Transcending Walden

Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


The book Walden, by Henry David Thoreau reads like a memoir of a person who spent two years in a primitive cabin by a pond of the same name, calling himself the “Narrator.” In a dialectic process of looking at the principles that under-gird Thoreau’s worldview, namely paradigm B, we want to transcend this mundane understanding of the book to a synthesis that is a more profound worldview, namely paradigm A.

In the universal human journey toward Self-realization, if we go far enough, we will enter the “principality” of paradox, or the “county” called contradiction. This is exactly where Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond took him. As he searches for the meaning of his sojourn in nature, he is constantly contradicting himself and we can take those contradictions and coalesce them into an even more transcendent Walden, a Walden “universe” if you will. And his paradoxes when resolved provide the energy that can deliver us into a higher level of understanding than he himself was able to sustain. He was a prophet that pointed the way toward transcendence even if he could not complete the journey himself. We would be remiss if we did not do our best to complete the journey of Self-realization that he began.

At the heart of what C. G. Jung called “individuation” is the process of reconciling pairs of opposites. Thoreau is faced with individuation or what we also call Self-realization and he recognizes that it is a process of collecting fragments of consciousness and assembling them into a whole. “He wants to bring together these two apparently opposite worlds of nature and spirit within his self.” If he had been able to accomplish this, Thoreau would have found that nature and spirit are one. His account in Walden of his attempt to attain Self-realization makes one of the most profound, compelling and poignant human stories in the annals of American literature.

Since the words transcendent, transcendental, and transcendentalism are so fundamental to our conversation about and with Thoreau, we should begin with several definitions that are in harmony with our dialectical process or process of synthesis. As for the word transcendental, from The American Heritage Dictionary we have: “Above and independent of the material universe; [and] the belief that knowledge of reality is derived from intuitive sources rather than from objective experience.” And from the same source we have a definition of the dialectical process we will engage in. “The Hegelian process of change whereby an ideational entity, a thesis, is transformed into its opposite, an antithesis, and preserved and fulfilled by it, the combination of the two being resolved in a higher form of truth, a synthesis.”

Literary critics, such as Joseph R. McElrath Jr. were aware of Thoreau’s dilemma, i. e. Thoreau’s, the “narrator’s” process. “It is a dialectical situation—meaning the narrator’s self confronts two apparently opposite aspects of life and which must be brought together—that is synthesized and integrated.”

The synthesis thus achieved in the context of Simple Reality will be a paradigm shift. We will outline a more insightful narrative than Thoreau, or the American Transcendentalists, or literary critics for that matter, were able to achieve—primarily because they were not contained in a sufficiently profound paradigm—P-A.

Let’s begin with our first paradox. The American Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Emerson, et. al. were not able to sustain the shift from the 19th century American narrative because the prevailing paradigm, i.e., American beliefs, attitudes and values were not rich enough to nourish such a profound change. And the dominant American worldview was insufficient to nourish a profound change because it couldn’t transcend or escape the old story or paradigm. This “catch 22” dilemma remains with us today and will take a phenomenal amount of energy on the part of Americans to resolve so let’s make our contribution to that effort.

Paradigm B and Paradigm A

Among the best analogies describing P-B, both in Thoreau’s time and today, is that of a nation of sleepwalkers. Moving around, going about their business, Americans appear to know what they are doing. In actuality, they do not know where they are but exist in a dream-like world. Thoreau saw this and “once shared that the majority of men, [are] sleepers.” Not knowing where they are, they also do not know who they are and have a delusional identity of being rational human beings dealing effectively with reality. And finally, they think that they are taking effective action in their lives that will bring them satisfaction and happiness. In truth, they do not understand why they behave the way they do and are enslaved by absurdly irrational behavior patterns. They end up as Thoreau said: “in contrast to his happy situation, most men ‘lead lives of quiet desperation.’”

Thoreau did not have the advantage of the science of psychology to enable him to provide a context for what he observed in the world around him, but he was able to see aspects of the energy centers of the false-self. For example, the “sensation” center drives people to seek stimulation as a distraction to avoid the reality of their ever-present suffering. “Walking down main street, he observed that it was lined by bored men longing for the latest news.” People who live in P-A are never bored.

We believe that Thoreau realized intuitively that a paradigm shift was needed before Americans could wake up. He describes P-B as a culture “worthy only of pigmies and manikins, we soar but little higher [than small birds] in our intellectual flights.” He imagines what P-A would be like: “He calls for a new society dedicated not only to trade and agriculture, but to human culture. Society should be the patron of the fine arts and to act to establish ‘uncommon schools’ so men might discover the real significance of life. We should make our villages into centers of culture so that we might one day have ‘noble villages of men.’” Inspiring stuff, especially his sensitivity to the need for the beauty inherent in art to feed the human soul. Thoreau read the classics searching for truth and found the beauty that often animates the human psyche. In the metaphorical language of the dawning of a new day he finds the classics “as beautiful almost as the morning itself.”

At Walden, Thoreau “celebrates the feeling of having left behind his old self, the spiritually-asleep creature made lifeless by ‘the dead dry life of society’ for the sake of a new and ecstatic spiritual life.” He had initiated an experience where he would begin the discovery of a more profound understanding of reality, take on a new identity and begin to live a life of deeply meaningful activity. He also knew that he had to create an alternative story for himself. Thoreau had embarked on the process of transforming his beliefs, attitudes and values

A challenge that we all face and can never find too many different ways to express it, is to realize that we are not in the world, the world is in us. We are not in any way flawed beings, but we are all born into a state of perfection and this reality begins to dawn on Thoreau. “In effect, he is creating not only a new inner self, but also a new world as well, his world.”

The younger Thoreau had been profoundly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and like Emerson was rejecting the unconscious world that he had been born into. He was to accept the challenge that faces all human beings. He was going to try to escape the mesmerizing and self-destructive nightmare of a world that was more asylum than community. He began to discover a new world and a new self and feel as though he has been reborn into a fresh and new, more satisfying life; he celebrates the feeling of having left behind his old identity.

One of the most challenging components of any human paradigm has to do with the conception of the nature of “God.” Theism holds that God is separate from the world; pantheism that the world and God are the same; and panentheism that God is the world and more. “Thoreau was so excited, so exhilarated by his sensual and spiritual experience of nature that he seriously entertained that idea, that nature is actually God.”

What eventually becomes obvious to all seekers is the foundational principle of “Oneness.” All of creation is interconnected, interrelated and interdependent. His experience at Walden Pond began Thoreau’s process of shifting to a more profound understanding of God than his Unitarian worldview could provide. “May we not see God? Are we to be put off and amused in this life, as it were with mere allegory?” Thoreau, like Emerson was beginning to move beyond his contemporaries and experienced the inevitable reactions experienced by prophets from others in their societies. He experienced a predictable reaction from representatives of the church to his attempts to define God more profoundly. “Statements such as this caused Reverend George Ripley to denounce Thoreau’s “pantheism.”  Nevertheless, Thoreau had intuited the reality of Oneness and had entered, tentatively at least, into P-A.

To enter P-A (which is present-moment awareness or the NOW) and to remain there are two different things. Our years of conditioning as humans have left us with habitual behaviors wherein the false self reacts with afflictive emotions to countless stimuli. Essentially, a reaction is leaving the present moment to enter into an imagined past often accompanied by the afflictive emotions of regret, shame and guilt; or, the movement is into the future, where the emotional reaction is often one of anxiety about what one imagines is going to happen or not going to happen.

For example, while at Walden, Thoreau hears the stimulus of a locomotive whistle and the rattle of railroad cars. He loses his present moment ecstasy because his mind, controlled by his false self rather than his Essence or True-self, starts intellectualizing about the railroad. His mind takes him into the future and: “He realizes that the whistle announces the demise of the pastoral, agrarian way of life—the life he enjoys most—and the rise of industrial America with its factories, sweatshops, crowded urban centers, and assembly lines.” And then his mind further “afflicts” him with a trip into the past. “The easy, natural, poetic life, as typified by his idyllic life at Walden, is being displaced; he recognizes the railroad as a kind of enemy.”  Thoreau has made the all too common mistake of creating personal suffering by resisting ‘reality.’ Resistance and ‘presence’ are two mutually exclusive states of being. Paradigm A and Paradigm B cannot co-exist.

Next, we see Thoreau do something remarkable which is an example of how close he comes to Self-realization, time and time again. On this occasion it is also related to the stimulus of the sound of the locomotive. Notice, how he transforms his former “reaction” to the sound of the locomotive into a conscious “response.” Remember, a reaction reveals that we are unconscious (in P-B), and a response reveals that we are present and aware (in P-A).

“It is very significant that it is an unnatural, mechanical sound that intrudes upon his reverie and jerks him back to the progressive, mechanical reality of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, the growth of trade, and the death of agrarian culture. It is interesting to observe the narrator’s [Thoreau’s] reaction to this intrusion.”

Thoreau senses that labeling nature as “good” and machines as “bad” is not consistent with reality. He now attempts to synthesize the two. “So, he attempts to use the power within—that is, imagination—to transform the machine into a part of nature. If this works, he will again have a wholesome, integrated vision of reality, and then he may recapture his sense of spiritual wholeness.” In this instance Thoreau is able to escape from the illusion that machines are not a natural outgrowth of the evolution of human consciousness, but he ends up projecting onto the locomotive in the same way that he projects onto nature and cannot quite transcend his need to romanticize about reality.

We lack awareness of the nature of reality when we violate the foundational principle of Oneness and “split it” into separate parts as if one part were not related to another and, in fact, all a part of “one” thing. Let’s look at how Thoreau loses his present moment awareness and splits man and nature into “two” things. He writes: “I love the wild not less than the good.”  Yet while this is true, he spends the rest of the chapter explaining how his instinctual animality is not only inferior to, but in conflict with, his inclination toward spirituality. “His animal nature can be controlled and lessened, but it cannot be eradicated—‘possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature.’”

Thoreau’s ego (false self), with the customary love of conflict and drama that all our egos have, has projected “badness” onto nature. Our ego delights in alienating us from nature and consolidating its domain by fragmenting Oneness into independent and autonomous parts. This is the classic illusion of reductionism common to mainstream science. “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.” Like most of us Thoreau is awake, then asleep, then awake, then asleep, being bounced back and forth by the ego from P-B to P-A. Staying awake requires a profound paradigm shift that he can never quite attain. The old story is a context that contains him in a way he could never quite grasp or transcend.

Nevertheless, taking one profound step after another, Thoreau blazed a trail that would inspire many who were seeking Self-transformation. “The preponderant number of metaphors associated with purification, rebirth and renewal leads the reader to conclude that the ‘I’ voice’s main concern, and Walden’s most important theme, deals with the possibility of transcending one’s old life and being reborn into a spiritually elevated one.”

The next step beyond Self-transformation, that of transcendence, will require the realization that there is no “I.” It is fundamental to the paradigm shift to realize that there is no “self” or “me” separate from the rest of Creation.  What is inspiring about Walden is that many times he was well on his way to Self-realization during his two-year retreat at Walden Pond.

In essence the difference between P-B and P-A is that of the difference between the Relative and the Absolute. Hence, the voyage from the land of the unconscious to the land of perfection is one of awakening. Thoreau was to become acutely aware of this challenge for himself and also encouraged his fellow human beings to join him on the journey.  He could, though, seem abrasive and arrogant in his insistence that others see his worldview. He could “boast of his ‘clear flame’ with a degree of pride approaching hubris, [but] it must be remembered that he is crowing ‘to wake his neighbors up’ to their own greatness, not just his own.” Thoreau’s “celebration of life and his call for all men to recognize the potential magnificence of life [became] the core idea or unifying theme, of Walden.”

What Thoreau came close to realizing was that humanity would require a paradigm shift before any true awakening would be possible. He did realize that a new worldview leading to a new identity for individuals and eventually communities was the only way to avert living the “lives of quiet desperation” that he saw all around him. “Transcendence depends upon creating a new vision of reality and one’s relationship to it. To create a new life depends upon seeing a new world, as though one were ‘lost’ and seeing a world never known before.” He was so close to Self-realization and yet so far away. He had experienced it and intellectually he understood it—but Self-realization is not an intellectual achievement.

The Absolute (Awareness) and the Relative

Several “related pairs” define the distinction between the Absolute (state of consciousness) and the Relative (state of unconsciousness). Among them is the difference between the head (emotion) and the heart (feeling), or if you will, between the intellect and intuition. Again, Thoreau had a good “feel” for this distinction. “Natural scenery, social criticism, economic and political theory—all of these have a prominent place in Walden, but all are subservient to the book’s core: the quest to realize the ‘I’ voice’s vision of an ideal existence. The narrator moves through the objective world, but the real focus of the book is on the internal, subjective world of the narrator’s self, or soul, as it moves toward spiritual fulfillment and ecstasy.” There were many times when he lived at Walden Pond that Thoreau had these two aspects of human identity in their proper relationship. He knew that the intellect had to serve intuition which was the reverse of what he saw happening in the P-B world that surrounded him.

On the other hand, his inconsistency revealed moments where Thoreau lacked clarity about the principles that are the foundation of P-A. In contradiction to the principle of holding the “head” subservient to the “heart” he became too enamored of “knowledge” per se. He believed that “books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. The permanent fixed expression of truth available in literature is thus an absolute necessity for the individual in quest of transcendence.” If that were true, we certainly would have had over the last 5000 years many more awakened human beings than has been the case. Self-realization is a break-through event, an insight and remains something of a mystery. It cannot be achieved as one achieves an academic degree or physical fitness. We have another paradox here. The harder one tries to attain so called “enlightenment” the less likely one will attain it. The intellect and the energy behind the effort will effectively block Self-realization.

There is a dimension of literature beyond that of being a repository of knowledge and that is literature as art. Art is beauty and beauty is truth and hence art is profoundly related to reality. Thoreau found that reading Aeschylus and Homer to be of the greatest value, “for what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?” He read Shakespeare, Dante and the sacred scriptures of both the East and the West. In doing this he believed that, “we may hope to scale heaven at last.” Aeschylus, Homer, Shakespeare and Dante are, of course, all poets and speak more to the heart than to the head. Much of religious scripture whether from the East or West is also poetry. Our feeling is that Thoreau, perhaps unconsciously, realized that the numinous is more effectively approached intuitively rather than intellectually. The ultimate result of Self-realization is a compassionate human being and the road to that goal would obviously run not through the brain but through the heart.

Reading books and acquiring knowledge is good, but no substitute for the experience of life itself. Understanding this Thoreau related that: “I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans.” All books are good as food for the intellect, an element of the “relative.” Thoreau came to understand that “literature is the expression of an author’s experience of reality and should not be used as a substitute for reality itself.” His closeness to nature at Walden Pond was at the heart of the experience that Thoreau had and the essence of his experience was a series of epiphanies. “‘I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune,’ and he felt ecstatic as he sat in the doorway of his hut, enjoying the beauty of a summer morning, ‘while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house.’” At such times Thoreau was experiencing the joy of the present moment, he was embraced in the bosom of the NOW.

Another distinction that sheds light on the difference between the relative and Self-realization is that between field and form. The field or The Implicate Order is the ultimate source of energy out of which all Creation (form) emanates. To Thoreau, at times, nature was this source. As spring approached at Walden Pond, his spirits lifted. “‘Walden was dead and is alive again.’  [The pond was a symbol for Thoreau’s “Self” and represented] the happy rebirth of the narrator’s spirit.” Form is not reality and can be made into a self-destructive and self-limiting illusion by the ego-controlled mind. The field can only be experienced by going within and once again Thoreau achieved that remarkable clarity he was capable of:

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography.

To reiterate, the state of awareness or Self-realization is simply being in the present moment, the only “time and place” in which life occurs. Allowing the false-self or ego to use the mind to take us out of the present moment to the past or the future shifts us to an experience of anxiety and/or illusion, the realm of the relative. Thoreau understood, at least for a time, that the only reality was a “movement toward spiritual perfection.” What he failed to grasp was that there was no “movement” necessary to reveal the True-self. He only had to remain “present.” To leave the NOW in the words of Thoreau would be to enter “the winter of man’s discontent,” the winter of bewilderment and suffering.  


To wake up is certainly the first priority for humanity and Thoreau to some degree understood this: “[Thoreau] and all men may be awakened from ‘their low and primitive condition’—if they allow themselves to feel the revivifying power of nature.” The trap that Thoreau falls into is to attribute the metaphorical symbolism in nature for consciousness itself. He is correct in understanding that, “the songs of birds, particularly the thrush, are often used to symbolize inspiration.” Here he sees the difference between the symbol, the thrush, and the thing itself, namely inspiration. What confuses most of us is when we fail to distinguish between reality and a projection of an aspect of our own consciousness onto an aspect of reality.

Thoreau often gets lost in just this kind of unconsciousness. In the following example, he is projecting onto nature without realizing what he is doing. The aspect of nature in question is the sound of an owl which itself is “natural” and is neither good nor bad but “just is,” neutral if you will. Notice how Thoreau projects his own emotional state onto the sounds of the owl. He hears the owl as the “‘most solemn graveyard ditty, the dark and tearful side of music.’ He interprets the owls’ notes to reflect ‘the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have,’ but he is not depressed. He knows that nature’s song of hope and rebirth, the jubilant cry of the cock at dawn, will surely follow the despondent notes of the owls.” Then his mood changes and he projects a different emotion. “This gives support to his optimistic faith that all melancholy is short-lived and must eventually give way to hope and fulfillment when one lives close to nature.”

The ego will seem to do very clever things to retain control of spiritual seekers and keep them mesmerized. The best defense is to construct an impregnable castle that the ego cannot successfully assault. That castle is P-A. The experience that Thoreau has with a loon illustrates how P-B fails to protect him from his ego. Thoreau tried to catch the loon because he saw it as “a symbol for the narrator’s ideal, perfected self. The loon took on this symbolic meaning when Thoreau described it in terms of purification and rebirth.” By projecting onto the loon, Thoreau sets himself up for disillusionment and falls into his ego’s trap. He fails to catch the loon and, “his failure to ‘catch’ the loon signifies his failure to develop those qualities in himself.” Thoreau’s ego has very cleverly reversed the nature of reality and he doesn’t realize it. He thinks that reality is “out there” in the form of nature when it is within himself. Once again, we must remember that we are not in the world, the world is in us.

Ironically, a change in season forces Thoreau to stop the intense identification with nature as the harsh weather of winter drives him into his cabin and into himself. In this environment “natural stimuli are being removed from the narrator’s experience. Without external stimuli to keep up his spirits, he had to depend solely on himself for spiritual survival.” The three distractions that Thoreau had to rely on to avoid his existential suffering were his emotions, his thoughts and his bodily sensations. He starts with his thoughts. “‘For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods.’ Turning to memory and history to keep his mind busy, be describes the former inhabitants of the Walden area.”

The mind can be one of our major sources of suffering as Thoreau finds out as he tries to distract himself from the reality of his situation. “Such recollections make the narrator sad, and he gives them up for comforting sleep.” The past and the future are the realms of suffering that the ego-driven mind will take us to if we let it. Thoreau finally realizes this after additional attempts to escape to the “stories” in his mind. “Alas, how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape.” If he could only have moved to the truly transcendental insight that the “beauty” he sought was not in the landscape but within himself, Walden would have placed him in the first rank of metaphysical philosophers.

The ability to understand that one’s identity is not contained in any “form” but exists in a “field” of undifferentiated energy is the prerequisite of Self-realization. Thoreau sees “that animality and nature need not be in conflict but does not ‘feel’ that nature and spirituality are indeed the same thing. But while the narrator sees this in nature [Creation], it seems as though he is not yet able to resolve the conflict within himself.”

A critical distinction that Thoreau is unable to make is that between emotion and feeling. Projection is an activity of an unconscious person and what is projected are afflictive emotions related to one’s shadow, ego state or current mood. In doing this one reveals that the present moment state of awareness has been lost and that the “feeling” state that accompanies being present is also no longer felt. That feeling is what Thoreau, on occasion, calls “ecstasy.”

At different places in his subjective self-exploration Thoreau doesn’t like the advent of the industrial revolution and the effect he sees that it has on his community. At another time he has shifted his judgment and projects a positive appraisal onto the railroad as a symbol of man’s inventive genius. “When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort-like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.”

Thoreau can go from disdain for materialism to poetic praise for the qualities that it reveals in a suddenly noble humanity no longer lacking in self-awareness. At one time he shifted to being a romantic projecting on his neighbors all the qualities necessary for transcendence. “He finds represented in commerce the heroic, self-reliant spirit necessary for maintaining the transcendental quest. ‘What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery. Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied.’”

And then he seems to wake up and watches his illusion fade and he returns to the NOW. He stops projecting and becomes present to the reality before him. He realizes that he was caught up in a self-made myth, in P-B. “Of course, the railroad and commerce, in general, are not serving noble ends. The railroad is serving commerce and commerce is serving itself; and despite the enterprise and bravery of the whole adventure, the railroad tracks lead back to the world of economic drudgery, to the world of the sleepers.”

Later in his narrative Thoreau understands a key realization regarding awareness. He is able to see that “moods” or periods of afflictive emotions like anxiety and unhappiness do not occur when he has present-moment awareness. “His present bliss proves that ‘there can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature, and has his senses still.’” If we substitute “mind” for senses, we can see that he is beginning to see a separation between his ego-dominated mind and his True self which has emerged in the quiet solitude and serene simplicity of Walden.

Synchronicity; Intuition and the Intellect; and Self-realization

The mystery of transcendence which takes us beyond time and space also includes the phenomenon of synchronicity. Rick Fields calls synchronicity a “coincidence of cosmic proportions.” Thoreau was born in the right place at the right time to have his Walden Pond experience. “In 1817, the transcendentalist movement, for which Thoreau was destined to be one of the major spokesmen, was born. It would become, by the late 1830’s, the intellectual force that charged Thoreau’s imagination and channeled his energies into a vocation of writing and lecturing about the possibilities of an ideal existence for man.”

The synchronistic convergence of events that created the context in which Thoreau would meet his destiny was connected to a conflict between the heart and the head—between intuition and intellect. Rebellious young clergymen in the Unitarian church around Boston in the 1820’s were “protesting what Emerson termed the ‘corpse-cold Unitarianism of Harvard College.’ They saw in Unitarianism a form of religion that had lost the ability to fulfill the spiritual and emotional needs of worshippers because of its hyper-rational approach to Christianity. To these young clergymen, Unitarianism had removed the essentials of genuine religious experience—intuition, feeling, and mystery—and had replace them with a rationalistic, common-sense, ‘rule-book’ approach to religious life.”

Thoreau and his colleagues were to rebel against the simplistic paradigm of the Unitarian Church which was also fundamental to the worldview of P-B. Essentially this was to rely on the five senses in defining the nature of reality. “One of its major tenets was that the mind at birth is like a blank tablet with ideas and impressions as they are received through the five senses [and] being religious was simply a matter of learning (receiving) God’s laws through reading the scriptures (sensory experience), listening to the sermons (sensory experience), and seeing God’s handiwork in nature (sensory experience). It was thought that since man’s knowledge is limited by his senses, he can never directly experience or know the supersensory (the supernatural) God; as a result, man’s only possible religious activity is to learn and believe what his senses reveal to him about God, and his only duty is to conform to what scripture and the church teach as God’s will.”

Thoreau’s timing was perfect when he encountered the ideas in Emerson’s 1838 “Divinity School Address” delivered to the graduating class at Harvard. Emerson contradicted the “blank tablet” thesis of John Locke when he asserted “that man is not limited to simply learning about God; rather than being only a receiver of sense impressions, man’s mind is also a faculty than can create, independent of the senses, a consciousness of God [and] the mind is a potentially powerful instrument capable of imagination and intuition, and capable of establishing personal communion with the divine.”

This worldview was in direct contrast to the dominant beliefs, values and attitudes found in Concord, Massachusetts where Thoreau lived and a worldview he was willing to challenge. This ages-old paradigm is alive and well today and Thoreau, if he were alive today, would recognize the shortcomings of what we often call scientific materialism. Such a worldview, of course, traps humanity in the illusion of P-B since the sensory world bears little resemblance to the more profound understanding of reality defined in P-A. For Self-realization, the world of form has to be transcended and that can only be done by turning inward and listening to the inner wisdom found in human intuition, what we call “feeling.”

Emerson’s writing would profoundly influence the younger Thoreau. Some of Emerson’s ideas would border on blasphemy especially if judged by the standards of today’s conservative Christians. “If, Emerson reasoned, man creates consciousness of the divine, then he creates the divine. If he intellectually creates the divine, then he possesses a divine power and must thus be divine. In short, Emerson proposed to his readers the possibility of total, ecstatic self-fulfillment.”

Emerson proposed, at least intellectually, that it is possible through an experience involving a profound insight into the nature of reality that a person could achieve Self-realization, what he called “ecstatic self-fulfillment.” It was the excitement of this possibility that motivated Thoreau to build his cabin on Emerson’s property, close to nature.  Thoreau encountered his inner wisdom in the solitude and simplicity that he found at Walden Pond.

Simplicity, Solitude and Serenity

“First Thoreau was intent upon resisting the debilitating effects of the industrial revolution (division of labor, the mind-dulling repetition of factory work, and a materialist vision of life). The Walden experiment allowed him to ‘turn back the clock’ to a simpler, agrarian way of life that was quickly disappearing in New England. Second, by reducing his expenditures, he reduced the time necessary to support himself, and thus he could devote more time to the perfection of his art. And, third, he and Emerson had asserted that one can easily experience the Ideal, or the Divine, through nature; at Walden Pond, Thoreau was able to test continually the validity of this theory by living closely, day-to-day, with nature.” We agree that one can experience transcendence when close to nature but without a shift in one’s personal narrative it is unlikely that transcendence can be maintained, and Thoreau’s experience supports that contention.

The townspeople of Concord could not understand Thoreau’s need for solitude. He remembered one remark concerning his isolation. “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” Thoreau would come to experience that “loneliness” was a subjective state of mind chosen by the ego, not a product of time, space or circumstances. He would not, however, completely understand why this was true. For example, he believed that Nature was the source of his occasional equanimity or bliss. “Thoreau seemed to find human company incapable of stimulating him to such a feeling of wholeness; hence, it was judged inferior to nature.”

The problem with human company is that the townspeople of Concord were unconscious and in the thrall of their false-self drives seeking power, sensation and security. People in a constant state of fear and suffering are poor company for a seeker who is in touch, however intermittently, with the “bliss” of awareness.

Thoreau had intuited an ancient formula known to mystics in attaining Self-realization. The practice of what the Hindus call “austerities” or the simplification of one’s life. Next, would be solitude or finding that quiet or silence said to be the language of the Divine. Thoreau believed this was possible for all people. “Once out of the economic rat race, he said, they will have the leisure and tranquility to study, meditate, enjoy nature, and begin creating a spiritually rich life. Like the narrator, they will find that life can be a cause for celebration; life does not have to be a reason for weary complaint.” And combining these two practices would lead to serenity or peace or happiness if not bliss.

Both Thoreau and Emerson had read the Bhaghavad Gita and were obviously influenced by this ancient sacred Hindu text. They were not, however, contained in the Hindu worldview that supported the yogis in their life-long journeys. No wonder transcendentalism is nothing more than a 19th century curiosity today.

Self-Reliance and Individuation

Thoreau knew that he needed to resist conformity if he was to accomplish his goal. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.” Self-reliance will often lead to iconoclastic behavior. There are aspects of the American culture in Thoreau’s time that are based on beliefs, attitudes and values that were self-destructive and un-sustainable and Thoreau identifies and criticizes some of these. Obviously to be truly self-reliant required that Thoreau have the courage to attack his society’s sacred cows.  Thoreau also sensed that he needed to seek simplicity and solitude in his quest for serenity. He decided “not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.”

One of Thoreau’s most penetrating insights has to do with the multiple dimensions of human consciousness, i.e., “most men’s personalities are uncomfortably split into many opposing parts. Thoreau states his remedy for spiritual disintegration, ‘simplify, simplify.’”

The diagnosis is correct even if the remedy is too simplistic. Modern psychology recognizes the “split into many opposing parts,” therefore, Thoreau was ahead of his time in understanding the need of the human psyche was to attain wholeness. C. G. Jung would label this process of healing the splits in the human psyche “individuation.” The individual to attain wholeness must become aware of this aspect of the nature of reality. At the end of one chapter in Walden we find Thoreau “‘mining’ reality, digging out of life those values that make him complete.

Today we realize that the process of individuation is more challenging than Thoreau could have known. Among the splits that need reintegration include the ego, the shadow, the personal unconscious, and finally the collective unconscious. Not only does this require a paradigm shift but the assumption of a new identity in order to successfully attain spiritual wholeness. Thoreau’s writing is inspirational for what he was able to realize and accomplish even though he understandably could not follow through and attain Self-realization.


All human thought is connected throughout time and space and converges in the NOW. This fundamental principle of P-A is too radical a notion for the P-B worldview but has nevertheless been realized by insightful sages in both ancient and modern times. “The narrator [Thoreau] tells us that in the mornings he would ‘bathe’ his intellect ‘in the stupendous and cosmological philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta.’”  He sees himself as synthesizing his Walden experience with the wisdom of the East, “as though he had integrated Oriental and Western thought and culture, on the shores of Walden. Thus the ‘pure Walden water [was] mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.’”

“Metaphorically, he depicts a feeling of oneness with the people of different countries, with the thought of different cultures and philosophies, and with the people and thought of past centuries. He is depicting a feeling of integration with all things on earth—past and present.”

We can trace the flow of that “sacred water” into modern times with a broader synthesis. An American clairvoyant by the name of P. P. Quimby (1802-1866), a student of the teachings of Jesus and founder of a metaphysical movement called New Thought, taught Mary Baker Eddy the founder of Christian Science. An associate of Mary Baker Eddy, Emma Curtis Hopkins, taught the founders of three major branches of what came to be called the New Thought movement. These branches, their churches and their founders are: Unity founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore; Divine Science by the sisters, Fannie James and Nona Brooks; and Religious Science founded by Ernest Holmes.

A related stream joins this one to form a larger flow of consciousness. The Bhagavad Gita influenced a British judge and philosopher by the name of Thomas Troward, a colonial administrator in India. Troward’s profound writings influenced the thought and teachings of an American philosopher, Ernest Holmes. And the transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson would become the major American philosopher associated with the New Thought movement. And Emerson’s thoughts would inspire our hero Henry David Thoreau. So we have a brief overview of the maelstrom of inter-related wisdom and inspiration that flows from the “field” or Implicate Order from which all creation and wisdom flows.

One of the most difficult aspects of Simple Reality to grasp is the non-existence of the “I” or “me” aspect of our identity. We are not “beings” separate from the rest of Creation, not only because all of Creation in inter-related and inter-dependent but also because our True-self identity is not based on our false-self or ego. The false-self is an illusion and a major source of human confusion and suffering.

Thoreau had a number of experiences that enabled him to feel this reality. “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labour which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans.”

“It is a nirvana-like state that he experiences; he is no longer distinct from nature or spirit; all is One. It is no longer beans (an entity apart from himself) that he hoes, or an “I” (an entity apart from the beans) that hoes the beans. All individuality disappears in this mystical fusion with nature and the divine.”  Thoreau has experienced Oneness and knows that he has experienced Oneness. He has had an incredible insight that all of humanity is capable of but sadly, only a few will ever have.

Thoreau the Artist

Complicated is a word that is appropriate to use in describing Thoreau. He was a naturalist, an economist, an abolitionist, an anarchist and philosopher. Many would be surprised to learn that above all of these he was an artist. He was a writer and was “possessed with the idea of writing a great book.” Which he did, of course, even though he died not knowing whether he had succeeded or not.

The power of Thoreau as an artist exceeds his other talents precisely because artistic expression is the most powerful contribution that a person can make to the collective transformation of humanity. That has to do with the nature of art itself and its prophetic power to give humanity both guidance and inspiration. Artists are prophets who can help humanity change the collective worldview, transform human identity and modify human behavior more profoundly than any other group striving for meaning in a confused world.

Self-Transformation and Societal Transformation

In seeking higher levels of awareness, the distinction must be made between “feeling” and “emotion.” To experience what we call “feeling” is to be happy “for no good reason” or to experience the joy of existence itself in the NOW. The feeling “response” indicates that we are in the present moment just as emotional “reaction” indicates that we are not. To distinguish between feeling and emotion is to distinguish the authentic from the illusory. Since all emotions are related to the ego and the false-self they are manifestations of suffering. Therefore, to determine whether Thoreau is experiencing genuine transcendental consciousness or self-delusion is to determine whether he is experiencing feeling or afflictive emotions.

In the following statement he seems to be in the NOW. “Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through coloured crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin.” Poetry like this comes not from the false self but from the True self which is the source of feeling. The dolphin is the symbol of immortality and Thoreau seems to be celebrating the perfection that is felt in present-moment awareness. Thoreau had his transcendent experiences at Walden, but as we have noted, he was unable to sustain them afterward. This was not only because of the overall unsupportive context in which he lived but also due to his not having a contemplative process or practice to consolidate his P-A awareness after he left Walden Pond.

Before attempting to transform society, we must be transformed ourselves or we will lack the clarity to proceed in the best way to influence societal transformation. Thoreau understood this “advising his readers not to go out and try to change the world; real reform, he says is the perfection of each individual; [the] first step in reforming his life should be to turn inward [where] he will discover a near-infinite potential for spiritual perfection which can be actualized.”

“Thoreau desires Walden to have a forceful impact on society.” The common danger when sailing the ship of self-transformation is running aground on the rocks of societal transformation. Trying to bring the ship into port before completing the sailor’s training course has wrecked many attempts to attain a successful voyage. First we must look at the ship’s charts to see if the navigational plan is accurate and true. Thoreau directed his life according to a model of navigation similar to that of Emerson. “Emerson described the three basic stages of a transcendentalist’s life: first, he learns all that is of merit in the wisdom of the past; second, he establishes a harmonious relationship with nature through which he is able to discover ethical truths and communicate with the divine. With these two stages, the transcendentalist has developed his highest faculties; he has cultivated his life and ‘spiritualized’ it. The third stage is the renewal of society-at-large.”

Emerson’s map or chart of self-transformation is not accurate in that it runs aground on the rocks of societal transformation. What is missing is the deep water channel of the paradigm shift. Society cannot be transformed as long as it functions in the context of the old P-B narrative. In later years Thoreau was involved in the anti-slavery movement. This goal of ending slavery was certainly laudable but the leadership on both sides of the question were too unconscious to avoid America’s most tragic war.

Although we may want to engage in changing the tragic story-line of humanity, that is not possible except over time. The transformation of humanity is developmental and evolves at its own natural pace.  Any change in the human narrative must be preceded by our own individual transformation and then a collective shift to P-A. Otherwise, we are only re-arranging the deck chairs on our version of the Titanic. The ship will still go down.

As Joseph McElrath cautions: “Sooner or later, one must formulate a position in regard to Thoreau’s view of the relationship between the individual and the state as expressed in ‘Civil Disobedience.’ Eventually, one must evaluate the anti-materialistic, spiritual view of life found in Walden. Thoreau’s writings strongly invite us to think and respond; and in this lies a main cause for much of his present popularity.”

Thoreau’s Legacy

Thoreau’s pious aunt asked if he had made his peace with God as he lay dying. “‘Why, Aunt.’ Thoreau retorted, ‘I didn’t know we had ever quarreled.’”

Those who would assess the significance of Thoreau’s Walden, whether literary critics such as professor McElrath (whom we have quoted extensively in this essay), the “scoffing townspeople” who were his neighbors, or “his contemporaries [who] virtually ignored it,” were not able to appreciate his significance. That is because Thoreau’s influence extends beyond time and space to the magical and glorious realm of the mystic. A realm incidentally, that Thoreau was able to enter many times during his brief time at Walden, but we suspect seldom, if ever, after he left there. Indeed, “some scholars think that Thoreau gradually ‘decayed’ as a Transcendentalist during the late 1850s and early 1860s.”  The mystical experience of P-A can be ephemeral and illusive.

George W. Curtis did not understate the matter when he wrote in Thoreau’s obituary that “‘the name of Henry David Thoreau is known to very few persons beyond those who personally knew him.’  [And] after thirty years of intense effort in his art [writing], he died a failure by contemporary standards of success.” His friend Emerson had a greater appreciation of Thoreau’s talents. He wrote that “the country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.”

Nevertheless, those of us who are frustrated reformers of society take heart. Thoreau died a failure or even worse a person of “no account” in the eyes of even some of his friends. And yet, in modern times we can look at the power of his ideas in the transformation of global society. Gandhi, the leader most responsible for Indian independence wrote that “his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence.”

And in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa Rev. Trevor Bush acknowledged that: “His influence in South Africa has been extremely important and our struggle to win rights for the oppressed non-white population of our country has been assisted profoundly by the fearless liberal teachings and example of [this] great philosopher and prophet.”

At the same time in the United States Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cited the emotional effect that Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” had on his struggle to obtain justice for African-Americans. “I was so deeply moved that I re-read the work several times. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are heirs of a legacy of creative protest.”

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to the power of Thoreau’s writing came from the reaction of a man who was not a fan of the sage from Concord. We are speaking of “the late Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin [who] succeeded in having [a] book removed from the shelves of libraries—specifically because of Thoreau’s essay [Civil Disobedience].” High praise for the power of Thoreau’s essay from someone least able to understand it.

But for those of us who are able to understand Thoreau, we can appreciate and repeat that his “celebration of life and his call for all men to recognize the potential magnificence of life form the core idea, or unifying theme, of Walden.” By engaging in our own process of Self-realization we can emulate the example of his life and contribute to the unfolding consciousness of humanity as a whole.

Thoreau’s experience, so beautifully expressed in his poetic memoir, was much more profound than many of us tend to realize. He had discovered and traveled on the “Underground Railroad” that led north out of the “slave territory,” the land of “quiet desperation.” But he ultimately lost his way and never completed the journey; he was swallowed up in the swamp of darkness, that of his ego-centered false-self.

Many of us have had an experience similar to Thoreau’s “moments of ecstasy,” however briefly. It is of the utmost importance to realize that although we may have a momentary experience of Self-realization (peak experiences or epiphanies), it is not possible to maintain freedom from suffering without a paradigm shift. Thoreau’s “ecstasies” were extraordinary and exquisite experiences, but the context (P-A) of his momentary new identity was not consolidated. Despite his radiant insights experienced at Walden Pond, he was unable to maintain the new narrative that excited him and could have delivered him across the Jordan to the Promised Land.

The human suffering on this planet is extreme. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau was doing his best to respond to that suffering. As we have seen, his “best” was very good indeed. Few of his fellow Americans in the 19th century were sufficiently conscious to appreciate his experience and his eloquent expression of it. Perhaps we can do better in the 21st century.


Thoreau wrote his memoir 7 years after he left Walden Pond.


References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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