Thoreau on Writing and the Splendors of Mystery in an Age of Knowledge

“Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed.”

A century before Einstein bequeathed his famous dictum that “imagination is more important than knowledge” and Richard Feynman delivered his iconic flower-monologue about knowledge and mystery, not a scientist but a Transcendentalist philosopher-poet, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), examined the relationship between scientific knowledge and the imagination in a diary entry found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861(public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on the myth of productivitythe greatest gift of growing oldthe sacredness of public librariesthe creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

In December of 1851 — only half a century after an amateur scientist classified the clouds with Goethe’s help — thirty-four-year-old Thoreau writes:

I witness a beauty in the form or coloring of the clouds which addresses itself to my imagination, for which you account scientifically to my understanding, but do not so account to my imagination. It is what it suggests and is the symbol of that I care for, and if, by any trick of science, you rob it of its symbolicalness, you do me no service and explain nothing. I, standing twenty miles off, see a crimson cloud in the horizon. You tell me it is a mass of vapor which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red, but that is nothing to the purpose, for this red vision excites me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow, and I have new and indescribable fancies, and you have not touched the secret of that influence. If there is not something mystical in your explanation, something unexplainable to the understanding, some elements of mystery, it is quite insufficient. If there is nothing in it which speaks to my imagination, what boots it? What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding, but robs the imagination? … That is simply the way in which it speaks to the understanding, and that is the account which the understanding gives of it; but that is not the way it speaks to the imagination, and that is not the account which the imagination gives of it. Just as inadequate to a pure mechanic would be a poet’s account of a steam-engine.

If we knew all things thus mechanically merely, should we know anything really?

A decade later, Thoreau would revisit these questions in his ardent case for “the diffusion of useful ignorance,” but now he turns them toward his own art: writing. Nearly a century and a half before Polish poet Wisława Szymborska asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know,’” Thoreau considers the vital role of not-knowing in the creative process of the writer:

It would be a truer discipline for the writer to take the least film of thought that floats in the twilight sky of his mind for his theme, about which he has scarcely one idea (that would be teaching his ideas how to shoot), faintest intimations, shadowiest subjects, make a lecture on this, by assiduity and attention get perchance two views of the same, increase a little the stock of knowledge, clear a new field instead of manuring the old; instead of making a lecture out of such obvious truths, hackneyed to the minds of all thinkers. We seek too soon to ally the perceptions of the mind to the experience of the hand, to prove our gossamer truths practical, to show their connection with our every-day life (better show their distance from our every-day life), to relate them to the cider-mill and the banking institution. Ah, give me pure mind, pure thought! Let me not be in haste to detect the universal law; let me see more clearly a particular instance of it! … Dissolve one nebula, and so destroy the nebular system and hypothesis. Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed. By perseverance you get two views of the same rare truth.


You Can Legitimately Blame Your Parents for Everything That’s Wrong With You

by Martin Robinson

It’s pretty comm on to want to blame other people for our flaws, and it’s especially tempting — easy, even — to put the burden on our parents. Got angry-drunk and called your boss an asshole? Thanks for showing me how to self-medicate with alcohol instead of controlling my anger, Dad. Got depressed and binge-ate a whole extra-large pizza? Thanks for teaching me to eat my feelings instead of handling them, Mom.

Following in your parents’ footsteps can certainly feel inevitable at times — you’ve been tainted by their genes, your upbringing has hot-housed you into terrible behavior, and by the time you escape their clutches, you feel like little more than a helpless passenger on a one-way trip to emotional self-annihilation. But hold on: When we reach, for want of a better word, adulthood, isn’t it time we took responsibility for our own actions? Surely, past 30, we can’t blame anyone else for our bad behavior?

Sadly, it isn’t that simple. Our parents have a massive effect on the way we are, and it continues well after we leave the nest. And while we can superficially rebel — a skull tattoo here, a perineum piercing there — the deeper personality traits we picked up from our parents are so ingrained, it’s difficult to escape them.

“I believe that 100 percent of personality disorders are caused by poor parenting,” says Becky Spelman, a psychologist at the Private Therapy Clinic. “A great majority of the difficulties I help people with in my clinical practice are routed in their upbringing. That’s because, by the age of 5, our personality has already been established, and it’s significantly influenced by our upbringing. ”

Those early years are extremely important. When we’re kids, we observe the actions of our parents — how they react to difficult situations, to other adults and ourselves — and then we mimic what we see. It’s a subtle thing in operation, but at the same time, perfectly obvious: Kids are incredibly vulnerable and open, and also constantly imprinted with information on how to behave and, crucially, how to feel. This information is what we base our own behavior on later in life. As expressed by L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, in response to a study on attachment relationships between children and their caregivers, “Variations of [future relationship quality] are not reflections of genetically based traits of the infant but of the history of interaction with the parent.”

In other words, how you react to the world around you has far more to do with the way you were raised than it does with your DNA. So if you grew up to be someone who, say, is susceptible to addiction or sexual promiscuity, you’re within your rights to blame the father who taught you that showing emotion was unmanly, leading you to express your feelings in secret, obsessive ways.

But once you understand the root of your problems, can you actually change the way you behave? “If people really put their mind to it and work hard to understand and overcome their difficulties, they can,” Spelman says. “However, when difficulties are very deeply routed, it takes a high level of motivation and often the help of a very skilled therapist.”

Certainly in more extreme cases — such as those who had emotionally disturbed childhoods — real change may require psychiatric intervention. But for the rest of us — those whose lives have been negatively affected by what we learned from our parents, but not entirely derailed by it — there’s still a good chance you can change. While it’s true that your brain is pretty much done developing by the age of 23, neuroscientists are now discovering that the brain remains somewhat malleable throughout life.

According to psychology professor and adolescence expert Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, this adult brain plasticity allows you to change some of your learned behaviors. Admittedly, though, these changes won’t take root as deeply as they would have at a younger age. “It’s like the difference between remodeling your house and redecorating it,” he explains. That means the impulse to eat the whole extra-large pizza is always going to be there, but if you try hard enough, maybe you can train yourself to only eat one slice instead.

If there’s one time in your life that will probably inspire this urge to change above all others, it’s becoming a parent yourself — the time when you’ll be most acutely aware of not wanting to pass on the flaws that your parents gave to you. This requires an intellectual approach to an emotional problem: figuring out how to make your kids feel as secure as possible. That’s because it’s those who grew up feeling neglected or shunned who are most likely to have real problems as they grow older.

As part of this process, it may be crucial to reach out to your parents, says Spelman. “Sometimes, having difficult, well-structured conversations with parents to get some things off your chest can help you release some of the weight of emotions you’re carrying around about how your parents have affected you.” Translation: Dump the baggage, and maybe you’ll have a clearer view of what you need to do. It’s easier, after all, to examine your childhood memories to see where your parents went wrong when said memories don’t send you down your own emotional rollercoaster.

The short answer to our original question, then, is: Everything. You really can blame your parents for just about every problem you have. But far more useful than this is the knowledge that with some hard work, you can learn to fix those problems, and in that case, the will to do it is all yours.

If it helps, just remember that you’re far from alone with these issues. As the poet Philip Larkin so accurately wrote back in 1971:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”



by Dylan CharlesEditor Waking Times 

It used to be easy to hold hostage the consciousness of humankind. The information which wove together societies was monolithic, disseminated by church and state. Understanding the world beyond one’s personal sphere of experience was limited to the assimilation of those perspectives. While evolutionary progress was slow in that paradigm, over time, small advances grew into sweeping changes, and the future is now upon us.

Today, we are wide awake in the age of atomization. A time when knowledge, wisdom, truth, trust, hope and faith have splintered into an infinite sea of preferences, all instantly available to all. An awakening has already happened, but now we’re confronted with the great challenge of deciding what to do with it.

Because of this, the awakened mind is not necessarily a mind at ease, nor at peace. This quandary is more unsettling than that of the sleepwalker. Shallow forms of bliss just won’t do, but now free of the bondage of ignorance, we are lost in opportunity, drowning in unrealized potential.

In the journey from asleep to awake we were possessed by a need for information, for light shone on darkness, but this phase must come to an end, lest our evolution stalls. We have to somehow go from awakened to actualized, along the way facing a new set of emergent challenges.

These puzzles are the pitfalls in our search for meaning in an evermore intensifying environment. Each of the three dilemmas noted below hinge upon the other two; they are not independent of one another. There exists a natural synergy and symbiosis between them, which must be honored. The decisions we make in each of these arenas will determine which paths become open to us in the other arenas.

For your consideration, what follows are the three most pressing dilemmas of the awakened mind.

1.) What do we choose to include in our awareness?

In very practical terms, when immersed in such total information awareness, as we are today, we must consciously or unconsciously choose what information and which ideas to consume. The choices span the entire spectrum of human possibility, from the darkest blackness of the human soul to the most shimmering golden light of infinite consciousness. We are exposed to all ranges of vibration. Choose we must.

There is a paradox at play here, though. In large part, the information which jolted us out of contemporary consciousness is fundamentally of lower vibration. It had to be that way. Total seriousness and gravity were required to brutally force our eyes open, to wake us up.

But continuing to feed on the darkness only draws us into a different trap. We can be wide awake while helplessly drowning in the abyss of base-level consciousness. As tantalizing and sensational as it is, this level of consciousness is heavy, always working to pull us under.

How much violence, brutality, murder, inhumanity and psychopathy can we look at? How much spiritual pornography can we safely consume? How long can we simmer in the mainline narratives before all progress is lost and we find ourselves stuck in yet another cage?

2.) How will we choose to communicate our awareness?

Just a short time ago, loneliness was the dilemma of the awakening mind. Yet now, so many are awake to some degree. With technology has come such tremendous freedom of communication, but it’s too much to process. To survive we take shelter on islands of comprehension, stranding ourselves with others of identical perspective. We are splintering into tribes rather than uniting as a cohesive human family.

In such a cacophony of competing voices, opinions and perspectives, all of which lay claim to the high ground of the awakened, we are confronted with the dilemma of how we share our perspectives and how we translate those of others. Do we insist that our understanding is final, and demand assimilation? Do we assume certainty and put on a confidence game of defending the information we like best? Do we get dogmatic, insisting that our truth is the only acceptable truth? Do we bludgeon others with self-righteousness?

Now that we know what we know, we have the choice of becoming repeaters of information, or craftsmen of a new story.

3.) What action will we take to honor this awareness?

Choosing to remain stuck in an endless spiral of negative information paralyses is a form of self-imposed psychosis. Nothing is gained if the awakened mind maroons itself on the island of perpetual study and looping examination.

This is resistance to the act of doing what is needed to experience the ideals which have motivated and inspired the awakening. At some point it becomes imperative to declare ourselves aware enough already, then find ways to take action toward the fulfillment of a purpose grander than the task of waking up.

There is infinite possibility in what actions an individual can take to accelerate the drive towards actualization, in both personal and communal terms. Any push toward action, though, great or meager, is honorable, for the body just needs to be set in motion, so it can stay in motion and then gain momentum.

To honor the progress we’ve made in exposing our condition it’s now necessary to accept the call to action. It’s time to actually create the world we wish to see manifest.

Final Thoughts

We find ourselves at the outer limits of the awakening. Can we exploit the momentum we’ve created which has gotten us this far, or will we return to the cave of delusion we came from? Choices.