IT will be plainly seen that this training of the body is at the same time a training of the mind, and indeed it is in essence a training of the will. For as we think of it carefully and analyze it to its fundamental principles, we realize that it might almost be summed up as in itself a training of the will alone. That is certainly what it leads to, and where it leads from.
Maudsley tells us that “he who is incapable of guiding his muscles, is incapable of concentrating his mind;” and it would seem to follow, by a natural sequence, that training for the best use of all the powers given us should begin with the muscles, and continue through the nerves and the senses to the mind,–all by means of the will, which should gradually remove all personal contractions and obstructions to the wholesome working of the law of cause and effect.
Help a child to use his own ability of gaining free muscles, nerves clear to take impressions through every sense, a mind open to recognize them, and a will alive with interest in and love for finding the best in each new sensation or truth, and what can he not reach in power of use to others and in his own growth.
The consistency of creation is perfect. The law that applies to the guidance of the muscles works just as truly in training the senses and the mind.
A new movement can be learned with facility in proportion to the power of dropping at the time all impressions of previous movements. Quickness and keenness of sense are gained only in proportion to the power of quieting the senses not in use, and erasing previous impressions upon the sense which is active at the time.
True concentration of mind means the ability to drop every subject but that centred upon. Tell one man to concentrate his mind on a difficult problem until he has worked it out,–he will clinch his fists, tighten his throat, hold his teeth hard together, and contract nobody knows how many more muscles in his body, burning and wasting fuel in a hundred or more places where it should be saved. This is not concentration. Concentration means the focussing of a force; and when the mathematical faculty of the brain alone should be at work, the force is not focussed if it is at the same time flying over all other parts of the body in useless strain of innumerable muscles. Tell another man, one who works naturally, to solve the same problem,–he will instinctively and at once “erase all previous impressions” in muscle and nerve, and with a quiet, earnest expression, not a face knotted with useless strain, will concentrate upon his work. The result, so far as the problem itself is concerned, may be the same in both cases; but the result upon the physique of the men who have undertaken the work will be vastly different.
It will be insisted upon by many, and, strange as it may seem, by many who have a large share of good sense, that they can work better with this extra tension. “For,” the explanation is, “it is natural to me.” That may be, but it is not natural to Nature; and however difficult it may be at first to drop our own way and adopt Nature’s, the proportionate gain is very great in the end.
Normal exercise often stimulates the brain, and by promoting more vigorous circulation, and so greater physical activity all over the body, helps the brain to work more easily. Therefore some men can think better while walking.
This is quite unlike the superfluous strain of nervous motion, which, however it may seem to help at the time, eventually and steadily lessens mental power instead of increasing it. The distinction between motion which wholesomely increases the brain activity and that which is simply unnecessary tension, is not difficult to discern when our eyes are well opened to superfluous effort. This misdirected force seems to be the secret of much of the overwork in schools, and the consequent physical break-down of school children, especially girls. It is not that they have too much to do, it is that they do not know how to study naturally, and with the real concentration which learns the lesson most quickly, most surely, and with the least amount of effort. They study a lesson with all the muscles of the body when only the brain is needed, with a running accompaniment of worry for fear it will not be learned.
Girls can be, have been, trained out of worrying about their lessons. Nervous strain is often extreme in students, from lesson-worry alone; and indeed in many cases it is the worry that tires and brings illness, and not the study. Worry is brain tension. It is partly a vague, unformed sense that work is not being done in the best way which makes the pressure more than it need be; and instead of quietly studying to work to better advantage, the worrier allows herself to get more and more oppressed by her anxieties,–as we have seen a child grow cross over a snarl of twine which, with very little patience, might be easily unravelled, but in which, in the child’s nervous annoyance, every knot is pulled tighter. Perhaps we ought hardly to expect as much from the worried student as from the child, because the ideas of how to study arc so vague that they seldom bring a realization of the fact that there might be an improvement in the way of studying.
This possible improvement may be easily shown. I have taken a girl inclined to the mistaken way of working, asked her to lie on the floor where she could give up entirely to the force of gravity,–then after helping her to a certain amount of passivity, so that at least she looked quiet, have asked her to give me a list of her lessons. Before opening her mouth to answer, she moved in little nervous twitches, apparently every muscle in her body, from head to foot. I stopped her, took time to bring her again to a quiet state, and then repeated the question. Again the nervous movement began, but this time the child exclaimed, “Why, isn’t it funny? I cannot think without moving all over!” Here was the Rubicon crossed. She had become alive to her own superfluous tension; and after that to train her not only to think without moving all over, but to answer questions easily and quietly and so with more expression, and then to study with greatly decreased effort, was a very pleasant process.
Every boy and girl should have this training to a greater or less degree. It is a steady, regular process, and should be so taken. We have come through too many generations of misused force to get back into a natural use of our powers in any rapid way; it must come step by step, as a man is trained to use a complicated machine. It seems hardly fair to compare such training to the use. of a machine,–it opens to us such extensive and unlimited power. We can only make the comparison with regard to the first process of development.
A training for concentration of mind should begin with the muscles. First, learn to withdraw the will from the muscles entirely. Learn, next, to direct the will over the muscles of one arm while the rest of the body is perfectly free and relaxed,–first, by stretching the arm slowly and steadily, and then allowing it to relax; next, by clinching the fist and drawing the arm up with all the force possible until the elbow is entirely bent. There is not one person in ten, hardly one in a hundred, who can command his muscles to that slight extent. At first some one must lift the arm that should be free, and drop it several times while the muscles of the other arm are contracting; that will make the unnecessary tension evident. There are also ways by which the free arm can be tested without the help of a second person.
The power of directing the will over various muscles that should be independent, without the so-called sympathetic contraction of other muscles, should be gained all over the body. This is the beginning of concentration in a true sense of the word. The necessity for returning to an absolute freedom of body before directing the will to any new part cannot be too often impressed upon the mind. Having once “sensed” a free body–so to speak–we are not masters until we gain the power to return to it at a moment’s notice. In a second we can “erase previous impressions” for the time; and that is the foundation, the rock, upon which our house is built.
Then follows the process of learning to think and to speak in freedom. First, as to useless muscular contractions. Watch children work their hands when reciting in class. Tell them to stop, and the poor things will, with great effort, hold their hands rigidly still, and suffer from the discomfort and strain of doing so. Help them to freedom of body, then to the sense that the working of their hands is not really needed, and they will learn to recite with a feeling of freedom which is better than they can understand. Sometimes a child must be put on the floor to learn to think quietly and directly, and to follow the same directions in this manner of answering. It would be better if this could always be done with thoughtful care and watching; but as this would be inappropriate with large classes, there are quieting and relaxing exercises to be practised sitting and standing, which will bring children to a normal freedom, and help them to drop muscular contractions which interfere with ease and control of thought and expression. Pictures can be described,–scenes from Shakespeare, for instance,–in the child’s own words, while making quiet motions. Such exercise increases the sensitiveness to muscular contraction, and unnecessary muscular contraction, beside something to avoid in itself, obviously makes thought indirect. A child must think quietly, to express his thought quietly and directly. This exercise, of course, also cultivates the imagination.
In all this work, as clear channels are opened for impression and expression, the faculties themselves naturally have a freer growth. The process of quiet thought and expression must be trained in all phases,–from the slow description of something seen or imagined or remembered, to the quick and correct answer required to an example in mental arithmetic, or any other rapid thinking. This, of course, means a growth in power of attention,–attention which is real concentration, not the strained attention habitual to most of us, and which being abnormal in itself causes abnormal reaction. And this natural attention is learned in the use of each separate sense,–to see, to hear, to taste, to smell, to touch with quick and exact impression and immediate expression, if required, and a in obedience to the natural law of the conservation of human energy.
With the power of studying freely, comes that of dropping a lesson when it is once well learned, and finding it ready when needed for recitation or for any other use. The temptation to take our work into our play is very great, and often cannot be overcome until we have learned how to “erase all previous impressions.” The concentration which enables us all through life to be intent upon the one thing we are doing, whether it is tennis or trigonometry, and drop what we have in hand at once and entirely at the right time, free to give out attention fully to the next duty or pleasure, is our saving health in mind and body. The trouble is we are afraid. We have no trust. A child is afraid to stop thinking of a lesson after it is learned,–afraid he will forget it. When he has once been persuaded to drop it, the surprise when he takes it up again, to find it more clearly impressed upon his mind, is delightful. One must trust to the digestion of a lesson, as to that of a good wholesome dinner. Worry and anxiety interfere with the one as much as with the other. If you can drop a muscle when you have ceased using it, that leads to the power of dropping a subject in mind; as the muscle is fresher for use when you need it, so the subject seems to have grown in you, and your grasp seems to be stronger when you recur to it.
The law of rhythm must be carefully followed in this training for the use of the mind. Do not study too long at a time. It makes a natural reaction impossible. Arrange the work so that lessons as far unlike as possible may be studied in immediate succession. We help to the healthy reaction of one faculty, by exercising another that is quite different.
This principle should be inculcated in classes, and for that purpose a regular programme of class work should be followed, calculated to bring about the best results in all branches of study.
The first care should be to gain quiet, as through repose of mind and body we cultivate the power to “erase all previous impressions.” In class, quiet, rhythmic breathing, with closed eyes, is most helpful for a beginning. The eyes must be closed and opened slowly and gently, not snapped together or apart; and fifty breaths, a little longer than they would naturally be, are enough to quiet a class. The breaths must be counted, to keep the mind from wandering, and the faces must be watched very carefully, for the expression often shows anything but quiet. For this reason it is necessary, in initiating a class, to begin with simple relaxing motions; later these motions will follow the breathing. Then follow exercises for directing the muscles. The force is directed into one arm with the rest of the body free, and so in various simple exercises the power of directing the will only to the muscles needed is cultivated. After the muscle-work, the pupils are asked to centre their minds for a minute on one subject,–the subject to be chosen by some member, with slight help to lead the choice to something that will be suggestive for a minute’s thinking. At first it seems impossible to hold one subject in mind for a minute; but the power grows rapidly as we learn the natural way of concentrating, and instead of trying to hold on to our subject, allow the subject to hold us by refusing entrance to every other thought. In the latter case one suggestion follows another with an ease and pleasantness which reminds one of walking through new paths and seeing on every side something fresh and unexpected. Then the class is asked to think of a list of flowers, trees, countries, authors, painters, or whatever may be suggested, and see who can think of the greatest number in one minute. At first, the mind will trip and creak and hesitate over the work, but with practice the list comes steadily and easily. Then follow exercises for quickness and exactness of sight, then for hearing, and finally for the memory. All through this process, by constant help and suggestion, the pupils are brought to the natural concentration. With regard to the memory, especial care should be taken, for the harm done by a mechanical training of the memory can hardly be computed. Repose and the consequent freedom of body and mind lead to an opening of all the faculties for better use; if that is so, a teacher must be more than ever alive to lead pupils to the spirit of all they are to learn, and make the letter in every sense suggestive of the spirit. First, care should be taken to give something worth memorizing; secondly, ideas must be memorized before the words. A word is a symbol, and in so far as we have the habit of regarding it as such, will each word we hear be more and more suggestive to us. With this habit well cultivated, one sees more in a single glance at a poem than many could see in several readings. Yet the reader who sees the most may be unable to repeat the poem word for word. In cultivating the memory, the training should be first for the attention, then for the imagination and the power of suggestive thought; and from the opening of these faculties a true memory will grow. The mechanical power of repeating after once hearing so many words is a thing in itself to be dreaded. Let the pupil first see in mind a series of pictures as the poem or page is read, then describe them in his own words, and if the words of the author are well worth remembering the pupil should be led to them from the ideas. In the same way a series of interesting or helpful thoughts can be learned.
Avoidance of mere mechanism cannot be too strongly insisted upon; for exercise for attaining a wholesome, natural guidance of mind and body cannot be successful unless it rouses in the mind an appreciation of the laws of Nature which we are bound to obey. A conscious experience of the results of such obedience is essential to growth.