Awaken Thyself!

Excerpt: Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men.  Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.  Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. . . . We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.  If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

The Portable Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (New York:  Penguin Books, 1982), Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,"  pp. 342-3.


Thoreau would have us give up our morning coffee for a different kind of pick-me-up: a practice of spiritual awakening. For one may be physically awake, even alert, while the soul still may be leading an active life, while missing some of the deepest experiences of life.

The "dawn" and "morning" that Thoreau is concerned with here have nothing to do with the sunrise, or when the workday begins: "It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men." Thoreau is urging us to wake ourselves up spiritually, which can only be gauged internally, by the depth of our experience of life, by "the quality of the day."

Although we are used to thinking of morality as our obligations to others, Thoreau claims that self-awakening is a moral "task," or obligation, that we have to ourselves. Thoreau sees each human being as a potential artist whose work of art is themselves. If we take good care of our souls, and awaken ourselves to the spiritual aspects of life, then we have created a thing of beauty more significant than any painting or sculpture. Because the condition of our souls affects the quality of our day-to-day experiences, and Thoreau believes that nothing could be more important than that. Spiritual awakening, he promises, is felt not only in the explicitly 'spiritual' activities of life, but actually infuses one's entire life, "even in its details," with a depth that makes life more meaningful--not only during a reflective walk on the beach, but perhaps also at the grocery store, we can have a heightened experience of life.

How, then, does one go about awakening oneself? Thoreau indicates that there are two guides that can lead us there. The first is "conscious endeavor," or our ability to make a deliberate, mental effort to figure out what we need to do in order to wake ourselves up. There is a paradox involved in deliberately trying to change oneself, since the desire to change and the inevitable resistance to change are both in the same person. In the case of self-awakening, there is a part of us that is content to keep sleeping, "comfortably numb" as Pink Floyd famously puts it. This is where the power of our minds comes in, the power of "conscious endeavor," which Thoreau is confident can lead us in the direction of self-awakening. Just like the dieter who craves junk food but has decided to start eating well--the mind can often lead the way to change. By conscious endeavor, using our minds to think about what our bodies, or our souls, may need, we can deliberately change the circumstances of our lives (for example, by stocking the kitchen with healthy foods, or by moving the TV to a less central part of the house), so that eventually we ourselves begin to change (actually craving healthy foods, or feeling more engaged in life).

But Thoreau seems to be warning that we can only get so far by trying to 'figure out' how to achieve self-awakening: "If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done." Perhaps what Thoreau is suggesting is that at some point we need to shift away from thinking about how to awaken ourselves, since ultimately the ideas our minds can come up with amount to "paltry information" compared with the direction we could get from our other source of guidance: "the oracles." An oracle is a kind of supernatural guide, a medium through which wisdom is communicated to human beings from a spiritual realm. Traditionally, oracles are known for offering enigmatic advice, speaking through signs that are difficult to decipher. Thoreau seems to be saying that we each have such a source of wisdom within us, or somehow within reach, that could show us the way to self-awakening, if only we could hear and understand it.

Thoreau himself went to Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived alone in the woods for two years and two months, from 1845 to 1847, precisely to wake himself up:

"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."1

He wrote Walden, a documentary and reflective account of those years, hoping to pass on something of what he gained from his experiment. For Thoreau, the simplification of his life and a meditative experience with nature were critical elements in his spiritual self-awakening. Ultimately, although he may not be able to tell us precisely where our own self-awakening lies, he offers Walden as an enlightening and inspiring example of one man's effort to "elevate his life."


1  The Portable Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (New York:  Penguin Books, 1982), Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," p. 343.

Copyright 2004 by The Daily Philosopher.  All rights reserved.

Posted: July 2004

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