First Impressions with Lasting Impact

In the course, Pursuit of Wisdom, we were introduced to two autobiographies, Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s. “Everything is a potential teacher,” reminds me of the trials and tribulations in anyone’s life and how so many of us are often simply stuck in the midst of all the possibly self-inflicted turmoil. All anyone ever seems to want in those moments is to get out from under the stress situation. Rarely do human beings think about the pursuit of wisdom right then and there and what the lesson to be learned could be. At some point in my life though, I realized that I would never have come as far as I have without those ‘teachers’. Thoreau and Gandhi’s autobiographies have been reigniting wonderful parts in my heart which again triggered a reevaluation of my own pursuit of wisdom. It opened up new ways of personal refinement.

Thoreau’s Walden is a book like no other. He shared starting out, his view of the time’s economy as one of him being creative with bartered work and doing whatever you can yourself, as well as figuring out here and there how to make a little money if needed. His writing style is so unique. One can find a whole lot just in one sentence. It takes one’s full attention and an open mind to understand at least somewhat what he packs into his dance with words. He has certain arrogance about his own opinion though I couldn’t help but get drawn into his story. Right away I was hooked within Thoreau’s poetic writing style and unparalleled observations. I learned that he did enjoy the company of other people here and there. I read in between his lines that Thoreau preferred his own company during the seeking of truth process. How can anyone find truth through someone else’s soul eyes? I think a person could agree with me that someone may be triggered by the thought process of someone else’s senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, touch, etc) but nevertheless, life’s awareness comes from deep within the individual. And, I think he enjoyed figuring things out for himself, all by himself – no distractions, or influences, other than nature.

Thoreau’s eloquent description of nature is so alluring and fascinating because it’s true. I have this notion that when he wrote, he always wrote from the depth of his heart and when he describes nature, it was from the depth of a heart of an innocent little boy with a genius for words. I fancied his vivid descriptions of the sounds, visuals, and lessons of nature. He has this ability to draw you in with words and make you feel something about things you never thought about, but you recognize the beauty anyway! Thoreau did not shy away from including himself into human nature and primitive behavior. He saw himself in the mix of all the different facets of life and told it as it is through his perspective.

If I read Thoreau correctly, he came to ‘know’ that the only thing important actually happening to a human being happened only right then, right where you stood, right in your own tracks. “I found myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, I reverence them both.” Thoreau saw everything as good in nature, including him, and instead of writing about something he’s not, he owned who he was; a human character. I appreciate it quite a lot when he sees himself as is and finds high regard for all of it. I don’t agree with everything he writes or feels and that makes him Thoreau and leaves me as me, plain and simple. More, and a good example of his distinctive views were the post office, and the news and such, he declares,  things that were pulling one’s attention to unimportant trivial subjects. Remembering, Thoreau also wrote that great poetry had remained unpublished because only great poets would understand it. I think his arrogance and rebellious notions stem from the possibility that he might have thought that he had discovered things within himself that few people would understand and that he was privy to an awareness that no one else was. When something is that individual of a style, I think that no one can really understand all of it. I reckon it is not necessary to understand it entirely. It would be quite presumptuous of me to say that I catch on to every line he writes. I try to read between the lines of what I cannot seize. I also think that whatever I don’t grasp was not really meant for me to dwell upon just yet and I determined to let it be. This is something I had to learn over the years because I always want to ascertain everything, which is more of a burden than a joy.

Thoreau is a spirit who lived in a body only for a short time but his tremendous impact on people is timeless; whether anyone adores him, or is merely offended by him. He stirs people and I wonder if he knew how remarkable his work really was and still is today. What I do hang onto within his poetic tone is the magic he creates for me. The similarities of a man that lived 200 years ago, what he discovered and the insights I have come to appreciate in my own life are uncanny. Thoreau is therefore not some kind of phantom that lived many years ago or a genius who I cannot touch. On the contrary, he is real, he was a genius with words, and I am part of his humanity. This is what makes me feel so good.

Throughout Thoreau’s autobiography, it seems to me as if he genuinely enjoyed experiencing life in all corners of his personal environment. His exquisite way of telling the story is his gift from the ‘heavens’, so to speak. His brilliance reacquainted me with my own belief that everything matters, down to the smallest incident and even at the youngest age. This directs me now also to Mohandas K Gandhi’s story, which is a huge example of that as well and it is stated right from the start in the foreword of his autobiography. “Gandhi lived his life, from childhood on, as someone convinced that his decisions about how to live mattered and that he had the power to make those decisions to conform to what he believed right.” Even though Thoreau and Gandhi lived such opposite lives and had such different upbringing and senses about self; there is an energy which surrounds their ‘truth’ that feels similar to me. One key ingredient to a fulfilled life may be when one asserts to be brutally honest with oneself all the time.  During our course discussion, it was noted that Thoreau and Gandhi were quite steadfast in their beliefs and their honest self-views.

Quite opposite the life of Thoreau though, Gandhi’s ceaseless to a fault self-searching expeditions lead him to experience utter shame about several things in his life until he died. I deduced that shame is a learned condition as a result to Gandhi’s upbringing under  the cultural strict beliefs, which did not allow him more self-compassion or relief of his shame. It is often heartbreaking to find out what people’s lives have to transcend to find ‘truth’, as it was in Gandhi’s case. I think as a truth seeker he was sifting through everything in his own life to share with everyone how capable and learned he was himself to do harm and therefore, noticed his own infliction of injustices onto others. With a man like Gandhi, when you look at the full picture with all that he accomplished, who he was and how he implemented his convictions and then, you look at the harsh behavior at home with his family; it says that anyone of us can accomplish this greatness because we all have faults and some of us not even as grave as his. Gandhi followed his own convictions, except for his behavior with his family. His harsh behavior with his children and his wife somehow did not fit with his non-violent stance, otherwise. Quite possibly, if that would not have been the case, for many of us Gandhi would have been an ‘untouchable’ of another kind, because the rest of us may have felt too far removed to even try to follow in his footsteps. Gandhi’s experiments have impacted me in a way that I am now more so, a firmer believer that everyone has a very specific journey and that we can miss it easily by being influenced by other people, environments, hardships, anything, mere thoughts, for that matter. It is a lifelong quest to stay steadfast to your own inner voice, which is the only one that can guide your true destiny.

The point I am making is that we all can overcome and change our ways to be more mindful of our actions and thoughts. I can so appreciate a person with such power and drive for non-violent behavior to also mention the worst of his behaviors in retrospect. It is in all of us and we make those same choices every day to see the truth within us, or pretend something else. Maybe the shame was the only thing he could muster up publicly to apologize for the things he did not change. He called himself a coward, feeling ashamed over certain behaviors and admitting it until the end was his ‘cowardly’ way of not getting through everything in his life. We can all pick each other apart, including ourselves. We can also do the best we can and appreciate the opportunity to find the most aware state of mind possible. Life is that mystery and the human mind keeps on searching.

The huge conviction in Gandhi’s life I see in when he drew complete certainty from the gut, the inner source. Those stellar moments just seemed to pop out from within, without any effort on his part. It appeared as a feasibly inherent quality and he let it be so. Life reveals itself only through moment to moment experiences and sometimes it takes hindsight and writing it all down to begin to understand its lessons. Some of Gandhi’s experiences were quite harsh and I cannot help but empathize with his struggles. The quote, “…should I add arrogance and fraud to my ignorance, and increase the burden of debt I owed to the world?” is a great example how critical he was of himself and how mindful he was of certain behaviors.

During the last chapters I got stuck at, “Then again, because underlying ahimsa is the unity of all life, the error of one cannot but affect all, and hence man cannot be wholly be free from himsa.” The very next thing that came to my mind was, “To err is human to forgive is divine.” Gandhi goes on in the paragraph that if a votary of ahimsa is true to “all actions of compassion, then he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa.” I can definitely sense the spiritual dilemma here. For me, compassion also encompasses self-compassion, which includes acceptance for one’s own errors. If a votary of ahimsa constantly has to be ever so careful not to be in the deadly coil of himsa, how does that fit in with “life lives on life”? Where is the trust in your own existence when you have to ‘incessantly’ rethink it? Maybe that’s why he called them ‘experiments’. No one can be absolutely certain.

Watching the movie, Gandhi, I was in tears all through the last part of this story told. It was not because Gandhi was dying, no, he was always ready for that, but because I felt that every human on this planet has an inherent knowing of justice and even what to do, but we are all so blinded by each other when we buy into injustices on the surface. It takes such courage to stay steadfast and true to your inner light because it sometimes is a very lonely road. In Gandhi’s case, he was so very steadfast that the world took notice and each individual around him received some of that energy and carried it forth. The movie was so impressive to bring that out. Ben Kingsley was a well-picked choice for the actor of the main character because his acting was superb in bringing out Gandhi’s greatness and his following. Yes, the film left out Gandhi’s dark side, but we all have one, and in the end it matters how you let your light shine throughout your lifetime; the dark side is part of that process.

Both myself, and another classmate were reminded of the Jesus of Nazareth story throughout parts of the Gandhi movie! It had given me the impression that both of those men were placed in the midst of chaos, poverty, and different religious faiths. They were both examples of what is possible in a life of a person like any other, but living it without actions of violence and in pursuit of justice for all. Some of the violent scenes in the movie were quite disturbing. I recall the scene at the salt-works, were men kept beating on these other men who were really no different than they; and even though the beaten ones laid there on the ground bleeding and in utter pain but without lifting a hand to retaliate, the other men kept on beating them down. The inherent compassion in such instances is nonexistent. What they must have been thinking, to be following such a command without mutiny? When people follow these orders blindly which end up in violence, it must have an awful psychological effect on their ability to feel compassion, to feel anything for that matter. Why is so easy to follow the masses in the wrong decision, but so obviously difficult to follow the absolute truth and the right decision glimmering in our own hearts? This march left such an imprint on my heart because they marched alone, without Gandhi and still stayed true to their cause. It really showed me very clearly that anything is possible when you set your mind to it. There was no one cheering them on, it all happened so quietly and sorrowful. Getting beat up voluntarily without defending yourself takes the will of a saint, yet there were so many. I shall not forget that scene anytime soon.

“How all this happens–how far a man is free and how far a creature of circumstance, –how far free-will comes into play and where fate enters the scene, –all this is a mystery and will remain a mystery,” Gandhi’s ego had been in question during our forum discussions and how much of an impact it had on his actions. It remains clear that Gandhi had a certain outcome in mind, to free India of the British and to do it non-violently. It didn’t quite happen the way he must have envisioned it because one time he even said, “maybe it was too soon, maybe we weren’t ready yet.” I believe that he just did not want to be the one to have miscalculated and then be responsible for a riot or a violent revolution. He wanted to proof to the world as much as to himself that this notion of non-violent victory was not just a possibility but his reality.

Herein, it creates its own mystery. Everyone’s reality is the key to the individual pursuit of wisdom. The term ‘truth’ is often mentioned as if we all had our own truths. Both of these bigger than life characters, Thoreau and Gandhi, show me a life and a pathway connected within the field of intention. Whoever, to this day, still comes in contact with these men; their lives are forevermore impacted and influenced by that intention. The gem of wisdom I draw from that is that absolutely everything is interconnected and our existence makes way to a bigger picture. When someone or something appeals to you to ‘be true to yourself’ it may be an invitation to make the most of your source and utilize that intentional field to its fullest potential. The pursuit of wisdom is in my nature and therefore, ongoing.

Attenborough, R. (Producer), & Attenborough, R. (Director). (1982). Gandhi [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Gandhi, M. K. (1957). Gandhi: The story of my experiments with truth. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Thoreau, H. D. (2014). Walden. San Bernardino, CA: Black & White Classics.

© 2015 Sabine Hobbs