Thoreau’s Method for the Madness of the World

Chapter 2, Part 6

Thoreau’s method for treating our “lives of quiet desperation” is even more fundamentally sound than the tight little cabin he built on Walden Pond. Live simply and wisely. Seek your muse in nature. Follow the genius of your own intuition. Lead a mindful life. Regenerate your soul with spiritual energy. Reduce existence to its basics. Challenge the status quo. Shun materialism and luxury. Raise your consciousness with every thought you make. Meditate. And, faced with any problem, gauge fact or fiction with your own inner “Realometer.”

Walden Woods by Prescott Gibbons

Walden Woods by Prescott Gibbons

All this methodology was embodied by Thoreau’s cabin. To embrace Thoreau’s way of life, just think of all these elements, these un-materialistic materials, as the foundation stones; the bricks, mortar, lumber; the windows, shingles, nails, and plaster of his little house. Then put it all together, and live there from now on, using the three tools – True Thought, True Energy, True Insight – which I will detail in chapters 4, 5, and 6.

“In Walden,” wrote Fordham University’s Jonathan Levin, “Thoreau uses his retreat to the woods as a way of framing a reflection on both what ails men and women in their contemporary condition and what might provide relief…Thoreau did as much as anyone to define the problem for Americans and to insist on the ultimate value of every individual’s vigorous and creative energy, even in the face of persistent dehumanization and despair.”

Thoreau’s own “vigorous and creative energy” was inexhaustible, even in the face of persistent disease. Thoreau suffered from TB for all his adult life and died of it on May 6, 1862, at the age of 45. Accounts of his final conversations reveal the Zen of Thoreau throughout his days.

On Thoreau’s death bed one of his friends, Parker Pillsbury, told him that “You seem so near the brink of the dark river, I almost know the opposite shore may appear to you.”

Thoreau’s Buddha-like response: “One world at a time.”

When one relative observed that he was about to make his peace with God, Thoreau replied: “I was not aware that we had quarreled.”

In the four decades before his premature death, Thoreau was reborn many times. He squeezed numerous reincarnations into his brief lifespan. He was a poet, naturalist, philosopher, author, abolitionist, tax resister, Buddhist, conscientious objector, biologist, teacher, social critic, essayist, hiker, pencil maker, farmer, outdoorsman, surveyor, carpenter, lecturer, anarchist, and rebel. And good at all of them.

As one of his associates, Nathaniel Hawthorne, described Thoreau: “He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners…But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes much better than beauty.”

Despite his chronic illness, he was an avid canoeist, an enthusiastic traveler, a gifted naturalist, an ardent gardener. What’s more, he pursued his afternoon “saunters,” in sickness and in health, with much the same devotion as the meditations he studied in his beloved Buddhism.

Ground zero for all these activities, beliefs, and practices was Walden. In 1845, when he was 28, he moved into his self-constructed house on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson in second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond, about 1.5 miles from Thoreau’s family home in Concord.

He lived there for more than two years, but wrote, rewrote, and revised Walden, the journal of this peak experience, for much of the next decade, before it was finally published in 1854. In Walden, true to his Transcendental philosophy, Thoreau used the nature around him to symbolize the inner human spirit. The book compressed his time at Walden Pond into one calendar year, using the four seasons to explore natural simplicity, harmony, and beauty as prime movers in the cycle of human growth, evolution, meaning, and satisfaction.

As Levin noted, Thoreau “set out to conduct an experiment: Could he survive, possibly even thrive, by stripping away all superfluous luxuries, living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions?” Then Levin added: “But, in truth, his aim was to investigate the larger moral and spiritual economy of such a life.”

Many of Thoreau’s own remarks speak to his economy of the spirit. For instance, “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable,” as Thoreau declared, “but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Thoreau spent his time at Walden Pond in reflections about life, in daily rituals based on monastic simplicity, in observing nature, in writing, meditating, daydreaming, working his garden, sauntering, and doing the elemental, elegant things that make life worthwhile.

Thoreau's Front Door

I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise til noon

“Sometimes, in a summer morning,” he wrote, “having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise til noon, rapt in revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness…until by the sun falling in my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night…I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of work.”

Here was the method for the madman of Walden Pond.

“Throughout Walden,” concluded Levin, “and indeed throughout the greater part of his writing, the impulse to simplify conditions and cast off the debilitating and dispiriting obligations of a respectable life are bound up with uninhibited unadulterated wildness.”

The ultimate fruit of Walden and its way of life was unflinching honesty. Thoreau rose above America’s “quiet desperation” by making his philosophy his life and his life his philosophy. The two were made one.

Thoreau, like every last one of us, craved happiness and peace of mind. At Walden Pond, he harvested those fruits with truth, integrity, dignity, economy, intuition, mindfulness, and simplicity.

By contrast, the pursuit of happiness promised by our constitution is a fruitless harvest, a famine of the spirit, reaping only the American Dream, the almighty dollar, our social status, many artifacts of technology, those things we covet, the flotsam and jetsam of materialism. That is the madness of our method.

Thoreau’s reward was as steadfast and observable as the nature he loved. As author and clergyman John Weiss described Thoreau: “His countenance had not a line on it expressive of ambition or discontent; the affectional emotions had not fretted at it. He went about like a priest of Buddha who expects to arrive soon as the summit of a life of contemplation.”

How can you make Thoreau’s method work for you? Read the next part of Back to Walden to study his blueprint.