By Edward Carpenter
To some, in the present whirlpool of life and affairs it may seem almost an absurdity to talk about Rest. For long enough now rest has seemed a thing far off and unattainable. With the posts knocking at our doors ten or twelve times a day, with telegrams arriving every hour, and the telephone bell constantly ringing; with motors rushing wildly about the streets, and airplanes whizzing overhead, with work speeded up in every direction, and the drive in the workshops becoming more intolerable every day; with the pace of the walkers and the pace of the talkers from hour to hour insanely increasing— what room, it may well be asked, is there for Rest? And now the issues of war, redoubling the urgency of all questions, are on us.
The problem is obviously a serious one. So urgent is it that I think one may safely say the amount of insanity due to the pressure of daily life is increasing; nursing-homes have sprung up for the special purpose of treating such cases; and doctors are starting special courses of tuition in the art—now becoming very important—of systematically doing nothing! And yet it is difficult to see the outcome of it all. The clock of what is called Progress is not easily turned backward. We should not very readily agree nowadays to the abolition of telegrams or to a regulation compelling express trains to stop at every station! We can’t ALL go to Nursing Homes, or afford to enjoy a winter’s rest-cure in Egypt. And, if not, is the speeding-up process to go on indefinitely, incapable of being checked, and destined ultimately to land civilization in the mad-house?
It is, I say, a serious and an urgent problem. And it is, I think, forcing a certain answer on us—which I will now endeavor to explain.
If we cannot turn back and reverse this fatal onrush of modern life (and it is evident that we cannot do so in any very brief time—though of course ultimately we might succeed) then I think there are clearly only two alternatives left—either to go forward to general dislocation and madness, or—to learn to rest even in the very midst of the hurry and the scurry.
To explain what I mean, let me use an illustration. The typhoons and cyclones of the China Seas are some of the most formidable storms that ships can encounter. Their paths in the past have been strewn with wrecks and disaster. But now with increased knowledge much of their danger has been averted. It is known that they are CIRCULAR in character, and that though the wind on their outskirts often reaches a speed of 100 miles an hour, in the centre of the storm there is a space of complete calm—not a calm of the SEA certainly, but a complete absence of wind. The skilled navigator, if he cannot escape the storm, steers right into the heart of it, and rests there. Even in the midst of the clatter he finds a place of quiet where he can trim his sails and adjust his future course. He knows too from his position in what direction at every point around him the wind is moving and where it will strike him when at last his ship emerges from the charmed circle.
Is it not possible, we may ask, that in the very midst of the cyclone of daily life we may find a similar resting-place? If we can, our case is by no means hopeless. If we cannot, then indeed there is danger.
Looking back in History we seem to see that in old times people took life much more leisurely than they do now. The elder generations gave more scope in their customs and their religions for contentment and peace of mind. We associate a certain quietism and passivity with the thought of the Eastern peoples. But as civilization traveled Westward external activity and the pace of life increased—less and less time was left for meditation and repose—till with the rise of Western Europe and America, the dominant note of life seems to have simply become one of feverish and ceaseless activity—of activity merely for the sake of activity, without any clear idea of its own purpose or object.
Such a prospect does not at first seem very hopeful; but on second thoughts we see that we are not forced to draw any very pessimistic conclusion from it. The direction of human evolution need not remain always the same. The movement, in fact, of civilization from East to West has now clearly completed itself. The globe has been circled, and we cannot go any FARTHER to the West without coming round to the East again. It is a commonplace to say that our psychology, our philosophy and our religious sense are already taking on an Eastern color; nor is it difficult to imagine that with the end of the present dispensation a new era may perfectly naturally arrive in which the St. Vitus’ dance of money-making and ambition will cease to be the chief end of existence.
In the history of nations as in the history of individuals there are periods when the formative ideals of life (through some hidden influence) change; and the mode of life and evolution in consequence changes also. I remember when I was a boy wishing—like many other boys—to go to sea. I wanted to join the Navy. It was not, I am sure, that I was so very anxious to defend my country. No, there was a much simpler and more prosaic motive than that. The ships of those days with their complex rigging suggested a perfect paradise of CLIMBING, and I know that it was the thought of THAT which influenced me. To be able to climb indefinitely among those ropes and spars! How delightful! Of course I knew perfectly well that I should not always have free access to the rigging; but then—some day, no doubt, I should be an Admiral, and who then could prevent me? I remember seeing myself in my mind’s eye, with cocked hat on my head and spy-glass under my arm, roaming at my own sweet will up aloft, regardless of the remonstrances which might reach me from below! Such was my childish ideal. But a time came—needless to say—when I conceived a different idea of the object of life.
It is said that John Tyndall, whose lectures on Science were so much sought after in their time, being on one occasion in New York was accosted after his discourse by a very successful American business man, who urged him to devote his scientific knowledge and ability to commercial pursuits, promising that if he did so, he, Tyndall, would easily make “a big pile.” Tyndall very calmly replied, “Well, I myself thought of that once, but I soon abandoned the idea, having come to the conclusion that I had NO TIME TO WASTE IN MAKING MONEY.” The man of dollars nearly sank into the ground. Such a conception of life had never entered his head before. But to Tyndall no doubt it was obvious that if he chained himself to the commercial ideal all the joy and glory of his days would be gone.
We sometimes hear of the awful doom of some of the Russian convicts in the quarries and mines of Siberia, who are (or were) chained permanently to their wheelbarrows. It is difficult to imagine a more dreadful fate: the despair, the disgust, the deadly loathing of the accursed thing from which there is no escape day or night—which is the companion not only of the prisoner’s work but of his hours of rest—with which he has to sleep, to feed, to take his recreation if he has any, and to fulfill all the offices of nature. Could anything be more crushing? And yet, and yet . . . is it not true that we, most of us, in our various ways are chained to our wheelbarrows—is it not too often true that to these beggarly things we have for the most part chained OURSELVES?
Let me be understood. Of course we all have (or ought to have) our work to do. We have our living to get, our families to support, our trade, our art, our profession to pursue. In that sense no doubt we are tied; but I take it that these things are like the wheelbarrow which a man uses while he is at work. It may irk him at times, but he sticks to it with a good heart, and with a certain joy because it is the instrument of a noble purpose. That is all right. But to be chained to it, not to be able to leave it when the work of the day is done—that is indeed an ignoble slavery. I would say, then, take care that even with these things, these necessary arts of life, you preserve your independence, that even if to some degree they may confine your body they do not enslave your mind.
For it is the freedom of the mind which counts. We are all no doubt caught in the toils of the earth-life. One man is largely dominated by sensual indulgence, another by ambition, another by the pursuit of money. Well, these things are all right in themselves. Without the pleasures of the senses we should be dull mokes indeed; without ambition much of the zest and enterprise of life would be gone; gold, in the present order of affairs, is a very useful servant. These things are right enough—but to be CHAINED to them, to be unable to think of anything else—what a fate! The subject reminds one of a not uncommon spectacle. It is a glorious day; the sun is bright, small white clouds float in the transparent blue—a day when you linger perforce on the road to enjoy the sense. But suddenly here comes a man painfully running all hot and dusty and mopping his head, and with no eye, clearly, for anything around him. What is the matter? He is absorbed by one idea. He is running to catch a train! And one cannot help wondering what EXCEEDINGLY important business it must be for which all this glory and beauty is sacrificed, and passed by as if it did not exist.Further we must remember that in our foolishness we very commonly chain ourselves, not only to things like sense-pleasures and ambitions which are on the edge, so to speak, of being vices; but also to other things which are accounted virtues, and which as far as I can see are just as bad, if we once become enslaved to them. I have known people who were so exceedingly ‘spiritual’ and ‘good’ that one really felt quite depressed in their company; I have known others whose sense of duty, dear things, was so strong that they seemed quite unable to REST, or even to allow their friends to rest; and I have wondered whether, after all, worrying about one’s duty might not be as bad—as deteriorating to oneself, as distressing to one’s friends—as sinning a good solid sin. No, in this respect virtues MAY be no better than vices; and to be chained to a wheelbarrow made of alabaster is no way preferable to being chained to one of wood. To sacrifice the immortal freedom of the mind in order to become a prey to self-regarding cares and anxieties, self-estimating virtues and vices, self-chaining duties and indulgences, is a mistake. And I warn you, it is quite useless. For the destiny of Freedom is ultimately upon every one, and if refusing it for a time you heap your life persistently upon one object—however blameless in itself that object may be—Beware! For one day—and when you least expect it—the gods will send a thunderbolt upon you. One day the thing for which you have toiled and spent laborious days and sleepless nights will lie broken before you—your reputation will be ruined, your ambition will be dashed, your savings of years will be lost—and for the moment you will be inclined to think that your life has been in vain. But presently you will wake up and find that something quite different has happened. You will find that the thunderbolt which you thought was your ruin has been your salvation—that it has broken the chain which bound you to your wheelbarrow, and that you are free!
I think you will now see what I mean by Rest. Rest is the loosing of the chains which bind us to the whirligig of the world, it is the passing into the centre of the Cyclone; it is the Stilling of Thought. For (with regard to this last) it is Thought, it is the Attachment of the Mind, which binds us to outer things. The outer things themselves are all right. It is only through our thoughts that they make slaves of us. Obtain power over your thoughts and you are free. You can then use the outer things or dismiss them at your pleasure.
There is nothing new of course in all this. It has been known for ages; and is part of the ancient philosophy of the world.
In the Katha Upanishad you will find these words (Max Muller’s translation): “As rainwater that has fallen on a mountain ridge runs down on all sides, thus does he who sees a difference between qualities run after them on all sides.” This is the figure of the man who does NOT rest. And it is a powerful likeness. The thunder shower descends on the mountain top; torrents of water pour down the crags in every direction. Imagine the state of mind of a man—however thirsty he may be—who endeavors to pursue and intercept all these streams!
But then the Upanishad goes on: “As pure water poured into pure water remains the same, thus, O Gautama, is the Self of a thinker who knows.” What a perfect image of rest! Imagine a cistern before you with transparent glass sides and filled with pure water. And then imagine some one comes with a phial, also of pure water, and pours the contents gently into the cistern. What will happen? Almost nothing. The pure water will glide into the pure water—“remaining the same.” There will be no dislocation, no discoloration (as might happen if MUDDY water were poured in); there will be only perfect harmony.
I imagine here that the meaning is something like this. The cistern is the great Reservoir of the Universe which contains the pure and perfect Spirit of all life. Each one of us, and every mortal creature, represents a drop from that reservoir— a drop indeed which is also pure and perfect (though the phial in which it is contained may not always be so). When we, each of us, descend into the world and meet the great Ocean of Life which dwells there behind all mortal forms, it is like the little phial being poured into the great reservoir. If the tiny canful which is our selves is pure and unsoiled, then when it meets the world it will blend with the Spirit which informs the world perfectly harmoniously, without distress or dislocation. It will pass through and be at one with it. How can one describe such a state of affairs? You will have the key to every person that you meet, because indeed you are conscious that the real essence of that person is the same as your own. You will have the solution of every event which happens. For every event is (and is felt to be) the touch of the great Spirit on yours. Can any description of Rest be more perfect than that? Pure water poured into pure water. . . . There is no need to hurry, for everything will come in its good time. There is no need to leave your place, for all you desire is close at hand.
Here is another verse (from the Vagasaneyi-Samhita Upanishad) embodying the same idea: “And he who beholds all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, he never turns away from It. When, to a man who understands, the Self has become all things, what sorrow, what trouble, can there be to him—having once beheld that Unity?”—What trouble, what sorrow, indeed, when the universe has become transparent with the presences of all we love, held firm in the One enfolding Presence?
But it will be said: “Our minds are NOT pure and transparent. More often they are muddy and soiled—soiled, if not in their real essence, yet by reason of the mortal phial in which they are contained.” And that alas! is true. If you pour a phial of muddy water into that reservoir which we described --what will you see? You will see a queer and ugly cloud formed. And to how many of us, in our dealings with the world, does life take on just such a form—of a queer and ugly cloud?
Now not so very long after those Upanishads were written there lived in China that great Teacher, Lao-tze; and he too had considered these things. And he wrote—in the Tao-Teh-King—“Who is there who can make muddy water clear?” The question sounds like a conundrum. For a moment one hesitates to answer it. Lao-tze, however, has an answer ready. He says: “But if you LEAVE IT ALONE it will become clear of itself.” That muddy water of the mind, muddied by all the foolish little thoughts which like a sediment infest it—but if you leave it alone it will become clear of itself. Sometimes walking along the common road after a shower you have seen pools of water lying here and there, dirty and unsightly with the mud stirred up by the hoofs of men and animals. And then returning some hours afterwards along the same road—in the evening and after the cessation of traffic—you have looked again, and lo! each pool has cleared itself to a perfect calm, and has become a lovely mirror reflecting the trees and the clouds and the sunset and the stars.
So this mirror of the mind. Leave it alone. Let the ugly sediment of tiresome thoughts and anxieties, and of fussing over one’s self-importances and duties, settle down—and presently you will look on it, and see something there which you never knew or imagined before—something more beautiful than you ever yet beheld—a reflection of the real and eternal world such is only given to the mind that rests.
Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind in this direction and in that, lest you become like a spring lost and dissipated in the desert.
But draw them together into a little compass, and hold them still, so still;
And let them become clear, so clear—so limpid, so mirror-like;
At last the mountains and the sky shall glass themselves in peaceful beauty,
And the antelope shall descend to drink, and the lion to quench his thirst,
And Love himself shall come and bend over, and catch his own likeness in you.
 Towards Democracy, p. 373.
Yes, there is this priceless thing within us, but hoofing along the roads in the mud we fail to find it; there is this region of calm, but the cyclone of the world raging around guards us from entering it. Perhaps it is best so—best that the access to it should not be made too easy. One day, some time ago, in the course of conversation with Rabindranath Tagore in London, I asked him what impressed him most in visiting the great city. He said, “The restless incessant movement of everybody.” I said, “Yes, they seem as if they were all rushing about looking for something.” He replied, “It is because each person does not know of the great treasure he has within himself.”
How then are we to reach this treasure and make it our own? How are we to attain to this Stilling of the Mind, which is the secret of all power and possession? The thing is difficult, no doubt; yet as I tried to show at the outset of this discourse, we Moderns MUST reach it; we have got to attain to it—for the penalty of failure is and must be widespread Madness.
The power to still the mind—to be ABLE, mark you, when you want, to enter into the region of Rest, and to dismiss or command your Thoughts—is a condition of Health; it is a condition of all Power and Energy. For all health, whether of mind or body, resides in one’s relation to the central Life within. If one cannot get into touch with THAT, then the life-forces cannot flow down into the organism. Most, perhaps all, disease arises from the disturbance of this connection. All mere hurry, all mere running after external things (as of the man after the water-streams on the mountain-top), inevitably breaks it. Let a pond be allowed calmly under the influence of frost to crystallize, and most beautiful flowers and spears of ice will be formed, but keep stirring the water all the time with a stick or a pole and nothing will result but an ugly brash of half-frozen stuff. The condition of the exercise of power and energy is that it should proceed from a center of Rest within one. So convinced am I of this, that whenever I find myself hurrying over my work, I pause and say, “Now you are not producing anything good!” and I generally find that that is true. It is curious, but I think very noticeable, that the places where people hurry most—as for instance the City of London or Wall Street, New York—are just the places where the work being done is of LEAST importance (being mostly money-gambling); whereas if you go and look at a ploughman ploughing—doing perhaps the most important of human work—you find all his movements most deliberate and leisurely, as if indeed he had infinite time at command; the truth being that in dealing (like a ploughman) with the earth and the horses and the weather and the things of Nature generally you can no more hurry than Nature herself hurries.
Following this line of thought it might seem that one would arrive at a hopeless paradox. If it be true that the less one hurries the better the work resulting, then it might seem that by sitting still and merely twirling one’s thumbs one would arrive at the very greatest activity and efficiency! And indeed (if understood aright) there is a truth even in this, which—like the other points I have mentioned—has been known and taught long ages ago. Says that humorous old sage, Lao-tze, whom I have already quoted: “By non-action there is nothing that cannot be done.” At first this sounds like mere foolery or worse; but afterwards thinking on it one sees there is a meaning hidden. There is a secret by which Nature and the powers of the universal life will do all for you. The Bhagavat Gita also says, “He who discovers inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among mortals.”
It is worth while dwelling for a moment on these texts. We are all—as I said earlier on—involved in work belonging to our place and station; we are tied to some degree in the bonds of action. But that fact need not imprison our inner minds. While acting even with keenness and energy along the external and necessary path before us, it is perfectly possible to hold the mind free and untied—so that the RESULT of our action (which of course is not ours to command) shall remain indifferent and incapable of unduly affecting us. Similarly, when it is our part to remain externally INACTIVE, we may discover that underneath this apparent inaction we may be taking part in the currents of a deeper life which are moving on to a definite end, to an end or object which in a sense is ours and in a sense is NOT ours.
The lighthouse beam flies over land and sea with incredible velocity, and you think the light itself must be in swiftest movement; but when you climb up thither you find the lamp absolutely stationary. It is only the reflection that is moving. The rider on horseback may gallop to and fro wherever he will, but it is hard to say that HE is acting. The horse guided by the slightest indication of the man’s will performs an the action that is needed. If we can get into right touch with the immense, the incalculable powers of Nature, is there anything which we may not be able to do?” If a man worship the Self only as his true state,” says the Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad, “his work cannot fail, for whatever he desires, that he obtains from the Self.” What a wonderful saying, and how infallibly true! For obviously if you succeed in identifying your true being with the great Self of the universe, then whatever you desire the great Self will also desire, and therefore every power of Nature will be at your service and will conspire to fulfill your need.
There are marvelous things here “well wrapped up”— difficult to describe, yet not impossible to experience. And they all depend upon that power of stilling Thought, that ability to pass unharmed and undismayed through the grinning legions of the lower mind into the very heart of Paradise.
The question inevitably arises, How can this power be obtained? And there is only one answer—the same answer which has to be given for the attainment of ANY power or faculty. There is no royal road. The only way is (however imperfectly) to DO the thing in question, to practice it. If you would learn to play cricket, the only way is to play cricket; if you would be able to speak a language, the only way is to speak it. If you would learn to swim, the only way is to practice swimming. Or would you wish to be like the man who when his companions were bathing and bidding him come and join them, said: “Yes, I am longing to join you, but I am not going to be such a fool as to go into the water TILL I KNOW HOW TO SWIM!”
There is nothing but practice. If you want to obtain that priceless power of commanding Thought—of using it or dismissing it (for the two things go together) at will—there is no way but practice. And the practice consists in two exercises:
(a) that of concentration—in holding the thought steadily for a time on one subject, or point of a subject; and (b) that of effacement—in effacing any given thought from the mind, and determining NOT to entertain it for such and such a time. Both these exercises are difficult. Failure in practicing them is certain—and may even extend over years. But the power equally certainly grows WITH practice. And ultimately there may come a time when the learner is not only able to efface from his mind any given thought (however importunate), but may even succeed in effacing, during short periods, ALL thought of any kind. When this stage is reached, the veil of illusion which surrounds all mortal things is pierced, and the entrance to the Paradise of Rest (and of universal power and knowledge) is found.
Of indirect or auxiliary methods of reaching this great conclusion, there are more than one. I think of life in the open air, if not absolutely necessary, at least most important. The gods—though sometimes out of compassion they visit the interiors of houses—are not fond of such places and the evil effluvium they find there, and avoid them as much as they can. It is not merely a question of breathing oxygen instead of carbonic acid. There is a presence and an influence in Nature and the Open which expands the mind and causes brigand cares and worries to drop off—whereas in confined places foolish and futile thoughts of all kinds swarm like microbes and cloud and conceal the soul. Experto Crede. It is only necessary to try this experiment in order to prove its truth.
Another thing which corresponds in some degree to living physically in the open air, is the living mentally and emotionally in the atmosphere of love. A large charity of mind, which refuses absolutely to shut itself in little secluded places of prejudice, bigotry and contempt for others, and which attains to a great and universal sympathy, helps, most obviously, to open the way to that region of calm and freedom of which we have spoken, while conversely all petty enmity, meanness and spite, conspire to imprison the soul and make its deliverance more difficult.
It is not necessary to labor these points. As we said, the way to attain is to sincerely TRY to attain, to consistently PRACTICE attainment. Whoever does this will find that the way will open out by degrees, as of one emerging from a vast and gloomy forest, till out of darkness the path becomes clear. For whomsoever really TRIES there is no failure; for every effort in that region is success, and every onward push, however small, and however little result it may show, is really a move forward, and one step nearer the light.
Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.
Thanks to the folks at Google, you can search our site for a specific term or phrase: