Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.
Things do not change; we change.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
These words were written over 150 years ago. They still strike us as true. How did Henry David Thoreau do it, when neither the latest advertisement nor political speech can convince us that it is anything but B.S.?
He followed his own advice:
Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
How do we do that?
First, we slow down the news cycle. Instead of Tweets, wait a day and read the Times or some other newspaper. Wait a week, and read a magazine. Wait a year and read a book.
Second, we dig into our life’s experience. Where are the gold nuggets of truth that we live by?
A third step is to read scripture.
But which one?
Some say that the very fact we have to ask that question is the reason why there isn’t any truth these days.
I grew up in a world where THE scripture was the Protestant Christian Bible. Everyone either read it, or thought they should. Today, I live in a city where thousands read the Torah, the Koran, or the Vedas. And hundreds read lesser known sacred texts — and seek to live by them. Who knows what is true?
Things were simpler in Thoreau’s day before cultural and religious pluralism called the old truths into question. Except they weren’t simpler.
Yes, he was brought up in church and attended Sabbath School as a child and his writing shows he is more familiar with the Christian Bible than most of today’s public intellectuals. But when he spent two years in a cabin on Walden Pond, he took with him a book he called the “Bhagvat-Geeta.”
The closest thing Hinduism has to a Bible is the Bhagavad Gita, which was first translated from Sanskrit into English about a generation before Thoreau was born.
The book was a sensation in Thoreau’s circles in New England. His friend, Emerson, loaned him a copy. From his reading, Thoreau appeared not to simply admire the spiritual and psychological insights of Hinduism, but also came back to the Bible, especially the New Testament, with eyes that no longer saw it as a “yellowed document”, but as superior to all other writings for it ethical teachings.
That can happen to people who may have deep commitments to one spiritual tradition but who also become familiar with another.
It works like this:
Do you remember the first time you stayed overnight with a friend when you were a kid?
Your first impression probably was, “Everything my friend’s family does is wrong.”
That was because the way they talked to each other (or not), the way they ate their meals, and the way they went to bed was different from the way your family did those things.
Perhaps, if you visited your friend on a regular basis, or you visited other friends, you came to appreciate some of the things that they did.
Jacquie and I started dating in high school. One of the things she says she liked about my family is that my parents saw to it that we did things together. My Mom and Dad worked really hard to run a dairy farm and raise five kids, but they were both youngest children and they knew how to have a good time.
What I liked about Jacquie’s house was the food! Her Mom was a fabulous cook and she liked to feed people. As a 17-year-old farm boy who was burning about 4,000 calories a day, I loved eating at their house.
I learned a lot from visiting in my friends’ homes. I also went back to my own home with a deeper appreciation for what I received there. I saw things that I wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t ever go anywhere else.
It happens that I was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita by a gifted teacher a few years ago. I’ve been slowly plowing my way through a Christian commentary on the book.
Reading that book, I have the same experience Thoreau described:
“I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”
Yes, the writings of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao Te Ching make the Op Ed pieces in the newspaper seem trivial — to say nothing of the observations of cable news commentators. That is a good reason to read them. For they have inspired people, as Thoreau said, since long before our current cultural gods were born and they will do so long after those gods are dead.
Immersing yourself in any of them will make you wiser. I admit to being biased in favor of the Christian Bible. That’s my family home. Visiting the Gita, however, has taught me even deeper truths about the spiritual life, just as visiting the homes of friends taught me deeper truths about family life.
Families may eat different foods at different times, but everybody eats. Families may go to bed in different ways, but everyone sleeps.
What Thoreau discovered from both the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament, is that both believe the spiritual life is lived out, not in holy isolation in a cave or on a mountaintop, but in the ordinary actions of life. In the Gita, we learn to do our work by letting go of our ego’s need for recognition and success. In the New Testament, we learn serve each other in love. They aren’t so different.
And both change us and our world for the better.