NATURE is not only our one guide in the matter of physical training, she is the chief engineer who will keep us in order and control the machine, if we aim to fulfil her conditions and shun every personal interference with the wholesome working of her laws.
Here is where the exquisite sense of growing power comes. In studying Nature, we not only realize the strength that comes from following her lead, but we discover her in ourselves gently moving us onward.
We all believe we look to Nature, if we think at all; and it is a surprise to find how mistaken we are. The time would not be wasted if we whose duties do not lead us to any direct study of natural life for personal reasons, would take fifteen minutes every day simply to think of Nature and her methods of working, and to see at the same time where, so far as we individually are concerned, we constantly interfere with the best use of her powers. With all reverence I say it, this should be the first form of prayer; and our ability to pray sincerely to God and live in accordance with His laws would grow in proportion to our power of sincere sympathy with the workings of those laws in Nature.
Try to realize the quiet power of all natural growth and movement, from a blade of grass, through a tree, a forest of trees, the entire vegetable growth on the earth, the movement of the planets, to the growth and involuntary vital operations of our own bodies.
No words can bring so full a realization of the quiet power in the progress of Nature as will the simple process of following the growth of a tree in imagination from the working of its sap in the root up to the tips of the leaves, the blossoms, and the fruit. Or beginning lower, follow the growth of a blade of grass or a flower, then a tree, and so on to the movement of the earth, and then of all the planets in the universe. Let your imagination picture so vividly all natural movements, little by little, that you seem to be really at one with each and all. Study the orderly working of your own bodily functions; and having this clearly in mind, notice where you, in all movements that are or might be under the control of your will, are disobeying Nature’s laws.
Nature shows us constantly that at the back of every action there should be a great repose. This holds good from the minutest growth to the most powerful tornado. It should be so with us not only in the simple daily duties, but in all things up to the most intense activity possible to man. And this study and realization of Nature’s method which I am pleading for brings a vivid sense of our own want of repose. The compensation is fortunately great, or the discouragement might be more than could be borne. We must appreciate a need to have it supplied; we must see a mistake in order to shun it.
How can we expect repose of mind when we have not even repose of muscle? When the most external of the machine is not at our command, surely the spirit that animates the whole cannot find its highest plane of action. Or how can we possibly expect to know the repose that should be at our command for every emergency, or hope to realize the great repose behind every action, when we have not even learned the repose in rest?
Think of Nature’s resting times, and see how painful would be the result of a digression.
Our side of the earth never turns suddenly toward the sun at night, giving us flashes of day in the darkness. When it is night, it is night steadily, quietly, until the time comes for day. A tree in winter, its time for rest, never starts out with a little bud here and there, only to be frost bitten, and so when spring-time comes, to result in an uneven looking, imperfectly developed tree. It rests entirely in its time for rest; and when its time for blooming comes, its action is full and true and perfect. The grass never pushes itself up in little, untimely blades through the winter, thus leaving our lawns and fields full of bare patches in the warmer season. The flowers that close at night do not half close, folding some petals and letting others stay wide open. Indeed, so perfectly does Nature rest when it is her time for resting, that even the suggestion of these abnormal actions seems absolutely ridiculous. The less we allow ourselves to be controlled by Nature’s laws, the more we ignore their wonderful beauty; and yet there is that in us which must constantly respond to Nature unconsciously, else how could we at once feel the absurdity of any disobedience to her laws, everywhere except with man? And man, who is not only free to obey, but has exquisite and increasing power to realize and enjoy them in all their fulness, lives so far out of harmony with these laws as ever to be blind to his own steady disobedience.
Think of the perfect power for rest in all animals. Lift a cat when she is quiet, and see how perfectly relaxed she is in every muscle. That is not only the way she sleeps, but the way she rests; and no matter how great or how rapid the activity, she drops all tension at once when she stops. So it is with all animals, except in rare cases where man has tampered with them in a way to interfere with the true order of their lives.
Watch a healthy baby sleeping; lift its arm, its leg, or its head carefully, and you will find each perfectly relaxed and free. You can even hold it on your outspread hands, and the whole little weight, full of life and gaining new power through the perfect rest, will give itself entirely to your hands, without one particle of tension. The sleep that we get in babyhood is the saving health of many. But, alas! at a very early age useless tension begins, and goes on increasing; and if it does not steadily lead to acute “Americanitis,” it prevents the perfect use of all our powers. Mothers, watch your children with a care which will be all the more effective because they will be unconscious of it; for a child’s attention should seldom be drawn to its own body. Lead them toward the laws of Nature, that they may grow in harmony with them, and so be saved the useless suffering, strain, and trouble that comes to us Americans. If we do not take care, the children will more and more inherit this fearful misuse of the nervous force, and the inheritance will be so strong that at best we can have only little invalids. How great the necessity seems for the effort to get back into Nature’s ways when we reflect upon the possibilities of a continued disobedience!
To be sure, Nature has Repose itself and does not have to work for it. Man is left free to take it or not as he chooses. But before he is able to receive it he has personal tendencies to restlessness to overcome. And more than that, there are the inherited nervous habits of generations of ancestors to be recognized and shunned. But repose is an inmost law of our being, and the quiet of Nature is at our command much sooner than we realize, if we want it enough to work for it steadily day by day. Nothing will increase our realization of the need more than a little daily thought of the quiet in the workings of Nature and the consequent appreciation of our own lack. Ruskin tells the story with his own expressive power when he says, ” Are not the elements of ease on the face of all the greatest works of creation? Do they not say, not there has been a great effort here, but there has been a great power here?”
The greatest act, the only action which we know to be power in itself, is the act of Creation. Behind that action there lies a great Repose. We are part of Creation, we should be moved by its laws. Let us shun everything we see to be in the way of our own best power of action in muscle, nerve, senses, mind, and heart. Who knows the new perception and strength, the increased power for use that is open to us if we will but cease to be an obstruction?
Freedom within the limits of Nature’s laws, and indeed there is no freedom without those limits, is best studied and realized in the growth of all plants,–in the openness of the branch of a vine to receive the sap from the main stem, in the free circulation of the sap in a tree and in all vegetable organisms.
Imagine the branch of a vine endowed with the power to grow according to the laws which govern it, or to ignore and disobey those laws. Imagine the same branch having made up its vegetable mind that it could live its own life apart from the vine, twisting its various fibres into all kinds of knots and snarls, according to its own idea of living, so that the sap from the main stem could only reach it in a minimum quantity. What a dearth of leaf, flower, and fruit would appear in the branch! Yet the figure is perfectly illustrative of the way in which most of us are interfering with the best use of the life that is ours.
Freedom is obedience to law. A bridge can be built to stand, only in obedience to the laws of mechanics. Electricity can be made a useful power only in exact obedience to the laws that govern it, otherwise it is most destructive. Has man the privilege of disobeying natural laws, only in the use of his own individual powers? Clearly not. And why is it that while recognizing and endeavoring to obey the laws of physics, of mechanics, and all other laws of Nature in his work in the world, he so generally defies the same laws in their application to his own being?
The freedom of an animal’s body in obeying the animal instincts is beautiful to watch. The grace and power expressed in the freedom of a tiger are wonderful. The freedom in the body of a baby to respond to every motion and expression is exquisite to study. But before most children have been in the world three years their inherited personal contractions begin, and unless the little bodies can be watched and trained out of each unnecessary contraction as it appears, and so kept in their own freedom, there comes a time later, when to live to the greatest power for use they must spend hours in learning to be babies all over again, and then gain a new freedom and natural movement.
The law which perhaps appeals to us most strongly when trying to identify ourselves with Nature is the law of rhythm: action, re-action; action, re-action; action, re-action,–and the two must balance, so that equilibrium is always the result. There is no similar thought that can give us keener pleasure than when we rouse all our imagination, and realize all our power of identifying ourselves with the workings of a great law, and follow this rhythmic movement till we find rhythm within rhythm,–from the rhythmic motion of the planets to the delicate vibrations of heat and light. It is helpful to think of rhythmic growth and motion, and not to allow the thought of a new rhythm to pass without identifying ourselves with it as fully as our imagination will allow.
We have the rhythm of the seasons, of day and night, of the tides, and of vegetable and animal life,–as the various rhythmic motions in the flying of birds. The list will be endless, of course, for the great law rules everything in Nature, and our appreciation of it grows as we identify ourselves with its various modes of action.
One hair’s variation in the rhythm of the universe would bring destruction, and yet we little individual microcosms are knocking ourselves into chronic states of chaos because we feel that we can be gods, and direct our own lives so much better than the God who made us. We are left in freedom to go according to His laws, or against them; and we are generally so convinced that our own stupid, short-sighted way is the best, that it is only because Nature tenderly holds to some parts of us and keeps them in the rhythm, that we do not hurl ourselves to pieces. This law of rhythm–or of equilibrium in motion and in rest–is the end, aim, and effect of all true physical training for the development and guidance of the body. Its ruling power is proved in the very construction of the body,–the two sides; the circulation of the blood, veins and arteries; the muscles, extensor and flexor; the nerves, sensory and motor.
When the long rest of a body balances the long activity, in day and night; when the shorter rests balance the shorter activity, as in the various opportunities offered through the day for entire rest, if only a minute at a time; when the sensory and motor nerves are clear for impression and expression; when the muscles in parts of the body not needed are entirely quiet, allowing those needed for a certain action to do their perfect work; when the co-ordination of the muscles in use is so established that the force for a movement is evenly divided; when the flexor rests while its antagonizing muscle works, and vice versa,– when all this which is merely a natural power for action and rest is automatically established, then the body is ready to obey and will obey the lightest touch of its owner, going in whatever direction it may be sent, artistic, scientific, or domestic. As this exquisite sense of ease in a natural movement grows upon us, no one can describe the feeling of new power or of positive comfort which comes with it; and yet it is no miracle, it is only natural. The beasts have the same freedom; but they have not the mind to put it to higher uses, or the sense to enjoy its exquisite power.
Often it seems that the care and trouble to get back into Nature’s way is more than compensated for in the new appreciation of her laws and their uses. But the body, after all, is merely a servant; and, however perfect its training may have been, if the man, the master, puts his natural power to mean or low uses, sooner or later the power will be lost. Self-conscious pride will establish its own contractions. The use of a natural power for evil ends will limit itself sooner or later. The love for unwholesome surroundings will eventually put a check on a perfectly free body, although sometimes the wonder is that the check is so long in coming. If we have once trained ourselves into natural ways, so akin are the laws of Nature and spirit, both must be obeyed; and to rise to our greatest power means always to rise to our greatest power for use. “A man’s life is God’s love for the use for which he was made;” a man’s power lies in the best direction of that use. This is a truth as practical as the necessity for walking on the feet with the head up.