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Excerpt from "Back to Walden"

by Charles Creekmore


I was born a century after Henry David 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.

Then, in the fall of 2008, motivated by a disease as deadly as Thoreau’s own TB, and inspired 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 he espoused. 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 wellbeing for us all. This humble shelter I’m building in honor of Thoreau, my refuge, is an ideological home I call Waldenism.

Just as Thoreau used the natural resources around Walden Pond to raise his own house, Waldenism uses Thoreau’s natural resources to raise one’s own consciousness, which was what his house signified anyway. Just as Walden asked if it is possible to thrive by stripping away all life’s luxury, hypocrisy, and delusion, Waldenism asks if it is possible to thrive by stripping away all life’s overindulgence, egotism, and self-deception.

Waldenism 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.”

Nature provided the raw materials for erecting both Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond and the structure Waldenism. We fashion our meaning, not from society or religious dogma, but from the natural world, which is the outward symbol of inward spirit. Nobody can stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, as I did many times each day when I worked there in 1999, and fail to recognize that nature is a mirror of one’s soul, an infinite font of spiritual energy, and one answer to “the whole catastrophe” of life, as Zorba the Greek called it.

“The earth is living poetry,” as Thoreau wrote so lyrically.

Waldenism 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 Waldenism encloses this framework in the simple way of life practiced by Thoreau at Walden Pond, which serves as the rustic finishing carpentry.

Like Thoreau’s Transcendental lifestyle, Waldenism 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 for the mental structure I call Waldenism. Such is the floor plan 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.” That’s Waldenism.

By practicing Waldenism, 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.”

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.

While practicing Waldenism, 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.

“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.”

With this article, I invite you to build Thoreau’s metaphysical cabin in your own head by visiting backtowalden.com. Waldenism, like the axe borrowed by Thoreau to build his house, simply lends you the tools to do it yourself in your own unique way. Waldenism imagines what we can all do to turn a humdrum life into our own personal Walden. And, in that endeavor, as Walt Whitman observed, “Your very flesh will become a great poem.”

This excerpt is adapted from Charles Creekmore’s electronic book, Back to Walden, which is posted complete and free of charge on backtowalden.com. He is a widely published poet and freelance writer and the author of a 2003 spiritual book, Zen and the Art of Diabetes Maintenance. He has written for the New York Times Syndicate, Psychology Today, Travel & Leisure, National Wildlife, Islands, Runner’s World, AARP, the Boston Globe, and many other mainstream periodicals.


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