One Thing at a Time
I had driven out to see my friend Cooper and found him in the garden. The first flush of early June was over everything and I was overwhelmed to the point of confusion by the wealth of beauty on every hand.
Cooper, in that quick way he has, instantly saw how I felt and snapping off a single spray of hawthorn, he held it up against the clear blue of the sky. With pure delight I saw its outline down to the smallest detail in vivid contrast against the blue. No longer distracted by other objects, I viewed that single gem of beauty in its entirety at a glance and was lost in admiration.
The petals in their snow-white purity, the glossy green of the newly-opened leaves, the balance and the unity of all parts, held my attention as by a magic spell. My eyes with keen appreciation roved from point to point. Then came the question — Why?
Why should a single spray hold me entranced, while the garden, seen as a whole, left me bewildered and oppressed?
As usual, my friend had his answer ready to hand.
"My dear fellow, it's all a question of concentration. Your mind, confined to a single twig, has been able to absorb the peculiar charms of that detail because there were no overlapping impressions from other sources to interfere with their appeal. And this practice of controlling the mind's tendency to wander may be applied with advantage to other departments of life.
"We often fail to be interested in our work simply because our minds are wandering all over the world. But keep your attention on what you are doing, try to economize your materials, reduce unnecessary motions, devise small improvements, and what was drudgery before, becomes interesting all of a sudden. Your aches and pains are all forgotten as you bend your energies on the ideal method, slowly taking shape in your mind. Make the most of your time because you are likely to get a chance of work, for the man whose mind is centered on his job, is always being hunted down for promotion to better things by all who are engaged in production of any kind.
"Every branch of study," he continued, "attracts its crowd of eager students, and seeing that one's own mind cannot be very different from other people's minds, we have the delightful prospect of eventually finding an absorbing interest in every line of investigation that has ever been followed by our fellow-men.
"Once you get anyone to give his undivided attention to anything, even though only for a moment — he is caught. But the trouble is that the attention is divided, and the momentary glance penetrates no deeper than the surface. But concentration may be carried too far, and though the mind may be confined with advantage to one subject, it is fatal to try to nail the mind down to one detail of that subject as an exercise in mental gymnastics. There must be no strain, for the mind is like a swallow and will not tolerate close confinement. Turn a horse into a paddock and he will be happy, because though the area is limited, yet within those limits he is free to move about; but tie that horse to a post and the poor beast will suffer; and the illustration exactly applies to the mind."
"Old man," I said; "you are quite right. I had to get up a speech on Peace the other day. What did I do? I concentrated on the general subject — allowed my mind to range within the limits of my subject; but did not nail it down to any particular point. Thoughts soon began to flow in to the focus I had made, and every thought that I could use, I seized. "Concentration is the Soul's method of gaining knowledge through its instrument the mind, and, restricted to one field of inquiry, it seems to start a kind of vortex or whirlpool that sucks in illustrative material, lines of suggestion, associated ideals, you may almost say Facts. It does at all events put you in the way of obtaining definite information and quite by "accident" you light on scraps in the newspapers, helpful books and snatches of conversation, which furnish you with the very clues that you require.
"And I verily believe that if our minds were bent with singleness of purpose on the pursuit of the Chief Good, whatever name we choose to call it by, every event of our lives would fall into line with our fixed resolution and help to speed us on our way."
"I quite agree," rejoined Cooper, "but don't you think we sometimes spoil these things by trying to put them into words? No preaching in my garden if I can help it. Come and see my new frog-pond."
And dashing down a winding path shaded by hazel-branches, he disappeared from view, whooping like a school-boy just out of school. I followed.
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