I can have mystical thoughts like the next guy. “Mystical” must originate from “mist” — meaning something important is not clear to the five senses, or to the rational mind.

Lately I’ve been waking up in the morning thinking that my mother is in the house. Mom’s been dead forty years now, but the sensation (intuition?) of her presence can last for several minutes. Could spirits be real, I’ve been asking myself. People have been talking about ghosts for a long time. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy [read, “than is dreamt of in your rational mind”],” Hamlet says to Horatio.

After I wake up a little bit more fully, without deciding one way or the other, I inevitably return to my well placed doubts as to the “reality” of my mother visits from the other side.   As a mystic, I’m a minimalist, and the better off for it, I believe. Otherwise, taking half-dreams literally could be but a few short steps to larger claims in the way of unbridled imagination.

(Contemporary New Agers exemplify what I mean by unbridled claims when they say that we are guided by angels, or that death is an illusion, or that we came here from the constellation of Orion or Pleiades, or that the New Age was finally fully born in 2012, as a culmination of ancient Mayan prophecies, etc.)

Nonetheless, as a longstanding devotee of Henry Thoreau, how can I not be a little open to mysticism. Thoreau says in the “Conclusion” of Walden, “I learned this from my experiment at least, that if one advances in the direction of his dreams,… he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” But Thoreau, a minimalist par excellence, also keeps such thinking in check. In all of Walden, there are only three or four mystical statements like the one above. Even as he lay dying and a minister asked him what he might be seeing on the other shore, his response was “One world at a time.”

Thus, no surprise, Thoreau is rarely referred to by the high-flying New Agers of today. Yes, his thought can soar with the best of them, but he also remains consistently grounded in this world. In the 1960’s, when I was first reading him, he was championed by the “back to the earth” movement, in conjunction with the civil rights movement, workers’ rights, etc. Indeed, already a hundred years dead, he was a huge factor in those early (small n, small a) new age birth pangs. Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life is a latter day Walden; Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Mario Salvo’s Berkeley students’ rights speeches are straight “Civil Disobedience” brought into modern contexts.

Very much in the air in the 1960’s (before large N, large A New Agers started to drift in the direction of finding their origins in outer space, or worst of all, manifesting material wealth as a sign of spiritual wealth) was the work of Mahatma Gandhi. In his Thoreau inspired “Indian Home Rule,” Gandhi points out that “real home rule is self-rule or self-control…. If a man will realize that it is unmanly to obey unjust laws, no man’s tyranny will enslave him.” The development of such a person — now there was a new age worth pursuing.

The key to home-rule (self-rule) to both Thoreau and Gandhi, as it was to Socrates, is in the opposite direction from material wealth. Only from the perspective of voluntary poverty can persons open the portals to true wealth, which would be the perspective and courage to know and do the right thing. Thoreau never felt freer than the night he spent in jail in protest of America’s expansionist, bully war against Mexico, from which America felt it could steal land without significant criticism. After all, this was a narrative with which we had become thoroughly comfortable, having already stolen most of the lands of the First Nations.

That mystical narrative we called Manifest Destiny. We were a nation chosen by God, Who wanted us to own the entire continent, from sea to shiny sea; full-blown mysticism in all of its ugliness, dressed up in political and religious regalia to look pretty (Remember the Alamo!); mysticism whose intention was to distract us from the unseemly nasty business we were up to and thus to allow such injustices to go on unabated, as they have indeed gone unabated into the present. The root of injustice in the world today is that, from nations on down to individuals, the have-nots serve the haves, in many cases not much differently (e.g. sweatshops) from how slaves served masters in America.

A big theme of Thoreau’s is that you can’t find your own well being at the expense of another person’s or nation’s well being. Human beings are capable, if they don’t become mystified, of knowing this truth and not shrinking from it. Eliminate the frivolous from your life, reduce your needs to the essentials, and you move in the direction of home-rule, no longer weighed down by unacknowledged bad conscience.

And in the same move, you are making your time your own. If you want to control something, Thoreau suggests, control your own time. Even to do nothing. Especially to do nothing. Thoreau counted as his best mornings at Walden Pond those in which he sat on his front stoop meditating, and was shocked to “wake up” and realize five hours had passed.

But he didn’t only sit on the front stoop. It was out of his time-rich, minimalist life that he became a front line debater of the theory of evolution before the Origin of Species was off the press; that he worked with the leading botanists, ornithologists, and ichthyologists of his times; that he invented a state of the art pencil; that he became a master house builder, mason, surveyor; that he went to jail for his principles; that he wrote essays and books that have inspired heroic rebellion against ugly political landscapes all over the world.

In the 1960’s these same writings that were inspiring such world-changing visionaries like Gandhi and King were likewise waking up poor, sleepy students like myself who didn’t know beans yet….  The wonder of it: that through the printed page, a person can go so deep inside of you. For decades I have travelled with a man who “died” eighty years before I was born.

That’s what time travel is. We don’t have to make a New Age thing out of it.




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