The Sunset –
Thoreau’s Solution to All of Life’s Problems

Really to see the sun rise or go down every day, so to relate ourselves to a universal fact, would preserve us sane forever.

Henry David Thoreau,
P1000452

Sunsets might just be the most cliché image in the world of self-development and inspiration. You see them on book covers and website headers. You see them on those office-wall-posters with inspirational sayings about “Attitude,” “Discipline,” and “Perseverance.”

But no matter how cliché they may have become, there’s still something liberating about the sunset. In the quote above, Thoreau goes so far as to say that the simple act of observing a sunrise or sunset each day “would preserve us as sane forever.”

Read the original post

How can such a simple sight transform us?

Thoreau’s answer:  sunsets break us out of the finite world and into the infinite. It’s not the sight of the sun or the horizon that makes them special.  It’s that through this act “we relate ourselves to a universal fact.”

The deeper insight here is that we live in two overlapping worlds.   We spend the bulk of our time in the world of the finite. This is the world where you and I are separate beings with separate problems and patterns.   It’s the world where the size of your bank account matters, where you need to impress others, and where it’s important to think about things like paying bills and keeping your job.

I woke up this morning in the world of the finite.  I arose to worries about finishing my book, preparing for classes in the fall, and finances.   “How am I going to balance my research, book editing, blog writing, and teaching?” I found myself thinking.

These worried thoughts left me in the predominate state of the finite world – stress.   My mind darted from thoughts about one potential problem to the next.  My body felt tight and constricted.   In response, I found myself moving quickly, as though living in fast-forward mode would somehow diminish the burden.

Then, in a rash and counter-productive move, I left my computer and walked outside.  I looked up at the sky.   Suddenly, everything slowed down.

Big clouds hung low over the horizon.   I watched their slow motion movements – the way white clumps of cloud crept over the blue backdrop.

In less than five minutes, I had entered the world of the infinite.  This is the world described by philosophers, saints, gurus, and mystics.   Plato saw this world in the “forms” – those ideas that transcend the world of “appearances.”  Saint Augustine saw it in the “Heavenly City” – the spiritual state of perfect peace.   The yogis saw it in “leela” – the divine play of consciousness that transcends the “maya” or illusions of our everyday experience.

It doesn’t really matter whether you are spiritual, religious, or atheist.  You probably have some connection to the infinite.  Whether you call it God, consciousness, or truth is not all that important.   What matters is that you experience the sense of liberation that occurs when you shift from the finite to the infinite.

For this week’s experiment, let’s explore Thoreau’s practice for finding the infinite:  his idea that “to see the sun rise or go down every day…would preserve us sane forever.”

Here’s the practice:

  • Make the Time – The most difficult part of this practice is the simple act of scheduling time to see the sunset.   Without setting aside time, the sun rises and sets in the absence of our awareness.  So look up the time of the time of sunrise or sunset in your area (The US Navy Observatory has a free site for this) and block off 15 minutes to experience a sunrise or sunset each day.
  • Find the Infinite – Allow your self to experience what Thoreau calls the “universal fact.”   You might breathe into the experience.  You might just sit there.  You might meditate on a point on the horizon.  It doesn’t matter what you do.  What matters is that you open yourself to a taste of the infinite.

I’ll be posting photos and video of my experience.  Please upload your photos of the sunrise and sunset from wherever you happen to be on the Life Beyond Logic Facebook Page.

What’s your experience of the infinite?

Update: Finding the Infinite in a World of Work
posted July 7, 2011 by Nate

I have managed to catch each sunset this week.   Here’s the shot from Monday night.   The only person with a better seat than me was this guy who came paragliding by with a fan strapped to his back.

I have found it relatively easy to set aside the time to watch the sunset.   It’s also been easy to feel into that space of the infinite during these moments.

The greater challenge has been internal.  I’ve noticed an inner critic that arises as I’m sitting before the sun “doing nothing.”   In a world where work and productivity dictate the flow of most days, this act feels radical.  With nothing to do, I almost have the sense that I’m doing something wrong.  ”Surely, there is some email I need to write, some chore I need to do, or some project that needs my attention.”

Thoreau also felt limited by this modern aversion to unproductive acts.  As he puts it in “Life Without Principle,”

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.

Watching the sunset is no different.  If you spend the evening sitting idly as the sun goes down, it’s easy to feel like you’re “doing nothing,” like you’ve wasted the evening away and produced nothing.

The finite world creates barriers to Thoreau’s sunset experience in external ways (through time constraints and obligations).  But it also creates these internal barriers.  These barriers don’t come from the outside.  They arise in the mind.  They emerge in the thought that there’s something wrong when your actions have no clear “value-add.”

So for the rest of the week, I plan to work on letting go of these inner constraints.  The goal is to release the story that there’s something wrong with “doing nothing.”

Have you encountered these inner barrier to experiencing the infinite?

Responses

  1. Hi Nate,
    another great topic! Thank you.

    My experience of the infinite are twofold I would say.
    1.) I went scuba diving once with an instructor and while gliding through the water feeling no boundaries of body or mind I felt I could just slide and move through it all forever.:) A very calming and amazing experience not being bound by the breath.
    2.) I had the good fortune to be at Ayer´s Rock in Australia and see the sun set there. I have never had a deeper feeling of being connected to the earth, centered and aware. Just an amazingly spiritual place to be.

    Warm regards
    Marianne

    • Nate says:

      Hey Marianne,

      That’s awesome! I love hearing about how others experience the infinite. Right now, I’m playing with the movement back and forth from finite to infinite. I’m trying to appreciate the finite but also trying to spend more time in that place where time and “problems” dissolve.

  2. Devon Walker says:

    Great post, Here are a few thoughts.

    Thoreau says, “To relate ourselves to a universal fact would preserve us sane forever.”

    Nate wrote, “Whether you call it God, consciousness, or truth is not all that important. What matters is that you experience the sense of liberation that occurs when you shift from the finite to the infinite.”

    Nate and Thoreau identify the concepts admirably, but before we can effectively make use of this experiment, we must ask why. Why does the sunset cause such a feeling of liberation? Why do we need a sense of the infinite to preserve the meaning of the finite?

    Doesn’t the finite have its own perks? Accomplishment for one, basic pleasures for another?

    We might say that our need of the infinite it is purely relief from “stress”, but my intuition tells me that it is something deeper; that it has to do with purpose more than it has to do with pain.

    First, I think it has to do with what we don’t know. The sunset reminds us of where we are going and it reminds us of where we are coming from. Ultimately, it reminds us that we don’t truly understand either. And perhaps this is the key to sanity.

    Sanity (from Latin: sānitās) refers to the soundness, rationality and healthiness of the human mind,

    To get caught up in the finite (as Nate has defined it) is paradoxically overwhelming and underwhelming.

    Without a reminder of what we don’t know and control, we come to believe that we exist as a whole rather than as a part… When this happens the mind becomes overwhelmed by the responsibility of living a finite existence. There is simply too much happening in the finite world. When a mind comes to believe that it is all under his control, the futility overwhelms him, it destroys him, strips him of his sanity. He can no longer think within the bounds of rationality. For rationality it-self is a product of boundaries and constraints we believe apply to our existence as cognitive beings. To be enveloped by the finite is to obscure the limits of our existence, (namely that our ability to control and change our world is limited). In this way, a mind that exists wholly within the finite, experiences the unraveling of his rationality and thus his sanity.

    On the other hand, to exist completely in the finite is decidedly underwhelming. Without a reminder that man is microscopic in relation to the universe, his world shrinks into a tiny entirely too comprehensible bubble. In this case, life is exactly as it seems, he understands the finite world, and he knows that his own life is but an aggregate sample that aesthetically deviates from others, but is no more materially unique than the next. Enveloped in such a world, life itself becomes unappealing. He forgets that this is a life of discovery. Without the idea of endless possibility, without the mystery, life loses its flair. Mankind lost in the finite become apathetic, mired in the muck of normality.

    In many ways, Thoreau uses the words sanity in an acutely realistic sense. It seems to me that most suicides take place as a result of one of the above two situation. Both are caused by a loss of touch with infinity. This is why this weeks experiment is so relevant and welcome.

    The sunset is both beautiful and liberating. Watching at the sunset reminds us that it will rise whether or not we wake up in the morning. This is liberating because it reaffirms our truthful limitations; particularly those of life and death, of power and powerlessness.
    Yet it is also beautiful, for it shows us why it is worth waking up in the morning. The infinite pervades our existence. And this fact reminds us that life is inexhaustible, that is infinitely full of potential joy and discovery.

    The paradox of this matter is thereby revealed. When out of touch with the infinite, life is both overwhelming and dull. Yet when reminded of the infinite, man experiences life as manageable, even pleasurable within his limitations, and understands it as the only source of indelible discovery.

    Ultimately this discussion comes down to the fact that one way debilitates and the other empowers man on his quest to live a Good life. So, the idea of experiencing the infinite is indeed the key for sanity in today’s seeming finite world. We must continue to relate ourselves to the universal fact.

    It seems to me that Thoreau’s “Universal Fact” is that we are but a small part of an existence we do not truly understand. If the previous two statements are true, there is an interesting practical question: Where can we find this experience on a daily basis?

    Though the sunset is the most ostensible, celebrated example, it is but one of many ways we experience the infinite in our daily lives. It must be. How else are most of us still sane? If we look carefully, experiences that remind us of the “universal fact” are everywhere, we are drawn to them.

    Take for example the idea of vacation. Very few of us can imagine working our day job 365 days a year and maintaining sanity. Every day, people pay thousands of dollars to escape to a place where they can merely listen to the sound of the ocean crashing upon the shore. Our cultural definition of “paradise on earth” is to escape to a secluded spot in nature, a place of everlasting sun, constant breeze, mild tones, and quiet pleasure…

    Each aspect of the ideal vacation; the breeze the temperature, the waves, allows us to experience the infinite in a way very similar to Thoreau’s sunset.

    In conclusion, I think that this experiment is more about cultivating the ways we already experience infinity more than finding new ways to experience it.

    Think of all the moments you experience comfort, relief or serenity. We have already covered the sunset and the beach, but what about the shower? In my opinion a hot shower is one of the most liberating experiences of the day. Perhaps the sound and feel of running water reminds us of rain; the life giving, cathartic tool nature uses to replenish the earth.

    What about walking the dog? Do we only do it for the dog? Or does it force us to take time for the infinite. Why is the corner office so coveted? Could it be that a view of rustling green leaves makes us more productive and motivated? Why do we listen to music on the train? Is it really because we are bored? Like Running in the morning? Like hiking? What about boating or climbing? Heck, I could make a good argument about how using the restroom connects us with the infinite (not that you would want to hear it). The point is that reflections of something greater are all around us. If we want to harness their power, all we have to do is become conscious.

    Thoreau’s quote is a hypothetical, stating that if we experience the infinite, it would keep us sane forever. The truth of the matter is that experiencing the infinite has, kept us sane forever. This experiment is about consciously harnessing this fact in order to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Which is, in my opinion, really what this project is all about.

    • Nate says:

      Devon,

      This is a really fantastic comment. In fact, to call it a “comment” doesn’t do it justice.

      I agree with your analysis of the dangers of resting solely in the finite or the infinite. When locked into the finite realm, it really does seem as though life becomes drab and boring (as well as overwhelming at times). We become locking into fixed ways of being and lose sight of the infinite possibilities that exist in each moment.

      It might be nice to shift fully into the infinite. But we are each thrown into a finite body with a finite mind. Some spiritual masters have attained this state. But for the rest of us, I think you are right to suggest a kind of dance between the finite and the infinite.

      Again, this is great stuff!

      Nate

    • Devon Walker says:

      Just looking through the past experiments and I found a quote from a comment on the William James experiment that seems to be particularly relevant to our discussion. Here it is again:

      “In reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.*The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

  3. Great reminder…I once heard that everyone should make it a goal to see one sunset or sunrise every year.

    Based upon your article, I should probably try to make a point to at least start by doing it weekly, and go from there!

  4. Jo Lightfoot says:

    Nate, your sunset motif brought back a fun memory for me…

    I was young and heading home from work one summer night in Little Rock. I’d caught a brief glimpse of a beautiful sunset and realized I could only catch another glimpse by finding high ground along the interstate. I chose an ideal site and took the proper exit… to the state mental hospital parking lot. To improve my view, I walked from parked car well onto the grass beside the hospital and was rewarded with a spectacular golden sunset.

    Soon a security vehicle drove up. The uniformed driver rolled down his window and called me over. He began to grill and lecture me about my presence there at that time of evening. He acted very authoritarian and officious, partly (I think) for the benefit of the fellow guard seated beside him. I know I was supposed to be cowed and apologetic, but that was hard to do with the fellow guard in the background smirking and rolling his eyes.

    It was a wonderful and memorable sunset… for finite and infinite reasons.

    • Nate says:

      Jo,

      This is a really great story! I love that you experienced these two states of being in that moment — that you dropped into the infinite experience of the sunset only to be brought back out to the finite by the security guard. That’s a lot like life — the constant movement back and forth.

      Thanks for sharing!

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