Henry David Thoreau

Henry_David_Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American mystic, author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian. A leading transcendentalist, Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.

Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and “Yankee” love of practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.

He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau is sometimes cited as an anarchist. Though Civil Disobedience seems to call for improving rather than abolishing government — “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government”— the direction of this improvement points toward anarchism: “‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” Richard Drinnon partly blames Thoreau for the ambiguity, noting that Thoreau’s “sly satire, his liking for wide margins for his writing, and his fondness for paradox provided ammunition for widely divergent interpretations of ‘Civil Disobedience.’

Henry David Thoreau lived in the mid-nineteenth century during turbulent times in America. He said he was born “in the nick of time” in Concord, Massachusetts, during the flowering of America when the transcendental movement was taking root and when the anti-slavery movement was rapidly gaining momentum.

Thoreau’s contemporaries and neighbors were Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was at once philosopher and naturalist; abolitionist and teacher; scientist and moralist; poet and surveyor; pencil maker and author. It is perhaps the many “lives” of Thoreau, both individually and collectively, that beckon such a diversity of people to his writings.

Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically afterwards. In 1859, following a late-night excursion to count the rings of tree stumps during a rain storm, he became ill with bronchitis. His health declined over three years with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Recognizing the terminal nature of his disease, Thoreau spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished works, particularly The Maine Woods and Excursions, and petitioning publishers to print revised editions of A Week and Walden. He also wrote letters and journal entries until he became too weak to continue. His friends were alarmed at his diminished appearance and were fascinated by his tranquil acceptance of death. When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded: “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” Aware he was dying, Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing . . .”

Unquestionably, Thoreau enjoys greater national and international popularity today than ever before. His books are selling at an unprecedented rate. People are particularly drawn to his belief of finding spirituality in nature-a philosophy woven throughout his books and essays. As our lives become ever more complex, we hunger for simplicity and a communion with nature that Thoreau insists will lead to truth and spiritual renewal.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau

https://www.walden.org/thoreau

Regarding the mysticism of Henry David Thoreau:

Thoreau was influenced by Indian spiritual thought. In Walden, there are many overt references to the sacred texts of India. For example, in the first chapter (“Economy”), he writes: “How much more admirable the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East!” American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia classes him as one of several figures who “took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world,” also a characteristic of Hinduism.

Furthermore, in “The Pond in Winter”, he equates Walden Pond with the sacred Ganges river, writing:

“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahmaand Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”

Additionally, Thoreau followed various Hindu customs, including following a diet of rice (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India.”), flute playing (reminiscent of the favorite musical pastime of Krishna), and yoga.

In an 1849 letter to his friend H.G.O. Blake, he wrote about yoga and its meaning to him:

“Free in this world as the birds in the air, disengaged from every kind of chains, those who practice yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruits of their works. Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. The yogi, absorbed in contemplation, contributes in his degree to creation; he breathes a divine perfume, he hears wonderful things. Divine forms traverse him without tearing him, and united to the nature which is proper to him, he goes, he acts as animating original matter. To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.”

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau

Did Thoreau have mystical experiences during his years exploring nature? William James thought so. In his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James pulls this passage from Walden:

“Once, a few weeks after I came to the woods, for an hour I doubted whether the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was somewhat unpleasant. But in the midst of a gentle rain, while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sight and sound around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once, like an atmosphere, sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.”

In a PDF entitled Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness, by Alan Hodder, the subject of Thoreau’s mysticism is examined at length. Here is an excerpt:

“Thoreau [was] a major source of modern American impatience with institutional religion—its ecclesiastical forms, traditions, and theology. The creeds and revelations of the past were certainly matters of perennial interest to him, but their authority paled next to the disclosures of his own private ‘‘ecstatic’’ experience. The reference here and in my title to the term ecstasy is entirely founded upon Thoreau’s own usage in his journals and elsewhere in his writings, where it designates certain privileged experiences of unknown origin that from an early age fired his imagination and inspired some of his most distinctive prose. More to the point, these inevitable experiences must also be seen as the central facts of Thoreau’s spiritual life—the fuel of his religious yearning and the foundation for his religious reflection. When he mourns the recession of boyhood euphoria in the journals of 1851, when he speculates on riverside reflections in the Concord River in A Week, when he writes cryptically of being a ‘‘spectator’’ to his own thoughts and actions in Walden —it is these experiences of ecstasy to which he implicitly refers. The term itself has a long and interesting pedigree in both literary and religious sources in the West, but it was conditioned for him by the writings of Wordsworth and Emerson in particular, and later, by his selective reading of certain Hindu contemplative texts. It derived, he knew, from the Greek ekstasis —to stand or set apart—and this root meaning perfectly epitomized for him the strange and unsettling experiences of contemplative detachment and disjunctive perception that seem so characteristic of his mature vision. Thoreau’s journal, in particular, preserves traces of these momentous experiences, whether in the form of carefully crafted epiphanies, meditative evocations, or wrenching elegiac recollections. While the spontaneity and intensity of these experiences began to taper off by the late 1840s, they made a deep and lasting impression on his religious sensibility, philosophical outlook, and literary imagination. It is clear from his representations of these episodes between 1837, when he began keeping his journal, and 1851, when he experienced their dramatic recrudescence, that the nature of these experiences tended to change somewhat with the passage of time. At whatever period though, such episodes appear to have involved exquisitely refined modes of sensory perception, particularly of hearing; a sharply altered sense of self; heightened forms of insight; and an exalted appreciation of the beauty of the natural world. It is also abundantly clear from the journalistic record that Thoreau found himself most susceptible to these moods of transport during his daily excursions among the woods and pasturelands surrounding his home. While no one can say with certainty how or why these experiences arose—perhaps not even Thoreau himself could have—it is easy enough to see that they came to function as a kind of rudder for all this subsequent religious reflection.”

http://www.yale.edu/yup/pdf/089597_front_1.pdf

Another dissertation on the topic of Thoreau’s mysticism can be found here:

https://cardinalscholar.bsu.edu/handle/handle/177252

In a piece entitled “Thoreau, Mystic of Walden and Beyond”, by the famous contemporary Rumi translator Coleman Barks, the relationship between Thoreau and his friend and correspondent Harrison Blake, is likened to that of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. An example here:

“What a difference, whether, in all your walks, you meet only strangers, or in one house is one who knows you, and whom you know. How rare these things are! To share the day with you, to people the earth. Would not a friend enhance the beauty of the landscape as much as a deer or a hare? Everything would acknowledge and serve such a relation; the corn in the field, and the cranberries in the meadow. The flowers would bloom, and the birds sing, with a new impulse. There would be more fair days in the year. The object of love expands and grows before us to eternity, until it includes all that is lovely, and we become all that can love.”

http://www.sevenpillarshouse.org/article/thoreau_mystic_of_walden_and_beyond/

Another e-book on the subject, Thoreau’s Quest – Mysticism in the Life and Writings of Henry David Thoreau, by Paul Hourihan, can be found here:

http://www.vedanticshorespress.com/our-publications/thoreaus-quest/

More excerpts from his writings:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

“The life in us is like the water in the river, it may rise this year higher than ever it was known to before and flood the uplands—even this may be the eventful year — and drown out all our muskrats There are as many strata at different levels of life as there are leaves in a book. Most men probably have lived in two or three. When on the higher levels we can remember the lower levels, but when on the lower we cannot remember the higher.”

“The fact is I am a mystic—a transcendentalist—& a natural philosopher to boot.”

“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can let alone.”

“Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

“Every child begins the world again.”

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined. As you simplify life… the laws of the universe will be simpler.”

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

“I cannot make my days longer, so I strive to make them better.”

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is where they should be… Now put foundations under them.”

“It is not the length of life, but depth of life.”

“It takes two to speak truth, one to speak and another to listen.”

“It’s not what you look at that matters… It’s what you see.”

“Let go of the past and go for the future.”

“Man emulates Earth. Earth emulates Heaven. Heaven emulates the Way. The Way emulates Nature.”

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

“Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.”

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.”

“This world is but a canvas to our imaginations.”

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”

“You must not only aim alright, but draw the bow with all your might.”

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”

“Be yourself- not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.”

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.”

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”

“All good things are wild and free.”

“There is no remedy for love, but to love more.”

“I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

“I am a happy camper so I guess I’m doing something right. Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”

“Not till we are completely lost or turned around… do we begin to find ourselves.”

“However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its doors as early in the spring. Cultivate property like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts… Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”

“We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success.”

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

“I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. ”

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”

“I can alter my life by altering my attitude. He who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers.”

“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.”

“It is never too late to give up your prejudices.”

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”

“When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

“Amid a world of noisy, shallow actors it is noble to stand aside and say, ‘I will simply be.”

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual…O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”

“It is not that we love to be alone, but that we love to soar, and when we do soar, the company grows thinner and thinner until there is none at all. …We are not the less to aim at the summits though the multitude does not ascend them.”

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About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have several other sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: http://www.pbase.com/1heart Essays on the Conscious Process: http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/ Poetry and Prosetry: http://feelingtoinfinity.wordpress.com/ Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: https://westernmystics.wordpress.com/ Free Transliterations of Spiritual Texts: http://freetransliterations1.blogspot.com/ Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: https://spiritguidesparrow.wordpress.com/ Thank You!
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