Simplify, Simplify: Walden and the Search for Meaning

live-the-life-you-have-imagined-henry-david-thoreau-quote-poster

I cannot think of any book that had taught me more, but simultaneously frustrated me, than Walden. After reading the first chapter alone, it was clear to me that Henry David Thoreau is highly misunderstood and taken for granted by those who read his work today.

My friends and relatives asked me repeatedly to remind them why I actively chose to read such a thing. People assumed that because it was old, it was boring; if it was about nature, it was hippie propaganda…and boring.

Refusing to believe that there was nobody else out there who enjoyed this, I checked the ever-useful Goodreads.com to see what other people (people who actually enjoy reading) had to say. While I didn’t read every review, a few words stood out to me: “Smug”, “like bran flakes”, “could never be friends with him”, “phony”.

That last one got me. People felt Thoreau was insincere in his years at Walden because he simply wasn’t removed enough from society. He was but two miles from Concord center, and could even hear the train whistle in his quiet little cabin. He borrowed tools to build his home from his neighbors, frequently entertained visitors, and even strolled into town himself on occasion. And to some readers, this behavior was just too “social” and “dependant” for Thoreau to consider himself a “survivor” and adventureman. But to these skeptics I say just this:

Walden is not about surviving with nothing; it’s about thriving with less.

Thoreau’s retreat into the Concord woods was not an exercise in isolation, or abandonment of society. It was an escape from the fruitless labors and pointless excess of city life and an attempt to discover peace and simplicity in a rapidly evolving nation. While Thoreau certainly expresses love and reverence for the nature that surrounds him, his musings from Walden Pond pertain more to agriculture and economics more than the flowery, rough-and-tough image that most people have of him.

In the opening chapter, “Economy”, Thoreau explains his move to the woods through a financial, almost business-like, perspective. He views his neighbor’s constant toil to make a profit as futile, since no matter how hard they work neither their land nor their products are truly there. Every dime goes towards paying off the mortgage or some other loan, and this lack of ownership over one’s labor is (in the words of Karl Marx, not Thoreau) “alienating” and therefore lacks value beyond it’s basic price.

“The twelve labors of Hercules were triflings in comparison to those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men captured or slew any monster or finished any labor.”

It’s not like Thoreau went on vacation to the woods. He had a great deal of work to do, from building his own home to growing his own food. And while it was exhausting and often difficult, he sincerely felt that he got more personal benefit from his work than his neighbors did from theirs, despite the lack of help or companionship. He was quite dissatisfied with modern economics and the notion or working towards and invisible end. But while he opted out of conventional lifestyle, Thoreau’s distrust of modern society is perhaps strongest at the level of external appearance. He seems to be generally distrusting of people who desire material wealth and opulent or showy clothing.

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

He feels as if the internal material must be severely neglected if so much attention is to be placed on the outward appearance, and that such fanciful items are masks that prevent people but recognizing the utility and aesoteric beauty of the people and things wearing them. Fancy clothes in particular are simply another item which we never truly own, as they cost a lot of money but hide the true self. While we may financially possess the clothes, we do not possess ourselves.

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Certainly this idea has many modern implications, and though Thoreau did not realize the extent that technology would reach in today’s world, he absolutely foresaw the effect it would have on our society.

“Our inventions are wont but pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”

While Thoreau’s discussion of economics are perhaps the most instructive, he spends ample time in Walden discussing the spiritual benefits on a frugal and purposeful life. In my favorite chapter of the book, “Solitude”, he begins the feel lonely and questions whether or not a human neighborhood is actually necessary, and starts feelings insane. At the same moment, it begins to rain…and this simple response from nature to his worries washes all his doubts away.

“In the midst of the gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at ones like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” (pp. 106)

This borderline mystical experience with nature reveals Thoreau’s true intention in retiring to the woods. Not to be alone, or reject society, but to appreciate and connect to something beyond fast trains and silk gowns and high profits.

I have a lot more to say about this book, but for now I want to leave you with this thought: Once start wanting more there is no limit to how much we will continue to want. In today’s world it is easy to get more and bigger and faster and richer. Value and meaning therefore comes when we decide to minimise…Or as Thoreau would say, “simplify, simplify”.

Photo Credit: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Live-The-Life-You-Have-Imagined-Henry-David-Thoreau-Quote-Poster-Posters_i8831946_.htm

Love Your Lunch Break

To anyone with a desk-job… sometimes the daily grind can do quite a number on your health and happiness. When you spend your entire day indoors, seated, staring at a harsh computer screen, and often exhausted, it can take a pretty immense toll on our physical and mental well-being. Ideally, we get to take a break about halfway through the day to have a good meal, decompress a little bit, and socialize. Ideally…

But how many of us actually cash in on the opportunity to, however briefly, leave our desks and let go? According to an article I read, just 47% of people actually took a full lunch break, 20% of people eat at their desks, and 13% rarely ever even have lunch (not sure about that other 20%). http://smallbusiness.aol.com/2010/10/26/survey-says-most-people-no-longer-take-lunch-breaks/

It seems that people either do not have time, or do not see it as necessary. One writer for Slate.com argues that lunch breaks are “over-rated”, and that any time spent dilly-dallying will just make you have to stay at the office later, and take away from time spent at home with family and friends http://www.slate.com/articles/life/a_fine_whine/2012/04/eating_at_your_desk_why_lunch_breaks_are_totally_overrated_.html

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The above photo is what I look at all day when I sit at my desk. Not exactly inspiring or happy-thoughts inducing. Therefore I look for any reason I can to get away from my cubicle, even if just for a few minutes.

Two days ago it was an uncharacteristically warm day in Massachusetts and I enjoyed my sandwich out by the office-park fountain. It was such a perfect afternoon, with all the trees boasting their fall colors, but the sun still in summer mode. Every breeze sent a gentle shower of yellow and orange leaves all across the picnic area, drawing all the bleary-eyes workers out into the rare October sunshine.

All the same, I couldn’t help but feel rushed. I get paid hourly, and as such I try to minimize time away from my workstation. (Although quite frankly it doesn’t matter. I do absolutely nothing for 7 or my 8 hours at the office. I still don’t understand why they hired me, it doesn’t seem like they have anything for me to do!). But I rushed, because I didn’t want my boss to think I was slacking, or neglecting my “responsibilities” and taking advantage of…well, I guess the lack of work?

That’s now the way a lunch “break” should be! Numerous research studies have shown that workers who take regular breaks are more productive, happier, and don’t burn out as quickly. Breaks are something to be capitalized on, not something to feel guilty about! And while it’s not always an option to go outside, or eat something fancy, and perhaps even take a break on some days, there are ways to optimize any window of opportunity which comes across our desk. Here are a few tricks I’ve devised to make the best part of the work day even better!

1. Take It Off!
Our clothes carry associations with them. Whenever we wear a sharp blazer, we think of interviews and assume a more professional air. When we wear jeans anda football jersey we reach for the beer and feel free to lounge. The same thing happens at work. If you are fortunate enough to sit outside, don’t hesitate to kick off those toe-pinching heels or awkward office shoes. Let your toes enjoy a few minutes in the grass (preferably if you are eating alone and outside. Your colleagues and fellow restaurant patrons might not appreciate this.)

Maybe take off your sweater or jacket and let your skin breathe a little (again, common sense. Don’t want around in your underthings). It will help you mentally get out of the office and let your senses roam for a few glorious minutes.

2. Unplug
Our phones are such confusing companions. They allow us to connect with distance friends and relatives. They give us games to play when we are bored. But they also keep us on the clock, ’round the clock.

They also keep our eyes away from all the beautiful intricacies of your environment. The material on your phone will always be there. You can always pick up that conversation later. But the perfect half-turned foliage outside, that intriguing stranger sitting at a nearby table…those things are fleeting and may not come around again. Every minute that we are at our desks, we are looking at a screen. When you get a chance, give your eyes and your mind a break!

Studies have shown that computers deteriorate eye health not because of the light or the screen, because it does not challenge the eye. Like the rest of our bodies, our eyes need exercise. They need to look at textures, and 3D objects, look far away, move across a page…not just stare at one thing all day! Even if it’s rainy or cold out, try to get yourself near a window or in a open-space. You will feel less claustrophobic and your eyes will get the stretch they need. If you can’t leave your desk, try to at least roll your chair over to the other side of your desk and open up a magazine instead. You’ll be available and signed on, but your eyes and brain get a much needed rest from the computer.

3. Talk to Strangers
This doesn’t have to be creepy. Don’t go on the prowl looking for new friends of hook-ups (although added bonus if you happen to find one). It’s more the idea of letting down walls and not shutting people out just because you don’t know them.

It’s simple really. If you’re in the elevator, waiting in the lunch line, or making photo copies etc next to someone you don’t know… just ask how their day is going, or talk about how dismal the weather is, or how the Xerox machine just won’t give you a break. This simple act of compassion will lift your spirits as well as theirs.

4. Skip the Coffee
It’s odd seeing these words come out of my…keyboard. I love love love love LOVE coffee, and most of the time when I stress out I feel as if the only thing that will calm me is the smooth hot comfort of a dark roast coffee. But then again…coffee doesn’t exactly contribute any sort of nutrition. While caffeine can stimulate the brain and boost creativity, drinking it in excess can cause rapid heart beat, digestive problems, and restlessness. On a more interpretive level, I also feel as if sometimes drinking coffee can feel a lot like putting gas in the car: “let’s guzzle down another cup so we can’t crunch these numbers faster and crash when we get home.”

On your lunch break, rather than fueling your data-entering-crazy-fast-typing monster, nourish your body and allow it to unwind. Go for a healthy unsweetened green tea, fresh fruit juice, or milk instead. Green tea has lots of anti-oxidants that eliminate all the bad things that stress can put it (like free radicals) while also boosting your immune system. Fresh juice (not the kind with pounds of added sugar and artificial ingredients) gives you vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin C and fiber, that keep you full and healthy. And milk…easily one of the healthiest things around. It’s packed with Vitamin D, which most of us office/cave dwellers don’t get enough of since we avoid the sun like the plague, and keeps our bones strong. It’s also loaded with protein, which will keep us satisfied until the end of the day, allowing us to avoid snacking of the doughnuts in the conference room and save room for dinner.

5. Enjoy the View

The view from my favorite picnic table

The view from my favorite picnic table

Here’s an article I found about using the power of the Right Brain:
http://johnngd.hubpages.com/hub/Want-More-Brain-Power—Tap-Into-the-Right-Side-of-Your-Brain

6. Take a Stroll
Extensive research has shown than a sedentary lifestyle can lead to significant health problems. The lack of circulation in the body can to blood clots, obesity, sleep apnea, and even deep vein thrombosis. Because the body isn’t moving as much as it should, fluid collects in the joins making movement painful and caused muscle and joint pain. Going for a short walk will help keep the body’s naturally processes flowing, release tension from muscles, and boost your metabolism so that you can actually harness the energy from your lunch.

Even if you don’t get a chance to leave your desk at lunch, try to go for a quick stroll every hour or so. Maybe take a lap around the office or just step outside and walk for 5 minutes. (If people get to leave work for smoking breaks, you get to leave for walking breaks that actually help you instead of poisoning your body.) If you have the privacy, and your dress isn’t too short, try to even get in a few basic stretches (especially working your shoulders, knees, and back since they take the brunt of the damage from sitting).

Here’s a handy diagram I found on Pinterest about the dangers of sitting:
http://blog.totalhomecaresupplies.com/content/2013/06/more-than-back-pain-the-hidden-dangers-of-sitting/

7. Lose Track of Time
It doesn’t count as a “break” if you have the stop-watch running. I get it, sometimes you only get a limited amount of time (like if you work retail or if you work in shifts) but the majority of us are not restricted by such rigid timing. If you decide that you need to take your phone to lunch with you, do yourself a favor and try not to look at the time. While you probably shouldn’t be gone for more than an hour (apparently the French take two-hour lunch breaks!), don’t measure every minute. Eat your lunch slowly, enjoying the flavors and allowing yourself to digest properly, take a walk, and don’t return to your desk until you are refreshed and ready to work.

Here are the Links for the website referenced in this post, as well as some extras on Lunch-Break enjoyment:

“More Than Back Pain: The Hidden Dangers of Sitting”, by Brooke Phillips
http://blog.totalhomecaresupplies.com/content/2013/06/more-than-back-pain-the-hidden-dangers-of-sitting/

“Survey Says: Most People No Longer Take Lunch Breaks”, by Rieva Lesonsky
http://smallbusiness.aol.com/2010/10/26/survey-says-most-people-no-longer-take-lunch-breaks/

“Eating at your desk: Why lunch breaks are totally overrated”, by Rachael Larimore
http://www.slate.com/articles/life/a_fine_whine/2012/04/eating_at_your_desk_why_lunch_breaks_are_totally_overrated_.html

“12 Fun Things To Do On Your Lunch Break”
http://lifestyle.allwomenstalk.com/fun-things-to-do-on-your-lunch-break

“10 things to do on your lunch break that don’t involve Facebook or Lean Cuisine”, by Sarah Von Bargen
http://www.yesandyes.org/2011/03/10-things-to-do-on-your-lunchbreak-that.html

“24 rejuvenating ways to spend your lunch break,” by Christina Desmarais
http://www.inc.com/christina-desmarais/24-rejuvenating-ways-to-spend-your-lunch-break.html

Daily Chocolate

I am slowly realizing why working 40 hours a week in a cubicle is the most tiring job I’ve ever had: in this lifestyle, everything is certain.

With reasonable certainty, I can predict my schedule from how many hours out of the day I will have no work to do (usually around 5), how my cube-neighbor will greet me when I sit at my desk, and how cold it will be in my office. More than at my own job, I came to appreciate this two weeks ago when I went to visit one of my college roommates in New York City. This particular friend works in finance. She has a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in the Upper East Side, earns triple what I do in a given year, and has all the latest gadgets and handbags (not to mention, she doesn’t have to live with her parents!). But her life is predictable. She knows that she has to come in on Saturdays to fix mistakes made by VP’s, and that a few times a month she will have to come home after midnight. Finally, when she got her curveball (a roommate reunion after eight months apart) all she could talk about was how, after working upwards of 60, even 70, hours a week, she was just too tired to enjoy the Big Apple. In the city that never sleeps, her greatest desire was her bed.

This is alien to the human spirit. People, human beings with thoughts and emotions and beliefs, need to have more mystery in their lives that “What will I eat for lunch today?” When the biggest challenge of the day is something so dispassionate and impersonal, it is easy to lose your sense of purpose and, worse still, yourself.

I know I need this job, and that being unemployed was far worse (as, unfortunately, many people in this country can attest to). But I needed something to look forward to everyday besides leaving work (because that’s honestly quite sad). I decided to carve out a little bit of every day for what I like to call “Daily Chocolate”, something that draws warmth and light from the mundane grey day at the office and makes it special, however briefly.

It started out quite literally being a daily piece of chocolate. Every afternoon at around 2pm, when the workload was either oppressively stressful or oppressively boring, I would put on my headphones, listen to a little smooth jazz, and eat one square of dark chocolate . For 5 blissful minutes, all was chocolate, and chocolate was all (general sweetness, indeed).

It wasn’t much, but it was a moment of peace and happiness amidst an otherwise dreary period. Before I knew it I was adding more milestones throughout the week: an afternoon cup of tea, a 5 minute walk outside, or even a planned activity for when I got home, as opposed to flopping on the sofa and feeling sorry for myself. And before I knew it, these little sparks of joy during the work day became bursts of light everywhere else in my life. It became easy to look for happiness and meaning if I was actively seeking it.

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A few days ago, I came across this quote that seemed to speak to my newfound daily chocolate:

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
― Gautama Buddha

Living the present, truly engaging with now…years of yoga have taught me this, but I was so focused on the negative, on the future I desired, and the past I regretted, that I neglected the power and potential of the present off the yoga mat.

Each moment is a gift, an opportunity to feel something, regardless of how cold my office was, or how unenlightening the glare from my computer screen seemed. I still had my mind, my imagination, and the knowledge that with every breath in the opportunity for growth, for insight, and, of course, for sweetness.

I encourage you all to find at least one moment in your busy day to truly appreciate yourself, your mind, and the Now. For that moment is unique, is impermanent, and will pass by uncherished if you let it.

I would love to hear about your day-to-day struggles, and what you do to make each moment more meaningful. Whether it be an afternoon chocolate break, or a five-minute meditation, nothing is too small.

What do you do to stay positive and live presently? What is your daily chocolate?