What Does Back to Walden Mean?

Chapter 1, Part 2 

I was born a century after Thoreau’s Walden experiment began. I spent much of my early life flitting aimlessly through the disappointment, frustration, mayhem, and pathos of a much more complicated world than Walden Pond in 1845. After those early years adrift, I was motivated, like Thoreau, to rebel against the deeply shallow culture I saw in America. Like Thoreau, I thirsted after something truer, more meaningful, more plumb. But, unlike Thoreau, I didn’t know where to look.

Thoreau's Cabin

I asked myself, “What if you could build Thoreau’s cabin in your head and then live there for the rest of your life?”

Then, in the fall of 2008, inspired by a disease as deadly as Thoreau’s own TB and by the dog-eared edition of Walden I kept beside my bed, I started building my own Walden-like shelter. Except mine was metaphysical, not physical. I asked myself, “What if you could build Thoreau’s cabin, complete with everything it means, in your head? And what if you could live there for the rest of your life?”

To build that mental structure, I recycled some of the symbolic lumber, bricks, and mortar from Thoreau’s own cabin. That is, his Transcendentalism. The spiritual energy that was its basic tenet. His wonder of nature. The Buddhism he studied. Some meditation techniques known to him. Self-awareness. And his hankering for life’s essential truths.

What I am attempting to fabricate with these materials is the stuff of Walden, Thoreau’s dream of simple well-being for us all. Just as Thoreau used the natural resources around Walden Pond to raise his own house, I used Thoreau’s natural resources to raise my own consciousness, which was what his house signified anyway.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

My new cabin is built upon a foundation of Thoreau’s Transcendentalism, whose groundwork was cobbled together from such wide-flung sources as Plato, Buddhism, Hinduism, Emmanuel Kant, Quakerism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Romanticism, and Unitarianism. Basically, Transcendentalism holds that an ideal spiritual state transcends the emotional turmoil triggered by culture and society. In the Transcendental view, we achieve spiritual insight through personal intuition rather than religious doctrine.

“Trust thyself,” as Emerson wrote in Self Reliance. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

My little cabin is framed by Buddhism’s simple but profound meditation techniques, capable of sheltering us from the pain, confusion, and disappointment of everyday life. Meditation is an architecture for living contentedly. Then I enclose this framework in the simple way of life practiced by Thoreau at Walden Pond, which serves as the rustic finishing carpentry.

My inner cabin is wired with a constant flow of spiritual energy, most evident in places such as the Grand Canyon, but crackling through the circuitry of everywhere. Some call it the “current of life.” We can open this flow of sacred current through simple awareness and, second by second, transcend the apparent confusion and chaos of the world.  

Such is my blueprint, the mental structure, of my new home. It’s a method for the madness of the world.

As Kahlil Gibran described this kind of mindful construction project in The Prophet: “Build of your imaginings a bower in the wilderness ere you build a house within the city walls.”

By living in this Walden-like abode, I feel as though I’m seeing the world through Thoreau’s own eyes in 1845. Perhaps spurred on by the life-threatening TB he contracted as a young man, Thoreau approached Walden Pond with lightning-rod intensity. He yearned to hover above life, elevated by his own powerful intuition, gauging truth with his own inner “Realometer,” as he called it. He longed to find a more authentic meaning than the shallow ambitions hawked by our “unwieldy and overgrown establishment.” He ached to cleave actuality from illusion. To ferret out substance in “a life frittered away by detail.” He wanted all people to “live simply and wisely.”

John Travolta's house: "Most things are much easier acquired than gotten rid of"

With such wisdom in mind, I am forever thankful, in a camel-passing-through-the-eye-of-a-needle sort of way, for how little I have. Most things are “much easier acquired than gotten rid of,” Thoreau teased. Accordingly, I have spent much of the last decade downsizing my life and discarding all my prized possessions, whose only worth was the heavy burden of owning them. As Thoreau himself might have said with his passion for wordplay, I have forsaken all my valued keepsakes for the sake of keeping all my values.

I have heeded Thoreau’s witty advice to “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes!” That means dodging weddings, job interviews, and funerals with equal gusto. In his memory, I shun all malls at all cost and pawn off my unneeded clothes on those who will have them. In all, I have reduced my state of ownership to a much less onerous state. But still I have too much.

“My greatest skill is to want but little,” Thoreau cracked. “I found thus that I have been a rich man without any damage to my poverty.”

Because he lived down to his extremely low standard of living, Thoreau was considered a failure in his own time by almost everyone but himself. With Thoreau as my role model, he has made me eternally grateful for how little I’ve managed to achieve while chasing the mirage of success for so many decades. In much the same way that amputees suffer phantom pains from their missing limbs, success triggers phantom fantasies from its missing happiness.

Building Thoreau’s metaphysical cabin in my head with the natural resources described in Walden is a labor of love. That being so, how can you build your own labor of love? Read the next section to find out.