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Thoreau on What It Really Means to Be Awake

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

“The secret of success is… to be fully awake to everything about you,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote in his beautiful 1926 letter of advice to his teenage son. But how does one become fully awake to the world, especially in our world, through which we increasingly sleepwalk on autopilot, in a trance of productivity? (How awake are we, really, when we’ve stopped bowling over in awe at the everyday miracle of clouds? Or the unexpected glory of wildflowers on the city sidewalk?) Wakefulness — that embodied attentiveness to life as it lives itself through us — seems as mysterious as our nocturnal escape into dreams, and often more elusive.

That’s what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explores in a beautiful passage from Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (public library) — another timeless treasure from the same Penguin Great Ideas series that gave us Seneca’s indispensable The Shortness of Life.

Thoreau — a man of great and enduring wisdom on subjects like the spiritual rewards of walking, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the best definition of success — extols the gift of the awake imagination:

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the wakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance fills the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit and prove itself to be good, no less than the light.

In a sentiment he’d come to revisit some decades later in his journal, where he contemplated the myth of productivity and the true meaning of labor, Thoreau adds:

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For is a spectacular read in its totality, as is Thoreau’s larger treatiseWalden and Civil Disobedience, from which it is distilled. Complement it with Mary Oliver on how to be fully alive.

Published March 20, 2015




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