The cabin where I live sits seven miles from town, and from the porch in summer there are no neighbors visible. In winter, when the trees between us have lost their foliage, across a large pasture a distant farm can be seen. And in mornings, when the air is still, I can here the cries of an infant coming from the farmhouse, which is a new sound and was not there the year before.
My neighbor is a farmer and we have met just twice, both times at the hedge between our properties. Once, discussing his fence, and a second time shooing away a pair of trespassing hunters.
In the years I've lived here, many people have expressed concern about my isolation and solitude. There is something about being alone which frightens many people—though I suspect at heart some of those are truly frightened of themselves.
But I am never lonely here--at least, no moreso than when I am in town--because I never consider myself alone.
Henry David Thoreau's Walden is in some ways a treatise on solitude—and so it makes a certain kind of sense that the chapter actually titled “Solitude” would be among the book's shortest. And in it, Thoreau essentially argues that the solitude so many seem to fear is in fact merely misperception.
To say Walden is a naturalist book is some kind of an understatement. But woven into it are ideas that one might broadly call “eastern” – musings on duality and existence and the thin lines between who we are and who we are, and if we are.
Thoreau essentially makes two points in this chapter. The first is that in many ways solitude does not exist--particularly in nature. And second, the society we use to subvert our solitude is in many ways a cheap salve that is only surface deep.
"There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still."
Thoreau does make that caveat: if you're not thinking straight, you can get lonely. He says it happened to him--once. A few weeks into his stay at Walden, he started to doubt whether being around people wasn't necessary after all.
"In the midst of a 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 once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since."
Sometimes I wonder if Thoreau didn't eat a lot of mushrooms.
Thoureau argues that most people see solitude as a function of distance, when it is actually about sharing the same mental space.
"This whole earth we inhabit is but a point in space ... no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another."
But the next section really jumps out to me because Thourea starts to get into some interesting ideas. Check this out:
"By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. ...
"I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you."
That's Thoreau in the mid 1800s. Here's a more recent Alan Watts in the 50s:
"The individual is separate from his universal environment only in name. When this is not recognized, you have been fooled by your name. Confusing names with nature, you come to believe that having a separate name makes you a separate being.”
"According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of 'me' and 'mine', selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism,and other defilements, impurities and problems."
It's all the same energy. We are. Any separateness or distinctness is misperception. No Me, no You, Us or Them. No distance. No past or self. And if that's true, there's no solitude.
Was Thoreau the first eastern philosopher in America? Eh. Probably not. But he starts to get at it, in parts. Most of the book is very much rooted in the here and now and nature, but in Solitude he touches on some questions are central to other ways of considering the world.