Chapter 7: Turning Life into Your Own Personal Quest

Part 1: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Just as Thoreau borrowed the tools to build his cabin beside Walden Pond and simplify his life, I borrowed the tools from Thoreau to build my own metaphysical shelter and simplify my life. Think of True Thought, True Energy, and True Insight as an ax, saw, and hammer on loan from Thoreau to build your own retreat.

Here’s a good story to illustrate the method to my madness, putting Walden to work, moment to moment, in a purposeful way. Here’s how the three tools work.

Lightning Bolt

A bolt from the blue

As I mentioned in chapter 4 of Back to Walden, during the summer of 2010, a bolt of lightning struck a big white pine beside my driveway, and the exploding trunk landed on my dearly beloved, 14-year-old, Ford Taurus. My mashed vehicle had been the best car I’d ever owned, no contest. My ex-wife, Martha, who has remained a beloved friend since our difficult but gracious separation in 2004, responded to my calamity with her typical wit: “The gods are trying to tell us something. But they’re speaking in a foreign language.”

There is much wisdom in Martha’s jest. It expresses the lengths to which we must all go to interpret the fateful catastrophes, disappointments, frustrations, fortunes, and lucky streaks that each life encounters on its way to fruition.

Her remark about the gods speaking another language reminds me of those odd translations you get from assembly instructions for foreign products or from your word-processing software. One such Russian translation once interpreted “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” this way:

“The liquor is strong, but the meat is rancid.”

Too often we have similar problems translating the alien language, with its many shades of meanings, being communicated by the gods and their providence. We’re at the mercy of a lingo that’s bizarre at best, and a reality that’s confusing at tops. Beyond the language barrier, we must come to grips with the subjunctive mood of existence itself. How do we find meaning in a life that might not even have any meaning, at the hands of a God that might not even exist, leading to an afterlife that might be not even be there?

Life often seems like a crap game in which we’re constantly trying to read the subtle signs stirred up by our tumbling dice in the faint hope that luck, indeed, will be a lady tonight. Would you just blow on these ivories please?

So, when a tree falls on one’s car, what the devil are we supposed to be learning from it? Shrug! The answer, I’ve discovered from a lifetime that can be summarized as doing everything the hard way, is Walden.

In this instance, the case of my squashed car, the three tools I borrowed from Thoreau worked out the whole mess to my advantage, as if by magic, and gave added purpose to my already purposeful life. Here’s how. After the insurance company totaled my car and offered a pittance of what this noble machine was worth to me in the real world, I didn’t try to get angry or get even with life. What’s the use?

Instead, I wielded True Thought, True Energy, and True Insight:

  • I concentrated on the positive fallout from this “Act of God.”
  • I sucked up all the spiritual energy I could from nature.
  • I summoned up my own intuitive common sense by meditating.

Instead of allowing myself to dwell on the “woe is me” aspect, I actively sought out the accidental benefits that made me benefit from this accident. “Okay, now that my car is totaled,” I mused, “how do I make this situation work for me? Seek advice. Check out my resources. Look for an answer that makes me better off than I was before. Turn the silver lining into a golden opportunity” (as touchy-feely as all that sounds).

Pogo on Walt Kellly's poster for the first Earth DayMeanwhile, back at the wreck, I remembered Pogo’s universal manifesto: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Hence, every time I gazed at my flattened Ford, I used it as a reminder not to make myself into my own worst enemy by dwelling on the dark side.

While honing my True Thought, I also focused on showering myself with True Energy by hiking along cascading brooks, by bird-watching, by soaking up nature’s mythical essence, by running, by meditating. True Energy kept me optimistic and open to new revelations falling like an Irish mist from the Akashic Field.

And finally, while hammering away with True Thought and True Energy, I also conjured up True Insight through my daily meditations. I let the thoughts spontaneously generated by altered consciousness rise to the surface and alter my consciousness even more. Consequently, what my intuition told me (as un-intuitive as this sounds) was to visit the financial advisor at my credit union. Here was a man with a firm grasp of the obvious that appeared so murky to me, an English Major facing the often ungrammatical world of high finance. What an MBA student might say in Corporate Speak is that I “partnered” with my financial advisor.

The solution he handed me was so simple, it defied belief. Why not start collecting my Social Security benefits early, as soon as I reached my “Official Social Security Retirement Age,” but while I was still working? With this influx of excess capital, I could pay for a new car and also invest a chunk of my monthly Social Security check in an interest-bearing account to support my, until now, unsupportable retirement. More importantly, it would also support my cherished Back to Walden website at backtowalden.com, the purpose of my purpose.

Talk about synchronicity! Before a tree played patty-cake on my car, I had no idea such options were open to me. I would have simply waited to collect Social Security until I retire, if ever, from my job at UMass, translating Engineeringese into the Queen’s English. But, because my Ford Taurus threw itself under this toppling timber, I now have a windfall of cash, literally created by a bolt from the blue, to sponsor my whole future, going Back to Walden and helping my loved ones go there, too. Until then, my retirement plan was basically survival of the fittest.

My purpose in life thus became even more purposeful. How’s that for a simple twist of fate?

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard: life must be understood backwards

The squishing of my Ford Taurus demonstrates the kind of “interdependent origination,” or synchronicity, that Buddhists say operates within every life as the motor that runs karma. “Everything is part of a limitless web of interconnections,” wrote Francesca Freemantle, author of Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “and undergoes a continual process of transformation.”

Unfortunately, we usually can’t decipher the foreign language being spoken to us by karma as it happens. Philosopher Soren Kirkegaard expressed this puzzle so eloquently, it has become one of my favorite quotes: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Yes, yes, yes. How very Pogo-esque.

Kirkegaard’s conundrum, fortunately, doesn’t stop us from benefiting from the process while it’s taking place. Shit happens. But just because we can’t seize the sense as it hits the fan doesn’t mean we can’t seize the day as it fans into night. How so? By going Back to Walden and seizing our purpose. You can translate the foreign language of the gods and arrive at your own purposefulness, day by day, moment to moment, time after time. The secret to turning your life into your own personal quest is the interaction of these three Transcendental tools I’ve explained in Back to Walden: True Thought, True Energy, True Insight. It’s a method capable of decoding any baffling message from the gods and translating it into your own personal meaning.

All three tools have permeable membranes, through which the gaseous, lighter-than-air quality of wisdom constantly passes. All three work tongue and groove. By practicing these three techniques with total consciousness, and by paying attention to what they reveal, you suddenly become privy to all the hidden purpose, meaning, and truth that had previously been obscured by the sound and fury of life. You become in-formed by the universe.

How does this karmic synchronicity among healthy thinking, spiritual energy, and intuition work? Transcendentally, my dear Watson! Transcendentally.

Without applying such mindfulness to the issue of my pulverized car, the event would have remained a tree falling unheard in a forest. But these three techniques interact constantly to solve the great riddle in the Zen koan of everyday life. These three tools let us live life both backward and forward simultaneously, synchronously, timelessly.

For, you see, the purpose of this mysterious progression called life is to progress through this mysterious purpose called living. At the end lies a self-fulfilling prophet. You. By going Back to Walden, you answer questions you never dared to ask, with solutions you never dared to imagine.

This is the preserve surrounding Walden, a refuge of mind, metaphor, and myth, where several of my dearest friends now reside. They have all met the enemy and figured out who it was by looking in the mirror. They have all gone Back to Walden, each in his or her own extraordinary way, before Back to Walden even existed. In my next section, let me begin to tell you about these wonderful people and the noble purpose they have found in their lives.