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.
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?
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?