“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,” are Thoreau’s famous words. He could have easily said it a different way, and may have, had he been part of a different culture or from a different time. He could have said that he went to the woods in order to sacrifice the modern conveniences of a busy society to gain clarity, the chance for intense introspection, and submission to the inherent interconnectedness of nature. Had Thoreau wanted to simplify his writing, for easy memorization, he could have boiled it down to sacrifice, study, and surrender – the three ingredients of Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga.
tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidhana – sacrifice study surrender
I went to the woods recently. Going into nature is, well, second nature to me. It is something that I have done since I was young. It is not something I ever appreciated as special, until I came to New York City. It is a daily sacrifice to live in New York City and as with any sacrifice something is expected in return. The New Yorker’s willingness to live in small cramped spaces, polluted settings, and noisy environs gives them access to some of the best food, services, fabulous entertainment, and fascinating people. Living in New York is a constant stimulation of the senses and that outpouring of power (the Sanskrit word for sense, indriya, can be translated as power) is draining. The sacrifice of going to the woods, living without services, taking in simple pleasures, and being amongst few people is far less draining of power and serves to encourage the calmness required to reflect, withdraw, and study one’s own place in the world.
Reflection and study take time and space. Multitasking is a fool’s errand and, most especially when it comes to concentration, is impossible for the mind. It is this very limitation of mind, its inability to be conscious of both itself and another at the same time, that separates it so resolutely from what is commonly referred to as the soul (see the 4th chapter, sutra 20 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras). Nature tends to take care of itself, letting nothing go to waste and completing most of its processes with slow deliberation. This is in direct contrast to the bustling city, which requires constant maintenance from its residents and demands an exacting break neck pace of change. Where is the opportunity for self reflection and deep study amongst the general crazy of the modern metropolis? Certainly, the opportunity is there, but it can be like hunting a snake in the grass – difficult and possibly detrimental to one’s health.
We, us tiny human beings, do not cause the sun to rise each day, nor the wind to blow, or the tides to ebb. Yet we attempt to control these events. We have invented artificial lights, fans, and swimming pools all in an effort to control that which was never meant to be under our control. So we play our little games, hoping against hope to win. How could we win? We are playing against the playing field. There are no laws, no rulebooks, no judge and jury in nature. There is only submission, that great surrender to your own interconnectedness. It becomes so obvious as you hike up a mountain, swim in a waterfall, or walk through the forest; you are not alone, nor have you ever been alone. You are utterly connected to everything, this has always been and always will be – there are no beginnings and there are no ends. And isn’t that comforting?
Go. Take a walk through the woods. Listen to the birds sing and the chipmunks chatter. Stub your toe on a loose rock. Scream and shout to your heart’s content and receive nothing in reply. Find a high spot to survey the surroundings like an eagle. It will allow you to, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” so that when the time comes for the greatest change you will not, “discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau