Walden and Mindfulness
I just finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It is one of those books that I have wanted to read for a long time but felt I needed to be in the right space to attempt it. As I closed the book last night, I was discussing with my partner how beautifully written the book is and how I have never read a book where entire chapters are dedicated to things like, watching a pond change in the seasons or, watching birds come and go. If you have never read the book Walden, it is an account of Thoreau’s time spent living alone in a cabin he built near Walden pond. He spent two years at the cabin from 1845-1847. The “pond” is a beautiful lake just outside of Concord, Massachusetts. It is a deep lake known as a kettle hole, formed by the retreating glaciers over 10,000 years ago. I had the privilege of seeing the lake and the remnants of Thoreau’s cabin many years ago. When I gazed upon the pile of rocks that was once his humble abode, it made no impression on me. Now that I have read Walden, I can’t wait to go back and see the pond as I can now imagine what it must have been like long before the area became so populated.
In my discussions with my partner last night I remarked at how Thoreau seemed to be so incredibly observant of his surroundings. More than a philosophy about living a minimalist life, Walden is a beautiful example of Thoreau being mindful. The word “mindful” is bandied about regularly in conversations and in the media and it is usually associated with meditation. Thoreau provides a good example of how mindfulness can occur by simply being aware of our surroundings. I imagine him on his regular walks around the Emerson property simply noticing his environment. I believe his mind must have been very present and not wandering. His spartan lifestyle provided the perfect environment for being mindful. His cabin contained only a bed, a chair, a wood stove, and a desk. Without things like the internet or television, he had an ideal environment for mindfulness.
So what does it mean to be mindful? Mindfulness is merely focusing your conscious energy on one thing. As an example, watching a loon dive into the water and waiting for him to pop up again can be very mindful if your attention is only on the loon. If while watching the loon, your mind starts to think about what your are going to have for supper or what your day will be like at work tomorrow, you are not mindful – you are multitasking. Multitasking has been shown to increase stress hormones like cortisol which can cause damage to brain cells and raise blood pressure. Conversely, practicing mindfulness can reduce stress hormones and reduce blood pressure. So if you have been afraid to practice mindfulness because you thought you might have to sit like a yogi for hours on end, know that mindfulness can be done anywhere at anytime. Find something pleasurable to focus on and try not to let your attention waiver for at least 10 minutes every day. If all else fails, you could try reading Walden!