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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Living on 24 hours a day

Though the contexts may vary from those cloaked in spiritualism with suggestions of meals with a Buddah to those that guide you to a state of mindfulness, the essence of self-help books seems to be very much the same. 
And yet you are in search of happiness, are you not? Have you discovered it?
The chances are that you have not. The chances are that you have already come to believe that happiness is unattainable. But men have attained it. And they have attained it by realising that happiness does not spring from the procuring of physical or mental pleasure, but from the development of reason and the adjustment of conduct to principles.

That's what struck me when I read the really short book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett with a copyright date of 1910.  The author consciously references other book titles that say "How to live on X amount a day" to emphasize the point that time is money and even more precious and more evenly distributed than currency. I took a copy out from the library, but you can read the entire text online for free from the Gutenberg project here.
The book's central theme is maximizing one's time to achieve happiness, though not the happiness one pictures in a extroverted sense (see The happiness is rather the result of achieving harmony between one's principles and one's actions. This point is revealed in chapter 8: 
We do not reflect. I mean that we do not reflect upon genuinely important things; upon the problem of our happiness, upon the main direction in which we are going, upon what life is giving to us, upon the share which reason has (or has not) in determining our actions, and upon the relation between our principles and our conduct.

The book is a 20th Century product, so it's no longer deferring to the Church for guidance on how to live. Rather it is exhorting one live according to principles and reason. In contrast to Disney's advice to follow your heart, you are advised to use your head. But in doing so you also gain an appreciation for science, art, music, literature (if those things interest you) or even your own daily life. What would be packaged today as "mindfulness," he calls reflecting on genuinely important things. 

Chapter 5 is entitled "Tennis and the Immortal Soul." The conjunction here is not intended to suggest a deep connection as one finds in  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On the contrary, the suggestion is that tennis and other leisure pursuits are what people regard as important while they neglect the type of "cultivation of mind" that the author believes is essential to feed the soul. That becomes clear from the end of the chapter:
 But I do suggest that you might, for a commencement, employ an hour and a half every other evening in some important and consecutive cultivation of the mind. You will still be left with three evenings for friends, bridge, tennis, domestic scenes, odd reading, pipes, gardening, pottering, and prize competitions. You will still have the terrific wealth of forty-five hours between 2 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Monday. If you persevere you will soon want to pass four evenings, and perhaps five, in some sustained endeavour to be genuinely alive. And you will fall out of that habit of muttering to yourself at 11.15 p.m., "Time to be thinking about going to bed." The man who begins to go to bed forty minutes before he opens his bedroom door is bored; that is to say, he is not living.But remember, at the start, those ninety nocturnal minutes thrice a week must be the most important minutes in the ten thousand and eighty. They must be sacred, quite as sacred as a dramatic rehearsal or a tennis match. Instead of saying, "Sorry I can't see you, old chap, but I have to run off to the tennis club," you must say, "...but I have to work." This, I admit, is intensely difficult to say. Tennis is so much more urgent than the immortal soul. 

I find it fascinating that the core of such advice is so consistent for over a century, despite the massive changes the world has seen over two World Wars and the rapid advance of technology. That is not to mitigate the differences in contexts. They are quite striking. Clearly, the people the book addresses are not feeling the same stress people do today when they rise early to commute to work and return from it. Work begins for them at 10 AM and ends at 6 PM. The commute is assumed to take at most half an hour, though there also is an assumption of a sixth half day of work ending at 2 PM.

For people living in England in 2010, leisure time is not frittered away in front of a screen (not even a movie screen, never mind a smartphone, computer, or television). Even a radio is out of the picture, as music is only to be found in live events. Still they manage to fritter away time but just by doing this and that until thinking of going to bed for a good 45 minutes before doing so. In that way, one lets time slip through one's fingers instead of getting one's real 24 hours' worth. In fact, the author doesn't expect one to use all 24 hours but just to make better use of the time spent outside work by exercising one's mind for 90 minute sessions and actively reflecting at other times when is apt to adopt a "semi-comatose" state.

Another difference most of today's self-help books and this one is that very little attention is paid to exercise of the body. Bennet does mention that 10 minutes a day of that can make a difference. However, he is not arguing that one needs to put in the time for the physical regimen but for exercising the mind and getting it into shape. Likely people walked a lot more just to get around as we're talking about a time before cars were owned by the average person.

Chapter 7 is entitled "Controlling the Mind," and like many modern books on meditation, the goal is to achieve concentration and focus, though Bennet skips the thinking about nothing step and jumps right into focusing on your end goal:
"What? I am to cultivate my mind in the street, on the platform, in the train, and in the crowded street again?" Precisely. Nothing simpler! No tools required! Not even a book. Nevertheless, the affair is not easy. When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what, to begin with). You will not have gone ten yards before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is larking round the corner with another subject. Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the station you will have brought it back about forty times. Do not despair. Continue. Keep it up. You will succeed. You cannot by any chance fail if you persevere.
When you achieve a certain mindset, you can appreciate that "nothing in life is humdrum" as stated by the title of Chapter 10. In that chapter Bennet demonstrates how an appreciation of cause and effect can make one more philosophical and less shocked when things don't go one's way with the example of accepting one's stolen watch as the result of knowable causes. But it's not just a matter of learning to appreciate human nature but all of nature:"The whole field of daily habit and scene is waiting to satisfy that curiosity which means life, and the satisfaction of which means an understanding heart." That is something that can even be appreciated by someone who does not care for art, music, or literature. But for those who do care for the latter, Bennet devotes an entire chapter.

"Serious Reading" is the title of Chapter 11. By using that term, Bennet's intention is to exclude novels because they do not require the mental exertion that should be applied to the 90 minute program. Good novels are all too easy to read, he says, and bad ones just aren't worth reading at all. It's remarkable that what was considered merely popular literature then are are now seriously studied in college courses. Wouldn't any reader today be proud for working her way through something like Anna Karenina if she were not required to read it for a class? Bennet has loftier reading goals, as he indicated by his own choice of reading, including the works of Marcus Aurelius (he doesn't leave home without him in book form), Epictetus, Pascal, La Bruyere, and Emerson. No women featured here, though he does reserve special praise for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and recommends that everyone read Aurora Leigh.

Aside from praising poetry over prose, Bennet offers two concrete suggestions for the one who embarks on improving reading:

The first is to define the direction and scope of your efforts. Choose a limited period, or a limited subject, or a single author. Say to yourself: "I will know something about the French Revolution, or the rise of railways, or the works of John Keats." And during a given period, to be settled beforehand, confine yourself to your choice. There is much pleasure to be derived from being a specialist.
The second suggestion is to think as well as to read. I know people who read and read, and for all the good it does them they might just as well cut bread-and-butter. They take to reading as better men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. Unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.

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