Tom Hodgkinson gets ambitious about doing even less
Get Brexit done”… “hard working families“… “the time for talk is over”… “we must do something now”… “make America great again”.
The modern world, it is clear, privileges action over contemplation. And contemplation is good if it leads to action. The trendy practice of mindfulness is justified because it will increase employees’ productivity and therefore boost shareholders’ profits.
I’ve been working a bit in the library recently, to give myself more time to read and think, and last week I was looking at Aldous Huxley‘s scholarly 1945 book on mysticism, The Perennial Philosophy. Huxley maintains that all religions, including Christianity, have a mystical heart. They all recommend contemplation and meditation. as a route to enlightenment. But society – the “world” – does the opposite.
Here is how the great Huxley puts it:
In all the historic formulations of the Perennial Philosophy it is axiomatic that the end of human life is contemplation, or the direct and intuitive awareness of God; that action is a means to an end; that a society is good to the extent that it renders contemplation possible for its members; and that the existence of at least a minority of contemplatives is necessary for the wellbeing of any society.
In the popular philosophy of our own time it goes without saying that the end of human life is action; that contemplation (above all in its lower forms of discursive thought) is the means to that end; that a society is good to the extent that the actions of its members make for progress in technology and organisation (a progress which is assumed to be causally related to ethical and cultural advance); and that a minority of contemplatives is perfectly useless and perhaps even harmful to the community which tolerates it.
The lesson is clear: in a society that stresses the importance of action, a counter-movement which stresses the importance of contemplation is all important. Last year I gave a series of lectures on this theme at the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell. David Hunt, who makes our online courses, filmed them, and we’ve just posted the first of these talks up on Youtube. Watch it here to find out why it’s the idlers who are the important people. Elon Musk is a workaholic and Socrates wandered about doing nothing but Socrates, in my view, is the superior.
Over the last week I have increased my morning dose of meditation from five minutes to ten minutes. Although nowhere near the half hour which Rowan Williams allots to quiet thought every morning and a very long way from the full hour which my meditating dad does, I am quietly happy to have reached this milestone.
I did try twelve minutes one morning, but soon realised that I was moving too fast, if that is the correct expression to use about focussed idling. So I went back to ten.
It certainly seems to work. This morning, for example, I woke up in a wretched mood. I was worrying about various issues. But after meditating, these issues became trifles and easier to bear.
Just before meditating I tend to read a few lines in order to distract myself from my annoying thoughts. Today I read a little from Plato’s Pheado, which is one of the dialogues. It takes place in the prison where Socrates is being held in the run-up to his execution by the Athenian state. He says he has no fear of death, because it is the aim of the philosopher to forget about the body and concentrate on the soul, the incorporeal part of our selves which is of course exactly what meditation is all about. In death, he says, we are released from the body, so why would the philosopher be scared?
“Only those who practice philosophy in the right way always want to free the soul,” he argues, “and this release and separation of the soul from the body is the preoccupation of the philosophers.”
It would seem from the above and from much of the Phaedo that the philosophy of Socrates and Plato has more in common with Eastern religious thinking than I had realised. Socrates is a bit of mystic.
Do you meditate?
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your meditation stories.
Just remember that every corpse on Mount Everest was once a highly motivated person.
Stay safe… stay idle.
I’m enjoying hearing how your meditation is going, mine has taken a back seat in these past few weeks but I will try and begin again as soon as I am able.
I live in Florida, not a bad place for an idler, as US states go. Here, in the Tampa Bay area, a large community of Greeks settled around a century ago in pursuit of riches in the sponge diving business. We don’t produce that many sponges anymore, but the Greek heritage is alive and well, and I’m really looking forward to this weekend’s Greek festival, which is typically full of song, dance, food, retsina and ouzo. I’ll be riding my bicycle there to safely take advantage of the spirits.
Your current thoughts on meditation have me worried. You seem to see the benefits of meditation as proportional to the length of time you devote to it; aiming to up your time from five to ten minutes and even half an hour to catch up with Rowan Williams. It all sounds rather competitive and inclined to increase rather than decrease stress and anxiety. To achieve that timeless state of relaxation you should perhaps first leave your watch behind!