LET us now consider where the brain alone is used, and the other parts of the body have nothing to do but keep quiet and let the brain do its work. Take thinking, for instance. Most of us think with the throat so contracted that it is surprising there is room enough to let the breath through, the tongue held firmly, and the jaw muscles set as if suffering from an acute attack of lockjaw. Each has his own favorite tension in the act of meditation, although we are most generous in the force given to the jaw and throat. The same superfluous tension may be observed in one engaged in silent reading; and the force of the strain increases in proportion to the interest or profundity of the matter read. It is certainly clear, without a knowledge of anatomy or physiology, that for pure, unadulterated thinking, only the brain is needed; and if vital force is given to other parts of the body to hold them in unnatural contraction; we not only expend it extravagantly, but we rob the brain of its own. When, for purely mental work, all the activity is given to the brain, and the body left free and passive, the concentration is better, conclusions are reached with more satisfaction, and the reaction, after the work is over, is healthy and refreshing.
This whole machine can be understood perhaps more clearly by comparing it to a community of people. In any community,–Church, State, institution, or household,–just so far as each member minds his own business, does his own individual work for himself and for those about him, and does not officiously interfere with the business of others, the community is quiet, orderly, and successful. Imagine the state of a deliberative assembly during the delivery of a speech, if half-a-dozen of the listeners were to attempt to help the speaker by rising and talking at the same time; and yet this is the absurd action of the human body when a dozen or more parts, that are not needed, contract “in sympathy” with those that have the work to do. It is an unnecessary brace that means loss of power and useless fatigue. One would think that the human machine having only one mind, and the community many thousands, the former would be in a more orderly state than the latter.
In listening attentively, only the brain and ears are needed; but watch the individuals at an entertaining lecture, or in church with a stirring preacher. They are listening with their spines, their shoulders, the muscles of their faces. I do not refer to the look of interest and attention, or to any of the various expressions which are the natural and true reflection of the state of the mind, but to the strained attention which draws the facial muscles, not at all in sympathy with the speaker, but as a consequence of the tense nerves and contracted muscles of the listener. “I do not understand why I have this peculiar sort of asthma every Sunday afternoon,” a lady said to me. She was in the habit of hearing, Sunday morning, a preacher, exceedingly interesting, but with a very rapid utterance, and whose mind travelled so fast that the words embodying his thoughts often tumbled over one another. She listened with all her nerves, as well as with those needed, held her breath when he stumbled, to assist him in finding his verbal legs, reflected every action with twice the force the preacher himself gave,–and then wondered why on Sunday afternoon, and at no other time, she had this nervous catching of the breath. She saw as soon as her attention was drawn to the general principles of Nature, how she had disobeyed this one, and why she had trouble on Sunday afternoon. This case is very amusing, even laughable, but it is a fair example of many similar nervous attacks, greater or less; and how easy it is to see that a whole series of these, day after day, doing their work unconsciously to the victim, will sooner or later bring some form of nervous prostration.
The same attitudes and the same effects often attend listening to music. It is a common experience to be completely fagged after two hours of delightful music. There is no exaggeration in saying that we should be rested after a good concert, if it is not too long. And yet so upside-down are we in our ways of living, and, through the mistakes of our ancestors, so accustomed have we become to disobeying Nature’s laws, that the general impression seems to be that music cannot be fully enjoyed without a strained attitude of mind and body; whereas, in reality, it is much more exquisitely appreciated and enjoyed in Nature’s way. If the nerves are perfectly free, they will catch the rhythm of the music, and so be helped back to the true rhythm of Nature, they will respond to the harmony and melody with all the vibratory power that God gave them, and how can the result be anything else than rest and refreshment,–unless having allowed them to vibrate in one direction too long, we have disobeyed a law in another way.
Our bodies cannot by any possibility be free, so long as they are strained by our own personal effort. So long as our nervous force is misdirected in personal strain, we can no more give full and responsive attention to the music, than a piano can sound the harmonies of a sonata if some one is drawing his hands at the same time backwards and forwards over the strings. But, alas! a contracted personality is so much the order of the day that many of us carry the chronic contractions of years constantly with us, and can no more free ourselves for a concert at a day’s or a week’s notice, than we can gain freedom to receive all the grand universal truths that are so steadily helpful. It is only by daily patience and thought and care that we can cease to be an obstruction to the best power for giving and receiving.
There are, scattered here and there, people who have not lost the natural way of listening to music,–people who are musicians through and through so that the moment they hear a fine strain they are one with it. Singularly enough the majority of these are fine animals, most perfectly and normally developed in their senses. When the intellect begins to assert itself to any extent, then the nervous strain comes. So noticeable is this, in many cases, that nervous excitement seems often to be from misdirected intellect; and people under the control of their misdirected nervous force often appear wanting in quick intellectual power,–illustrating the law that a stream spreading in all directions over a meadow loses the force that the same amount of water would have if concentrated and flowing in one channel. There are also many cases where the strained nerves bring an abnormal intellectual action. Fortunately for the saving of the nation, there are people who from a physical standpoint live naturally. These are refreshing to see; but they are apt to take life too easily, to have no right care or thought, and to be sublimely selfish.
Another way in which the brain is constantly used is through the eyes. What deadly fatigue comes from time spent in picture galleries! There the strain is necessarily greater than in listening, because all the pictures and all the colors are before us at once, with no appreciable interval between forms and subjects that differ widely. But as the strain is greater, so should the care to relieve it increase. We should not go out too far to meet the pictures, but be quiet, and let the pictures come to us. The fatigue can be prevented if we know when to stop, and pleasure at the time and in the memory afterwards will be surprisingly increased. So is it in watching a landscape from the car window, and in all interests which come from looking. I am not for one instant condemning the natural expression of pleasure, neither do I mean that there should be any apparent nonchalance or want of interest; on the contrary, the real interest and its true expression increase as we learn to shun the shams.
But will not the discovery of all this superfluous tension make one self-conscious? Certainly it will for a time, and it must do so. You must be conscious of a smooch on your face in order to wash it off, and when the face is clean you think no more of it. So you must see an evil before you can shun it. All these physical evils you must be vividly conscious of, and when you are so annoyed as to feel the necessity of moving from under them self-consciousness decreases in equal ratio with the success of your efforts.
Whenever the brain alone is used in thinking, or in receiving and taking note of impressions through either of the senses, new power comes as we gain freedom from all misdirected force, and with muscles in repose leave the brain to quietly do its work without useless strain of any kind. It is of course evident that this freedom cannot be gained without, first, a consciousness of its necessity. The perfect freedom, however, when reached, means freedom from self-consciousness as well as from the strain which made self-consciousness for a time essential.