How to Read the Eternities: The End of a Series

I learned about “forest bathing” while hiking the other day. Since it was 37 degrees F. with a sharp wind, I can assure you that it did not involve removing my clothes.

Jacquie used the term as we hiked in the North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. There is growing scientific evidence that walking through natural areas — especially a forest — is good for you.

Well, duh!

Henry David Thoreau could have told us that in the 1840’s. He may not have been able to compare blood pressure readings or count white cells, but for two years he lived by himself in the woods near Walden Pond in order to face life.

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle”, Thoreau described how to live in the “Post-Truth” era. He told us that to find the truth in such times we need to

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

This is not an easy thing to do in an age when the Times, or the Post, or the Plain Dealer feel like Medieval texts compared to Twitter or the news crawl at the bottom of the 24-hour news channel screen. To get at the truth these days we need to learn to slow down the newsfeed, take time to listen to ourselves, and seek the wisdom of the ages in the holy writings, like the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.

To read the Eternities themselves, we need to turn to what some Christian theologians call “The First Testament” — Creation.

The Bible tells us that Creation points to God:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies announce what God’s hands have made.
Day after day they tell the story; night after night they tell it again.
They have no speech or words; they have no voice to be heard.
But their message goes out through all the world; their words go everywhere on earth.
Psalm 19:1-4

Looking at a starry sky or a mountain or an ocean helps us get a better perspective on ourselves, our successes and our failures.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place— what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Psalm 8:3-4

This is what Thoreau did. He looked at the sky, listened to the wind, followed rivers, and took note of birds and insects. He heard the Truth in the wind and the bird songs. He saw the sun rise and set. He felt the change in the seasons.

Here are some of the things he learned:

The universe is wider than our views of it.

Things do not change. We change.

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

What has the Creation taught you that is the opposite of what the Tweets, the Times and human “wisdom” tries to sell you?

Read The Scriptures: Reading the Eternities Part 3

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.

Read Your Life: Part 2 of Read the Eternities

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus of Nazareth, “What is truth”.

As far as Pilate was concerned, “truth” was just the “alternate fact” he needed to justify executing a carpenter to please the crowd.

Pilate would feel right at home in a place where  last night’s tweets will be explained away in this afternoon’s press briefing

“What is truth?”  How do we find it?

150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau was writing things that remain true even to this day. How did he do that?

His advice:

“Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”

How do we do that?

Step one, as I said last week, is to step back from the 24-hour news stream and read reports of events from a longer and deeper perspective. Don’t read the Tweets, read the Times, and newsmagazines and books. That will help you separate the true from the trivial — the signal from the noise.

However, I no longer think that reading what others have written about anything is as important as I once did. Now, it’s more important to read my own life.

My mother-in-law used to preface some of her sentences with the words, “Now this I know is true”.

How do YOU know what is true?

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle“, Thoreau was addressing people who were suffering, as we do, from information overload. Cheaper methods of printing created more newspapers — and a hunger for news — even fake news.  An efficient postal service brought deliveries of mail twice a day in many places. America was polarized around issues of slavery and race, the dangers of allowing Catholic German and Irish immigrants into the U.S., and trade policies. They were also distracted by the promise of gold.

Thoreau suggests that instead of rushing off to California to dig a shaft straight down into the ground, people should dig down in their own lives. We can pan for the gold in our life experiences. The miner washes away gravel to find flecks of gold in the bottom of his pan because gold is heavier than gravel. It has more weight.

How do you dig a shaft and pan for the gold in your own life? How do you find the stuff that has weight in your life?

One way to do this is to keep a diary of your life’s experiences.

Thoreau wrote in his journal the first drafts of truths that became gold nuggets about the desperation with which most people pursue their lives;   the importance of simplicity and what it means to disobey unjust laws.

I admit that I’ve tried to journal off and on through my life and until recently it hasn’t done much good because I didn’t go back and read what I had written to see that I was saying and doing the same things over and over again.  I couldn’t read my own handwriting. Using a word processor meant I would lose files when I upgraded. 

I’ve been more successful recently using an app called Day One that allows me to tag entries so that I can go back and look at recurring themes.

As John Dewey said:

“We don’t learn from experience, but from reflecting on experience.

My mother-in-law didn’t keep a diary. She just got up before dawn, sat on her couch with a cup of coffee and a cigarette and thought about life.

I am not privy to her thoughts, and I’m pretty sure that the hour, the coffee and the cigarette are optional, but I do know that she must have reviewed her life in those hours and it enabled her to say about a few things, “This I know is true.”

It takes time to dig into your life and sift the gold out of the gravel of your life experiences. It means you will miss some tweets. You will miss some news bulletins. You will miss some photos of what your “friends” had for dinner and a cat video or two. If that’s more important, so be it, but remember these words from Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle”:

You may depend on it, that the poor fellow

who walks away [from the Post Office]

with the greatest number of letters,

proud of his extensive correspondence,

has not heard from himself this long while.

How do you read your life?

What truths are you finding?