Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Report: Letters to a Spiritual Seeker by Thoreau

I've just finished reading Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, a collection of letters from Henry Thoreau to his friend and admirer Harrison Gray Otis Blake. Mr. Blake initiated the letters, and though his part of the conversation was destroyed, one can imagine the other half of the conversation by listening to Thoreau's replies, just as you can get the gist listening to only one side of a phone call.

I have to confess that I haven't read Thoreau's masterpiece, Walden, but have plans to, especially after reading Annie Dillard who is so obviously inspired by him. He was also a favorite of my hero E.B. White.

What struck me as I read this book was how much his approach has in common with other spiritual teachers I've studied. He believed in living simply and directly, but above all, he believed in the responsibility we have to the gift of life. We must honor that tremendous gift with the way we carry out our day to day lives.

I just put another stick into my stove, -a pretty large mass of white oak. How many men will do enough this cold winter to pay for the fuel that will be required to warm them? I suppose I have burned up a pretty good tree tonight,- and for what? I settled with Mr. Tarbell for it the other day; but that wasn't the final settlement. I got off cheaply from him. At last, one will say, "Let us see, how much wood did you burn sir?" And I shall shudder to think that the next question will be, "What did you do while you were warm?" Do we think the ashes will pay for it? That God is an ash man? It is a fact that we have got to render an account for the deeds done in the body.

Who knows but we shall be better the next year than we have been in the past. At any rate, I wish you a really new year,-commencing from the instant you read this,-and happy or unhappy, according to your deserts.

pg 114-115

This idea appeals to me enormously because it is about accountability- to yourself. You have yourself to own up to about whether or not you are honoring your potential with the way you go about your life. So often I don't make the cut- I arrive home from work tired and spent and I cop out on the sofa with a little HGTV and some junk food. That doesn't revive my spirit. In fact, it diminishes it.

Thoreau thought that there was too much distraction and madness in his day, can you imagine what he would think of the modern world? Of decorating shows? (ha!) It has only become easier to tune out in modern life. Our culture is designed to encourage it at every turn. I've come to believe that the only way to stay "in it" every moment is to train our minds and spirits to create habits that are nourishing and expanding. I am trying to do this in my own life, little by little, but it is an arduous, painful task. Here is Thoreau's advice to those of us trying to follow the path of simple, direct living in the present moment:

"Why will not I, having common sense, write in plain English always; teach men in detail how to live a simpler life, etc.; not go off into---? But I say that I have no scheme about it,- no designs on men at all; and, if I had, my mode would be to tempt them with the fruit, and not with the manure. To what end do I lead a simple life at all, pray? That I may teach others to simplify their lives? -and so all lives be simplified merely, like an algebraic formula? Or not, rather, that I may make use of the ground I have cleared, to live more worthily and profitably?"

pg 125

This I love too. We are not simplifying ourselves just to simplify. We are simplifying ourselves so that we may lead a richer life of the interior. And why not tempt ourselves with that thought, the thought of the beautiful, unfettered joy we will feel in reaching our potential, instead of the difficulties we will inevitably meet along the way? I also prefer to be inspired by the fruit instead of the manure. This book was filled with the luscious, ripe fruits of a cultivated life.

What are you reading lately? What advice do you have for someone seeking a rich life of the spirit?

1 comment:

jessica said...

how funny. i just read this the week before last!

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