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.

Lessons From Books: The Power Of Myth

 

Joseph Campbell was a world-renowned teacher and mythologist. He spent much of his life studying and dissecting myths from all over the world. It was his belief that myths can act as blueprints for our lives by acting as a navigational tool. In the book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell sat down with the journalist, Bill Moyers, and discussed everything from the importance of mythology to why one should follow their bliss, to the meaning of life, the purpose of life and even topics such as nature, sin, morality, marriage, rituals and many more practical topics.

The following are a few lessons picked from the book.

Lessons:

On The Importance of Myths

Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.

Myths typically have a beginning, middle, and end. This complete picture can then act as a guide for us to follow as the hero deals with many failures and struggles. These can be as relatable as having to leave home and finding your own path in life, to managing the ego, or understanding harmful relationships, or maturing from naïve thinking, and so on. 

A heroic journey teaches us what is possible. What sacrifices to make. How many obstacles and failures we must overcome in order to reach our goal. More importantly, how we aren’t alone in our struggle. We can avoid certain hardships and/or emulate heroic decisions in our own life.

Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being divine.

Answers to most of our problems and concerns are already out there. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Stay Optimistic In The Darkest Of Times

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.

The transformation is only possible if we are willing to listen to the voice. We might not like what the voice has to say. The transformation might require us to confront our own issues, belief systems, ideologies, things that we have based our identity on.

Sometimes it is more comfortable to stay in the darkness. It may require a great struggle to move towards the light. This is where individual choice matters and personal ownership comes into play. 

Take Action

God must have known very well that man was going to eat the forbidden food. But it was by doing that that man became the initiator of his own life. Life really begins with that act of disobedience.

Our life begins when we take actions based on our own judgment. Our judgment may contradict the beliefs of other authority figures in our life however, this disobedience then allows us to claim both the success and failure in our life as our own and so creating our own way. 

One of the great challenges of life is to say “yeah” to that person or act or that condition which in your mind is the most abominable.

How To Live

Follow your passion:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Nurture experiences:

People say that we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Find your internal meaning, rather than seeking external meaning for life:

There’s no meaning. What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.

How To Improve Your Character

Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That’s why it’s good to be able to put yourself in a situation that will evoke higher nature rather than your lower.

Situations that will evoke our higher nature are often those which make us uncomfortable. They challenge our beliefs, our relationships, our commitment, and our mental fortitude. 

Life also tests our character, but it does so on its own accord. At random. So, instead of waiting for life to create challenges for us, which we might fail, it’s best to take responsibility and seek situations that make us uncomfortable so our higher nature can get more repetitions and be ready for the randomness of life. 

Listen To Yourself

If the person insists on a certain program and doesn’t listen to the demands of his own heart, he’s going to risk a schizophrenic crackup. Such a person has put himself off-center. The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for.

In order to be an individual, we have to listen to our own individual voice. This can be scary because that voice may go against what others have told us our entire life. However, it’s in the pursuit of our own individual needs do we come to live our own life. Otherwise, we are basically matching the steps of those who have come before us and living a life best suited for others. 

Different Parts Of Life Require A Different You

The tradition in India, for instance, of changing your whole way of dress, even changing your name, as you pass from one stage to another. When I retired from teaching, I knew that I had to create a new way of life, and I changed my manner of thinking about my life, just in terms of that notion — moving out of the sphere of achievement into the sphere of enjoyment and appreciation and relaxing to the wonder of it all.

What has helped us in the past may not help us in the present and could be outdated for the future. Actions, habits, belief systems, and relationships all fall in this realm of thinking.

We must constantly die one way or another to the selfhood already achieved.

The very thing that has had a direct impact on our past success can become the new barrier. 

To evolve out of this psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a death and resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey — leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.

Have A Private Place

This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

A place to decompress. A place to organize our thoughts. A place to plan future actions. A place to unpack experiences. A place that can keep us sane. Too often we delve into our phones, or computers when it is time to take a break. Instead, we need to deep dive into our own minds and spend some time observing ourselves. Through such a measure, maturity and growth can be achieved. 

How To Read

Sit in a room and read — and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. This realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, “Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did” — and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such poem — but he hasn’t said anything to you.

Commit to a line of thinking and let go. Every now and then we have to allow another person to lead us. Allow their words and thought processes to influence our own. This is a way to go deeper and find true value instead of staying on the surface and jumping from one line of thinking to another, from one writer to the next, and being unable to recall anything of substance. 

How To Become An Individual

[In Thus Spoke Zarathustra] Nietzsche describes what he calls the three transformations of the spirit. The first is that of the camel, of childhood and youth. The camel gets down on his knees and says, “put a load on me.” This is the season for obedience, receiving instruction and the information your society requires of you in order to live a responsible life.

But when the camel is well loaded, it struggles to its feet and runs out into the desert, where it is transformed into a lion — the heavier the load that has been carried, the stronger the lion will be. Now, the task of the lion is to kill a dragon, and the name of the dragon is “Thou Shalt.” On every scale of this scaly beast, a “Thou Shalt” is imprinted: some from four thousand years ago; others from this morning’s headlines. Whereas the camel, the child, had to submit to the “Thou Shalts,” the lion, the youth, is to throw them off and come to his own realization.

And so, when the dragon is throughly dead, with all its “Thou Shalts” overcome, the lion is transformed into a child moving out of its own nature, like a wheel impelled from its own hub. No more rules to obey. No more rules derived from the historical needs and tasks of the local society, but the pure impulse to living of a life in flower.

Accept Fate or Chance

This is a matter of being able to accept chance. The ultimate backing of life is chance — the chance that your parents met, for example! Chance, or what might seem to be chance, is the means through which life is realized. The problem is not to blame or explain but to handle the life that arises. Another war has been declared somewhere, and you are drafted into an army, and there go five or six years of your life with a whole new set of chance events. The best advice is to take it all as if it had been of your intention — with that, you evoke the participation of your will.

Life can be absurd and random. It can feel as if we have no control over it. However, the perspective of acting as if what happens in our life is what we intended can give us a sense of control. We don’t have to dwell on the pitfalls, instead we can make the best of a bad situation. We can bounce back into forward motion quickly instead of questioning fate or chance which will keep us stagnant. 

Also, by accepting fate, we get to live in the present. Instead of fighting the present moment because it doesn’t align with our past hopes, we can experience life as it is and live with awareness and attention.  

Think Positive

Ramakrishna once said that if all you think of are your sins, then you are a sinner. And when I read that, I thought of my boyhood, going to confession on Saturdays, meditating on all the little sins that I had committed during the week. Now I think one should go and say, “bless me, Father, for I have been great, these are the good things I have done this week.” Identify your notion of yourself with the positive, rather than with the negative.

Our internal dialogue influences our state of being. We can be overly self-critical and live with too much shame or guilt depending on how we talk to ourselves. This darkens the experience of life. Instead, self love needs to be administered. Ultimately we need a balance so we don’t become delusional or inflate our ego too much. But often we lean further towards the negative than we do towards the positive. 

Great Lines or Quotes:

You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

When you follow the path of your desire and enthusiasm and emotion, keep your mind in control, and don’t let it pull you compulsively into disaster.

You don’t understand death, you learn to acquiesce in death.

Freud tells us to blame our parents for all the shortcomings of our life, and Marx tell us to blame the upperclass of our society. But the only one to blame is oneself. That’s the helpful thing about the Indian idea of karma. Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.

I don’t think there is any such thing as an ordinary mortal. Everybody has his own possibility of rapture in the experience of life.

Love is the burning point of life, and since all life is sorrowful, so is love. The stronger the love, the more the pain.

Going through a ritual day after day keeps you on the line

When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life — well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.

Do not pluck the mote from your enemy’s eyes, but pluck the beam from your own. No one is in a position to disqualify his enemy’s way of life.