Saturday, January 29, 2011

Finding Thoreau in the Woods...

The Great Butter Rebellion, which took place at Harvard University in 1766, was the first recorded student protest in what is now the United States

Since the opening of Harvard's gates in 1636, food service had been an issue (did they use Sodexho?). Despite periodic attempts at improving the service, the quality of the butter remained exceptionally poor. One meal with particularly rancid butter led Asa Dunbar (the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau) to jump upon his chair and proclaim: "Behold, our butter stinketh!— give us therefore, butter that stinketh not.

The cry was adopted by fully half the student body as they rose together and exited the Commons in protest.  In reaction to this incident, the university president acted as parliament and demanded a confession. As no student stepped forward, he suspended half the student body until the guilty party stepped forward. None of the students would out the instigator, and instead insisted that they be readmitted without penalty. Their defense: "That the Butter was bad and unwholesome no one can deny: had it been the first time, or had it happened rarely, we should have been content. This, however, was not the case." Eventually, the students won (

I was thinking a lot about Thoreau and his Walden experience during my final week at Sadhana Forest.  I tried re-reading Walden but didn’t get very far.  Nevertheless, Thoreau was my constant companion. And now since my return, I'm finding myself reflecting more deeply on the experience and what it meant for all of us. Thoughts of Thoreau fill me again...

The final week went well and the students were more positive than they had been, generally, the week before.  The enthusiastic members of the group stepped up and helped the others remain focused.  Still, the shopping trips and snacks and complaints about the food continued for some.  Nevertheless, everyone agreed that overall the experience had fundamentally changed their outlook and had inspired them to new stages in their personal development. If nothing else, the course had challenged people to look at themselves and their world differently.  Everyone said they felt like they had changed, they had grown. Mission accomplished, right?

So, then, why was I feeling inadequate?  Why were students' rebellious claims that they had not been properly prepped for the experience, that they didn't understand the course objectives, that they felt upset with us for admitting they hadn't met some of our expectations-- bothering me so much?  Well, probably because I'm a teach that cares... a lot... and I had put a lot of time and energy and passion into creating a course in spirituality and sustainability that meant something to me.

But the more I got thinking about Henry David on the 22 hour plane ride home... and the more I revisited the pages of Walden in those final days, the more sense it made.  So did the Butter Rebellion.

Funny, my students protestations about the food at Sadhana reminded me of Thoreau’s grandfather’s role in the Great Butter Rebellion back in New England in 1766.  We come from a long line of civil disobedient types so I guess it was natural for my students to voice their discontent and demand better butter (or in the vegan world we inhabited… to escape the woods and access cups of coffee and choco treats).  What seemed to me as something modern (and a bit spoiled) was in fact part of our New England tradition.  When we don’t like something and when it disrupts our dietary gratification (especially) we stand up and speak up!

Thoreau himself, during his two year experiment in radical simplicity, didn’t deny himself the pleasures and comforts of home, completely.  He accepted visitors and often walked to town to go shopping.  He was, afterall, only a mile and half from his family home in Concord.  Inhabiting a small wooded area along the shores of Walden Pond, on his buddy Emerson’s 14 acre land plot, Thoreau wasn’t too much of an isolationist or an escapist.  He heard the whistle of a passing train several times a day.  This whistle from 'the civilized world' was much like the harsh horns of Indian traffic (and temple music) we could hear each day from the coconut rope beds of our palm leaf huts at Sadhana.  One student said hearing the sounds of “India” just over the next hill from Sadhana made him long to escape, to travel, to see the real India (even though he had come and signed up for the ‘escaping civilization as we know it’ lifestyle).  I wonder if Thoreau had the desire to escape… to roam… to explore the world.
In some ways, he did.  He traveled not with his feet, however, but in his mind.  From the confines of his tiny self-built cabin (10 feet by 15 feet) Thoreau read the literature of the world, much of it in Greek and Latin.  Interesting enough, however, some of his most favorite readings were from India! 
He read extensively on Hindu Philosophy and Religion – praising the writings of the ancient spiritual masters and examining, in detail, the great scriptures: the Vedas.  Several years before taking up his hermitage in the woods, Thoreau received from an English friend an entire treasure-chest of 44 volumes dealing with Vedic literature. For them he fashioned a new case from driftwood found in a New England river "thus giving Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine."
In fact, Thoreau had a copy of the greatest Hindu Epic, The Gita, with him at Walden and valued it dearly:
"In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial." 
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) went to the woods in 1845 at age 28.
So Henry David never had to travel to India to experience India, in his own way.  And he didn’t need to understand India by travelling its breadth and length – because he internalized some of the most sacred and profound lessons about life, simplicity and nature right there in his one room cabin.  
Interestingly, Gandhi was one of the most famous people inspired by Thoreau’s writings.  Can't get more Indian than Gandhi, right?  The Mahatma even admitted that his civil rights activism was heavily influenced by Thoreau.  After reading Walden in 1906, while still in South Africa, Gandhi recommended it to all his buddies working in the Indian Nationalist movement.  He even adopted the Thoreau’s term “civil disobedience” to describe his own political ideology towards the British!
Young Gandhi in South Africa, around mid-30's when he read Thoreau
Living more deeply with less, this is what Walden is about.  Part memoir and part spiritual journey, it is the story of one man’s attempt to ‘transcend’ what he called ‘over civilization’ – to find balance, harmony, simplicity, peace in nature.  Going to Walden, Thoreau wanted "to conduct an experiment: Could he survive, possibly even thrive, by stripping away all superfluous luxuries, living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions?"
Interesting that those of us who travelled to Sadhana signed up for something very similar, however, when we got there we found it almost too difficult.  
I wonder why.  Are we, as 21st century moderns, even more trapped in our ‘over civilization’ than our forefathers were – are we even farther from our spiritual selves?  How can we, who travel thousands of miles to escape modernity and capitalism and consumer behavior, embrace a life of radical simplicity externally when we are not prepared to do the internal work?  While I found it difficult at Sadhana to focus on the transcendent (mostly because I was focusing on my students' needs and concerns), most of my students found it nearly impossible.  Almost all of them said that they were too overwhelmed by India, or the community lifestyle, or the ‘changes’ their bodies and emotions were experiencing to focus on the spiritual.  Many of them found it difficult to even embrace the sustainable, let alone the spiritual.  They claimed this was because they couldn’t connect with the place, the policies, the practices there – and so, several of them preferred to travel outside Sadhana, to experience something else, something at once familiar (snacks, coffee, clothes shopping) and also something more exciting (the colorful, confusing, chaotic world of modern India).  Not a single person, myself included, described the experience of Sadhana as something spiritual.  I'm still a bit sad about that.
Thoreau was not bored at Walden, as I suspect some of my students, who longed to escape the woods, often were.  He was also not idle.  Like us, he had decided that he really had wanted to escape the consumer driven ‘busy’ lifestyle of his neighbors.  But he did not want to escape work and he did not think work in of itself was an evil.  In fact, he seemed to embrace work and the spiritual depths which it could bring.  Thoreau kept very busy in the woods.  He was busy observing nature, studying wildlife, taking notes on trees, building and maintaining his house, raising thousands of bean plants and other vegetables, making bread, clearing land, chopping wood, making repairs for the Emersons, and writing every day.   
My students struggled with writing every day, although they were asked to keep journals and write a reflective paper connecting spirituality & sustainability and their Sadhana experience.  We reminded them to put aside time each day to reflect and process what they were observing, experiencing, feeling.  Most couldn't.  I can understand, certainly, why they found it really difficult to do so.  Optional workshops in the afternoons and frequent outings to Koot Road (usually for snacks or chai) filled their free-time, when they were not required to work in the forest or out learning about permaculture in the gardens.  Near the end, shopping for souvenirs and last minute attempts to get into Pondy and bike to the back-packer shops in Kulapallayam took up most of the group’s energy.  These outings took precedence over workshops that might have stimulated the spiritual: the early morning yoga, the afternoon dance classes, the introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, the workshop on Non-Violent Communication.  Getting out and Getting Away seemed to be the mantra for many.  I had to wonder sometimes, what were folks trying to escape?
I partook in some of the souvenir shopping, I must confess, but most afternoons I chose to spend away from the group and the bustle.   I spent free time talking with friends, writing, sitting at the beach, people watching, reading the biography of the Mother, studying about Auroville, walking in the countryside, or doing faculty advisor work: arranging group logistics (guest speakers, travel plans, financial details, etc.).  Buying souvenirs was something I reserved for one or two days only and I did so on my own, without urgency, or too much effort.  Still, I reflected a lot on those days and what shopping meant.  It is interesting that “souvenir” means in French ‘to remember’ – and yet, the Indian momentos we spent hours searching for to give to friends and family back home were far from remembrances.  They were really commercialized, exotic tidbits of India (Kama Sutra daggers, colorful bongo drums, pashmina shawls from snowy northern Kashmir) rather than authentic 'souvenirs' somehow connected to our memories of Sadhana or the forest or our lived experience there.  But here, of course, the post-modernists (and my dear academic friends like Robin DeRosa) will have a nice chance to question what is authenticity and how do we chose to remember experience (is it ever 'real'?)...!  If such souvenirs are, as some movies claim in the opening credits, "BASED ON A TRUE STORY" then what does that mean? Whose truth and to what degree? Still, I found the approach most took in this regard  both troubling and fascinating.  What souvenirs did Thoreau bring home from Walden, I wonder?
Thoreau believed in KARMA YOGA… the yoga of work, the spiritual work of doing… even though I’ve never seen him use this word, it is apparent in his philosophy and actions.  Perhaps 19th century New England farmers were just more industrious than we lazy 21st century types – but, nevertheless, there is something shameful about our reticence to do work.  A few students embraced the work, the sweat, the dirt, the effort and really loved waking up early to go to the forest in teams.  Starting the day with work, claimed one enthusiastic student in her journal, made her feel not only more awake but also more alive.  She bemoaned the sedentary lifestyle she lived back home and wanted to embrace a more active consciousness (at all levels).  Several complained about the work, the heat, the intensity of it all.  One student complained "this is not what I signed up for!"  Some students switched out of jobs after one day trying them out or signed up repeatedly for kitchen duty (cutting fruit) because I suspected they found the physical labor too trying.  Others threw themselves into KARMA YOGA so forcefully they passed out (one student feinted in the toilets from heat exhaustion) and another one wanted to serve the community so badly that  she volunteered for the most loathed job: hygiene team (scooping poo and sawdust out of the composting toilets two hours everyday for a week). Hats off to her, I couldn't get that spiritual even if I tried. (Footnote: Gandhi once scolded his wife for refusing to clean toilet at their ashram in Gujurat becuase she said it was the work of untouchables!)  

The outcome for the student who courageously opted to scoop poo was impressive, if not wholly HOLY.  Her yoga made her realize how useful and important her waste really was and connected her to the gardening work in a way she really hadn't imagined possible.  She was also one of the few students who wrote that she loved Sadhana and that she felt she had been prepared for the experience, that she knew what to expect, and was enthusiastic for the chance for an experiment of living more simply.  In so many ways, her experience shines for me as one of the class success stories -- and the poo was just the icing on the proverbial cake!

The founder of Auroville, The Mother, writes extensively about Karma Yoga and its centrality to the mission of the ashram community.  Again, it is important to remember that ashram comes from the Sanskrit root word ‘shrama (to work).  Physical work is seen by Aurovillians as the primary path to spiritual consciousness. Two Aurovillians I spent the most time with (Lissa and Bunty) discussed the fact that they prefer to do work in service to the Divine (and the community) than meditate in the Matrimandir, or elsewhere.  Work is yoga, is higher consciousness they claimed. The Mother said Auroville would be a place for those who wanted to do Karma Yoga… who wanted to work hard, in this way there was no separation between the physical and the higher consiousness:
The opposition between spirituality and material life, the division between the two, has no meaning for me, for in truth life and the spirit are one and it is in and by physical work that the highest spirit must manifest.”—The Mother

The founders of Auroville knew that it would take many long years of tremendous physical labor and strength to make Auroville happen.  “All forms of work are only opportunities for the inner to express itself. In other words, Auroville demanded from each inhabitant a yoga-sadhana on the collective level.”

Communal effort and labor is love, early Aurovillians were taught.  I think that is the only reason Auroville still exists today.  What a lovely idea and one that I myself experienced more than once during my stay, personally.

The Mother said “To work for the Divine is to pray with the body.”  I like this quote and it means something when you've lived in the woods for 3 weeks trying to create something, build a forest, grow a community.

Work as sadhana (spiritual practice) is a concept not lost on Aviram and the long-term volunteers where we stayed.  But it was a concept almost completely foreign to our American students.  They did not connect the two, even the few who whole heartedly embraced the physical labor part of the experiment.  It is interesting to me how very few students, despite a semester course focusing on the spiritual aspects of ecology, left Sadhana Forest with a new perspective on spirituality – let alone a new spiritual consciousness of their own.  

Perhaps it is easier for 19th century Transcendentalists descended from hot blooded puritan separatists to make the connection between labor and enlightenment, but for our group, this objective was clearly lost amidst the flood of stimulation and newness.  What seems apparent from the few journals that I’ve read, thus far, and from the brief conversations we’ve had in the last few days, is that students were unwilling or unable to make the connection, between their spiritual practice (sadhana) and their work (karma yoga). 

Some students even seemed confused about why we visited the Hindu temples we did (or that they were Hindu, at all!).  Others who understood this was part of Indian spiritual tradition (because they paid attention in class) still struggled to see how these massive and messy halls of ceremony and arcane ritual reflected any spiritual significance.  

Few students tackled their encounters with the sacred while in India.  It was far too ugly and lacked the pristine quality they thought the sacred should have.  When students talk about or write about about the temples we visited they focus almost exclusively on the filth, the bad smells, and the disarming proximity of strange priests and beggars to their persons. Their accounts remind me greatly of the 19th century records British missionaries left behind having encountered the ghee besmeared, confusing HINDOO.  They just couldn't connect.  Several students admitted to being bored and annoyed by our 14th generation Brahmin priest guide at the Chidabaram temple, Ganesh, because he spoke too intensely, too closely, with too heavy an accent.  They said they lost interest in the hundreds of facts he was relaying to us about the symbolism, the myths and the beliefs of his spiritual tradition, so they tuned out and turned off.  His eagerness to tell us about his world, his people and centuries of his caste's sacred wisdom was lost.  But students regained energy and enjoyed haggling for bracelets once outside the temple -- on the city streets lined with cheap temple trinkets.

 The majority of students found the matrimandir ‘weird’ and ‘cold’ when we visited – and couldn’t figure out why people would spend so much money on a temple (one student called it a meatball) when so many people were poor in India.  The centrality of spiritual energy at the matrimandir didn't seem plausible or meaningful to them -- although Aurovillians feel there is a powerful vibrational mass of consciousness here.  The fact that people might spend so many years and so much effort to build a temple of this magnitude and grandeur completely flummoxed them (if not angered them).  Students failed to draw a parallel between our Western religious traditions (spending big money on Cathedrals, etc.) and the religious traditions in India.  It was foreign and it seemed wrong to them that any group should focus on the transcendent in this physical way, especially when people were going hungry in India.  

Students who hadn’t taken the fall class, but were still asked to read the same books about India in order to prep for the trip, seemed even more unable to connect with the spiritual side of India than the others.  The reading assignments had focused on one woman's spiritual journey through modern India and on Hindu ecology -- but to what end?  Chapters on the connection between Hindu mythology, sacred groves and legends portraying forests as places of enlightenment seemed to be forgotten (if ever read) by the new students when they landed in India.  The colors, smells, noises and foreign experiences overwhelmed them and finding the Spirit in this land seemed as impossible as finding a clean western toilet with tissue paper for the bum, to those overwhelmed.  Many of them went out looking for it in shops and cafes, instead!

The desire for the material, it seemed, outweighed their understanding of the sacred in this land, as they judged the falseness of what they deemed ‘organized religion’ and distanced themselves from all of it emotionally.  When I picked up the journals in hopes of finding greater depth, I was sad that no one talked about the visit to the sacred grove in the five journals I’ve read thus far – or about the fascinating talk on sacred groves by the Tamil professor and traditional healer who presented after our visit.  The argument he made about the centrality of the sacred in the security of biodiversity (sacred groves are forbidden to be cut down & cultivation there is taboo) and in the protection of the village (sacred groves are built on the edges of villages to keep them safe from evil spirits) was lost to them – or perhaps of no interest.  No one wrote about the visit to the Kali temple we visited, the symbolism of the pongal ceremony (where the Harvest Festival is celebrated with a pooja involving rice offerings to the gods) or about the caves on Mt. Arunachala where Baba meditated for 17 years to reach enlightenment.  The spiritual was largely absent from all discussions and journals, as students struggled with the immediate and the worldly.

One discussion we had as a group, shortly after I shared some feelings Steve and I were having around a particular group dynamic (disappointment at students focusing more on consumption than on their commitment to simplicity), revealed an important clue to why students were not making a connection between the work, the lifestyle, and higher consciousness.  

One student explained that maybe he was in fight or flight mode responding to all the discomforts and newsness that surrounded him.  He said he couldn’t possibly start reflecting on sustainability and spirituality (the course themes) because he was just too busy trying to observe and cope with everything else.  It was honest admission and I was grateful.  My thought was that more time in silence and writing and reflection might help him process more.  He was also one of the students who submited a very short journal.  This is probably because one of his coping strategies had been to log into facebook and skype several times a day to connect to people back home rather than be present in the moment.  Another student was a bit defensive when we suggested that if they left India without at least one “Aha!” moment than maybe they had missed out on something.  Her reply was that Aha moments needed to come after the experience and not during… there was just too much to reflect upon while it was happening.  My thought on this was that perhaps we could all at least set an intention for an Aha!  moment.  It is hard to have a spiritual experience if you haven’t set your intention for that outcome.  I think most students didn't even consider this intention or desire it, even from an academic/anthropological perspective.  I feel that it is also hard to uplift your consciousness if your primary thoughts during the day revolve around “when can I get out of this place and get a cup of coffee?” and “I need to find some really cool yoga pants when I go shopping today.”  But then again, maybe the Dalai Lama is thinking these exact thoughts at this precise minute and we're none the wiser...

Thoreau wrote about visiting town in Walden, too.  The man wasn’t above a little shopping trip now and then but, of course, he wasn’t tempted by cool candle shops and gaudy hippy ganesha tee shirts like we were.  I mean, could even Henry David have escaped such sins?  Probably not.  But he did also value the quiet of the woods and the peace that this brought him.  On top of that, he was vegetarian and preferred that diet.  It wasn't like he was hankering for ice cream and soft drinks the way we did.
Several students said they longed for isolation and invisibility while at Sadhana Forest but when I asked how many of them were going quietly into the woods to meditate, to walk, to sit, to read and/or to just watch nature almost no one was taking time to do this, certainly not on any regular basis.  Being in the woods didn’t seem to be important to them and for some, it may have been a little threatening.  One pair of students got lost (for a few minutes) in the forest at night early in the trip while coming back to the huts from the Monday night bonfire – and I think this may have been the last time they wandered into the woods alone on the trip.  Another student said she didn’t know where to go ‘out there’ and said she felt unsafe wandering alone.  Near the end of the trip, Aviram took us to a sacred grove on the property about a five minute walk past Children’s Land.  None of us had discovered this spot earlier although Steve had mentioned it to us – a 200 year old shrine boasting an army of heroic horseback riding warriors in terracotta.  

I was surprised none of us had visited this place the whole time we were in Sadhana, myself included, because we hadn’t really gone beyond the limits of the residential area, unless we were in large communal work groups coming out in dawn on assignment.  It was magical and I swore I’d return with my camera and notebook to meditate and just BE, but I never got back there… alas.
Thoreau spent a lot of his time in the woods taking notes on nature. “He expands his religious thinking beyond God and humanity to include all of the natural world. It’s a radical step he takes: he equates Nature with the transcendent. I’d say he equates God with Nature, and then goes further to imply that the divine is immanent in all beings, and even in inanimate objects such as rocks or bodies of water. So rather than taking a stance of radical individualism, Thoreau seems to extend subjectivity beyond humanity and God to all of Nature.”

This is very Hindu of Thoreau.  To see God, the Creator, separate from and perhaps superior to His Creation is Judeo-Christian-Islamic.  To see God as Creation and to realize the interconnectedness & unity of all of the Cosmos (Atman-Brahman) is Hindu and Buddhist.
I'd like to think I had a Walden experience in Sadhana Forest, for I went to the woods to live more simply, to live deliberately, to suck the marrow out life.  But I wonder if that is what I accomplished.  I wonder, too, what it is my students found in the woods, if anything.
I hope, even if it was not what they expected, they discovered something meaningful.  Something worth their effort and time and yoga and hard work and discomfort.
In the best of all possible worlds, in the days and weeks to come, in their writing and in their reflecting, I pray they will find something in their experience to connect to some form of sadhana, some part of their spiritual practice.  And I hope, for that, they will be grateful.  And they will be thankful that they went into the woods, and came out renewed, refreshed and encouraged.


  1. Wonderful writing and observations. "Few students tackled their encounters with the sacred while in India. It was far too ugly and lacked the pristine quality they thought the sacred should have." So many of us have been conditioned to equate "holy" or "God' or "spirituality" or "enlightenment" with pleasure- pleasure that enters us through our senses. We expect (expect?) that when we "arrive" at enlightenment or spiritual awakening it will be like some giant blast to one of our senses like a yummy cookie or that we will be surrounded with the smell of patchouile. All of our pleasure sensors throughout life have taken in from outside of ourselves stimuli, processed these and felt good upon experiencing them. Why shouldn't feeling holy and spiritually fulfilled come from the same source- outside of us? True piece of mind and spiritual fulfillment are internal. It s all there inside us. The concept of traveling somewhere outside of ourselves to be taught by someone other than ourselves to "find" spiritual happiness is I believe a misconception. The Eastern maxim "The farther I travel the less I know" simply means that looking outside the self (cups of coffee, souvenirs, gurus, solid gold hats, or whatever)for completeness is a slippery slope. Although all of these things, including travel, give us sensory pleasure, true enlightenment is only gained by deprivation of these outside stimuli. LIVING SIMPLY. This is such a radically un-simplistic idea to most, especially those that for too long have been indoctrinated in this artificially sterilized culture of instant gratification and high rates of consumption. We and everything and everyone around is is sacred. Remembering that every moment is true enlightenment.

  2. Michael, agreed. Your comments about sensory stimulation, patchouli and chocolate chip cookies are all well made. Thank you my dear! We have long disagreed about the powers of travel to transform but I agree with you that spiritual consciousness comes from within. While you (and perhaps Mr. Thoreau) are content to find external stimulation in the woods and in the books that might bringer you closer to the Divine... some of us find the humility and courage required of The Self in distant, foreign and sacred realms (like India) the external stimulation we need to look more deeply within. I guess the point is that however we do it... we do go within! We should not get trapped in the routine and the traps of the quotidian. As you say, we should live simply (as radically unsimple as that seems). Let's embrace the sacred and the WONDER.

    As Alan DiBiase quoted Thoreau in an earlier blog comment here:

    "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now."

    Let's hope the students find their deck, spread their arms and open their souls to the beauty.