“In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing.”
“No one who looks to leisure simply to restore his working powers will ever discover the fruit of leisure; he will never know the quickening that follows almost as though from some deep sleep.”
Most of us probably know Aldous Huxley best for his works of fiction, novels such as Brave New World and Island in which he presented his visions of dystopia and utopia. But recently, with the resurgence of interest and research in psychedelics, his classic work of nonfiction, The Doors of Perception, is also gaining more attention and popularity. In it, he describes his experience with mescaline and his hypothesis that the brain acts as a reducing valve that decides which sensory perceptions and layers of consciousness to let in and which to shut out, and that psychedelics can temporarily open that valve. In general, Huxley got more and more interested in thinking about thinking in the latter half of his life.
Huxley considered some of the common schools of thought of his time, at all extremes of the spectrum, and was dismayed by their narrowness of opinion.
“Materialism and mentalism — the philosophies of ‘nothing but.’ How wearily familiar we have become with that ‘nothing but space, time, matter and motion,’ that ‘nothing but sex,’ that ‘nothing but economics’! And the no less intolerant ‘nothing but spirit,’ ‘nothing but consciousness,’ ‘nothing but psychology’ — how boring and tiresome they also are! ‘Nothing but’ […] lacks generosity. Enough of ‘nothing but.’ It is time to say again, with primitive common sense (but for better reasons), ‘not only, but also.’”
While he wrote these words about philosophy, the same concept applies to work and leisure. A “nothing but” mentality — from either perspective — is restrictive. A “not only, but also” mentality acknowledges the balance required to see both aspects of it.
Not only in philosophy but also in education was Huxley extremely concerned by his contemporaries’ lack of balance and “nothing but” mentality. He not only saw over-specialization and narrowness of opinion as issues in the common schools of thought, but he also considered them some of the greatest problems of education
“This is one of the great problems in education: Everything takes place in a pigeonhole. […] The pigeonholes must be there because we cannot avoid specialization, but what we do need in academic institutions now is a few people who run about on the woodwork between the pigeonholes, and peep into all of them and see what can be done, and who are not closed to disciplines which do not happen to fit into any of the categories considered as valid by the present educational system!”
Now more than ever, is it a viable — and smart — option to be the person who peeps into all the pigeonholes, running about on the woodwork. Time off allows you to calmly explore many domains and not get sucked into a single narrow specialization or just drown in general busyness.
To make progress in any skill or discipline, we need to integrate relaxation into our practice.
“Take the piano teacher, for example. He always says, Relax, relax. But how can you relax while your fingers are rushing over the keys? Yet they have to relax. The singing teacher and the golf pro say exactly the same thing. And in the realm of spiritual exercises we find that the person who teaches mental prayer does too. We have somehow to combine relaxation with activity.”
We have “to be relaxed in order that the multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self may come through and function as they should.”
And to integrate all the different ideas we get exposed to if we choose range over specialization, we need times of rest and silence. Huxley was a fan of classical music, and he saw the absence of sound as a crucial ingredient in this.
“Silence is an integral part of all good music. Compared with Beethoven’s or Mozart’s, the ceaseless torrent of Wagner’s music is very poor in silence. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it seems so much less significant than theirs. It ‘says’ less because it is always speaking.”
Huxley believed that the deepest feelings in our life, “from pure sensation to the intuition of beauty, from pleasure and pain to love and the mystical ecstasy and death,” can only be experienced, but not expressed. Experiencing the world requires us to occasionally get away from concepts and the “world of language” that most of us occupy most of the time, even more so now in our always-on always-connected culture than in Huxley’s time. This can only happen if we take time off to reflect, slow down, and let our internal world unfold.
sIn order to experience these mysteries of the human spirit, we sometimes have to give ourselves over to silence. Huxley takes us on a sensory journey when he writes,
“Moonless, this June night is all the more alive with stars. Its darkness is perfumed with faint gusts from the blossoming lime trees, with the smell of wetted earth and the invisible greenness of the vines. There is silence; but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly harps on the fact of its own deep perfection. Far away, the passage of a train is like a long caress, moving gently, with an inexorable gentleness, across the warm living body of the night.”
Huxley encourages us not only to seek variety, but also to occasionally enjoy the deep perfection of silence. Expose yourself to all the beautiful breadth the world has to offer, then take a step back and let it all sink in. To get away from the busyness, let work be a distant long caress, gently moving in the background for a while. The work you do is all the more creative and significant if it is interspersed with the silence of high-quality time off.
Practice: Peep into many pigeonholes.
Beware of narrowness of opinion and over-specialization. Use your time off to explore a wide variety of activities and ideas. And to avoid being overwhelmed by all the different impression, allow for plenty of time off and silence in between, to let all the different influences sink in and provide the foundation for creative incubation. Allow yourself plenty of rest and keep the law of reversed effort in mind: Don’t try too hard, or the result will actually be worse.
This article was part of an early draft of Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress by John Fitch and Max Frenzel, with illustrations by Mariya Suzuki, but did not make it through the final editing process. If you enjoyed this article, we are sure you’ll love the book as well.