Henry David Thoreau – “We become like a still lake of purest crystal”

Henry David Thoreau

1817–1862 • United States

Henry David Thoreau was 28 when he went to Walden Pond, seeking spiritual regeneration through harmony with nature. He lived there for two years and two months in a cabin he built himself, reading, writing, and studying the surrounding woodland life. He published his experiences and reflections in his book Walden.

Though neglected during Thoreau’s life, Walden has become a world classic. A century and a half has passed since it was published, yet Walden continues attracting, challenging, and inspiring new readers.

thoreau-walden-cabinWhat motivated Thoreau’s “experiment” at Walden Pond? Why has it continued resonating so deeply with people for more than 150 years?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and friend, had introduced Thoreau to the Vedic literature of ancient India. In these works Thoreau found a conception of human life and human potential that became his ideal — namely that the human soul, deep within, is divine, and that this divinity is to be found throughout nature. This became the central idea of the Transcendentalist movement, launched by Emerson — a movement based, above all, on direct experiences of this transcendental reality.

Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond to commune not so much with nature as with himself — to gain enlightenment, such as he understood it from his reading. As he wrote to a friend, “Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. . . . To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.” [1]

Did he find what he was seeking? What did he experience in these “rare intervals” he refers to? Let’s look at some passages from his writing.

If with closed ears and eyes I consult consciousness for a moment, immediately are all walls and barriers dissipated, earth rolls from under me, and I float . . . in the midst of an unknown and infinite sea, or else heave and swell like a vast ocean of thought, without rock or headland, where are all riddles solved, all straight lines making there their two ends to meet, eternity and space gambolling familiarly through my depths. I am from the beginning, knowing no end, no aim. No sun illumines me, for I dissolve all lesser lights in my own intenser and steadier light. I am a restful kernel in the magazine of the universe. . . .

Men are constantly dinging in my ears their fair theories and plausible solutions of the universe, but ever there is no help, and I return again to my shoreless, islandless ocean. [2] — Journals

henry david thoreauWhen he closes his ears and eyes and turns his attention within, beyond sensory experience, his mind moves beyond boundaries — “immediately are all walls and barriers dissipated.” His consciousness becomes unbounded, like an “infinite sea,” a “shoreless, islandless ocean.” During such moments he finds “all riddles solved.”

These words remind us of Transcendental Consciousness, the fourth major state of consciousness, beyond waking, dreaming, and sleeping. This state Maharishi characterizes as “the simplest form of human awareness.” One’s mind settles inward, beyond perceptions and thoughts and feelings. Consciousness rests within itself, awake to itself alone, serene and unbounded, a silent ocean.

Here is Thoreau again:

In my better hours I am conscious of the influx of a serene and unquestionable wisdom. . . . What is that other kind of life to which I am thus continually allured? which alone I love? . . . Are our serene moments . . . simply a transient realization of what might be the whole tenor of our lives?

To be calm, to be serene! There is the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind. . . . So it is with us. Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily, as we never were before in our lives, not by an opiate, but by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws, so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal and without an effort our depths are revealed to ourselves. All the world goes by us and is reflected in our deeps. Such clarity! [3]— Journals

Here Thoreau describes “serene moments” when his mind is like “the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind,” “like a still lake of purest crystal.” He uses the words “serene” and forms of the word “calm” three times each. When he describes “the influx of a serene and unquestionable wisdom,” he suggests pure consciousness as a state of pure knowingness, pure knowledge.

henry david thoreauThis state comes about, Thoreau says, “by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws.” Pure consciousness, Maharishi explains, is the foundation not only of the mind but of nature itself – it is identical with the unified field of natural law. In Transcendental Consciousness the mind opens to the field of nature’s unbounded intelligence, the unified field of all the laws of nature.

Thoreau wonders whether these special moments are “simply a transient realization of what might be the whole tenor of our lives” — in other words, whether this state could somehow become permanent. Maharishi explains that when we experience Transcendental Consciousness, the fourth state, on a regular basis, it begins to coexist alongside waking, dreaming, and sleeping. We become permanently anchored in our inner, unbounded, silent Self, ever awake in our innermost nature. This, Maharishi explains, is a fifth state of consciousness, which he terms Cosmic Consciousness.

Thoreau experienced that deep within, everyone is infinite, and that this inner, infinite, divine field of life is there for everyone to enjoy. As he declares to us:

Silence is the communion of a conscious soul with itself. If the soul attend for a moment to its own infinity, then and there is silence. She is audible to all men, at all times, in all places. [4] — Journals

We can have this experience every day. We don’t have to build a cabin and isolate ourselves from society. We simply need to dive within. And for that we simply need a technique.

This is what Maharishi has given us — a technique brought to light from the oldest continuous tradition of knowledge in the world, the ancient Vedic tradition of India, the tradition that so inspired Thoreau and Emerson. We now have a simple, natural, effortless procedure for enjoying this simple, natural, magnificent experience. This is the Transcendental Meditation technique.

In the closing pages of Walden, Thoreau leaves us with this eloquent challenge and vision:

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions 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?

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. . . .

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. [5]

[1] Letter from Thoreau to Harrison Blake Concord, November 20, 1849. In Henry David Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Familiar Letters, ed. F. B. Sanborn, Volume 6 (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, The Riverside Press, 1906), 175.

[2] The Selected Journals of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (New York: New American Library, Signet Classics, 1960), 39-39.

[3] Henry David Thoreau: A Writer’s Journal, ed. Carl Bode (New York: Dover, 1960), 38-39.

[4] Autumn and Winter: From the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. H.G.O. Blake, Con¬cord edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, Riverside Press, 1929), 435.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Dr. Craig Pearson is Executive Vice-President of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. He has served the University in a variety of roles over the past 33 years, including Dean of Faculty, Dean of Students, Director of Maharishi University of Management Press, Director of Freshman Composition, and Professor of Professional Writing.

He holds a PhD in Maharishi Vedic Science from MUM and is the author of two books on the development of full human potential, The Complete Book of Yogic Flying and The Supreme Awakening: Developing the Infinite Potential Within (forthcoming). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment.

Other posts by Craig Pearson:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – “A state of transcendent wonder”

Helen Keller – “I feel the flame of eternity in my soul”

Laozi – “His mind becomes as vast and immeasurable as the night sky”

Walt Whitman – “The luminousness of real vision”

Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty”