The July grasses must be looked for in corners and out-of-the-way places, and not in the broad acres – the scythe has taken them there. By the wayside on the banks of the lane, near the gateway – look, too, in uninteresting places behind incomplete buildings on the mounds cast up from abandoned foundations where speculation has been and gone. There weeds that would not have found resting-place elsewhere grow unchecked, and uncommon species and unusually large growths appear. Like everything else that is looked for, they are found under unlikely conditions. [My italics] At the back of ponds, just inside the enclosure of woods, angles of corn-fields, old quarries, that is where to find grasses, or by the sea in the brackish marsh.
This essay is the result of examining some textual evidence of what Jefferies does to get to a new way of learning; it seems to me that the process could be summarised thus:-
• Ponder something close at hand – something very ordinary found in very ordinary ‘unlikely conditions’
• Abandon any words that come to mind
• Close down Personality and its petty concerns
• Turn your eye inward
• Notice how simply observing something can become just thinking it without words
• Become what you ponder – make whatever it might be into part of you, live it deep inside for a moment
• Take the result towards something much bigger than yourself in time and/or place – microcosm/macrocosm
• Get the sensation of the unity of all experience, from ant on the path to distant star
• Wish for The Other Side
There is an NLP way of making this all come alive for yourself. I’ll describe how I have done it for myself. You need to walk about in the way I suggest – the reason for this is that moving around activates your whole being, mind and body, as a system. I have no doubt that this was what happened to Jefferies on his long perambulations, combining intellect, emotion (feeling about what he observed) in movement. The very space we occupy physically is a mental space as well; moving from one place to another also has the effect of shifting thinking.
Wherever you are, mark out a starting point and stand on it. Look at something you’ve probably seen quite often but not focussed on before – anything from a knob on a cupboard to a bit of cracked pavement if you happen to be outside. When I first thought about writing this essay and went through the exercise myself yet again, I was looking out of a window of a cottage I was renting for the weekend. I noticed some parched-looking moss in a cracked pathway, ivy climbing a house wall, a fir tree with all its greenery high above the ground. Out of these natural offerings I chose to study the moss in the pavement, noting texture, shape, colour, the difference between the softness and the concrete.
Having made my study, I stepped out of my starting point and shook off everything I’d noticed in the way of texture, shape, colour leaving just moss in itself as a wordless thought. I moved to a different place about a yard away. Different place, different mental space.
Do this with whatever you’ve chosen to study. You leave your self with all its petty concerns behind in the Start Point so that when you get to the second place you notice that whatever it is you’re focussing on becomes a completely new thing, as you take it inside yourself, turning your eye inward – there’s nothing else like it in the entire universe; it’s the one and only example there is. As you contemplate it you take the insight on board together with the way it was in all past centuries and those to come.
The moss in the crack of the pavement in front of me is a unique event; it has never happened like this in the whole history of the universe and will never happen again, especially since I link it to the flight of a seagull which has just crossed a dawn-blue early spring sky. There has never been another person in this particular spot, who has been deliberately contemplating moss and suddenly noticed the flight of a seagull while a young cellist practises her solo piece beside him. Not far away, in the black gate of the cottage where I’m staying, I can see the bolt I shot last night which is the only one of its kind in the whole universe, weather-beaten and scratched in the way it is, with screws rusting just so. I think ‘moss’ and ‘bolt’ rather than see them, take both into my inner eye and savour them together with all the centuries of universal moss-growth, shade & moisture, and the entire history of gate-bolts from metallic basic elements to the fashioning of bolt-shape.
Step out from all that, knowing that you have a mental pattern for noticing the essential thinginess of everything there is and, having isolated it, for linking it to something much bigger than itself and yourself. Each event unique in itself. Then generalise it to many things to test the process…
You can rise up from the single chord to contemplate its effect on the whole symphony and then placing it in the Music of the Spheres; one note on the piano is the start of a whole sonata which takes its place in all the soundings there have ever been; the old clock ticking marks the continuation of the life of what Jefferies somewhere calls Master Time; this grey tabby cat rolling on the lawn is just the latest example of a long line of cats which were first domesticated in the Near East around 7500 BC, venerated in Egypt from around 3100 BC; it’s one of an estimated 220 million owned and 480 million stray cats in the world; that sailing boat out there must be going to Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse…
It’s easily possible to contemplate a blackbird pecking around in last year’s dead leaves, to ponder a pebble on the beach, variegated ivy dangling of a fence, the arc of a tall tree before it bursts into Spring, a high old chimney stack with a seagull perched on top – contemplate any one of these things and step, physically, or, after a bit of practice, mentally, into the Other Side where they are not just the result of humdrum visual/auditory acuity but the ever-gleaming certainty of soul-life, as Jefferies might have said. There’s nothing ‘mystical’ about the process; it’s a simple flip of apprehension from one way of ‘getting it’ to quite another.
We could… decide to make a decision to keep the process on the top of our minds for a couple of days so it becomes very familiar and then take a moment to practise it at least once a day till it becomes second nature, as it were.
Coloured flags on a washing line fluttering in an early morning breeze against a background of leafless trees half a mile away towards the sea the existence of which, out of my bunch of psycho-electro-chemical functions, I supply.
This seems to be how Jefferies does it as recounted in ‘The Countryside: Sussex’ (Field and Hedgerow). Harvesting is ending; he sits in the oast house. His awareness rises gradually from the tall stems of wheat being cut to autumn, something much bigger than himself.
No more shall the tall stems wave in the wind or listen to the bees seeking the clover-fields. The lark that sang above the green corn, the partridge that sheltered among the yellow stalks, the list of living things delighting in it – all have departed. The joyous life of the wheat is ended – not in vain, for now the grain becomes the life of man, and in that object yet more glorified… A pleasant sound to listen to, the hum of the threshing, the beating of the engine, the rustle of the straw, the shuffle shuffle of the machine, the voices of the men, the occupation and bustle in the autumn afternoon… In the loft the resounding hum whirled around, beating and rebounding from the walls, and forcing its way out again through the narrow window. The edge, as it were, of a sunbeam lit up the rude chamber crossed with unhewn beams and roofed above with unconcealed tiles, whose fastening pegs were visible… Without the rich blue autumn sky; within the fragrant odour of hops, the hum of the threshing circling round like the buzz of an immense bee. As the hum of insects high in the atmosphere of midsummer suits and fits to the roses and the full green meads, so the hum of the threshing suits to the yellowing leaf and drowsy air of autumn.
Jefferies doesn’t have to say so, but he has become the whole of autumn, rising up from the close at hand to the abstract distance. Then back to the close at hand. The same kind of process…
Not far from the hop-kiln I found a place where charcoal-burning was carried on. The brown charcoal-burner, upright as a bolt, walked slowly round the smouldering heap, and wherever flame seemed inclined to break out cast damp ashes upon the spot. Six or seven water-butts stood in a row for his use. To wind-ward lie had built a fence of flakes, or wattles as they are called here, well worked in with brushwood, to break the force of the draught along the hill-side, which would have caused too fierce a fire… Dim memories of old day come crowding round me, invisible to him, to me visible and alive, of the kings, great hunters, who met with the charcoal-burners in the vast forests of medieval days, of the noble knights and dames whom the rude charcoal-burners guided to their castles through trackless wastes, and all the romance of old. Scarcely is there a tale of knightly adventure that does not in some way or other mention these men, whose occupation fixed them in the wildernesses which of yore stretched between cultivated places. [The] modern charcoal-burner was distinctly superior in general style to the common run of working men. He spoke without broad accent and used correct language; he was well educated and up to the age. He knew his own mind, and had an independent expression ; a very civil, intelligent, and straightforward man. No rude charcoal-burner of old days this. [But still to me there] seemed as it were the clank of armour, a rustle of pennons in the leaves ; it would have been quite natural to hold bow and arrow in the hand. The man was modern, but his office was ancient. The descent was unbroken. The charcoal-burner traced back to the Norman Conquest. That very spot where we stood, now surrounded with meadows and near dwellings, scarcely thirty years since had formed part of one of the largest of the old forests.
And finally, from a sprig of heather to outer space…
A thousand acres of purple heath sloping southwards to the sun, deep valleys of dark heather; further slopes beyond of purple, more valleys of heather – the heath shows more in the sunlight, and heather darkens the shadow of the hollows – and so on and on, mile after mile, till the heath-bells seem to end in the sunset. Round and beyond is the immense plain of the air – you feel how limitless the air is at this height, for there is nothing to measure it by. Past the Weald lie the South Downs, but they form no boundary, the plain of the air goes over them to the sea and space.