“We’re talking too much,” [Demian] said with unusual seriousness. “There’s no point in clever talk, none at all. It only leads you away from yourself. Going away from yourself is a sin. What we need to do is crawl entirely into the self, like a turtle.”
Hermann Hesse: Demian
There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.
Hermann Hesse: Demian
I’m constantly diverted from what I have set myself to do each day – I suppose this is the result of having so many things going on inside myself . Far from being disturbed by this I’m quite happy for it to be the case – it’s how I find my ‘reality’ when I crawl entirely into my ‘self, like a turtle’: then my ‘world within’ asserts itself and all kinds of unexpected things have a habit of connecting up together, provided I harness an ‘I’ that can grasp the creative uses of being diverted and not just flop into one that is content to ‘surf’ the grand mélange. I am always confident that I will build all the connections into something I’ll want to preserve.
When I aim to be at peace in order to put some words together, to make a fresh start on something to forge eventually into a book, I visit my summerhouse in a far corner of the garden. Yesterday there, I was diverted from what I had intended to do by discovering, on the back of a piece of scrap paper I was scribbling on, some quotations from Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous under the heading SILENCE. I must have written it years ago for some teaching occasion. I think it must have been intended for prospective tutors, consultants and counsellors; it advocated the necessity of maintaining silence, stopping the inner voice, at least some of the time, in encounters of all kinds.
The desire to share ideas is the most mechanical of all desires. A good rule is to learn to practise the abstinence of silence. Remember this often when teaching or offering advice but more especially when you go into a group to learn; opening your mouth to disagree (or even to agree in your own way) is an attempt to teach rather than learn. Learning is silent absorption.
The writing on the reverse of my scrap paper asked – Why do people find it necessary to keep on talking? It’s often described as a way of recognising who’s a teacher in a group – they are at least sometimes the people who must keep on talking.
People fear silence more than anything else; the tendency to talk arises from self-defence, the temptation to fill a space to guard oneself against the menace (as in the Theatre of the Absurd) which might otherwise cause it to be filled in order to keep the monsters at bay; it is always based on a reluctance to see something, a reluctance to confess something to oneself.
Unless the World Destroying military aeroplanes are circling round The Wash or, as right now at the beginning of Autumn 2020 (still Plaguetime), the harvesting machines are tearing up the environment, there is normally a lovely silence here of sky-tree-woodpigeon-field-&-river to wrap yourself in and indulge in the valuable practice of silence.
Ouspensky says, ‘Only people who can be silent when it is necessary can be masters of themselves…’ and adds that silence is required for the essential activity of self-remembering – saying frequently to yourself, “This is me here and now being me here & now…” Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps to focus on the NOW and one’s sense of being in it.
When a person is chattering, or simply waiting for an opportunity to begin to do so, they don’t notice the intonations of others and are unable to distinguish lie from truth. Directly you are quiet yourself, that is, awake a little, you hear the different intonations and begin to distinguish other people’s lies…
We have to accept all rules like these silently; they pursue a definite aim… Following them silently you achieve the aim. It doesn’t matter what the rules are; only by following them will you find out what to discard.
Once more on my sheet of scrap paper, a quotation from Ouspensky:-
The chief difficulty for most people… was the habit of talking. No one saw this habit in themselves, no one could struggle with it because it was always connected with some characteristic which they considered to be positive in themselves. Either they wanted to be ‘sincere’ or they wanted to know what somebody else thought or they wanted to help somebody by speaking of themselves or of others and so on and so on…. the struggle with the habit of talking, of speaking in general, more than is necessary, could become the centre of gravity of work on oneself… touching everything, penetrating everything… and least noticed…
And then Ouspensky quotes the master, Mr G, who turns this into a more general point:-
…we say a good deal too much. If we limited ourselves to what is actually necessary, this alone would be keeping silence. And it is the same with everything else, with food, with pleasures, with sleep; with everything there is a limit to what is necessary. After this, ‘sin’ begins… sin is something which is not necessary… Sin is what puts you to sleep when you have already decided to awaken. What puts you to sleep is everything that is unnecessary…
We kid ourselves that talking, using words to communicate, is an important part of what it is to be human but one of the problems with words (what are the others?) is that their use in clusters of what we like to call ‘meaning’ or ‘communication’ determines a pattern of thinking that often (maybe always) bears no relation whatsoever to things as they are without human intervention. All words are metaphors – they stand apart from sticks & stones, trust & temperament, ideas & disagreements; they occupy a different universe of experience.
A simple, madly current, example occurs to me. In Plaguetime kids have been off school for a few months and the news channels are bunged full with the idea that, in spite of the risk to life, they must now return to school in order to ‘catch up’ with their ‘learning’. What can that possibly mean? Catch up with what teachers imagine that they have to put over? Catch up with the invented curriculum? Become more capable of working a computer? Fortify their ‘career prospects’? You just have to notice how often the phrase ‘catch up’ is used without being defined properly. It helps you to understand that, when it’s used by politicians, relying on the Nazi Goebbels’ dictum ‘repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it and you will even come to believe it yourself’, ‘catching up’ means making sure that kids continue to develop as efficient office & cannon fodder, making up for ‘lost time’, in order for the Power Possessors to keep their profits rolling in. The constant insertion of the phrase ‘catching up’ into so-called ‘news’ bulletins brainwashes us into a ‘sports metaphor’ way of thinking.
Real ‘learning’ is not about winning a race but about taking things deep down into yourself and making sense of them there; it is absolutely sufficient that the universe constantly presents you with opportunities for doing just that when you’re alive to its enthusiasm for doing so.
Whatever else it is, learning is emphatically not a race where you have to ‘catch up’ and even, in order to get the Gold Cup, overtake the people in front of you. Learning is going deep inside yourself without any knowledge of the square root of 23, or how to design a computer program, or how well the British Empire was doing in 1729; you do not have to ‘catch up’ with facts in order to learn about life. That’s Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times: ‘…Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them…’
In 1988 I concocted this Found Poem while reading Elizabeth von Arnim’s Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther
I could never be a schoolmistress
I should be afraid to teach
the children: they know more
than I do – they know
how to be happy;
how to live from day to day
in godlike indifference
to what may come next
and is not how to be happy
the secret we spend our lives
trying to guess?
why then should I by forcing them
to look through my stale eyes
show them as though through a dreadful
the terrific possibilities
the cruel explosiveness
of what they had been lightly tossing
to each other across the daisies
and thinking they were only toys!
There are, of course, certain things that are worth knowing from formal education but whatever it is one picks up and keeps inside oneself for more than a week is there by the accident of personal choice. For example, for nearly seventy years I have retained the knowledge that the Greek word from which the English word ‘school’ comes (and why it’s not spelt skool) is σχολη meaning ‘leisure’ – the long opportunity to toss ideas around ‘across the daisies’, time out to consider joyfully whatever takes your fancy. The stale-eyed ‘curriculum’, in relation to which it is suggested kids have to ‘catch up’ in these uncertain times, simply provides a set of hurdles to jump; the very word derives from the Latin meaning ‘racecourse’.
I have been a sergeant-instructor while doing so-called ‘National Service’, a degree-laden professional teacher in school and college, a teacher-trainer and a well-paid trainer in an industrial/commercial context as well as running my own private consultancy. During all that time I considered it my task to be helping learners to be ‘lightly tossing [ideas] to each other across the daisies…’ so they’d make sense of things for themselves.
ANWhitehead’s stress on converting ideas from being what he calls ‘inert’. undigested, into a vital part of oneself has been key to every bit of my thinking ever since I first read of it when I was about 20. In The Aims of Education (1929 – I have a copy of the first edition) he writes something I never tire of quoting:-
In training a child [or anybody] to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call ‘inert ideas’ – that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations…
Whitehead goes on to say that the result of much teaching is the ‘passive reception of disconnected ideas’. His remedy is what every person with a teaching role should have as a vital idea in their heads:-
Let the main ideas which are introduced into a child’s education be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible. The child should make them his own, and should understand their application here and now in the circumstances of his actual, life. People educated in the avoidance of inert ideas will be aware of the limitations of language, they will easily discard the emotive suggestive forces of modern techniques of persuasion, including the directly political, and thev will constantly be examining their ideas to see that they develop….’
Unless school education is about ‘the avoidance of inert ideas’, kids will not miss much by being 12 months out of the classroom. They just need to be encouraged to spend the time reading with a pen in their hand in order to write about what they read. Learning is silent absorption, not about being yakked at by a teacher.
In any case, as Whitehead asserts, ‘we should banish the idea of a mythical far-off end of education’. Whitehead’s general thesis, in The Aims of Education, is that we should aim at producing people who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction, not become loaded up with stuff they’ll never ever refer to again. Nearly a hundred years after Whitehead’s great text, the Power Possessors continue with the old lie that the main or only purpose of ‘education’ is the production of dutiful wage-slaves baring their breast to the winning tape, mounting the podium to collect the prize.
If the worst came to the worst the Power Possessors could simply suspend all formal education for a year and let kids take it up again where they left off the year before – give them all a sabbatical till the Plague dies down. It would just mean that all ‘education’ was abandoned for a year.