Why medieval mystics trump the selfie philosophy

Reproduction of an article by Margaret Coles in The Times:

"The 'selfie' seems to me an attempt to fix a moment in time instead of living it. I stopped taking photographs when I realised that it got in the way of actually living a beautiful, fleeting experience. When I am absolutely present I don’t need a photograph to remind me: I remember every detail.

If I am living “mindfully”, “being present in the moment” — a practice commended by the modern-day mystic Eckhart Tolle, author of the bestselling The Power of Now — I cannot take a photograph without stepping out of that experience. When seeing through the camera’s lens I am thinking — making a judgment about how best to frame the picture, when to press the button — rather than just being, and thus I rob myself of something unique. Being in the moment is a heightened state of being, which can be reached through meditation, contemplative prayer, even the natural world.

The benefits of mindfulness are widely acknowledged; it is even available on the NHS. A report published this week by the American Society of Clinical Oncology claims that a six-week mindfulness course can lead to small improvements in physical and psychological symptoms for women with breast cancer.

The antidote to frenzied modern existence actually had a medieval champion. Some 600 years ago, the mystic Julian of Norwich was expressing similar thoughts to those of Tolle. On May 8, 1373, Julian received visions of the Crucifixion, as recounted in her book A Revelation of Divine Love.

The Rev Robert Fruehwirth, former priest director of the Julian Centre in Norwich, explains: “Both Tolle and Julian get lost in the joy of being . . . a new awareness of God’s bliss as their own essential self.” Julian puts it this way: “The essence of our human nature is now blissful in God, and has been since it was made, and shall be, without end.”

When my beloved sister died suddenly, we arranged her funeral in the depths of a north Wales winter, followed by the dispersal of her ashes. It was a freezing day, five degrees below zero. Muffled in our winter woollies, we tramped through the snow, some eight inches deep, along the little road leading from my childhood village towards the mountains beyond. We stopped at the bridge across the deep, wild Welsh water that tumbles down from the mountains.

The world was a frozen, silent winterland, every branch glistening delicate, crystalline white, catching the light, the only inhabitants our little party, led by the rector, in red woolly hat emblazoned with the Welsh flag and the name “Cymru”, for a service in Welsh and English.

The sun came suddenly blazing out as my sister’s ashes filtered down into the swirling water and I spoke the words “Allan o’r tywyllwch ac i mewn i’r golau” (“Out of the darkness and into the light”).

Then we tossed our brightly coloured gerberas one after another, into the river, followed by dozens and dozens of pink rose petals. I can still see the bright heads of the gerberas, bobbing on the water, followed by the pink swirl of petals spinning down the stream. A moment, and they were gone. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Being in the moment, says Tolle, “You feel your own presence with such intensity and such joy that all thinking, all emotions, your physical body, as well as the whole external world become relatively insignificant . . . And yet this is not a selfish but a selfless state. It takes you beyond what you previously thought of as your ‘self’. That presence is essentially you and at the same time inconceivably greater than you.”

And preferable beyond measure, I would contend, to a snatched snap or “selfie” which you may not even bother to download.

Margaret Coles’s novel The Greening is inspired by Julian of Norwich: www.julian-of-norwich-novel.tumblr.com

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