Ahead of our philosophy retreat at Gladstone’s Library, Dr Mark Vernon muses on the power of contemplation in these turbulent times
One of things that happens when countries, organisations and individuals fall into crisis is that they lose the power to imagine how things can be different. They feel that there’s no happy way forward, that the only option is to stay trapped.
It’s as a good definition of mental ill health as any, and it’s not hard to conclude that this is the state of mind many people find themselves in now.
But such stasis is also a moment of opportunity. When you’re really in a crisis, you might also be surprisingly free. You can take the radical option that’s impossible in normal times. A soulless job is quit. A deadly relationship is exited. A defunct politics is overturned.
It’s a moment of high risk, too, especially if the change is precipitated by rage, hate and revenge. But there is a universal antidote to such poison. It’s immediately accessible and entirely free. In a word, idle.
It’s not aimless idling that makes the difference. It’s the type of idling that’s attentive, receptive, open. It’s a connecting idling that, because it has time to notice a wider pulse of life, generates a sense of freshness and vigour because it discovers a source of freshness and vigour. It hears the wren sing. It sees Sirius sparkle. It delights in a new idea.
Of course, it’s true that such idling is taboo. It always has been. The phrase “navel-gazing” was coined to hurl abuse at some early Christians who, unlike their earnest sisters and brothers, decided that the best they could do, as the Roman world collapsed, was wander into the desert and inwardly seek God. “But how will that fix things?,” people yelled. They scream the same things now.
What the panic can’t see is that a person, or society, that has lost an ability to contemplate life has lost the ability to live a meaningful life. They no longer sense the radiance of being that existence channels. They no longer feel the wonder of understanding that consciousness fosters. They no longer desire the delights of loving the good, the beautiful and the true. The poetry has left the poem.
Our manic culture, which tyrannically sets the pace for everyone from the lowliest cleaner to the mightiest politician, has forgotten that useful work is not the same as useless toil. The crucial capacity imaginatively to drift has been misplaced, though it’s fundamental. As Walter Bagehot put it: “A great Premier must add the vivacity of an idle man to the assiduity of a very laborious one.”
The truth is that positive idling is an art that takes us to the heart of things. It focuses, it awakens, it sets us free because it helps us realise our true nature: not just to be alive but to know what it is to be alive. As Cicero remarked, revealing it all: we are “never less idle than when wholly idle.”
Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer, broadcaster and course tutor on the Idler Philosophy Retreat.