As Gladstone Did Not Say4 min read

William Gladstone (1809-1898) was four times British Prime Minister, and arguably the greatest statesman of the century. His policies played a big part in preventing the revolution that Marx had foreseen. Gladstone coined many memorable phrases which were in constant use; in 1888: ‘I will back the masses against the classes.’

The interest for yoga is the extraordinary control that Gladstone exercised over his own mind. There is a striking example towards the end of his life when, as an old man, he saw his progressive programme voted down in Parliament for very dubious reasons, so that his government fell. How did he spend his weekend? Not in bitter recriminations against opponents: that artful, scheming Disraeli; not in foreseeing the country going to the dogs. In other words, not an angry old man’s typical outbursts when fate has turned against him.

No. He wrote a six thousand-word paper, in beautiful English, on the development of English church music during the 19th century, reaching the optimistic conclusion that it had improved, and was still improving.

This episode, along with some others in his life, shows the yogic virtues of one-pointed work with intense application, while in the background a serene detachment from the results, and with the ability to re-direct his energies, at will, to a completely different field.

Gladstone was given as an example by Dr. Shastri. On hearing these things one tends to feel inspired, for the moment, but when a real crisis comes it is all distant and remote. We find that we are not Gladstones or Napoleons or Senecas. It is true that this independence cannot be achieved through the application of sudden force. But it can be approached gradually. In the same way, most of us could not suddenly jog for a couple of miles. But, within a few months, with a gradual increase in runs, most of us could do it.

There is a simple exercise, given in one school, which takes ten minutes a day and, if persisted with, can give a good deal of inner control. The practice is this:

Take a period when you have nothing special to do, during which you would normally watch television, or glance at a newspaper, or maybe search out a neighbour for conversation. Of this free time, set aside just ten minutes in order to do something which ought to be done, but which presents itself as an unwelcome task, such as clearing a drawer, purging a pile of mixed paper-work, or returning calls that you have been deferring. Do something along these lines for just ten minutes, no more. Then return to what you were doing before. The ability to return on time is as important as the decision to begin the ten-minute task. Don’t think: ‘ Well, I didn’t want to do it, but now I’ve started I may as well finish the job.’ On the contrary, though the drawer is only half sorted, when the ten minutes is up close it. When you perform this practice, give your full attention to the small task you are performing – don’t think of other things. After all, it is only for ten minutes. Then switch your attention away from the task, and back to your previous stream of thought.

Take it as internal traffic lights at a junction. There is a steady stream along the main road but, from time to time, the lights change, and for a brief period there is a cross-flow from the side road.

If a practice such as this is persisted with over a period of time, the practitioner will find, to his or her great surprise, that events are losing their power to disturb. If the post comes with an unexpected letter while we are making breakfast, when the coffee is boiling over and the toast burning and the fried egg sizzling, we don’t break off to rush and get it, coming back to tear it open amidst a welter of spilt coffee and burnt toast and blackened fried egg. We find that we can let it rest there while we finish breakfast, and then go and get it. And perhaps, when we get it and find that it begins ‘Unfortunately’, we are not so upset. And, if disaster comes, a quick recovery is assured.

As Gladstone did say, in 1866: ‘Time is on our side.’

© 1999 Trevor Leggett