Sunday, 1 July 2012

"Spots of Time"

“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”
 William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book XI, ls 258-278)

“Spots of time” I wonder what on earth Wordsworth meant by this.

I suspect that they are those moments when life not only feeds but truly nourishes us on a deep, deep level, deeper than the marrow of our bones; moments when the common becomes uncommon,; moments when the veils we create ourselves seem to slip away; moments when we seemingly see beyond the ordinary; moments when we experience reality on a deeper level.

These “spots of time” are sacred moments that are made holy by their mysterious ability to nourish us and perhaps even repair us in body, mind, heart and soul. These moments are so special because they seem so rare. I suspect that they are a kind of grace; they seemingly come to us, from a place somewhere beyond ourselves. They cannot be forced; I do not believe that we can just simply create them for ourselves.

These moments can happen anywhere. For Wordsworth these “spots of time” occurred primarily in nature. We all experience them in different ways, in different states and in different settings. Those moments when time seemingly stands still; those moments that touch us at the core of our being; those moments that transform our lives; those magic moments. Time seemingly becomes compressed or concentrated in these moments when the senses become heightened, when life seemingly has a deeper meaning. These are not necessarily supernatural moments by the way; no they are firmly grounded in reality.

In these moments time appears to be slowing down, although obviously it does not. Time does not so much stop as become compressed, the moment becomes concentrated. There just seems to be more of life in that moment, but it lasts just as long. Maybe the moment is deeper, not longer. Time is time after all.

Now for Wordsworth it was nature and his ability to connect to it that had the power to nourish in a deep and profound way; it was nature and connecting to it that created those nourishing "spots of time". It was these moments that held him through the vicissitudes of his later life. For a while, as a boy, the Lake District had been his little paradise. Those days that he spent running free, climbing the craggy rocks, the fishing lakes, wading the streams, walking over the moor and hill, in sun and cloud, wind and storm. That time when nature drenched into him like the rain soaking his skin. The intensity of this pleasure remained with him and sustained him always:

“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream
Earth and every common sight
Did seem apparell’d in celestial light
The glory and the freshness of a dream”

These recollections held him through all the difficulties that life threw at him, it’s sustaining power never diminished.

When I look back at my life I can think of those moments when deep powerful meaning has emerged seemingly out of nothingness and all of life has felt connected. It occurs today when I get lost in certain songs that I sing and it occurs in worship too. It frequently happens when people open themselves up to me in conversations, especially when they describe similar moments that have happened in their own lives, when they describe their own “spots of time”. They also happen when I go off on my own and get lost within myself while quietly engaging with life as it flows all around me. That said I cannot just make those “spots of time” happen, they are not created through force of will. I have come to believe that they are a gift of grace, from something more than myself, even if that is just another person.

As a younger man I would often go off on my own and wander the streets of local towns and cities. I would spend the day travelling around within my own little bubble. I would barely say a word to anybody all day along, unless I had to. It was seemingly a strange thing to do and I never discussed it with anyone, it was just something I needed to do when life was becoming too much, when I was feeling wounded and overwhelmed. Now in those days those moments were about withdrawal rather than connection, I was fleeing life.

These days when I go off on my own I am not withdrawing I feel that I am connecting and renewing myself. In these moments I believe that the core of my being is connecting to a power far greater than myself, that is present in all life. Yes these moments have happened throughout my life, it’s just that these days I seem to uncover more meaning in them. They seemingly teach me something about myself, about life and about the greater reality that I experience at the core of life, they teach me something of God. These are moments of wisdom, something new is revealed in these moments. And perhaps more importantly I am able to act on these moments of enlightenment too.

Karen Armstrong takes an interesting view of these “spots of time”. In “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” she claims that we are constantly creating these spots of time in each other’s lives. She extends the idea beyond the personal experience to a communal one; she extends it beyond a personal spiritual experience to a religious one; she extends it beyond the confines of the self to others.

“The Golden Rule of Compassion” challenges us to practise loving-kindness all day and every day without prejudice. This is no easy task, well not for me in any case. Armstrong points out that it is not a doctrine or notion that you either agree with or make yourself believe.  Compassion, loving-kindness, is not a belief it is something you either practice or you do not.  It can become a “spot of time” that lifts someone up or puts them down. As C. Neil Strait wrote “Kindness is more than deeds. It is an attitude, an expression, a look, touch. It is anything that lifts another person.”

We all have the capacity to change; anyone can live more compassionately. One of the great joys of leading the “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” reading groups is that it has allowed me to watch those who have engage with them begin to open up and to change.

As Armstrong has highlighted each “spot of time” in which we refrain from doing what we would not wish to have done to us, and each “spot of time” in which we do unto others what we would wish done to us, we achieve “ekstasis, a momentary `stepping outside’ of our egotistically confined self”.

So these “spots of time” are not necessarily experienced alone. In fact maybe we only truly know them in communion with others. Also while we may not be able to create these “spots of time” in our own lives, we can create them in lives of others. This is Armstrong’s point. Everything that we do and everything that we do not do matters. We do not know if the next interaction we have with someone could well become a “spot of time”, a moment that transforms their life forever. This ought not to breed pressure, quite the opposite, instead it should breed meaning.  Every single moment matters, even if we ourselves cannot immediately unearth its meaning.

No one lives a trouble free life, we all face difficulties each and every day. We all suffer pain in our lives and often there seems no justifiable reason for it. It just seems so unfair. Sadly these can often become the “spots of time” that rule our lives. They certainly did for me for many years. I believe the mistake that we often make is that we get stuck seeking out the reasons for our troubles instead of making reasons out of what has happened. You see by looking in the past we isolate ourselves, we say look this is my suffering and pain and we look for someone to blame. When what we ought to doing is seeing how we all share pain in life, it’s a part of existence and seeing what we can give back to life from our shared experience. I have discovered by doing so meaning begins to burst out of the seeming nothingness. And life enhancing “spots of time” begin to appear more and more frequently.

We don't get to choose our troubles, but we can choose how we respond to them and we can pass those lessons on to one another. We can create "spots of time" for one another. No one can take that away from us. It is perhaps our one and only true freedom.

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