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The Universe and the Soul: Richard Jefferies on Nature as Prayer for Presence

How to grow “absorbed into the being or existence of the universe.”

The Universe and the Soul: Richard Jefferies on Nature as Prayer for Presence

There are moments in life when something breaks open, something breaks free, something dissolves and resurfaces as large as the universe. Moments when we access what G.K. Chesterton called “the submerged sunrise of wonder.” Moments when we part what Virginia Woolf called “the cotton wool” gauzing our view of raw reality. Moments when the boundaries of the self fall away and we find ourselves in oneness with what Margaret Fuller called “the All.”

These are moments marked by William James’s four characteristics of transcendent consciousness, most acutely by their ineffability. But once or twice a century, if we are lucky, a person emerges to articulate the inner pulse-beat of such an experience and, in articulating it, broadens the portal of possibility for the rest of us.

No one has captured the ineffable transcendence of such a moment more vividly and passionately than the great British nature writer Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887) — a man of uncommon sensitivity to beauty, who died at the age I am now, having lived a life electric with wonder.

Like his American contemporary John Burroughs, who wrote so movingly about the spirituality of nature, Jefferies believed that communion with the natural world is a portal to the highest reaches of our own humanity. “To be beautiful and to be calm without mental fear is the ideal of Nature,” he wrote, insisting again and again that we can attain this ideal by relinquishing our sense of separateness from the rest of nature and unselfing into the elemental totality of life.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total solar eclipse by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Jefferies first felt this totality in his marrow one day in his youth when, climbing a hill he climbed often, he entered a state of being he had never experienced before. He recounts the experience in his spiritual autobiography The Story of My Heart (public library):

Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself.

In splendid affirmation of Simone Weil’s insistence that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” he adds:

I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight. I thought of the earth’s firmness — I felt it bear me up: through the grassy couch there came an influence as if I could feel the great earth speaking to me. I thought of the wandering air — its pureness, which is its beauty; the air touched me and gave me something of itself. I spoke to the sea: though so far, in my mind I saw it, green at the rim of the earth and blue in deeper ocean; I desired to have its strength, its mystery and glory. Then I addressed the sun, desiring the soul equivalent of his light and brilliance, his endurance and unwearied race. I turned to the blue heaven over, gazing into its depth, inhaling its exquisite colour and sweetness. The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul towards it, and there it rested, for pure colour is rest of heart. By all these I prayed; I felt an emotion of the soul beyond all definition; prayer is a puny thing to it, and the word is a rude sign to the feeling, but I know no other.


I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence, thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.


With the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean — in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written — with these I prayed, as if they were the keys of an instrument, of an organ, with which I swelled forth the note of my soul, redoubling my own voice by their power.

Art by English artist Margaret C. Cook’s from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Animated by a desire for “greatness of soul, an irradiance of mind, a deeper insight, a broader hope,” Jefferies finds himself transformed by this prayerful surrender, rendered both more himself and more unselved, rendered a pulsating particle of the great totality:

I returned to myself and thought, reclining in rapt thought, full of aspiration, steeped to the lips of my soul in desire. I did not then define, or analyse, or understand this. I see now that what I laboured for was soul-life, more soul-nature, to be exalted, to be full of soul-learning.


Having drunk deeply of the heaven above and felt the most glorious beauty of the day, and remembering the old, old, sea, which (as it seemed to me) was but just yonder at the edge, I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe… and losing thus my separateness of being came to seem like a part of the whole.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells

William James himself was deeply moved by Jefferies’s account of this transcendent hour. In his talks to teachers and students, a century before our golden age of compulsive productivity at the expense of presence, he cautions against devaluing such seemingly impractical experiences, urging us instead to recognize them as vital revelations of what makes life worth living:

Surely, a worthless hour of life, when measured by the usual standards of commercial value. Yet in what other kind of value can the preciousness of any hour, made precious by any standard, consist, if it consist not in feelings of excited significance like these, engendered in some one, by what the hour contains?

Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale. Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human value in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power, and laying low in a minute the distinctions which it takes a hard-working conventional man a lifetime to build up. You may be a prophet, at this rate; but you cannot be a worldly success.


Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities. But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

For Jefferies, the ultimate function of his transcendent hour on the hill was the discovery of the meaning and substance of the soul as a mediator between the self and the universe:

I was breathing full of existence; I was aware of the grass blades, the flowers, the leaves on hawthorn and tree. I seemed to live more largely through them, as if each were a pore through which I drank. The grasshoppers called and leaped, the greenfinches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence, and with all that existence, I prayed… I prayed that I might have a soul more than equal to, far beyond my conception of, these things of the past, the present, and the fullness of all life. Not only equal to these, but beyond, higher, and more powerful than I could imagine. That I might take from all their energy, grandeur, and beauty, and gather it into me. That my soul might be more than the cosmos of life.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The Story of My Heart is a transcendent read in its totality — one of two books Rachel Carson kept at her bedside throughout her life, alongside Thoreau’s Walden. Complement these fragments from it with Margaret Fuller’s kindred taste of transcendence, Virginia Woolf’s arresting account of a total solar eclipse, and Thoreau on nature as prayer, then revisit Jefferies on how to awaken to life.


A Taste of How It Feels to Be Free: Pioneering Psychoanalyst Karen Horney on Our Inner Conflicts, the Psychology of Hopelessness, and the Path to Wholeness

“The most comprehensive formulation of therapeutic goals is the striving for wholeheartedness: to be without pretense, to be emotionally sincere, to be able to put the whole of oneself into one’s feelings, one’s work, one’s beliefs. It can be approximated only to the extent that conflicts are resolved.”

A Taste of How It Feels to Be Free: Pioneering Psychoanalyst Karen Horney on Our Inner Conflicts, the Psychology of Hopelessness, and the Path to Wholeness

To be human is to be divided yet indivisible — a totality of personhood constantly sundered by conflicting impulses and desires, violently pulling us in opposite directions, paralyzing us with the inability to move ahead toward happiness and wholeness. “When we are in conflict we tend to make such sharp oppositions between ideas and attitudes and get caught and entangled in what seems to be a hopeless choice,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary as she contemplated inner conflict and the measure of maturity, “but when the neurotic ambivalence is resolved one tends to move beyond sharp differences, sharply defined boundaries and begins to see the interaction between everything, the relation between everything.”

The supreme challenge of human life is that we are much more opaque to ourselves than we like to admit — mighty subterranean rivers of emotion and motive course beneath the reasoned surface of our conscious beliefs, values, and desires. Neurosis might be an old-fashioned word, but it is useful shorthand for the tension that arises from these conflicting facets of our experience that leave us unsure of what we want, what to want. For all his groundbreaking contribution to the understanding of those subterranean currents, Freud’s great error was his pessimism about the mutability and treatment of our neuroses — to him, the cards were dealt in early childhood and the game of life played out deterministically. His tragedy was his lack of faith in human growth and human goodness — Freud was the supreme cynic of the psyche.

A counterpoint to his view of human nature and potential comes from the work of the pioneering German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (September 16, 1885–December 4, 1952), nowhere more insightfully than in her book Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (public library), based on a series of lectures she delivered in 1943, as the world itself was being sundered by human nature’s warring factions. What emerges is a radical effort to allay neurotic hopelessness and contour the route to wholeness, governed by Horney’s conviction that we have both the will and the capacity to develop our potential for happiness and goodness, and that rather than living as victims of some deterministic pathology, we go on changing for as long as we live.

Karen Horney

Horney defines neurosis as “a protective edifice built around the basic conflict.” Concerned with “what unresolved conflicts do to people, how they produce states of anxiety, depression, indecision, inertia, detachment, and so on,” concerned about the immense emotional energy and intelligence we exert on trying to solve our inner conflicts — “or, more precisely, to deny their existence and create an artificial harmony” — she writes:

Neurotic conflicts cannot be resolved by rational decision. The neurotic’s attempts at solution are not only futile but harmful. But these conflicts can be resolved by changing the conditions within the personality that brought them into being.


It is not neurotic to have conflicts. At one time or another our wishes, our interests, our convictions are bound to collide with those of others around us. And just as such clashes between ourselves and our environment are a commonplace, so, too, conflicts within ourselves are an integral part of human life.


To experience conflicts knowingly, though it may be distressing, can be an invaluable asset. The more we face our own conflicts and seek out our own solutions, the more inner freedom and strength we will gain. Only when we are willing to bear the brunt can we approximate the ideal of being the captain of our ship.

Horney observes that most of our inner drives, from the longing for affection to the craving for power, operate by an engine of compulsion fueled by conflicting desires. She writes:

Compulsive drives are specifically neurotic; they are born of feelings of isolation, helplessness, fear and hostility, and represent ways of coping with the world despite these feelings; they aim primarily not at satisfaction but at safety; their compulsive character is due to the anxiety lurking behind them.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to her extensive work with patients, she reflects on the four major attempts to resolve our inner conflicts:

The initial attempt was to eclipse part of the conflict and raise its opposite to predominance. The second was to “move away from” people. The function of neurotic detachment now appeared in a new light. Detachment was part of the basic conflict — that is, one of the original conflicting attitudes toward others; but it also represented an attempt at solution, since maintaining an emotional distance between the self and others set the conflict out of operation. The third attempt was very different in kind. Instead of moving away from others, the neurotic moved away from himself. His whole actual self became somewhat unreal to him and he created in its place an idealized image of himself in which the conflicting parts were so transfigured that they no longer appeared as conflicts but as various aspects of a rich personality… The need for perfection now appeared as an endeavor to measure up to this idealized image; the craving for admiration could be seen as the patient’s need to have outside affirmation that he really was his idealized image. And the farther the image was removed from reality the more insatiable this latter need would logically be. Of all the attempts at solution the idealized image is probably the most important by reason of its far-reaching effect on the whole personality. But in turn it generates a new inner rift, and hence calls for further patchwork. The fourth attempt at solution seeks primarily to do away with this rift, though it helps as well to spirit away all other conflicts. Through what I call externalization, inner processes are experienced as going on outside the self. If the idealized image means taking a step away from the actual self, externalization represents a still more radical divorce. It again creates new conflicts, or rather greatly augments the original conflict — that between the self and the outside world.

Our inner conflicts, Horney observes, are in dynamic relationship with the outside world — we are creatures of culture, and the tumults of our culture invariably magnify our inner tumults:

The kind, scope, and intensity of such conflicts are largely determined by the civilization in which we live. If the civilization is stable and tradition bound, the variety of choices presenting themselves are limited and the range of possible individual conflicts narrow. Even then they are not lacking. One loyalty may interfere with another; personal desires may stand against obligations to the group. But if the civilization is in a stage of rapid transition, where highly contradictory values and divergent ways of living exist side by side, the choices the individual has to make are manifold and difficult.

Art Art from East of the Sun and West of the Moon by kay Nielsen, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The central bind of our inner conflicts, beyond their largely unconscious nature, is the inability to choose one of the contradictory impulses over the other — a metastasis of our general inability to know what we want. Horney observes:

We must be aware of what our wishes are, or even more, of what our feelings are. [And yet] we do not know what we really feel or want.


Even if we recognize a conflict as such, we must be willing and able to renounce one of the two contradictory issues. But the capacity for clear and conscious renunciation is rare, because our feelings and beliefs are muddled, and perhaps because in the last analysis most people are not secure and happy enough to renounce anything.

In a sentiment Joan Didion would echo in her assertion that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Horney adds:

To make a decision presupposes the willingness and capacity to assume responsibility for it. This would include the risk of making a wrong decision and the willingness to bear the consequences without blaming others for them.

The commonest consequence of this paralysis in the effort to resolve inner conflicts is hopelessness — the debilitating fear that because the resolution is difficult to do, it cannot be done. All hopelessness is a form of fear-based cynicism. As far as our capacity for growth goes, it is a dangerous and self-limiting mindset — perhaps the most pernicious tactic we have for standing in our own way. Horney writes:

Human beings can apparently endure an amazing amount of misery as long as there is hope; but neurotic entanglements invariably generate a measure of hopelessness… It may be deeply buried: superficially the neurotic may be preoccupied with imagining or planning conditions that would make things better… The neurotic expects a world of good from external changes, but inevitably carries himself and his neurosis into each new situation.

Hope that rests on externals is naturally more prevalent among the young… As people grow older and one hope after another fades, they are more willing to take a good look at themselves as a possible source of distress.

Art Art from East of the Sun and West of the Moon by kay Nielsen, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is this paralytic sense of hopelessness that keeps us in untenable situations — situations that can be bettered by some effort and initiative, the motive spring of which is hope. In its absence, we remain stuck. Horney considers the root of this self-limitation:

Hopelessness is an ultimate product of unresolved conflicts, with its deepest root in the despair of ever being wholehearted and undivided. A mounting scale of neurotic difficulties leads to this condition. Basic is the sense of being caught in conflicts like a bird in a net, with no apparent possibility of ever extricating oneself. On top of this come all the attempts at solution which not only fail but increasingly alienate the person from himself. Repetitive experience serves to intensify the hopelessness — talents that never lead to achievement, whether because again and again energies are scattered in too many directions or because the difficulties arising in any creative process are enough to deter the person from further pursuit. This may apply as well to love affairs, marriages, friendships, which are shipwrecked one after another. Such repeated failures are as disheartening as is the experience of laboratory rats when, conditioned to jump into a certain opening for food, they jump again and again only to find it barred.

Echoing Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Horney outlines the deceptively simple psychological mechanism beneath our feelings of hopelessness:

[Your] situation is hopeless only so long as the status quo persists and is regarded as unchangeable… What makes it hopeless is your own attitude toward it. If you would consider changing your claims on life there would be no need to feel hopeless.

As we begin to work on resolving our inner conflicts, we get “a taste of how it feels to be free” — which is the ultimate aim of therapy. Horney writes:

The conflicts can be resolved only by changing those conditions within the personality that brought them into being. This is a radical way, and a hard one. In view of the difficulties involved in changing anything within ourselves, it is quite understandable that we should scour the ground for short cuts.


The most comprehensive formulation of therapeutic goals is the striving for wholeheartedness: to be without pretense, to be emotionally sincere, to be able to put the whole of oneself into one’s feelings, one’s work, one’s beliefs. It can be approximated only to the extent that conflicts are resolved.

In the remainder of Our Inner Conflicts, Horney goes on to explore the antidote to the forces of fear, hopelessness, and impoverishment of personality stemming from our interior divisiveness and the mechanism by which we grow whole. Complement these fragments from it with her equally insightful contemporary Erich Fromm on the antidote to helplessness and disorientation and Marion Milner’s wonderful century-old field guide to knowing what you really want, then revisit Horney on the key to self-realization.


The Poetry of Reality: Robert Louis Stevenson on What Makes Life Worth Living

“The true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.”

If wonder springs from the quality of attention we pay to things and joy springs from our capacity for presence with wonder, then the quality of our attention shapes the quality of our lives. It is a dangerous falsehood that to find wonder in reality is to relinquish our realism — rather, this attentive gladness, this fluency in the native poetry of the universe, may be the truest realism we have.

That is what Robert Louis Stevenson (November 13, 1850–December 3, 1894) explores in some breathtaking passages from his long essay “The Lantern-Bearers,” found in his 1892 collection of personal writings Across the Plains (public library | free ebook).

Robert Louis Stevenson by William Notman © National Portrait Gallery, London

Stevenson writes:

There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life, — the fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself at his return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognize him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and his days are moments. With no more apparatus than an evil-smelling lantern, I have evoked him on the naked links. All life that is not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands, — seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each so incommunicable. And it is just a knowledge of this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn to the pages of the realist. There, to be sure, we find a picture of life in so far as it consists of mud and of old iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we are ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time-devouring nightingale we hear no news.

Nightingale from The Birds of Great Britain, 1873. (Available as a print.)

Half a century before Anaïs Nin contemplated the elusive nature of joy, he adds:

The ground of a man’s joy is often hard to hit. It may hinge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern; it may reside… in the mysterious inwards of psychology… It has so little bond with externals… that it may even touch them not, and the man’s true life, for which he consents to live, lie together in the field of fancy…. In such a case the poetry runs underground. The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad. For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven in which he lives. And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.

For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse… for no man lives in the external truth among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied wall.

Complement with poet Ross Gay on the discipline of delight and René Magritte on the courage of joy, then revisit Hermann Hesse on the life-magnifying value of the little joys.


The Art of Human Connection: Pioneering Psychologist and Philosopher William James on the Most Important Attitude for Relationships

“Neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer.”

The Art of Human Connection: Pioneering Psychologist and Philosopher William James on the Most Important Attitude for Relationships

To be human is to continually mistake our frames of reference for reality itself. We so readily forget that our vantage point is but a speck on the immense plane of possible perspectives. We so readily forget that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

The discipline of countering our reflex for self-righteousness is a triumph of existential maturity — one increasingly rare in a culture where most people would rather armor themselves with judgment than tremble with uncertainty, would rather be right than understand.

The pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910), who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” explores the making of that triumph in a pair of wonderful lectures — “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes Life Significant” — posthumously collected in the 1911 volume Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (public library | public domain).

William James

With an eye to “the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures,” James considers those rare moments when our habitual blinders fall away and we see a fuller picture of reality:

Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world… the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.

That new perspective includes the recognition that other people strive for happiness and meaning in ways other than our own, just as valid in the making of a life. James considers the value of this shift in understanding:

It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Observing “the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals,” observing “how soaked and shot-through life is with values and meanings which we fail to realize because of our external and insensible point of view,” observing how often and how readily we judge the outward choices of others while losing sight of the “inward significance” of those choices, James writes:

The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours. No one has insight into all the ideals. No one should presume to judge them off-hand. The pretension to dogmatize about them in each other is the root of most human injustices and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep.

Complement with Joan Didion on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality, then revisit William James on the psychology of attention, how our bodies affect our feelings, and the four features of transcendence.


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