Henry David Thoreau on Minimalism, Life, and Dreams

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it. – Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), an American author, naturalist, transcendentalist, pacifist, tax resister and philosopher, is most famous for his work entitled Walden. Published in 1854, Thoreau documented his 2 years’ of having built a cabin next to Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and how he truly went back to the roots of human nature in order to live simply, enjoy the beautiful (and harsh) moments in life, and what it means to escape (even back then) the ever-growing consumerist society. Thoreau was a great and radical thinker, to this day and especially during his time in the 1800s. We can certainly learn a lot from this profound philosopher.

Thoreau is one of my very favorite philosophers and a favorite amongst many folks who enjoy living simply and/or minimally. Why is that?

Let us examine 5 key passages from Walden to see why:

Passage 1: On What Man Knows

Men say they know many things;

But lo! they have taken wings,–

The arts and sciences,

And a thousand appliances;

The wind that blows

Is all that any body knows.

Isn’t that the truth? “The wind that blows is all that any body knows.”

Humans have come a long, long way from even just 20 years ago. We are continuously growing, evolving, changing, and doing things better, faster, stronger than ever before.

But to the root of all this, can we say we know anything, anything at all? I know what it feels like to be doing what I love to do: Art, Writing, Reading, and Karate. I feel alive, I feel great, and I feel this is who I am, who I was made to be. Can you say the same thing about your life?

Passage 2: On the Unnecessary Complexities of Life

The animal merely makes a bed, which he warms with his body in a sheltered place; but man, having discovered fire, boxes up some air in a spacious apartment, and warms that, instead of robbing himself, makes that his bed, in which he can move about divested of more cumbrous clothing, maintain a kind of summer in the midst of winter, and by means of windows even admit the light, and with a lamp lengthen out the day.

Now I’m not dis-advocating the obvious benefits of man having discovered fire, or any other evolutionary miracle for that matter. In fact, I’m very, very glad we have!

What I believe Thoreau is getting at in this passage is the fact that sometimes man makes things more complicated than it ought to be. He compares our necessity to the “luxuries” in life when a little animal just does what nature intended it to do: simply make up a bed (a nest, a cave, a burrow, a tree) and warm yourself up with your own body heat and whatever nature has around you. That is all you ever need.

Of course, as humans, we need more than just a warm bed. We need human interaction, we need love, we need satisfaction from a job well done, we need purpose. These things we need ought not to take up much money or space. Nor does it need to lie in our possessions or material wants and desires. Can we give up our thirsty desire for that which won’t bring us lasting happiness?

Passage 3: On Listening to Your Own Little Drummer

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.

This passage is wonderfully observant. I believe we all have within us our “little drummer” that if we just stepped to his pace, we can find great balance, joy, and happiness in life.

Yet the vast masses squished their inner drummer due to multiple reasons:

  • The need to “fit in.” To not look like an outcast; someone different and strange.
  • The desire to keep up with the “stars” we’ve elevated them to be. Who has the most fashionable or trendy designer glasses, shoes, handbags, clothes, gear, electronics, houses, cars.
  • Not allowing ourselves to follow what is deep within us. Ignoring our dreams, our passionate pursuits, that which what makes us come alive, our ambitious and lofty goals that others downplay or call crazy.
  • The complacent response to an average lifestyle.

Here’s how to stop letting others determine the pace you should set for your life and to start listening to your inner drummer:

  • Don’t try to fit in. You were meant to stand out, to stand apart from the others. You are unique. You are talented in your own artistic ways. You are you. Be proud of that fact.
  • Squelch the desire to have the latest and greatest. It’s a waste of money, time, and energy. Instead, be content with what you do have. Focus on the priceless commodities: your family, your health, your abilities, your relationships with others.
  • Allow yourself to follow your inner artist child who has always dreamt you can do great things with your life … if you only listened to him and stopped making excuses.
  • Be dissatisfied with just being average and allowing your bar of standard to be the status quo.

Passage 4: On Loving Your Life

However mean your life is; meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is.

“Love your life, poor as it is.” Simply profound.

Isn’t it the truth that those who are fault-finders, aka perfectionists, are never satisfied?

See if you recognize yourself in any of the following examples, or have experienced it on the receiving end:

  • The parent who scolds his child when she brings home 6 A’s and 1 B on the latest report card. That B sticks out like a sore thumb, demanding a “What happened here? You have some explaining to do. How can you let Science/Math/English/Reading slip by so carelessly? Are you stupid? What’s wrong with you?”
  • The never-satisfied boss who demands why you let the Customer Data Project become delayed when you did excellent on all your other projects thus far. A rather cynical venom-spewing remark downplays all the good you’ve done up to then: “What’s going on? How can you let this project drag on? I thought you were competent enough to handle this project, to drive it with stellar results. I had expected more from you.”
  • The partner who always brings up the small, insignificant events just when it’s the most painful: “You know, your mother was right. You are a lazy person. Remember how I had asked you to pick up the medicine from the drugstore that one night and you were complaining how “exhausted” you were from work? God, how selfish. You couldn’t even do that one little thing.”

It’s painful, being a perfectionist or fault-finder, and even more so when one is on the receiving end of a perfectionist’s war-path of destructive comments and criticisms.

Can you see yourself letting go of the need to be perfect in all that you do?

  • Let go of the need to look perfect and immaculate each time you step outside. Style is being who you are, not what you wear.
  • Let go of the need to cross all your T’s, dot all your I’s. Sometimes it’s better to just launch your product/project than to continually delay it due to minor edits and revisions that won’t always make a difference.
  • Let go of the need to receive your boss’/partner’s/parent’s/child’s approval and attention. Learning to be self-sufficient first allows yourself to not become so dependent and debilitated when you don’t receive such desired approval and attention from others. I once was in a very destructive relationship where the cycle of wanting and needing each other’s approval and attention led to its final demise. By leaning on each other too much, we learned to not be ourselves and to just let go of what we cannot control — each other.

Passage 5: On Advancing Confidently in the Direction of Your Dreams

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if no one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Ah … this is what Castles in the Air means. Confidently going in the direction of one’s dreams. By doing so, the universe opens up infinite opportunities and possibilities.

By taking the risk and jumping, the net will appear in ways you cannot imagine. If you never take risks and leap without knowing whether you’ll come out alive or not, you’ll never realize if the net will be there for you when you jump.

Safety on the edge means you’ll always look into the horizon wishing your life could be this or could be that. Stop wishing, and start doing.

Be Like Thoreau …

… and live simply, love your life, and advance confidently in the direction of your dreams.

By giving up unnecessary material wants and desires, by loving your life with all the faults it has, by boldly going where your heart leads you … that is where true happiness and joy in life lies.

Celebrate Minimalism!

Post image for How To Declare=

In celebration of the First Annual International Minimalist Day that just passed on September 23 (thanks to Karol Gajda!), please share with others how you are living a more minimalist life. Tell me how you are doing, in the comments section. Post on your own blog your thoughts about living a minimalist life or how you are trying to become more minimal. There will be challenges, of course, but we minimalists are here to help one another.

There is a growing movement in minimalism, if you haven’t noticed. And it’s moving fast. It’s not just a phase, it’s not just a fad, it’s not just a few handful extremists who are denouncing the consumerist ways of the world. This is real and it’s happening now.

Will you join me, as we forgo the so-called “luxuries” in life for the simplicity and beauty that material goods cannot ever give us? I hope you do.

Let minimalism not be a passing thing, just a “phase” you’re going through. Francine Jay, aka Miss Minimalist, agrees minimalist living is an important new movement. It is a lifestyle, a philosophy, and way of thinking and doing things, in a way that wasn’t thought of before or done before. Together, we can change the future of the world as we know it.

Surprise! A New, Upcoming eBook!

I’ve been working hard the past 2-3 months on a brand new, super helpful, inspiring, insightful, ultra fun, and dare I say, radical, ebook! This new ebook is entitled The Radical Minimalist: Taking Your Thinking and Lifestyle to the Extreme! and it will be released here at Castles in the Air on 10.10.10! More to come. Stay updated by subscribing to the .

I was recently interviewed by reporter Katherine Laidlaw of the National Post newspaper for an article she wrote entitled “The Urge to Purge.” At the time, I had 72 things, but as you know, it’s now 70 things. :) Check it out sometime.

It is my hope that this post has inspired you in some way, however little it may be. If it has, please do share the love with others. I really appreciate it! Find me on  and . And now, Castles in the Air has its own ! Sweet. Be well, my friends!

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic post, Miss Nina. nnI felt drawn to attempt to read Thoreau when I was maybe 14 and just couldn’t get through it. I still have a tendency to take things I read and hear at their surface value; it’s still sometimes difficult for me to glean the extraword meaning. I really enjoyed how you interpreted him for us, here.nnAs for my path to attempted minimalism…between the debt I wish to rid myself of, the visual clutter in my home, and my impending marriage to a professional musician (read: a professional traveler who owns rather little) it is simply the correct thing for me to do. Additionally, I know I have a compulsion to soothe loneliness with …ugh… shopping! nnMinimalism can indeed be for EVERYone. I think that the minimalist lifestyle stems from an awareness, at the essence of it. Anyone who really thinks hard about “Stuff” realizes that we hardly need any of it, and that awareness will creep into other parts of one’s life.n

  • https://castlesintheair.org Nina | Castles in the Air

    Your observations are of the truth! It really is an awareness, rather, that our tendencies to want to accumulate, hoard, shop, buy, want, desire (the things that will not make us happy in the long run) is within us all but with awareness comes power. Once we realize this, all we have to do is implement practical action steps, one by one, to slowly release the grip of materialism in our lives. It can be done, and like you said, it is for everyone. :)

  • http://belikewatermedia.wordpress.com Tom

    Nice post Nina. The whole minimalism thought process simply reminds me of the Tao, I’ve been posting a whole heap of stuff on David Brower and James Lovelock, whom I believe echo what your post says, keep it simple, act in Nature and just BE…nnI wrote a short piece from my caravan living: nnhttp://belikewatermedia.wordpress.com/ecology/acornstooaks/nnEnjoy what you do and have a great experience today!

  • https://castlesintheair.org Nina | Castles in the Air

    Very cool, Tom! Thanks for sharing. nnKeep it simple, love life, and let things just be. :)

  • Kel

    Nina,nLoved your post! Anything about Thoreau is awesome to me! I came across your post earlier this summer and have become an avid follower. The news your spreading is past due for this screwed up consumerism lifestyle society has created. I am beginning a blog as well “Navigating Towards Simplicity”. I will have the first post later this week. I long for the day I can leave my dreaded daily career to have an online simplicity/minimalist business. nKeep up the good work and keep the creative writing coming!nKel

  • https://castlesintheair.org Nina | Castles in the Air

    Sweet, Kel! Great to hear you’re launching a blog this week and that you are also on the path towards creating your very own personal freedom through an online minimalist business. I’ll actually have an ebook review for Everett Bogue’s ebook Minimalist Business this week, an ebook that will no doubt be valuable to those who are interested in having a minimalist online business. Be on the look out!nnAnd best wishes to you in “navigating towards simplicity!” You’re already on the right track, after having made the decision that society has taught us wrong in terms of always consuming. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Kel

    Nina,nnLooking forward to your review! I’ve read his book and it changed my life! (or is changing it as I go). Please check out my new blog post. nnhttp://kelbar4.wordpress.com/ Navigating Towards SimplicitynnI would so appreciate it if you would pass it along to get the word out as we change the world! I am learning as I go, so it is still under construction.n nI am also looking forward to your book coming out in October! Way to go!nnKeln

  • https://castlesintheair.org Nina | Castles in the Air

    Cool, great job! The launch is usually one of the toughest to get through, much like how we procrastinate whenever we have a paper/report to write, or a huge project in front of us. We just don’t know how to tackle it. But it is possible, and there is an art to the start. Good stuff, Kel!

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