Richard Jefferies: The Present Moment

True happiness is experienced in the present moment, not in the past nor in the future.

Even if we look forward with pleasure to some future event, that pleasure is experienced now, not in the future. There is a lot to discover about the present moment.

There are two aspects of time. One may be called ‘passing time’ and the other the ‘eternal present’. This can be shown in a simple diagram:

present moment

Passing time is never still, it is continuously moving. Because it is always moving there can be no rest in it. The eternal present is another dimension of time. In that present there is no movement and there are no desires. It is simple existence. What may be known or experienced in that present is without limit.

In the eternal present there are no worries or fears, no doubts or agitations. At this time we are connected with the still centre of our being. Here we experience the deepest and most lasting happiness.

This is described by the nineteenth century English novelist and writer, Richard Jefferies :

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 ; now is the immortal life.

Here this moment, by this tumulus (ancient burial mound), on earth, now ; I exist in it.

The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing ; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised ; in a thousand years more it will still be only a moment.

To the soul there is no past and no future ; all is and will be ever, in now.

Helen Keller - The Powers Within

The powers that are available to a human being, the powers of thought, decision, love and will, are glorious in nature and limitless in effect. It is easy to take them for granted or to use them in a way that is binding rather than liberating. With philosophy, these powers may be controlled and directed in such a way that they bring freedom both for the individual and everyone around him or her.

An example of how these powers that we inherit can be taken for granted comes from the story of Helen Keller. As an infant, she was struck by an illness that rendered her both blind and deaf. She remained like that for the rest of her life. When she was seven she was given a teacher, Anne Sullivan, who taught her what she called the sign-language. Helen learnt quickly. When she was thirsty she spelt out the sign ‘water’. Then one day something happened that transformed her life. Anne Sullivan took her for a walk in the garden. Helen Keller later described the event:

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word ‘water’, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of the fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten Ð a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew that the ‘water’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.

That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.

(Helen Keller: The Story of My Life.)

The story indicates the power and vibrancy of the powers available to all of us as well as the importance of directing them in a positive manner and not taking them for granted.

Julian of Norwich & Revelations of Divine Love

Julian of Norwich, who lived from 1342 to 1416. She is the first writer in English who can be certainly identified as a woman. In 1378, when seriously ill and apparently dying, she received an extraordinary series of ‘showings’ or revelations from God, which she subsequently wrote down. This goes by the title ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. In later life she lived as an anchoress at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, from which she adopted the name by which she is known. She became famous as a spiritual adviser.

At the same time, our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love. I saw that for us he is everything that we find good and comforting. He is our clothing, wrapping us for love, embracing and enclosing us for tender love, so that he can never leave us, being himself everything that is good for us, as I understand it.

In this vision he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazel­nut in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly have disappeared. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and everything exists in the same way by the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God cares for it. But what the maker, the carer and the lover really is to me, I cannot tell; for until I become one substance with him, I can never have complete rest or true happiness; that is to say, until I am so bound to him that there is no created thing between my God and me.

We need to know the littleness of all created beings and to set at nothing everything that is made in order to love and possess God who is unmade. This is the reason why we do not feel complete ease in our hearts and souls: we look here for satisfaction in things which are so trivial, where there is no rest to be found, and do not know our God who is almighty, all wise, all good; he is rest itself. God wishes to be known, and is pleased that we should rest in him; for all that is below him does nothing to satisfy us; and this is why, until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything, then he is able to receive spiritual rest.

(‘Revelations of Divine Love’ Ch. 5 Long text. Penguin edition.)

At the end of the book, Julian tells us that from the time of her original vision, she often desired to know ‘what our Lord meant.’ After 15 years her spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this:

‘Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.’

This is how I was taught that our Lord’s meaning was love. And I saw quite certainly in this and in everything that God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall. And all his works were done in this love; and in this love he has made everything for our profit; and in this love our life is everlasting.

Marcus Aurelius & Gratitude

Pure love can be described as that which is untainted by selfishness and which is unrestricted by any sense of limit. This is a high ideal but not necessarily easy to achieve in practice. It is therefore useful to consider one phenomenon which helps to sustain pure love. This is gratitude.

The ‘Meditations’ of Marcus Aurelius begin with a lengthy expression of gratitude. This is just a short part of it:

Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from my grandfather Verus.
Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father.
My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness not in actions only, but in thought as well and a simplicity of life quite unlike the usual habits of the rich.
To my great-grandfather I owed the advice to dispense with the education of the schools and have good masters at home instead and to realise that no expense should be grudged for this purpose.
It was my tutor who encouraged me not to be afraid of work, to be sparing in my wants, attend to my own needs, mind my own business, and never listen to gossip.

(NOTE : Marcus Aurelius lived between 121-180 A.D. It was whilst Roman Emperor that he wrote the Meditations. He is noted as one of the most famous of the stoic philosophers.)

The expression of gratitude can be most helpful in keeping love pure or, indeed, in restoring it to purity. One lady after hearing this passage decided to write to her parents expressing her gratitude for all that they had done for her. Prior to this there had been some of the difficulties that are not uncommonly experienced in such relationships. A pattern of behaviour and attitudes had built up over many years which trapped both her and her parents and which tended to block the love between them. The effect of the letter was to dissolve all of that, both for her and her parents.

All too often gratitude is not expressed. When it is given voice to, however, the effect can be a transformation. The word ‘gratitude’ is connected with the word ‘grace’. The two often go together.

Practice the expression of gratitude. Observe the effect that it has on yourself and others. Love is the natural in-between and gratitude helps this to be obvious.

Purohit Swami

Purohit Swami was born in India in 1882. In 1931 he visited England and met the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. The outcome of that meeting and the friendship that ensued were the translations of the Gita and the Ten Principal Upanishads that are still much in use to-day. In this passage of his autobiography he speaks of service:

To be a servant is a good touchstone of spiritual life. A man may be willing to give money, to give much of his time to others, but not his body like a slave. Egoism always stands in the way. That is why many saints undergo a rigorous period of personal service. My master loved me, always looked after my comforts first, praised any good action, and forgot to chide me for mistakes. He accepted with perfect cheerfulness whatever was offered. This was not service in a strict sense, but only a first lesson.

My master said: ‘What is yoga? Yoga is skill in action, as the Lord Shrikrishna says in His Geeta.’ As he spoke I suspected what was in store for me. The greatness of yoga lies in application of life.

Only by serving a man who neither loved nor respected me, who was thoroughly worldly and yet thought himself a holy person, could I learn the meaning of service. The idea was not without its romance, and appealed to my ambition.

I took a place as an ordinary servant on a mere pittance per month, and one meal a day, full time and no luxuries. I brought my wife with me and she also served as an ordinary servant in the household. The children were with us, and food and raiment for them were included in the terms. Thus began my third stage in life, Vanaprastha, or the preparation for complete renunciation.

I was managing the business of my employer from morning till midnight; a terrible task which taught me what real hardship meant. The Sanskrit verse says: ‘The religion of service is extremely difficult; even for great yogis.’ I was cashier, accountant, clerk, supervisor, manager and porter. There was no question of appreciation for whatever was well done, my employer took the credit; but failure was always due to me. This is the real power of money; in that world virtue adheres to wealth; a beggar like me has none. A rich man is supposed never to lie or commit sin. Riches is knowledge, riches is virtue, riches is power, riches is divinity, and the man without riches is a brute and deserves to be kicked. He does not deserve to live in this world at all. Such is the theory of wealth.

My concern was not with humiliation or indignity, but with service and love. To love a man incapable of reciprocating the feeling is walking on fire, and to me fell the honour of attempting it.

My master helped me in my ordeal. He was in the thick of the fight, guarding me, helping me and giving me his spiritual consolation.

I had no knowledge of this world. Now I began to learn. Thank Heaven for giving me a chance of seeing the other side of things. I was associated with my employer to such an extent that people marvelled; how could they understand? Few understand spiritual trials. ‘Once a friend, always a friend’, was my motto. Disinterested service was my watchword. Now in spite of sincere efforts, I gave satisfaction to no single soul. To convince anybody of your motives is very difficult. Your task is to convince yourself, and act with God in your heart and God overhead.

That I did, and came successfully through after four years’ trial; Then I gave notice and left. My wife and children went to the ashram of my master, and I went to Bombay.

(Shri Purohit Swami ‘The Autobiography of an Indian Monk’ Ch. 23)

Some might think that it is not difficult to find ungrateful and awkward people to serve. They may seem to be there in abundance. Whatever the case, however, it is possible to use the situation to good advantage. The chance is to use any situation to practise service and devotion. Whether that is towards a particular person or some institution or ideal will vary.

This can be done in the understanding that in fact the devotion is towards universal truth. Some may call that God or the Lord or the Absolute. In any event an action performed in this spirit will be refined and uplifting.

Marsilio Ficino

Marsilio Ficino was one of the great figures of the fifteenth century renaissance. His work and ideas brought about a deep and lasting change in European society. From him and his Academy the renaissance drew a most potent intellectual and spiritual inspiration.

Ficino was born in 1433. His father was doctor to Cosimo de Medici, the ruler in all but name, of Florence at that time. Ficino’s birth coincided with moves, which proved unsuccessful, to re-unite the Greek and Roman churches which had divided some 350 years previously.

A meeting was arranged in Florence to discuss this matter and there in 1439 Cosimo de Medici came into contact with the philosophy of Plato. This had a great effect on Cosimo who resolved to establish a Platonic Academy in Florence. Whilst Ficino was still a boy, Cosimo selected him to undertake this task and lead the Academy. Ficino was educated accordingly and in due course did indeed establish the Platonic Academy in Florence.

His output as a scholar was prodigious. Having learned Greek he translated the whole of Plato from Greek into Latin as well as the works of Hermes Trismegistus, Plotinus and other ancient thinkers. He wrote extensively. His major work was the Platonic Theology or the Immortality of Souls. In proving the immortality of the soul he showed the single source and unity of two fundamental elements in the life of western civilisation : Judeo-Christian religion and Greek philosophy.

As well as working as a scholar, Ficino was a musician, doctor and, from 1473, a priest. As a letter writer he corresponded with many of the great men of the day, including successive generations of the Medici family, popes, kings, statesmen, philosophers and many more including John Colet who, in founding St. Paul’s School in London, was himself responsible for something of a renaissance in the field of education.

Associated with Ficino’s Academy and under his direct influence was perhaps the most conspicuously brilliant group of men ever to have assembled in modern Europe. These were the figures who embodied the Renaissance, Lorenzo de Medici, Alberti, Poliziano and others. Directly inspired by Ficino were the great Renaissance artists, including Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian.

For Ficino, the immortality and divinity of the soul was the basis of ‘the dignity of Man’ which the artists and writers of the Renaissance sought to express in countless ways. In time the expression of this ideal touched every aspect of life. We still feel its influence to-day.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote an essay entitled ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’

He was born in Massachusetts, America, in 1817. He was a writer and poet and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was the leading figure in a group of thinkers known as the Transcendentalists. At one stage in his life Thoreau lived in a solitary log cabin in the woods for some two years. The essay ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’ is an account of that time. Here are some extracts:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly.

Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime. By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains

Jacques Lusseyran & the power of attention

The power of attention is one of the greatest powers that is available to us in the present moment.

To illustrate this, there is a remarkable story about a Frenchman called Jacques Lusseyran. As a child he was blinded in an accident. Later he became a member of the resistance movement in the second world war, which eventually led to his capture and imprisonment in a concentration camp.

This is what he said about the power of attention:

Because of my blindness, I had developed a new faculty. Strictly speaking, all men have it, but almost all forget to use it. That faculty is attention. In order to live without eyes it is necessary to be very attentive, to remain hour after hour in a state of wakefulness, of receptiveness and activity. Indeed, attention is not simply a virtue of intelligence or the result of education, and something one can easily do without. It is a state of being. It is a state without which we shall never be able to perfect ourselves. In its truest sense it is the listening post of the universe.

I was very attentive. I was more attentive than any of my comrades. All blind persons are, or can be. Thus they attain the power of being completely present, sometimes even the power of changing life around them, a power the civilization of the twentieth century, with its many diversions, no longer possesses.

Being attentive unlocks a sphere of reality that no one suspects. If, for instance, I walked along a path without being attentive, completely immersed in myself, I did not even know whether trees grew along the way, nor how tall they were, or whether they had leaves. When I awakened my attention, however, every tree immediately came to me. This must be taken quite literally. Every single tree projected its form, its weight, its movement – even if it was almost motionless – in my direction. I could indicate its trunk, and the place where its first branches started, even when several feet away. By and by something else became clear to me, and this can never be found in books. The world exerts pressure on us from the distance.

(Jacques Lusseyran: ‘What One Sees Without Eyes’ p.28)

Vivekananda & Attention

Sri Ramakrishna had a famous disciple called Vivekananda. In an address in 1900 Vivekananda said this:

One of the greatest lessons I have learnt in my life is to pay as much attention to the means of work as to its end. He was a great man from whom I learnt it, and his own life was a practical demonstration of this great principle. I have been always learning great lessons from that one principle, and it appears to me that all the secret of success is there; to pay as much attention to the means as to the end.

Our great defect in life is that we are so much drawn to the ideal, the goal is so much more enchanting, so much more alluring, so much bigger in our mental horizon, that we lose sight of the details altogether.

But whenever failure comes, if we analyse it critically, in ninety-nine percent of cases we shall find that it was because we did not pay attention to the means. Proper attention to the finishing, strengthening, of the means is what we need. With the means all right, the end must come.

(‘Work and Its Secret’ – Vivekananda)

Mozart and the power of a still mind

When the mind is clear and at rest and the observation is full and free, it is possible to connect with deeper powers within oneself.

The clutter of ideas, impressions, likes and dislikes, which so often fills the mind, prevents this connection. When that clutter is let go of then the deeper and creative powers that lie within oneself can rise to the surface. T

This description was given by the composer Mozart :

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone and of good cheer – say travelling in a carriage or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep – it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence, and how, they come I know not ; nor can I force them. Those ideas that please me I retain in memory and am accustomed, as I have been told, to hum them to myself. If I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this dainty morsel to account, so as to make a good dish of it. That is to say, agreeable to the rules of counterpoint, to the peculiarities of various instruments etc.

All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodised, and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it like a fine picture or a beautiful statue at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once.

What a delight this is, I cannot tell.