cabin in the woods

Living Deliberately: Excerpts in Mindfulness from Walden

cabin in the woods

Photo by Anne Nygard

Guest Post by Shane Ledford, CMT-200, CYT-200

Besides Star Trek and Star Wars, another of my earliest introductions to mindfulness (while not realizing it at the time) was from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Reading it many years ago during a 19th-century American Literature graduate semester, I was drawn to Thoreau’s notion of abandoning the comforts of modern life and living simply… to hopefully discover what one might find within their own consciousness.

Thoreau was almost 28-years-old when he went to live at Walden Pond in 1845 after experiencing many challenges in his young life… including the loss of his brother, John, who was also his best friend. He wanted to leave that despondent life behind him and ruminated, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

He built a small, modest cabin near Walden Pond and journaled about the two years he lived there… and fabulously (and, now, famously) announced: “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.” Every time I read or hear that passage, I am struck by the profound beauty in it – and I ponder: what does it mean to live deliberately… and do we have to build a cabin in the woods to do it?

For me, living deliberately means to have the intention that I am going to live my life fully in the moment while also being aware of that moment… and changing the things along the way that may not be helping me live deliberately. Sure, I might be able to live deliberately in a cabin in the woods, but perhaps I should focus more of trying to live deliberately with my present surroundings, relationships, and whatever tasks I do and may be asked to do (while realizing I can modify any of these situations if needed and deem necessary to help with living more deliberately). Granted, there will be obstacles that will interfere with this intention (just as I know there would also be hurdles if choosing to live in a cabin in the woods), but when this happens, I hope I also can deliberately meet these challenges with equanimity.

While Thoreau did escape to the woods on a path of self-discovery, we can, instead, perhaps reflect on his experiences described in Walden and use the book as an instruction manual on how to live more deliberately, while also garnering a greater appreciation for Nature. There are many different philosophical and societal themes he offers in the book, and you may discover others upon your own reading. I thought I would offer a few of these themes and how they relate to mindfulness. Since I find his words to be so poetic and thought provoking, I thought I would let him do most of the talking with just a little bit of commentary from me.

Solitude Can Help with Being in the Present Moment

lake cabin at dusk

Photo by Joe Pohle

Walden has chapters titled “Sounds” and “Solitude” where Thoreau described vividly what he noticed when he was just still and noticed. While there were many observations of his natural surroundings, he also contemplated several bigger questions in life… all because he was being still. He did take many walks into town (which was less than two miles away) where he visited with people and his family… but he truly treasured the times when he was alone in his cabin, in the woods, on the lake, or tending to his bean field:

  • I love to be alone.”
  • “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
  • For the rest of the long afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway.”

Being alone is not the same as being lonely… and we all can’t escape to our own Walden Pond, or a bamboo hut on a deserted island, or a chalet in Switzerland for two years… but we can take frequent short breaks. Maybe just do brief solitary “retreats” at home. Turn off the television and devices for awhile. Meditate. Have a mindful cup of tea. Do some gentle yoga or other mindful movements, or go for a walk. Sit on your patio or porch, or on a park bench for awhile and just notice the external world and the internal one. It doesn’t have to be a long amount of time. Even a few minutes is better than none at all. Perhaps even let your family or partner know you occasionally need some “alone time,” and maybe let them know times and days of when you would like to schedule for those moments to  be.

The more that we are quiet and alone with ourselves we may begin to notice things within and outside of us we may have not noticed before. For Thoreau, these moments of solitude allowed him to be more mindful and aware of the present moment… and it allowed him to awaken his conscious and discover new things about himself:

  • 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.”
  • “There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment.”
  • We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities.”
  • In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too: to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment.”
  • “The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.”
  • “Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me.”
  • “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
  • “I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness.”
  • “One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl…and he began to nod. … I too felt a slumberous influence after watching him half an hour.”
  • For hours, in fall days, I watched the ducks.”

It was these moments of stillness and observances in Nature that Thoreau understood how beneficial it could be.

Nature Is Good for Us

During his time at Walden Pond over 175 years ago, Thoreau had observations that we are just now starting to realize:

  • We need the tonic of wildness.”
  • “We can never have enough of Nature.
  • “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.”
  • “To anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but if possible, Nature herself!”

There actually was a time, in the early weeks after arriving at Walden, that Thoreau questioned whether he made the right decision to embark on his two-year journey, but:

In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficial society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, and infinite and uncontrollable friendliness all at once like and atmosphere sustain me…and I have never thought them since.

I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips.  I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. … Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.  She has long ago taken her resolution.

While fishing from his boat one evening under the moonlight he noticed “in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmological themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again.”

There were many times Thoreau described going on deliberate walks even in very deep snow just “to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” He was practicing shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing) 100 years before it was invented in Japan:

  • “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.  I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.”
  • “I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do.”
  • Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”

The longer he was in Nature, the more he appreciated how the animals lived and felt that we all should learn from their simplicity.

Live Simply

Not only did Thoreau mean to have less material clutter and live a more minimalist lifestyle (and his cabin was very much that), but he also thought we should clear out the clutter of unnecessary and non-beneficial thoughts that occupy the house of our mind:

  • “Our life is frittered away by detail. …. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”
  • “Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe.”
  • “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances.”
  • “I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”
  • “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
  • “To enjoy lifes immensity, you do not need many things.”
  • “Simplify, simplify.”

Reading Walden reminds me (and others) a lot of my favorite Japanese 18th-century Zen priest-poet, Taigu Ryokan, who also chose a simple life of solitude in Nature, and wrote of his experiences. Thoreau was familiar with Buddhism and Hinduism, and even had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with him in the cabin. Both of these ancient traditions are the foundations of mindfulness, and both of them discuss the importance of intentions.

Planting Seeds of Intentions

beans growing in a garden

Photo by Pauline Bernard

In Walden, Thoreau mentioned seeds (specifically bean seeds) many times, and even has a chapter entitled “The Bean-Field.” While this was his attempt to show how frugally he lived off the land, it was also a metaphor for his transcendental growth:

  • “I have always cultivated a garden.”
  • “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?”
  • “I came to love my rows, my beans. … They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.”
  • “Many think seeds improve with age. I have no doubt that time discriminates between the good and the bad: and when at last I shall plant, I shall be less likely to be disappointed.”

Since he did not have animals, people, or machinery to help him with the bean field, it was a meditative practice in self-discipline for him because, “I was much slower, and became more intimate with my beans than usual.  But labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness. It has a constant and imperishable moral.”

The bean field also allowed him to reflect on the interconnectedness he had with Nature, as well as the realization that he could not control Nature… but he could control his response to whatever Nature threw at him. Nature allowed him to practice equanimity:

  • “These beans have results which are not harvested by me.  Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? …How, then, can our harvest fail?  Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?”
  • “While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.  The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in my house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too.  Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is far more worth than my hoeing.  If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the low lands, it will still be good for the grass in the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me.”

These bean seed and field passages (and others) in Walden remind me of this excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Understanding Our Own Mind, in which he writes:

Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown — seeds of compassion, joy, and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties. Every day our thoughts, words, and deeds plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness, and what these seeds generate becomes the substance of our life. … The practice of mindfulness helps us identify all the seeds in our consciousness and with that knowledge we can choose to water only the ones that are most beneficial.  As we cultivate the seeds of joy and transform seeds of suffering in ourselves, understanding, love, and compassion will flower. … We need only to water the seeds of happiness, and avoid watering the seeds of suffering.  

After two years Thoreau was done with his Walden experiment and said, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

He had turned 30-years-old a few months later, and it is apparent that his time spent at Walden Pond and in Nature transformed him. We are fortunate to have had his experience shared with us. I have read Walden numerous times, and each time it teaches something new and speaks to me differently… and it even resonates more with me now as I have gotten older. If you haven’t read it in awhile (or at all), I invite you to visit the book (and a free digital copy was linked above) to see what it might offer you. Maybe, after reading, you may also come to recognize, as I did, that “the universe is wider than our views of it” and “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

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