Friday, November 21, 2008

The Art of Doing Nothing

In instructing us as to the best way of catching bream, [Izaak Walton] says that, at about four o'clock in the afternoon, we must repair to the bank of the stream, and, as soon as we come to the waterside, must cast in one-half of our ground—bait and stand off. ‘Then, whilst the fish are gathering together, for they will most certainly come for their supper, you may take a pipe of tobacco; and then, in with your three rods!’

Now why that pipe of tobacco? There is a certain interval to be filled in; a period in which it would be disastrous to say anything or do anything.

…. Now half the art of life lies in being able on occasions to do nothing—and to do it easily.

Newman found this grace so difficult of acquirement that he gave it up as a bad job. ‘He filled up,’ says Mozley, ‘his whole time, taxed his whole strength, and occupied his whole future. He reduced retrospection to a very narrow compass, to a few faces, to flowers on a bank or a wall, to a fragrance or a sound. He never took solitary walks if he could help it. He would not be alone and left to his own thoughts when he was neither studying nor writing nor praying.’

Darwin was as bad. His one defect was an utter incapacity for idleness. ‘I wish,’ writes his wife, ‘I wish he could smoke a pipe or ruminate like a cow.’ There is such a thing as a genius for repose. It is a great thing for a man to be the captain of his soul; to have every faculty under command; and to be able to drop anchor and be perfectly at ease when nothing is to be gained by continued activity. Here, then, is the problem—how to be still?

…I shall never be satisfied until I can possess my soul in perfect poise and restfulness; until I can do nothing, and do it well, and do it easily…

F W Boreham, The Other Side of the Hill (London: Charles H Kelly, 1917), 248-251.

Dr Geoff Pound