Sunday, December 11, 2011

MINDFULNESS ACCORDING TO WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

This may sound like rank heresy – which in any event I’m very good at – but it seems, having read a couple of full-length biographies of the man, that the English poet William Wordsworth (pictured left, and below) - a mystical giant of the Romantic Age - must have been a most egotistical man. In one sense, that is rather ironic, for despite the egotism – or perhaps as a result of it – Wordsworth had an incredible insight into the illusory nature of the ‘self’ and was thus cognisant of the nature of reality as a ‘process’ – for want of a better word – which unfolds from one moment to the next. That is the essence of mindfulness.

Now, it has been said that Wordsworth’s most pretentious and perhaps egotistical poem was a long autobiographical account of his ‘development’ as a poet. He originally planned to call this three-part poem ‘The Recluse.’ Only two of the three parts were ever written – ‘The Excursion’ (1814) and ‘The Prelude’ (1850). The latter, according to Helen Davies, is ‘unique among English poems, in that it possesses the double value of art and authenticity.’

Set out below, sourced from that wonderful anthology, The Rider Book of Mystical Verse, is a manuscript fragment of some verse penned by Wordsworth and apparently intended for ‘The Prelude.’ The fragment was contained in a manuscript notebook containing 'Peter Bell.' In these twenty rarely quoted lines the master shows that he understood the nature of so-called ‘consciousness’, which he describes as ‘forms and images/ Which float along our minds’, being mental images ‘not worthy to be deemed/ Our being, to be prized as what we are.’ Indeed, these waxing and waning ‘I’ moments are nothing but ‘the very littleness of life’ – ‘accidents,/ Relapses from the one interior life/ That lives in all things.’

That is very profound. There is a supposed ‘self’ which we mistakenly believe is the real ‘person’ each of us is. Then there is the real person. The former are mere ‘forms,’ ‘images,’ and ‘accidents.’ The latter is the very livingness of life itself that ‘lives in all things, sacred [that is, set apart – the true meaning of the word] from the touch/ Of that false secondary power [namely, ‘mental agitation’ in the form of thoughts and images arising out of our illusory sense of self] by which/ In weakness we create distinctions.’ Wordsworth goes on to refer to ‘our puny boundaries’ [the result of judgments, analysis and criticism ... as well as beliefs and prejudices] which we mistakenly believe are actual ‘things.’ It is the ultimate in ‘self [sic]-deception,’ and the whole thing prevents us from seeing and experiencing ‘things’ as they really are.

Here are the lines:

I seemed to learn,
That what we see of forms and images
Which float along our minds, and what we feel
Of active or recognisable thought,
Prospectiveness, or intellect, or will,
Not only is not worthy to be deemed
Our being, to be prized as what we are,
But is the very littleness of life.
Such consciousness I deem but accidents,
Relapses from the one interior life
That lives in all things, sacred from the touch
Of that false secondary power by which
In weakness we create distinctions, then
Believe that all our puny boundaries are things
Which we perceive and not which we have made;
 — In which all beings live with god, themselves
Are god, existing in the mighty whole,
As undistinguishable as the cloudless East
At noon is from the cloudless West, when all
The hemisphere is one cerulean blue.

I hope the connection with the practice of mindfulness is clear. Mindfulness is a way of living in which one is aware – and aware of being aware – of the action of the present moment … from one moment to the next. If we remain choicelessly aware of that action, and resist the temptation to make constant judgments, we begin to live mindfully as opposed to mindlessly. If we can simply watch and observe, and acknowledge what is, turmoil and conflict dissipate. Maybe that sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. Is there any disputation where there is acceptance of what is? It is simply impossible.

Now, in order to live mindfully it is unnecessary to embrace Wordsworth’s pantheism – note his words, ‘In which all being live with god, themselves/ Are god, existing in the mighty whole,’ in what for Wordsworth appears to be a giant undifferentiated reality. As for me, I am simply content to see all things as being part of life’s Self-expression. I refer to the word ‘Self’ with a capital ‘S’ because I want to draw attention to what I see as the inherent sacredness or holiness of all life – such sacredness or holiness subsisting or manifesting itself in the ‘natural’ and ‘everyday’ as opposed to the supposedly ‘supernatural’. I also use the word ‘Self’ in this context in its more mystical sense and in distinct contradistinction to that illusory ego-self which we mistakenly believe is the person each of us truly is.

It’s not hard to find poems and other writings from Eastern traditions on the nature of mindfulness and the illusory ‘self.’ However, it may come as a surprise to some that there are a number of poems from the great poets of English literature which reveal that their authors understood that being fully present and engaged in the action of the present moment, from one moment to the next, is the only way to dis-identify from those ephemeral ‘forms and images/ Which float along our minds’ with which we mindlessly identify and which we allow to have so much power over us – ordinarily to the detriment of or happiness, peace of mind and emotional equanimity.

As a sidelight, so many of Wordsworth's poems capture the spirit of perceiving life as it unfolds or happens in the moment ... fully and unconditionally. 'The Daffodils' is one poem which immediately comes to mind. Note the directness and immediacy of the experience of awareness and observation in these oft-quoted lines: ‘When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils;/ Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze …Ten thousand saw I at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.’ Then there's ‘The Sun Has Long Been Set’ where the directness and immediacy of the experience of moment-to-moment awareness and observation is  almost racy: ‘The sun has long been set,/ The stars are out by twos and threes,/ The little birds are piping yet/ Among the bushes and trees;/ There's a cuckoo, and one or two thrushes,/ And a far-off wind that rushes,/ And a sound of water that gushes,/ And the cuckoo's sovereign cry/ Fills all the hollow of the sky.’

Egotist or not – who can really say – the man who wrote those immortal oft-quoted lines, ‘trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home,’ clearly understood the importance of recognising that each of us is a ‘person among persons’ – part of a ‘mighty whole’ of which we can be mindfully aware as constituting our true being.



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2 comments:

  1. (If you haven't) I suggest you read Ian McGilchrists account of Wordsworth's insights from a neuroscience perspective in "The Master and the Emissary" with echo your own.

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  2. Thank you for your comment. Much appreciated. I will follow that up.

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