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A Trip on the Heath

To get deep into the woods on the other side of the lake at Kenwood I had to climb over a wooden fence, and work my way through some bracken and fallen trees. Then there it was... a small clearing with silver birch saplings and a thick carpet of leaf mould. It was invisible from the path.

I spread an old Indian shawl under a tree, and took the trip just before midday.

It seemed to take forever coming on.

Nearly two hours must have passed before anything much seemed to happen: then, to my alarm, I realised I was getting very depressed. All my old stuff was surfacing. That gut sense of what a waste my life had been... Rather strangely my mind kept returning to one summer afternoon long ago, spent with a group of class-mates watching cricket at boarding school. We were all thirteen and due to leave at the end of term, and were talking about all the amazing things we were going to do with our lives. The memory was extraordinarily vivid. We were sitting beside the cricket pitch, pulling out handfuls of long grass to make these nests or model tree dens in some birch saplings growing there. It was a game we often played when your side was batting.

My sense of futility deepened. It must have been two and a half hours into the trip and I was lying slumped against a tree looking upwards into the tree canopy. I was watching the insects darting to and fro in the shafts of sunlight falling through the leaves. Their agitation seemed utterly meaningless. "There's no real difference between my life and theirs" I thought morosely... at which, without warning, the whole situation flipped over.

For an instant I seemed to become one of the midges. I was zooming through the rays of light, turning on an aerial dime. Wow, I thought, this is really fantastic! And at the same moment all the leaves and branches above my head sort of shimmered and started to become incredibly beautiful in their variety of shade and silhouette.

There was a frond of bracken arching to one side of where I lay, and as I watched a midge approached one of its curling tips. The creature was perfect. You could see its tiny head and body, it seemed to have a face, while all around its wings made a rainbow blur. It hovered there, checking out the tip of the frond. I was riveted. My attention was absolutely selfless.

For a second I seemed to see into the mind of God. Everything was equal- that was the secret. Nothing was any more important than anything else. Problems, I saw, can never be 'solved'- they can only be transcended. There's a stepping back into a larger and more inclusive frame; and in that bigger frame there are just things as they are.

It was a perfect June afternoon, and I lay on my back looking up through the leaves and shafts of light. I mentioned how I'd been haunted by the memory of one particular afternoon watching cricket at the end of a summer term at school... well, as the trip peaked, I went back there again, and met myself again, somewhere outside time. Vision or waking dream I don't really know what it was, but somehow I came face to face with the grubby, sunburnt thirteen-year-old I once had been; and a dialogue started.

As a child I was pretty much dumped by my parents, and I saw that I had put nature in their place. Ponds and woods had been my Mum. And in growing up I'd lost that connection and nothing had ever replaced it. I saw (as I gathered my stuff together from under the tree) that I'd betrayed my own closeness to things. And it was me that was continuing to isolate myself.

I was to spend the next three days cleaning out my flat from one end to the other. I had an extraordinary amount of energy. I cleaned all the windows, threw bin-bags of books and clothes away and washed all the floors. It felt great... I saw that I was reconnecting with the English nature mysticism which had buoyed up my childhood. What lies between me and God is nature. Beauty is where God is stepped down enough to be approachable. How blind I'd been not to see the vital importance of this, of the key role the sense of beauty plays in spiritual life. But how to keep this insight alive, that was the question. How to translate it into action?