More Potent Than Reality

Chapter 2, Part 7

Thoreau’s reputation as a dreamer, a hopeless idealist, a bounder, isn’t so surprising considering the norms, conventions, and dogmas that society always holds so dear.

Jeanne d'Arc and the Archangel Michael (1876) by Eugene Thirion

Jeanne d'Arc and the Archangel Michael (1876) by Eugene Thirion

How many visionaries have been declared insane, anti-establishment, dangerous, revolutionary, illegal, blasphemous, heretical, or downright embarrassing by anyone threatened by their visions? Well, Thoreau, to begin with. Then there were Jesus, Galileo, St. Francis, Joan of Arc, Luther, the “witches” of Salem, The Belle of Amherst, van Gogh, the Suffragettes, Tesla, Gandhi, Kenyatta, Malcolm X, the feminist movement, Mandela, King, Chavez, just to mention a few.

Thoreau and other Transcendentalists were considered, according to his biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr., “as irresponsible idlers, a trial to their families, and no credit to their town.”

Following in the footsteps of such idlers, we need to throw off the bonds of respectability, the shackles of success, the cuffs of convention, the ball-and-chain of normalcy, the house arrest of materialism, the jail cell of peer pressure. In short, we must blast the American Dream back to the Dark Ages, where it belongs. We need to position ourselves “on the margins of social institutions” in order to promote transformation.

The fact is that happiness doesn’t just happen by happenstance. Neither do meaning, peace of mind, nor satisfaction. What I have grudgingly concluded, after being dragged kicking and screaming through Walden’s pages and along the noble footpaths of Buddhism, is that contentment requires hard work, training, and discipline. Sorry, folks, but the truth hurts.

At this point you can probably relate to a bumper sticker I once saw: “Oh no! Not another learning experience!”

Afraid so. As Mahatma Gandhi, one of the numerous luminaries deeply influenced by Thoreau’s writings, advised, “Learn like you will live forever and live like you will die tomorrow.”

In that context, everyone on earth must abide by one unwavering truth: Happiness is shaped, as Lama Surya Das wrote, by how we view, interpret, and thus experience the world.” Remember that! It’s an astonishingly simple concept, an all-important realization, yet so very hard to grasp. And how we view, interpret, and experience life depends on practice and preparation.


Gandhi: Learn like you will live forever and live like you will die tomorrow

Of course, we might not be able to change many of life’s hard realities; our genetics, the state of the world, earthquakes, war, death, taxes, disease, the absurdity of rooting for the San Francisco Giants, and many other physical difficulties and emotional heartbreaks everyone faces. In other words, we might be incapable of erasing those personal traumas and mass tragedies that underlie all existence. But, through our attitudes, good or bad, through our viewpoints, healthy or unhealthy, through our inner voice, positive or negative, we determine how to play the cards we’ve been dealt. For most of us, that takes training.

Which is precisely where Back to Walden enters stage left, along with the irresponsible idler who inspired it. Back to Walden will give you the training, the method, the tools to transform your life, à la Henry David Thoreau, and turn it into a one-of-a-kind calling.

In the next chapter, I will provide you with an autobiographical sketch to show why I went Back to Walden. I’ll recount my life as a kind of Everyman, who personifies all the troubles, neuroses, attachments, ego trips, fantasies, and unrealistic expectations mentioned above. In other words, I know of what I speak when I talk about the American Dream gone haywire.

Then, in the next three chapters, I’ll detail the practices – True Thought, True Energy, True Insight – that have revolutionized my world. By extension, I think you’ll see that, if going Back to Walden works for me, it will work for anybody.

All this, then, is the noble path I humbly offer you here, when I suggest going Back to Walden.