I grew up in a very messy home. My parent struggled and worked hard to make enough money to educate us in private schools and to give us a life they never had. It turned out well. We made it. And now in their 70s, my parents are enjoying the life they deserve in a picturesque suburb of Melbourne.
I remember in my early 20s, when I returned home after work, I would develop a headache. This happened every single day. I soon realized that I was not looking forward to coming home to see stacks of t-shirts on the sofa waiting for delivery (sewing and printing t-shirts was how my parents made a better, more comfortable life for all of us). So I moved out to a small room in Colombo closer to my workplace. There was not much there – just a small bed and room to take five steps. My headaches vanished. I realized that the comforts of life are not indispensable, and they could, in fact, stop you from becoming a better you. I didn’t know what that ‘better‘ meant at that time. Now I know. Years later, I would get interested in mediation and simple living. I realized I was not too bothered about shopping for clothes and other fancy things and got by with what I had. I also became interested in philosophy and read whatever book I could find on the subject. Henry David Thoreau caught my attention.
Thoreau spent two years in a hut he built himself and grew some beans and lived in nature. He was possibly motivated to make this change as part of the healing process after his brother’s death. However, he had this to say about his move:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.Waldon by Henry David Thoreau
Of course, there are critics. Just as we find there are critics of the Buddha who might say that he left his responsibilities and his obligations as a father, husband and prince, Thoreau also had a critic in Kathryn Schulz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at The New Yorker. She also accused Thoreau of ‘escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living with other people’, and somehow found that the ‘amount’ of solitude was insufficient to make him an authentic human being:
But Thoreau did not live as he described, and no ethical principle is emptier than one that does not apply to its author. The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company.Kathryn Schulz – The New Yorker
As for me, I love to understand other people’s points of view, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ms. Schulz’s article, which was engaging and as well written as one would expect from such an accomplished writer.
Back to Thoreau. Reading Waldon, it struck me how authentic Thoreau was in his view of life. He never pretended that other people were unnecessary. His hut was within walking distance from home. He went to town regularly. To me, it looked like all he wanted was to experience life differently. I remember a specific line from an old hymn we used to sing in school about how God does not expect us to be in a cloistered shell. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember what that hymn was). Thoreau didn’t starve himself or isolate himself. I think he understood how many people live in quiet desperation, trapped in obligations and social conventions. Increasingly, our lives are burdened with more and more responsibilities. My parents educated us until we were 18, and then we took over. But today, I feel the obligation to educate my children through university. I feel they will have no place in society without such higher education. Thoreau saw this plight of normal people. He didn’t want that life. So he simplified (for a while) if only to experience the regeneration of the spirit.
I spent a couple of weeks in India a few years ago, living in ashrams in Rishikesh and Mumbai. It was only a few days, but it gave me an idea of why we crave solitude from society. Those two weeks were all about basic human needs like food, clothing, and shelter. It was invigorating. When I returned, I had to face the obvious questions from curious acquaintances: Did you meditate or were you on the road to Goa? Was it enlightenment or LSD? And the unasked questions: why, if you practice meditation, is your life so materialistic? As Thoreau clearly recognized, living a good life is not about self-sufficiency or complete asceticism. It is about getting along well with others. It is about enjoying life’s simple pleasures, like cookies and company. This could be our everyday life, but without that time-off, would you see it in the light of a person who is not a slave to comforts or luxuries? Our experiences with nature and simple living enhance and give meaning to our everyday lives. Thoreau says this about leaving the woods;
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed toWaldon
me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time
for that one.
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