“Our lives are frittered away by detail; simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
First published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau’s work Walden is considered an American classic. It is an autobiographical diary, of sorts, that details Thoreau’s time living in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, in Massachusetts.
Thoreau lives in the cabin for two years, in an attempt to gain perspective on ‘society’, and focusing instead on simple living.
The book is not without its critics. However its place in American, even global, culture remains undisputed.
What is it about the book that captures a reoccurring zeitgeist, making it as relevant today as it was in the C19th?
Stripped bare of the mania of extravagance, possessions, complexity, luxury, distraction, noise etc – there is a beauty. A raw, unadulterated self that brings about great joy in the individual.
Without the noise, we find ourselves.
Certainly, there can often be pain in the shedding of these layers en route to our inner selves. However, once we gnaw through and seek the truth, we find our authentic selves shine more brightly without these cloaks.
That’s the key to simplicity. Shedding the superfluous. Understanding what contributes positively to the nature of your being and ignoring the distractions. The key is finding the pieces that matter most to you and removing those that take away. It’s not necessarily about having, or not having possessions, but about finding oneself.
It is not easy. We need to distinguish between those elements that leave us with a net positive, and those that result in instant pleasure but a net negative.
Simplicity is different for each of us. Whereas some people find simplicity on a roll-mat in a forest, I find it difficult to sleep without comfort. For me, a cabin or a tent with a mattress is a necessity. Understanding one’s own basic necessities and what makes us happy requires honest self-examination.
Simplicity is about peeling away the layers of confusion and seeking the sustenance beneath.
That is why Walden is timeless. It is because simplicity is so easy and so rewarding that it is extremely accessible. Yet the decision to simplify, or the societal barriers that stand in our way actually make it difficult to live a simple life. Thoreau gives voice to that part of the self that desires, even requires the basics.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
“So let us reflect on what is truly of value in life, what gives meaning to our lives and set our priorities on the basis of that”. – Dalai Lama
“What does a simplified life look like? There’s no one answer. While some might go to the extremes of living in a cabin in Alaska or on a tropical island, others find simplicity in a city while working a job with the hectic pace of a stockbroker. The key is to find what matters most to you, and to eliminate as much of the rest as possible.” – Leo Babatua
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