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Trying to catch the river in a bucket

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Jessie Lumb, Jessie in Central Central Asia, 2015, digital image by Anna Benton, courtesy of the artist

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“What even is a mystical experience?” she asked as we walked around the lake one night.

“It’s an experience in which one feels they have been touched by a higher or greater truth or power and are at one with a being that transcends human thought or reason, whether it be a God or whatever” I replied, falling into step beside her and taking note of the sound our feet made on the pavement.

“Oh, I’ve had one of those” she throws back, disappointed almost that it wasn’t something else. “When you see everything around you for what it is, when you realise that you and I and everything, we’re all connected?”


“That’s just mushrooms yo,” she laughs. “You’ve never experienced?”

I thought back over my life but couldn’t recall a time when I had genuinely and deeply felt this way. Almost drowning in a Mongolian river was probably the closest I’d come, but neither the near death experience, nor the relief of being alive I’d felt on the clifftop afterwards had quite taken me there. They had been profound moments that had resulted in an acute awareness and appreciation of the beauty of the world around me, but throughout it all I had remained well and truly rooted in my present.

And perhaps, I thought, this was my problem.

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Referring to the search for a unity with the Absolute, the Infinite or with God, mysticism is a belief that when you break down our reality to its most fundamental essence, all is one. It’s a simple definition, but one which encompasses a wide range of religious and spiritual practices, including anything from Christianity to Buddhism to tarot. A mystical experience, then, was the ultimate outcome of this spiritual searching, a time in which an individual finds this connectedness and fullness and experiences the unseen in a way that can’t easily be described or understood by human minds.  

There’s no prescribed way to get there, although drugs seem to help, and no uniform way in which it manifests, although there are characteristics common throughout reported cases. It’s an intense thing of beauty that just happens—briefly, subjectively, and often impacting people for the remainder of their lives.

At least so I’ve read.

Over the years I’ve become much more interested in life as it presents itself to me, rather than waiting for an experience or understanding of something that feels so very out of reach. I’ve managed to find joy in the tiny and insignificant and reached a level of happiness I never thought I could.

Whatever else was out there I decided, there was also here, and here was all I had.

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In his book ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ Allan Watts argues that we are kept from our happiness because of an inability to fully inhabit the present.

Rather than stay with the body, which was a part of the world, we retreated into the mind, which was separate from it. Here, he believes, the anxieties and judgements that fed our unhappiness were born.

Rather than think of our past or our future, to which all of these thoughts related, we need to find ways to stay with our “basic consciousness”, that which knows our reality but has no ideas about it. This consciousness lives entirely in the present, perceiving nothing more than what occurred in each moment –in all its beautiful painful glory. The present therefore is a constant flow of these fleeting moments – the future becoming our reality and then becoming the past – leaving us, as a result, in a constant state of uncertainty.

Mindfulness is the acceptance of this momentariness. The act paying of attention in a purposeful and particular way, it aims to awaken ourselves to the sensations and emotions felt at a particular point in time.  An important part of Eastern mystic traditions it is one that is also grounded in and accepting of life as it is. Where many practices search for ‘the other’ and what is not of this world, being mindful keeps us in it; where the mystical experience is something that has to be chased, being present in the moment can be achieved at any time.

I hadn’t stopped looking for the higher state as such, and yet I wondered. If I was so intently focussed on what was in front of me surely I was limiting my chances of finding what couldn’t be seen. But if I could find beauty in a crack in a wall or happiness in the splash of a puddle did it matter at all?

Was there even a need to look anywhere else? 

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Nowhere had this realisation of presence been more obvious to me then the time I spent in Mongolia.

During the long winter months Ulaanbaatar becomes the coldest capital city in the world. With temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees it wasn’t surprising that such an inhospitable climate would have some kind of impact on my life.

I became hyper-aware and focused on every moment I was living and appreciative of every second of my life. It wasn’t a conscious decision – I thought I was living quite mindfully already – but one which slipped unnoticed into my day to day life. Each morning when I left my house, the icy air had filled my lungs and drawn attention to each breath. It made my eyeballs ache and so I noticed every blink. I had never before thought of the inside of my nose but began to now that my snot would freeze.

It struck me how strange it was that so much escaped my notice.

I learnt to place importance on the insignificant, savouring the burn of the vodka in my throat and the muffled quiet of fresh snow. It clarified something that I thought I understood.

Every moment is a monument and nothing matters but the present.

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Mindfulness as discussed by Watts is rooted in the world but ultimately aims to quiet the mind, to just be, to break down the illusory sense of self. When we no longer use language to distract ourselves from reality, we can experience a sense of boundarylessness and be at one with the universe.

Maybe I was still in with a chance.

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“The World Energy Centre” I suddenly thought, weeks later when I was on my own and remembered a visit to a Buddhist monastery in the Gobi Desert.

We’d gotten up early one Saturday to watch the sunrise and visit the doorway to Shambhala – a mysterious land at the centre of the earth which gave life to all beings. According to the Mongolians I was with, a particular frequency of energy could be collected and taken away if I spent time on a particular spot and although I wasn’t sure if I believed, I wanted in while I had the chance.

It had been a breathtaking sight to see sand dunes covered with snow and the shadows of stupas turned blue in the morning light. As I lay down on the ground like a starfish I looked up at the sky and tried to take it all in. I stretched out my fingers, pressed my hands to the ground and waited, focussing my attention on the feelings of pebbles digging into my back.

Within minutes I felt a warmth radiate from the ground which seemed strange in the minus 35 degree air. Had I actually managed to connect with something that I couldn’t explain with words? Or was it that my 8 layers of clothing were generating a heat of their own?

But I hadn’t need for a concrete answer. I was happy and in the moment and that was enough.

I laughed and smiled up at the sun.