Henry David Thoreau, American Yogi

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?

10 thoughts on “Henry David Thoreau, American Yogi

  1. Hi Tracy

    Yes, I think that for just a second we can know we are part of something greater. That one moment moves from there into the alpha and omega of the very next moment, and then the next one after that one. One after another, after another, we can only take it all in, in tiny bites anyway. ;-)

    I just pulled out my iPhone and started Stanza, the application that allows you download eBooks. The really cool thing is that it comes automatically with a link to Project Gutenberg, where you may download much of Thoreau’s work for free. It looks like Walden has been downloaded 3,762 times, Civil Disobedience 940 times, Walden on audio 487 times, and Wild Apples 125 times.

    I can’t wait to dig into Walden again.


    1. Hi Ron: I think you’re right. It really is given in moments, in tiny bites. Everyone I know who has an iPhone loves it. What you describe is amazing, like you wish for something, Walden, and poof, there it is. AAAAArrrgggg, a new object for me to desire…which happens to be our next theme.

  2. Hi Tracy,

    Ah, yes, those wonderful ‘Objects of our Desires’ can become like Idols.

    I envy the two years and two months that Thoreau live away from civilization. The time he had to observe and write. His time to become “a monarch of all you might survey.”

    You have to wonder what his sense of time was like back then, compared to our own now. Do you think that time is running faster, or has it stayed the same throughout time?

    What was it T.S. Eliot said in Burnt Norton, “Only through time is time conquered.”

    Time becomes a modern day idol more often than not; we never have enough time.

    Tomorrow morning I am helping to facilitate a Buddhist Christian interfaith dialog on meditation, and to talk about how they are both alike and very different. I will compare the Buddhist practice of tonglen, to dying on the cross and taking on the sins of others. It is like that don’t think?

    I will try to put empitness, dependent origination, and karma into a Christian context, or a context for Christians to try and understand. Perhaps, these subjects make for interesting conversations. The Buddhist concept of the divine is so different from the Holy Trinity. We stumble so over the language used by each to discribe these mysteries.

    Then again is not the Christian ‘Cloud of Unkowning’ similar to Buddhist shunyata?

    It should be an interesting dialog. I am looking forward to the moments we will share together in sacramental stillness and silence.

    Have a great weekend.


    1. I wish I could be there, Ron. Tonglen does seem very like taking on the sins of others, and the rest you say is also very resonant. I interviewed an interesting Jesuit who is also a Roshi, Father Robert Kennedy in Parabola’s “Silence” issue (I think). I think you would relate to much that he says about God’s grace really being like insight of seeing the perfection of what is, nothing to strive for. Have a great weekend!

      1. Tracy,

        I have that issue on “Silence” and just pulled it off the bookshelf upstairs, Spring 2008. I also (LOL) counted my copies of Parabola and have close to 60 now. I guess that is about 15 years worth.

        Robert Kennedy’s piece is called “To Live With Gratitude” and I remember being drawn to it then. He reminds be of Ruben Habito, who has taught at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University since 1989.


        I also love the first piece “Listening For The Voice of God,” written by Tom Rothschild, because it takes me back to our family roots that were grounded in Quakerism. One of my esteemed ancestors is Mary Coffin Starbuck (1645-1717), “who became known as “The Great Mary” of Nantucket, evidently she was a woman of great power and influence and early became a convert to Quakerism; her personality was so great that soon the entire population of Nantucket Island became Quakers.” I found a PDF copy of Tom’s piece on the internet.

        Click to access silence_quaker_worship.pdf

        “The first that enters into the place of your meeting. . . turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in the spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light . . . . Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit, are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is he worshiped. . . . In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here; and this is the end of all words and writings—to bring people to the eternal living Word.”

        Yesterday’s meditation class/workshop went well, with over 30 people attending. It was a good day, and Tonglen was a powerful experience for many of the Christian’s attending. Many of the attendees asked us to do it again.


      2. What a fascinating ancestor, Ron. I hope you write about her (or write more than this brief mention). I’m really grateful for your support of Parabola. We need it! Also, your workshop inspires me to see how much Buddhist and Christian practices have to share with one another. I look forward to exploring for myself!

  3. I believe we can have a sense of the timeless and formless universal matrix of being and live a concrete existence at the same time. In fact, as I’ve grown older I’ve come to believe that the latter can help to achieve the former, if the life lived is lived with integrity and in service to others, whatever form that takes.

    For example, in my early adulthood I planned to never have children and not to marry early. I wanted to experience as much of life as possible, which to me meant travel and reading. I ended up married young and having children. I also ended up staying at home to raise my children and eventually schooling them myself. This is a kind of radical domesticity (in this day and age) I had not planned on. It was not imposed on me at all. Over the years I continued to read and study and write. My spouse has always been supportive of me whatever I do. In fact, my choice to stay home shocked him.

    I think now, looking back, that despite a childhood where I was denied the chance to live well because my parents were troubled people, I had a powerful ego. These years of service to others have refined my spirit to the extent that I went from valuing my own children, to valuing other people’s children, to valuing the child inside of people I meet, to valuing myself (outside of ego). I am by no means at the end of this journey. But I want to encourage anyone who might feel “stuck” in his or her life to believe that there is something potentially heroic and/or transcendent in everything (except evil) we do.

    My stable family life and the wonderful community in which I live are the soil in which my roots grow well nourished. The stalk can grown upward from there and some days I really feel as if I might reach the sky.

    I love the idea that Thoreau viewed writing as his religion and I can fully relate to that. Finding this blog is one of the things that makes the seemingly mundane aspects of life shimmer with spiritual possibilities.

    1. I think your “radical domesticity” is very resonant with what Thoreaux meant when he said “I have traveled a great deal in Concord.” It doesn’t matter where you go; it matters that it’s deep. Thanks!

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