10 November 2008

Just walking

Awoke this morning to a white surprise: not only the ground but the trees, now stripped of their leaves, are covered with snow, the first of this coming winter. Since it's barely below the freezing point, the snow sticks to the branches despite the fairly strong breeze. This burst of brightness in the normally dismal November weather must be beautiful even to those who don't like winter.

I've been out this morning only long enough to bring in the day's supply of firewood. Some kind of cold or flu has kept me mostly indoors for over a week now, which is even more of a nuisance than the sluggishness of bodymind it brings. I can't claim as much outdoor time as Thoreau did, but enough to bear witness to the truth of this journal entry (4 Nov. 1852):
Must be out-of-doors enough to get experience of wholesome reality, as a ballast to thought and sentiment. Health requires this relaxation, this aimless life. This life in the present. Let a man have thought what he will of Nature in the house, she will still be novel outdoors. I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me.

It's important to escape from an artificial environment for at least part of each day — something difficult for city dwellers to do, since the surroundings of the buildings are hardly less artificial than the interiors. We are blessed to live here in the backwoods of Manitoulin! But that's not the only factor in Thoreau's practice which kept him grounded in reality: the aimlessness of his walking was equally important. Just walking, or ‘sauntering’ as he called it, corresponds to what Dogen called ‘just sitting’ — not trying to get somewhere, not aiming to become a Buddha. Even an indoor-oriented thinker such as Peirce could see the value of aimless thinking, or the ‘play of musement’ as he called it. It seems to short-circuit our self-deceptive tendencies. Thoreau was as much a reader as a walker, but his reading too was often aimless, ‘just reading’ as i might call it — aimless and yet urgent in its immediacy, its being-time.

My own reading practice is similar. And even that i often interrupt by immersing myself in music, usually the wordless kind. But as Thoreau says, it's not enough to dwell in the world of words and feelings, and you need to get outdoors to shed that cultural cocoon. So i'm looking forward to getting out there again, when my lungs will let me.

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