Lessons From Books: Walden

Henry David Thoreau famously encapsulated two years of his life in a book called Walden. The name derives from Walden Pond near which Thoreau lived in a cabin for those two years as he practiced his minimalist philosophy. And as one would assume, the book focuses on Thoreau’s observations on his philosophy, and additionally, the importance of nature, and the uniqueness of the present moment and everyday life. But there is also a significant attempt by Thoreau to not only find his individuality but to embolden it, strengthen it, and become an individual. It is this notion of individuality that is the focus of this post.

Lessons:

Importance Of Self Reflection

I should not talk so much about myself if there was anybody else whom I knew as well.

In Walden, Thoreau is constantly dissecting his beliefs and ideas, exploring his likes and interest, and most importantly, questioning himself. The reason for this is that you will never know anyone as well as you’ll know yourself. Thoreau understood this idea and wished to understand himself completely, hence why he ventured into the woods and live alone with his thoughts.

We can question other people’s motives and beliefs, discuss their actions, and speculate on their behaviours but mostly the conversation hovers on the surface because we haven’t experienced what the other person has, we don’t know the thoughts they were having when they acted; we don’t know the thoughts they have when they’re alone; we don’t know what their beliefs systems are. But you can know these things about yourself.

Self-reflection should be a vital part of your day-to-day. Journaling is one way to explore yourself. Question yourself. Write down your thoughts and see what you’re really thinking. Do the same with your opinions and beliefs and study them. Where did they come from? Who influenced them? Why do you believe in the thing that you do? What caused you to act in a manner that results in shame and guilt afterward? Why do certain things make you angry? What makes you happy? What gives you the feeling of fulfillment? Why aren’t you doing more of that? What’s precious about life? How can I make each day more vivid?

Thoreau kept a journal with him the entire time he was at Walden. The journal is full of his daily observation of himself and of his environment and life. This journal was a tool to build his own character, to find his individuality, to reinforce who he wanted to be.

You would do a disservice to yourself if you are not dissecting and exploring your own being because there is only person you can ever come close to knowing fully, and that is yourself.

Solitude is another way to achieve this goal.

I had withdrawn so far within the great ocean of solitude, into which rivers of society empty, that for the most part, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sediment was deposited around me. Beside, there were wafted to me a evidence of unexplored and uncultivated continents on the other side.

We constantly distract ourselves with societal needs and influences. Especially in our current age where from the morning alarm bell to the time you go to bed, there is this need to go online and scroll through social media, surf the web anytime you find yourself alone, or have some free time. You can turn these moments into an exploration of your own needs and exert your own influence. Sit alone with your thoughts, be mindful of what is happening inside your heads, reflect upon your past actions and future intentions. Have solitude from the outside world.

Cultivate solitude so you can cultivate yourself. My belief is that the better you understand yourself, the better you understand your fellow man because we are all the same. So through solitude, you gain universal understanding and become closer with other people, and not just yourself.  

Influence Your Thoughts, Don’t Let Your Thoughts Influence You

What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates his fate.

The stories we tell ourselves can either put limitations on us or liberate us. If we are constantly talking down to ourselves, pointing out the things that we cannot do or aren’t good at, it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy where we act out in ways that will eventually lead to failure. Then we look at them as examples to affirm our negative thought process. If you don’t monitor your thoughts and allow all the negative ones to roam free, then they can cause you to self-sabotage.

Be careful what thoughts you repeat and reinforce. One way to apply your own influence is through self-affirmation practice. The famous writer, Scott Adams, would write the following sentence upwards of fifteen times a day: “I Scott Adams will become a syndicated cartoonist.” This positive affirmation would then have a trickle-down effect where Adams took actions to affirm this sentence. Affirmations can work for your career goals, as Adams suggests, but they can also work on your character traits and behaviours.

Another way to influence your thoughts is through mindfulness or detachment, where you view your thoughts from a third-person perspective and discard the ones that you wouldn’t want your friends or family members to have. 

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts.

Find Your Own Beat

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

Thoreau left behind society in large and spent two years alone in a cabin because that is the beat he heard. The intuition he felt he needed to follow. Many people would consider this to be a form of madness, but for Thoreau, the daily grind of life in the city was madness, so he followed his own path. In doing so, he emboldened his individualism.

There are a lot of unknowns in life, so it makes sense why people follow their companions down whatever road they are going. It is the safer decision. But by doing so, you can miss out on the opportunity to explore what makes you feel alive. What makes life feel special to you. These types of sensations are more vivid when you decide to listen to your own beat, your own needs, and follow them regardless of the direction your peers took.

Have An Imbalance Between Comfort and Discomfort

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

Most luxuries and comforts help ease life and bring immediate pleasure. The desire for luxuries and comfort often comes from our focus on external pleasure. Our concern with appearances, reputation, and competition with others. But if you shift that focus from the external to the internal, and concentrate on what will help you grow, then luxury items take a backseat to real challenges like facing your fears. The individual grows through the discomfort, as Thoreau demonstrated by venturing away from daily comforts. It is in the struggle when we see who we are and decide whether we like that person.

Need to achieve an imbalance where there is more discomfort than comfort. Or at the very least, have pockets of time dedicated to making your life more uncomfortable. Exercising is a good way to practice this. We can view it as an hour of discomfort where you chose exercises and workouts that challenge your weaknesses and test your mind. Through these tests, we can elevate our person.

Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries.

This imbalance of priorities and overabundance of pleasure can distract you from the real aim which is to grow as an individual.

Need an Aim in Life

In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.

Reminder to set lofty goals and high personal standards. People often aim for low goals because that comes with lesser pain when we fail. The higher the aim, the higher the disappointment, but equally, the higher the fulfillment. So, not only is it important to have aims, but have to make sure the aims are high so you give yourself an opportunity to experience life to its fullest. Even the pain of failing to achieve your aim is a blessing, for feelings are so vivid, so life-affirming to the individual.

Have Faith

That if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Is Having A Conscience Worth The Trouble?

Do we innately know right from wrong? Is that what a conscience is? Is our conscience shaped by our environment? If so, would it not be compromised by the biases held by our environment?

I wonder about these things because it was Henry David Thoreau’s belief that we should act upon what we believe to be right, regardless of what the law says. Thoreau wasn’t just all talk either, for he served time in prison for his refusal to pay his taxes because those taxes would then fund the American-Mexican war which he opposed. So, the man stood by his principles and acted upon them. That’s very commendable. But there aren’t many individuals like Thoreau. I would classify Thoreau as a true individual because he was able to unpack what he desired, what he needed, what he wanted, what principles structured his life and what his limitations were.

All of this came from his deep self reflective nature, much of this is documented in his essay Walden where he spent two years living in a cabin. Thoreau was able to dissect himself and in doing so, came to the understanding that we should be governed first and foremost by our conscience.

But most people are not like Thoreau. Many of us rely on others to tell us what we should believe in and what we should oppose, the hive mind is real. The principles that structure our lives are set by other people, from the laws we follow, the way we behave, what we believe to be right and wrong, all of this is downloaded into us from a young age. Unlike Thoreau, who uploaded his own beliefs, we spend most of our time following trends set by others and in doing so, we get further and further away from our conscience.

Thoreau believed that corporations, like the government, don’t have a conscience but if we have individuals with a conscience in a corporation, then, that corporation could become conscientious. Such ideals are great but the issue isn’t the corporation, it is the individual. How can the corporation be expected to be conscientious when most people rarely find their conscience?

Thoreau was just one of the few who troubled himself in the search for his conscience but who knows if it’s worth the trouble. Life is definitely easier if you just go along with the trend. But is that really living or is that just existing?

Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. it is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily agents of injustice. (Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience). 

 

 

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