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Thoughts in the key of Oxford


Oxford viewed from St Mary the Virgin ChurchHere in Oxford at the end of a busy week I took up yoga, entranced by notions of myself perfectly balanced in a state of other-worldly calm. And then the class started: 'Lie on your back, put your backside to the ceiling and rest your knees on either side of your head ... and now relax ... breathe calmly ... let your mind become detached'. It was an exercise akin to Luke Skywalker trying to channel the force while flying his X-wing around the death-star.

Even in the moments of physical relaxation, I found it hard to concentrate — things that I'd heard during the week kept entering my mind, making it hard to find the mental detachment the yoga master recommended.

Later I was thinking of these same things I had heard during the week, entertaining them further. One of Oxford's more remarkable qualities is its soundscape — take the bells: some are loud and triumphant in the morning and some ring dimly in the middle of the night, subdued and respectful. I'm struck by what I might term the aural landscape of a week — the collection of sounds, voices and verses that assemble in the mind over a few days.

It's a diverse collection, from the woman at the canteen yelling 'Urrry up! Speed up! Who dropped that?', to the 30 second washing detergent ad that prefaces a video you want to watch on YouTube. Or the man who was homeless, talking to his dog over a sandwich: 'Get lost Chance! It's mine, you've 'ad yours!' And Chance replying: 'Grrrr!' All these snippets of sound linger in the mind.

When I first arrived in Oxford I heard a psalm at Evensong that still resonates — perhaps because in the midst of heavy sandstone and biting winds it reminds me of cedar trees: 'They will take root like the forests of Lebanon.' The vision of the 'forests of Lebanon' conveys a sense of great richness, deeply rooted, strong and bountiful. The 19th century Russian school of spiritual thought — 'Sophiology' — understood the world to be humming with 'presence' and 'wisdom', filled with 'deeper currents'.

Metaphysical beliefs aside, it's interesting to think of the aural landscape of a week in a similar way — as a current of sounds, various but similarly rich. It's a current that, when attended to, gives some reflective shape to our daily lives. Words rise on the current, words like the psalm, or a snippet of poetry, or the voices of the men and women in the back streets of Oxford.

The American novelist Marilynne Robinson, in a conversation at Georgetown University, told the audience that 'the dark is full of light. That's one of the things I'm always trying to tell my students. Write from your deeper mind.' To think from the deeper mind, says Robinson, is to find access into one's life 'more deeply than you would otherwise'. She calls this a discipline of introspection: 'things come to your mind. Your mind makes selections — this deeper mind — on other terms than your front office mind.'

To me this implies a position of radical attentiveness — it's a kind of mindfulness where a clear distinction between following your thoughts and being detached from thought is not insisted on.

This thought resurfaced in a lecture on the early 20th century economic historian and socialist R. H. Tawney and his public activism. Tawney 'bemoaned the division of commerce and social morality' which he thought of as a product of the Protestant Reformation — he detested what Charles Taylor calls 'the affirmation of ordinary life', where values of thriftiness and industry become associated with righteousness.

In Tawney I see Robinson's 'deeper mind' at work, a mind whose reflectiveness was brought to bear on the struggles of working people. 'Radicalism' like 'ideology' might seem to have nothing 'deep' about it, coming from an uncritical understanding of powerful texts or cultural impulses. But my sense is that Tawney's radicalism came from the 'deeper mind' that Robinson speaks of.

The lecturer himself understood Tawney as keeping his faith and his socialist politics separate — and perhaps he did, insofar as he didn't express his philosophical positions in religious terms. But in his stance of increased attentiveness, attention to each human being and their 'infinite importance', the deeper mind is at work.

In her own way Robinson too is a radical. She has a powerful sense of the importance of what we hear in our days, of psalms in daily life. So in Gilead, a book written in the form of a blessing offered from father to young son, she refers to ordinary life as like a 'ballad they sing in the streets', part of 'the epic of the universe'. She's implying that everyday speech, if not quite epic in itself, can have a ballad-like quality — it tells stories and offers glimpses of things not yet understood, to resurface later alongside other words and verses, fully invested with meaning.

What writers like Robinson convey is that the words we encounter throughout a week, formed into poetry, blessings or psalms, create that space where the deeper mind is opened.

In that deeper mind detachment isn't insisted on — we're not asked to disassociate from thoughts but like the writer, to concentrate, so that 'the intensity of concentration ... comes from accepting the authority of the text, as something that talks back to you'. The deeper mind is a stance of attentiveness that allows the world, and the jumble of words one hears, to 'talk back'.

Towards the end of yoga, after trying to touch my head with my feet, I did this — I let go of detachment and paid attention to the aural landscape of the week: the sounds of yoga class, the bells, the lectures, the voices of the men and women on the street. And then that psalm I had heard at Evensong, the cedars of Lebanon, returned and through it some lines of Robert Frost:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail ...
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a postgraduate student at Balliol College, Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Coleridge

Oxford image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, Oxford, Marilynne Robinson, Robert Frost



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Existing comments

Profound and magnificent as always. Thanks Ben.

Jo | 29 November 2013  

Oxford is, in terms of post 1788 Australia, immeasurably old and very much part of English History, Benedict. For someone with Anglo-Saxon roots it would take you back to a far, far deeper part of your past than the thought of R H Tawney; a yoga class or an attempt to get in touch with the deeper mind Marilyne Robinson talks of . There is magic in those old quads; libraries; chapels; buildings and the river which link the place with so many great authors; poets; religious men and others. I feel sad that modern day students are so busy doing things that they seem to have no time to idly dream. Idle dreaming has created so much and Oxford, in an over-busy modern world, has so many quiet and private places to do it. I wish you a happy and successful stay and time for dreaming.

Edward F | 29 November 2013  

Thanks again, Benedict, I find much that resonates in your writing. Aural landscape - I am reminded of Fr. Tony de Mello S.J .and being lead through listening to silence, meditation, attentiveness and as you describe 'the deeper mind'

Denis Quinn | 29 November 2013  

I found Oxford was a very small and insular place. A very smug and inward looking town, confident that its own intelligence compares more than favourably with anywhere else in the world. Working class Oxford is a bit different, but still very insular.

Penelope | 13 February 2014  

It's as if it were yesterday and, from the sounds of it, not very much changed, except for places of 'unexpectations' such as Charles Plater SJ's strange college for Catholic workers, lacking praxis and thankfully now closed, several ex-Collegio Inglese scholars at Keble and, redoubtably, Crispian Hollis, then Newman Chaplain & now Bishop Emeritus of Portsmouth. I imagine Newman's Oxford as not being much different, except for the spate of Oxford Movement converts of his time. So one confronting change may well be the decline of religious observance as signalled by the peal of those infernal bells. Does yielding to the outstretched limbs of yoga mean that the City of Spires has at last caught up with the World, I wonder?

Michael Furtado | 29 September 2016  

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