From time to time I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
I didn't read Walden as a teenager, I didn't read it in high school; it was never assigned in the school I went to. I didn't really read it in college. I didn't read it till I got to graduate school, and in graduate school I was doing a course in American Lit, the first half - they divided it into halves. They were doing a seminar with a professor, and it was in - I think I was getting my Master's - and I encountered Walden by Henry David Thoreau and I read it, and it had a great effect on me.
I immediately got in my car and took a friend and drove up to the lake, to Walden Pond, and it was about this time of year, March. It was very cold. I brought a sleeping bag and I hiked in after dark, which you're not supposed to do, to approximately where Henry's house had stood. They've located the foundation. If you've been up there, you might know the little sign and some stones marking where his little house once stood, and I spent the night there. It was freezing cold, and you could hear the traffic from 2A or whatever that is. But anyway, I woke up in the morning and of course Henry made this big deal about jumping into Walden Pond and how invigorating it was.
So here it is, it's early March in Massachusetts, which is colder than early March in New York by about ten degrees. I think the ice had just thawed the day before I got there. But I was young and impressionable as I am now, and so I always wanted to try things. Having successfully evaded the security forces of the Massachusetts Police Department and spent the night there, I, at sunrise, got out of my freezing sleeping bag and went down and jumped into the water - because Henry talked about it and he made it sound really great. Obviously. He got me to do it. And it was very cold, as you might expect. Freezing I think is the word. I'll never join one of those Polar Bear Clubs where people go bathing in arctic waters. And I stayed in for a second or two, and being, you know, a foolish individual, swam around a little bit, got out of the pond and went home after walking around the area a bit and things like that.
I read Walden once in a while. I don't tend to go up to the pond. I go up once in a while. Once in a while life drags me up to that little hole in the ground called Walden Pond where you can see the boys and girls in the fall come to hang out there and neck, and in the summer they use one end of it as a beach, and in the winter it's pretty quiet, pretty quiet. But I read the book once in a while - maybe less travel, mental travel. I read the book once in a while because it brings me back to an interesting place. I see things a little bit differently. I think we all see things a little bit differently, but it brings me back to a certain place, and it's a place that I think of as keeping my room clean.
And really, as Buddhists, our only task is to keep our room clean. If we do that, we've done everything.
Henry Thoreau was very influenced by Emerson. Emerson was very verbose, a lot of ideas. Henry went out and did things. Emerson did too - a couple of Harvard boys. But Henry just reminds me of a place that I call keeping my room clean. It's very important to keep your room clean. It's a central theme for living, and it's something that we can get away from, and the consciousness I feel that emanates from Thoreau, through his writings, is that consciousness. It's a very pure, simple, extremely intelligent and intellectual awareness of how to keep one's room clean.
The way you keep your room clean, the way you keep your life clean, is by not letting a lot of clutter in. You keep it simple. The more complicated you make it, the less clean it is. So Henry built a very small house because it was his belief that if you built a big house, you spent half your life cleaning it and maintaining it instead of enjoying it. And I think maybe that's a good way to look at life sometimes. It's necessary to keep our room very clean, and we get involved with a lot of ideas about everything that's going to make life wonderful. But I think really, what's necessary is just to keep one's room clean.
I do that from time to time. I clean my room. I go through everything in the closets and throw most things away. If I'm not wearing it, why keep it? Throw it away. I go through books and throw things away. I throw away everything on a fairly regular basis that I'm not using. And then, every once in a while, I throw my room away and move to a different room.
Life is a room that we live in. Our minds are occupied with the moments that we spend in that room. And really, as Buddhists, our only task is to keep our room clean. If we do that, we've done everything. You can forget that, so that's why I keep Henry - keep the book out and once in a while I pick it up, maybe once every two weeks, once a month, I read a couple pages, and it brings me back to that place. And then I look around at the complexity of what appears to be one's life and I just look at it and realize that it could all be done a lot more simply, with a lot less "us" in it and a lot more life in it.