Henry David Thoreau, American Yogi
July 8, 2010 § 16 Comments
Because it’s summer and very hot here in the Northeast U.S.–and because we’ve been speaking about art as well as our aspirations for the highest–and finally, because it’s Henry David’s birthday on July 12–I thought I would be cool to offer everyone a little story about Henry David Thoreau, early American Yogi. According to an interesting book called The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, Thoreau read books about Asian thought, including yoga, esp. when he was living with the Emersons. He read these books not out of mere intellectual interest but as instruction manuals. He was looking for a new way to live. According to some, his decision to go to Walden may have been linked to his reading of the Bhagavad-Gita (which he quotes extensively in his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers).
The author of The Subtle Body sites as evidence that Thoreau was a Yogi his ascetic life at Walden. He got up every morning and bathed in the deep cool pond (isn’t it cooling to think of that?). Also, he was vegetarian and lived very simply, although he was not extreme–which seems in line with Krishna’s advice to Arjuna to be moderate in all things. But here is where it gets interesting: After his bath, he sat in the doorway of his cabin (in his own words) “rapt in revery, amid the pines, and hickories and summachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness.” Thoreau was meditating. He said he sat from sunrise to noon like that not daydreaming but in rapt attention to what is. This was not “time subtracted from my life,” he wrote, “but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.”
Thoreau got his ideas about meditation from books alone (“I have travelled much in Concord,” he famously said)–and books are not teachers. But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Far from quieting his senses and settling the mind, as breathing and other exercises aimed to do, Thoreau described being overwhelmed by his senses. “I have the habit of attention to such excess, that my senses get no rest but suffer from constant strain.” Although by his own account, he was restless and rude and “would fain practice the yoga faithfully,” the experience at Walden changed him. He saw behind conventional reality, intuiting “new, universal, and more liberal laws” and he saw that there was more to life than dualism–that “solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty, poverty, nor weakness, weakness.” But Thoreauexpressly did not want he called the ultimate aim of the yogi– the “consolation” of “eternal absorption into Brahma.” He wanted to be like an Indian in the forest; he wanted to be an artist.
“For Thoreau, the aim of yoga was creation, not dissolution, and at Walden another feature of Thoreau’s yoga took shape: he transmuted his work into an act of devotion, he made a religion of writing, ” writes the Stephanie Syman, the author of this history of yoga in America.
“If it is surely the means to the highest end we know, can any work be humble or disgusting?” asked Thoreau in a letter to Blake. “Will it not rather be elevating as a ladder, the means by which we are translated?” Thoreau’s brand of yoga affirmed his belief, repeated to Blake in another letter that God is always here, that all we need to do is learn to become a channel, “to bow before him in profound submission in every moment, and He will fill our souls with his Presence.”
Syman wonders if Thoreau’s resistence to the final act of the Yogi, the merging into the boundless force behind appearances, is American–and recently American–emphatic about the toleration of difference.
I come away from reading this, having just the other morning seen a hawk on a New York lawn that looked very much like the hawk Jane Rosen created–so much so that I realized that she had made herself a vessel and captured it, the way Thoreau captured nature in words.
Would Thoreau scholars agree that he was a kind of yogi? I’ve heard a Taoist master claim him as a Taoist. I don’t think it really matters. I wonder if it possible for each of us to live our lives as a similar act of devotion, so that we can be totally engaged in life and yet open to a higher force. Can we cultivate an attention to what is that can allow us to be “translated?” Can we know we are part of a greater sacred whole, really know it, even as we live our lives? Maybe for like a second?