Book Cover
  • 19th September 2018
Books
Psychology
Spirit
Travel

Walden — Hendrik David Thoreau {Book Review}

Book Cover

When Tim Ferris packed his stuff to vagabond around the world, he took two books with him.  The first one was Vagabonding by Rolf Potts; the second one was Walden by Hendrik David Thoreau.

Tim Ferris was one of the guys who inspired me to found my own psychology podcast.

The $6 that I spend on this gem are easily in the discussion for the best investment of my life, and I believe wholeheartedly, that this book has the potential to enrich if not change your life.

I started to read Walden when I was flying towards Portugal, and I finished it while watching the sunset in a small village near Guimaraes.

In Walden, Thoreau writes about his experiment of living in the woods near Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts in solitude for two years.  He lives there completely self-reliant, in the shack he built, as simple as possible, and supported by no one else but himself.

The timing could have not been better for me in finding this gem.  At the time of my discovery of Walden, I had the biggest financial trouble of my recent memory, and I was on the summit of Brokeback Mountain, surrounded by a large storm of horse crap.

The stoicism that is depicted in Thoreau’s Walden, not only gave me a new perspective but made me realise that the things that matter to me most cannot be taken away from me, ever.

As long as I have the people I love, my orange backpack, my blog, and my dream, I have everything that I need.

That I am free.

What Is The Book Walden About?

In Walden, Thoreau writes about his experiment of living in the woods near Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts in solitude for two years.  He lives there completely self-reliant, in the shack he built himself, as simple as possible, and supported by no one else but himself.

In total, he spent on his cabin just 28 dollars.  To sustain himself, Thoreau grows and sells vegetables, mostly beans.  His day to day diet consists mainly of rye bread, salt pork, rice, beans, and potatoes.

Thoreau’s idea was that during modern society, and within day to day ordinary life, one can lose his or her true identity.

Thoreau moving to Walden was a radical experiment to see what remains at the core of the human soul if one eliminates variables such as possession, social connections, career, and external validation.

Henry was motivated for this experiment by his mentor and role model Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I would think that they belong to the school of transcendentalism, which assumes that there is a true self to discover.

Thoreau goes into great detail about his observations about the nature that surrounded him in the forest in Walden.  The book Walden is not only a book about self-discovery and stoicism, but it is also about mindfulness, minimalism, gratitude, and our spiritual connection to nature.

In Walden, Thoreau shows his great love for numbers, and he goes into detail how much he spends to build his cabin in the woods, and how much money he spent on salt from 1845 to 1847.  To us, this may seem weird or trivial(2), but to Thoreau, it was important.  In his opinion, modern society with its blind devotion to consumerism, technology, and hedonism is enslaving the human soul with its dependencies. It is ultimately robbing us of our most precious gift: our freedom.

According to him, we create our own prison.

He spends, however, not the entire time in his little cabin in the woods working on the little farm that he builds.  Thoreau spent only as much time on labour and work as was necessary to sustain himself.

He went into the woods to think, to feel, and to observe nature.

You can see that he had little to no respect for material things and possessions.

Thoreau was proud and fascinated by how little he spent, and how little he actually needed.  He spends less money on building a house and living there than he had to spend studying in Harvard.

Thoreau was a true free spirit; he even refused to acknowledge the days of the week or month; he was only guided by the season that changed slowly in front of him.

After two years of living in the forest, Thoreau left Walden.  Thoreau announced that his project at the pond was over on September 6, 1847.  He felt that humans live many lives and that his life living at the pond was finished.  He then admonishes us to meet our lives, and live fully.

Who Is Hendrik David Thoreau?

Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher and writer best known for his attacks on American social institutions and his respect for nature and simple living.  He was heavily influenced by the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who introduced Thoreau to the ideas of transcendentalism, a philosophy central to Thoreau’s thinking and writing.  In addition to Civil Disobedience (1849), Thoreau is best known for his book Walden (1854), which documents his experiences living alone on Walden Pond in Massachusetts from 1845 to 1847.  Throughout his life, Thoreau emphasised the importance of individuality and self-reliance.  He practised civil disobedience in his own life and spent a night in jail for his refusal to pay taxes in protest of the Mexican War.  (Thoreau was opposed to the practice of slavery in some of the territories involved).  It is thought that this night in jail prompted Thoreau to write Civil Disobedience.  Thoreau delivered the first draft of the treatise as an oration to the Concord Lyceum in 1848, and the text was published in 1849 under the title Resistance to Civil Government.(1)

3 Lessons That I Learned From Walden

The Importance Of Self-Reliance

A clear theme in the book Walden is the importance of Self-Reliance.  A huge influence for Thoreau was the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in particular, the essay Self-Reliance is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written in my opinion.

One could say that Thoreau’s experiment to live without money in the woods for 2 years was motivated by proving the ideals of Emerson that are depicted in the letter self-reliance of 1841.

Man is his own star; and the soul that can

Render an honest and a perfect man,

Commands all light, all influence, all fate;

Nothing to him falls early or too late.

Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,

Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.”

Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher’s Honest Man’s Fortune

In Walden, Thoreau explains that a person needs financial independence more than the neediness that millions live by in our hedonistic societies that only aim at acquiring more material wealth.

Thoreau goes into great detail on how much money he spends in his experiment; he even mentioned that the amount of money he spent 1845-1847 on salt.  To “normal” people this may be trivial, to Thoreau, this meant control.  Controlling his own finances and not be dependent on banks, jobs, and other people is ultimately the ability to control one’s own fortune and life.

Thoreau’s experiment to live in the woods is not only an experiment to liberate himself from the strings of the capitalistic cravings that are mandatory to live in our society, but he also aims at cutting strings with his social life.  He very rarely was visited by other people in his time by the woods.

And, if he was visited by friends, they were most likely also poets or thinkers.

This was a profound lesson for me.  Being independent and self-reliant means to be in control.  I believe psychologically three things, among many others, are causing depression.

Perceived lack of control over one’s own life, financial scarcity, and our craving for external validation.

By eliminating the need for those three basic human needs, Thoreau gives us a uniquely different manual of how to deal with anxiety and depression, in my opinion.

Our brain is an overreactive son of a b*tch.  Every time one of our bills is overdue, we fear social exclusion and starvation.

Thoreau goes to extreme lengths to become the boss of his own life, something we all should try to be, and it seems that the psychological benefit of feeling in charge is fundamental when it comes to preserving our sanity.

Walden has taught me that to battle my depression and anxiety; I need to feel more in control.  Limiting our dependencies is a liberation of the soul.

The second benefit of being more self-reliant is to stress less about things that are not in your control.

The identification and separation of matters that we can influence are key.  There are many things in life that we can influence and change, and by all means, am I an advocate of striving to become better and doing everything we can, but there is a lot of stuff that we cannot change from accidents to illness to losing a loved one.

By focusing on the things, we cannot change, we dig our own graves and invest in our anxiety.

What we always can change, however, is how we deal with things that we cannot change.  Our attitude and emotion toward misfortune are in our control.  Always.

Even if you are suffering, you are in control of what coping mechanism you choose.  Years back, I interviewed two brothers.  Their father had died of severe alcoholism.  One of them became an addict, as well.  I asked him why he thought that he was so vulnerable to addiction, and he hinted that he had no other choice because his father lived this way and that he inherited those bad habits.

The other brother was doing fairly well in life, and I asked him why he was doing so good.  He gave me the same answer.  He told me he was doing so good because we wanted to be the opposite of his father and learn from his mistakes and not bring that level of pain and suffering into the world.

We all need the feeling of control.  If you feel overwhelmed in life, focus on the little things that are in your power.

Often, we underestimate the power of the culmination of doing tiny things regularly.

The Value Of Stoicism

In Walden, Thoreau dedicated an entire chapter to the idea of simplicity.  Thoreau depicts the idea that humans, in our capitalistic society, have a tendency to be dissatisfied with one’s possessions.

Something true for most of us.  We are all, in some way, in the process of creating the means of getting more.

There are two ways according to Thoreau of dealing with this dissatisfaction.  We either acquire more, or we reduce our desires.

Thoreau goes to extreme lengths of reducing his desires by living alone in the woods.

From building his own shack to having a simplistic diet.  To him, the devotion to acquiring luxurious extravagancies is not only unnecessary but a real liability and impediment.

It is crazy how these ideas are still relevant 150 years later.

We work our asses off to get a house that is too big for us, with money that we borrowed from the bank, drive a car that we do not really need, work a job to buy stuff that we not only could easily live without but is actually hindering us of becoming happy and fulfilled.

Thoreau goes as far as discussing whether humans need shelter at all because he believes our skin is enough of a tent.

This thinking deeply liberated me in times of financial struggle that my worst-case scenario is actually not that bad.

Stoics would go as far as to practice misfortune regularly.  By training our brain that the condition that we fear most is actually not that bad, we liberate our self from fear and anxiety.

Gary V, for example, visualises his worst-case scenario (the death of his loved ones) every morning.  I know this is crazy.  But he believes that this is the source of his level of gratitude.

Stoics do not aim at devoting their life to acquiring more, but to become the best person they can become.

This is of extreme importance when it comes to how we see ourselves and how we judge our self and others.

What do you appreciate in yourself and in others?  Who do you respect and why?

Do you respect people who are kicking ass in their career?  Do you look up to financially successful people?

Or do you respect people who are doing good?  Who is adding value?  Who puts a smile daily on other people’s faces?

We live in a society where we only value performance, we worship people in power, and we do not pay attention to kindness, love, and happiness.

So I urge you to go into introspection.  What do you value yourself for?

Often, people have a value paradigm that ignores beautiful qualities.

If you only value people in power, people who are “successful” and you are not this person yet; you are digging your own grave and create self-hate and self-doubt.

Do not forget to praise yourself for the things that really matter.  Are you a good listener?  Can you make other people smile?  Are you a devoted person?  Can you be happy for others?  Are you patient with your parents?  Are you there for your friends when they truly need you?

In my interviews with depressed people, they often speak about how much better the world would be without them, that they cannot do anything, and that they have no skills.

By scaling down and praising yourself for stoic values, you not only gain happiness, but you gain clarity and truth because you are a beautiful person, you may have just not yet realised it because you are using the wrong template to evaluate yourself correctly.

Everything Is Ephemeral

So, if possession, achievement, social validation do not matter, what does?

This very moment does.  Now matters.

In my last article, Take The Road Less Travelled, I talked about how overrated feelings are, and that more often than not, we over-evaluate the importance of feelings.  The end of our emotions very often is nothing.

I had this insight while watching the endless panoramic view in Guimaraes, realising that if everything is ephemeral, there is no need to stress about the future or the past.

Depression is often an obsession with the past.  Anxiety, on the other side, is the fear of worrying about everything sh*tty that might happen to us in the future.

This leaves no place for the importance of the now.

A great mentor here is Marcus Aurelius.  One of my favourite stoic thinkers.

Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now?  Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend.  Think of all the examples.  And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” Marcus Aurelius.

While I read Walden in Portugal, I felt liberated.  After receiving some major bad news, I was super anxious and felt like dog sh*t.

It made me think.  How many times in my life did my bitchy emotions tell me that the world was going to end, that I will not make it, that everybody will hate me, and that I have no future?

How often did the world actually end?

Yup, not one time.

We fail exams, and we think we just lost our one and only shot at success.  We fight through a breakup, and we believe no one ever will love us again.  We see a dream not working out, and we feel like we just lost our one and only shot at happiness.

Yet still, life goes on.  Whether we like it or not.

The seasons in Walden that Thoreau describes so playfully showed me that life is going to go on.

Always.

And as I realised in Portugal, we matter a lot less than we are willing to admit.

This is a good thing.  Nihilism can be liberating.  If nothing matters and everything is trivial, why not do what the f*ck makes you happy and stress less about things.

Whether you die, or the President of the United States, the same thing is coming for both of you.  So why stress out so much.

Take it easy, live life fully, and be open for the endless beauty that this world has to offer.

Thoreau believed that a human lives many lives.

As he left the forest that he lived in for two years, I felt that the life he had to live near the pond of this forest was over.

The same goes for you and for me.  What life are you living right now that is coming to an end?

What life do you choose to live next?

You decide.

Who Recommended It?

Tim Ferris.

What Did I Not Like?

His writing style is contrary to his simple philosophy.  If you are not a native English speaker, this gem is going to be really hard for you to understand.

I had my fair share of trouble with understanding Thoreau’s Walden.

His sentences are very long and complicated at times.  Besides that, I have nothing to argue about.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.sparknotes.com/author/henry-david-thoreau/
  2. http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html

Call to Action

Here is some homework for you.
  1. What is your biggest fear?  And why?
  2. What is your worst-case scenario for life?  And why?
  3. What would your life look like if you would not devote yourself to seeking external validation and materialistic possessions?
  4. How much money do you spend on food in a month?
  5. What things do you buy that are not necessary for you to survive or to be happy?

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