RETURN TO EDEN: ‘Freedom Road’, Zen & the Art of Simple Living

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“…Walden is not just a geographical point somewhere in the New England landscape but a state of mind, an attitude of simple living that can be transported anywhere, anytime, if we so decide. After his two years experiment in simple living Thoreau left Walden Pond to pursue life elsewhere but he recognized that he had touched something quite special and precious during this time and he never forgot”:

Thoreau’s Experiment with the Simple Life  – By Michael Lewin

Henry David Thoreau ( 1817 – 1862 ) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived most of his life. He attended Harvard University and soon after completing his studies joined his father’s pencil manufacturing business. During this period Thoreau had taken to endless walking in the woods surrounding Concord; observing the minute details of nature and recording them in a copious fashion in numerous notebooks. Emerson stated in a essay about Thoreau that he could…” draw out of his breast pocket his diary, and read the names of all the plants that should bloom on that day…..He could tell by the plants what time of year it was within 2 days.”

In 1845 Thoreau built a small hut on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, where he lived in solitude for 2 yrs. It was his experiment in simple, grounded living which, he hoped, would enable him to gain some insight into the primary realities of life. His writing during this time was later published as a book entitled:’ Walden ‘ which encapsulated his feelings on nature, simple right living and the need for solitude. The work offered up profound spiritual insights and wisdom – later becoming recognized as a ‘ high water mark ‘ in American literature.

“ 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 me, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau. Walden

The experience of Walden never left Thoreau; it continued to pour through his writings and through his life. Whether on environmental issues, life philosophy, or social justice Thoreau’s drew on his contemplative nature – which had blossomed during this period – to shine a light on these important subjects. In later years, through his writings on civil disobedience, he came to influence the work of many, including Tolstoy, Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. Such was the depth and breath of his thoughts and deliberations.

“ I read Thoreau … I read Walden first … and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence … There is no doubt that Thoreau’s ideas greatly influenced my movement in India. “



Although Thoreau’s fine mind was employed in many different arenas at the heart of his thoughts and writing was the repeated, single theme of simplicity in all its richness and profound presence. He had come to slowly and appreciatively recognize the importance of leading a simple life in order to bring clarity and understanding to the experience of existence. Unfortunately in our modern world our lives have increasingly become complex, very complex indeed to a point that Thoreau wouldn’t recognize. We regularly run around in frantic activity – busy, busy, busy – without a thought for mindfulness or appropriate pacing and then we wonder why we get so tired and need to seek rest. We over burden ourselves with stressful states of work, reaching out to accomplice so much, and then wonder why our bodies collapse under the strain. Life has become so frenetic for many of us that it has now assumed the status of normality, the routine, the everyday way we conduct ourselves – but at what costs? Levels of stress related illnesses have now peaked at an all time high with no sign of them abating and yet we still continue to engage with the very thing that causes the problem – over burden busyness. We are not here to preoccupy ourselves with constant activity that can easily overshadow and destroy the life of contemplation and reflection. This is the core message of the biblical story of Martha and Mary. Whilst Jesus was visiting their home Martha was concentrating on preparing a meal and undertaking other household duties but she was unhappy with her sister Mary who was apparently doing ‘ nothing ‘ but listening to their invited visitor. Increasingly she grew agitated with the situation until she could not hold back any further. She approached Jesus to express her concerns over Mary’s lack of work effort but to her surprise Jesus was not at all sympathetic to her argument. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42). Traditionally Christians see Martha as representing action whilst Mary represents contemplation – “ the better part. “ Thoreau would not have disagreed with this. He knew that in order to penetrate the depths of our intellectual and spiritual powers we need to generate a spacious margin in our lives for creative reflection and meditation.

“ The millions are awake enough for effective physical labour; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, and only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face.”
Op cit

From this same realm of spaciousness and mindfulness, Thoreau argued, came a deep appreciation for nature and all she had to offer including spiritual insights and revelations. The latter have always been present in the Pantheism of such poets as Wordsworth and Shelley so Thoreau never appeared embarrassed about his feelings here. His journals are rich in observations of nature but they never take on a purely scientific perspective ( analysis and cataloging ) they go much deeper than that, they enter into a very personal and subjective awareness that speak with the intensity and spirituality of a religion.

“I would [ like to ] improve every opportunity to wonder and worship as a sunflower welcomes the light. The more thrilling, wonderful, divine objects I behold in a day, the more expanded and immortal I become.”

“A farmer once asked me what shrub oaks were made for, not knowing any use they served. But I can tell him that they do me good. They are my parish ministers, regularly settled.”

Op cit

During his two years sojourn at Walden Pond Thoreau became a silent witness to nature which allowed him to understand and celebrate the richness and diversity of its full manifestation. It was undoubtedly a unique experiment that induced a purity of vision that still remains remarkable today. However, Thoreau is not without his critics. Many consider him just a nineteenth century, New England
‘ backwoodsman ‘ whose pantheism is stretched too far into overly sentimental prose that has no real relevance to our world today. But whatever our views on him, whether we see him as a gifted writer whose poetic song sings to us of spiritual revelations or as an ‘ idle, ‘ ‘ primitive, ‘ “ skulker “ ( Robert Louis Stevenson’s comment ), one thing is for sure – he will be remembered.


We live in a culture of activity today of such crazy proportions that we run the risk of harming ourselves as well as the planet. We simply cannot go on reaching out for unsustainable, economic development and growth – fueled by scientific endeavour and ensuing technologies – as if it was a religious duty that we were committed to following at all costs. We must now, as never before, take a deep look at our lives and simplify all that we do. Obviously we can’t all run away to the woods like Thoreau and live the life of a hermit but we can try to find our own special Walden, wherever that may be, and commit to doing our very best. We must never forget that Walden is not just a geographical point somewhere in the New England landscape but a state of mind, an attitude of simple living that can be transported anywhere, anytime, if we so decide. After his two years experiment in simple living Thoreau left Walden Pond to pursue life elsewhere but he recognized that he had touched something quite special and precious during this time and he never forgot this…….

“ I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”

Op cit

May we all engage ever deeper with the joys of simplicity
Michael Lewin




The Modest Existence of Mister Martel

Last weekend, I was flicking through a copy of the weekend Telegraph Magazine,* and within its pages found an interview with Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi and a new book, Beatrice and Virgil. It was a very good interview – Martel comes across as a thoroughly likeable person – and, during the account of his life prior to his enormous literary success, I was very pleased to come across the following comments endorsing the frugal and free lifestyle, demonstrating that Mister Martel is someone who has his priorities right…

In 1993, at the age of 30, Martel published a collection of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. It was well received by critics, but sold poorly. His first novel, Self, followed in 1996…It did not sell. He lived on next to nothing – small advances and arts grants, a modest sum for a literary prize. Two years before writing Life of Pi, he says, his income was C$6,000 – about £4,000. ‘I lived in Montreal. My rent was C$235. I had roommates. I don’t smoke or drink, I didn’t have a car. I was happy. I liked that lightness, and also I managed to live as a writer precisely because my habits were so light. So it was a self-reinforcing mechanism. Why would I burden myself with a mortgage if that meant I couldn’t write and had to get a job? So forget the mortgage…’

21 Hour

Over the last couple of weeks I have been spending my train journeys to and from Leeds reading and rereading ’21 Hours’, the fantastic recent report from the New Economics Foundation that I mentioned in my last post. The report very eloquently puts the case for a 21-hour working week as a beautifully simple and yet eminently logical solution to many of the personal, economic and environmental problems that we find ourselves facing today in our self-destructive work-and-consumption-obsessed society. With this in mind, I thought I would post up just a few of my personal highlights for those of you who – let’s face it – are just not going to touch a 36-page report by an economics think-tank with a proverbial barge pole, however many feet in length it happens to be.

I would still, however, encourage you to download the report and give it a go: it’s actually a very straightforward and wonderfully inspiring read, and contains hardly any numbers at all, and only a couple of very innocuous barcharts. Anyway, here’s a taster to whet your appetite…

21 Hours

The vision

A move towards 21 hours is, in our view, essential if we are to achieve three vitally important goals: 1) a decarbonised economy not dependent on infinite growth; 2) social justice and well-being for all and 3) a sustainable environment.

Today, poverty and hunger sit alongside overconsumption. In high-income countries we are consuming well beyond our economic means, well beyond the limits of the natural world, and in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us. Natural resources are critically depleted and we have a ticking climate clock that, at worst, could see the end of conditions fit for stable civilisation.

…Highly competitive, rich consumer economies promise satisfaction for all but actually tend to deliver the opposite. Those who can afford to participate are never truly satisfied, however much they consume. That’s because the system is designed to promote dissatisfaction precisely to keep us all spending to boost and justify continuing growth. Meanwhile, those who cannot afford to take part are excluded socially and economically. Overall the model drives environmentally destructive materialism. Continuing growth in high-income countries cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions sufficiently and in time to avoid catastrophic damage to the environment.

…A deliberately chosen shorter working week could provide the foundations for a more universal good life for two vital reasons. First, redistributing paid work will lead to a more equal society. Secondly, spending less time working to feed our consumer habits (which fail to deliver happier lives), means we will find it much easier to do the things we value but haven’t enough time for: looking after children and other family members and friends; spending time with each other; volunteering; getting out and about; reading; or learning that skill or language that we always said we would. These are all things that can increase our own well-being and that of others, making society a better and more convivial place to be. Importantly, these other ways of using time also have a much lighter footprint on the Earth.

The power of the clock

Like work, time in industrial societies has been commodified. It is considered precious and is used to control people in paid work to create efficiency and profit. To a large extent, time in the private or informal sphere has also been commodified, as people are increasingly urged to use their unpaid time for consumption.

As part of this relatively recent development, paid time at work has come to be regulated by the clock, and clock time has become the regulating feature of modern societies – widely regarded as natural, although it is nothing of the kind…But the new era carries new risks of exploitation, as well as exclusions and inequalities: there is no end to what employers can demand, and no end to what is demanded of our unpaid time as we play our pivotal role in the consumer economy. While the old industrial clock ceases, in fact, to regulate our lives in discrete chunks of time and space, the tempo quickens inexorably. The pressures mount, both to work to earn and to earn to consume, with effects that are far more burdensome for some than for others. So the challenge for us now is to break the power of the clock without adding to these pressures, by freeing up time for living sustainable lives.

Consuming less and differently

A 21-hour week would help get people off the consumer treadmill. If a much shorter working week became the norm, with everyone using their time differently and many people earning less, ideas would change about what really makes a good life and how much money is ‘enough’ to live on. To serve the interests of ‘hyper-capitalism’ over the last half-century, we have grown used to the idea that we live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. We consume not just to survive and flourish and enjoy our lives, but to signal who we are and where we stand in the world, especially in relation to others. What we feel we need and what satisfies our needs are inflated well beyond what is actually required to live a good and satisfying life. We buy much more than enough stuff. Directly or indirectly, the stuff we buy consumes finite natural resources on which our lives ultimately depend. A much shorter working week would transform the logic of paid employment and help to change how we value things. By helping to develop a more egalitarian culture, it might also reduce the kind of consumption that is driven by status anxiety, or the need to keep one’s place in society. We might become less attached to carbon-intensive consumption and more attached to relationships, pastimes, and places that absorb more of our time and less of our money.

Time for living more sustainably

Many of the ‘consumer choices’ we make are in the name of convenience. We buy processed food, ready-meals, pre-prepared and packaged vegetables, motorised vehicles, airline tickets, and a range of electric appliances because they are supposed to save us time. Most of these purchases involve a lot of energy, carbon, and waste. If we spent much less time earning money, we would have more time to live differently, and less need to purchase for the sake of convenience. We could grow, prepare, and cook more of our own food; repair things more often rather than replace them; travel more slowly on foot, bicycles, buses, or trains. We could learn more practical skills, make more things ourselves and generally become less dependent on energy-intensive technologies. This is neither a sentimental longing for a ‘News from Nowhere’ idyll, nor nostalgia for the days of hippie communes. It is rational anticipation of essential low-carbon living, which can only be achieved by slowing down the pace and using time more than money and consumer goods to deliver what we need to live a good life.

A better deal for parents and children

Spending much less time in paid work would, of course, leave parents with much more time to spend with their children. In particular, it could help fathers to be more engaged with their children, which would benefit children and mothers as well as the fathers themselves. However, the effect of a significant shift of time-use towards family settings would not simply create more time for ‘parenting’ – the troubled craft that is subject to so much political soul-searching – it could also change the way we all think about the worlds of adults and children, and relationships between them.

Childhood is what we make of it. In the course of time, assumptions are generated and reinforced about what are ‘childish’ and ‘grown-up’ characteristics and activities, with strong expectations that these should be age-related. The demands of a ‘normal’ working week entrench such distinctions. By appropriating so much adult waking time for paid work, they cast home and family in a subordinate role, supporting the formal economy – with invidious effects on parent-child relationships.

A much shorter working week…would make time for extended conversation between parents and their children, for two-way teaching and learning, for games and adventures, and for sharing a whole range of experiences. In other words, it would break down some of the barriers between the worlds of adults and children. This might help children to widen their horizons, share responsibility and grow up more easily, as well as bringing adults closer to the simplicity, wonder, and spirited inventiveness we have come to associate with childhood. These are vital human resources that we shall all need to develop if we are to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century

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