The Anatomy of Presence: Thoreau's Perpetual Ecstasy

Henry David Thoreau with a mean neckbeard

Henry David Thoreau with a mean neckbeard

Be more present”, goes today’s banal, omnipresent suggestion on how we ought to live better.

Philosopher Kieran Setiya uses a jargonized version, praising the atelic counterparts of our telic activities. Platitudes tell us life’s nectar resides in the moment, the proverbial Now. Figures like Thich Nhat Hanh claim Western culture is built upon, if not for, the purpose of distracting us from the present, to our spiritual, existential detriment. 

I don’t doubt this, any of it, really. But I wonder if the surging use of the term, ‘presence’, is producing an anesthetic effect where we feel so familiar with the idea that we cease inquiring into what it really means. What does ‘being present’ look like? Is it an outwardly observable state, or an invisible, internal experience? When Richard Alpert and fellow Americans began voyaging over to India, largely in search of an altered experience of the present moment they’d found on LSD, their supposedly enlightened teacher, Neem Karoli Baba, along with other Indian sages like Ramana Maharshi, were often described as, ‘motionless corpse[s] from which God is radiating terrifically’. If enlightenment is thought of as a complete and stable presence, does it always ‘radiate’ a sensation perceptible to others? 

These are questions likely without any forthcoming, definitive answer. But reading through the journals of Henry Thoreau, an account is pieced together of one fascinating answer among many possibilities. The guy comes off as a walking, breathing pillar of presence, liable to rapture at any given moment, from any given stimulus. In much the same way that Socrates was known to stop mid-stride, standing perfectly still for hours in contemplation, Thoreau recounts his days littered with offhand remarks like: 

“The other day, when I had been standing perfectly still some ten minutes, looking at a willow which had just blossomed…”

And it wasn’t just trees that brought his ‘monkey mind’ to a halt, a mentality in which he could behold nature’s beauty for hours on end. Others ridiculed such behavior (I wonder if, today, we would view it any differently?): 

“My Aunt Maria asked me to read the life of Dr. Chalmers, which, however, I did not promise to do. Yesterday, Sunday, she was heard through the partition shouting to my Aunt Jane, who is deaf, ‘Think of it! He stood half an hour today to hear the frogs croak, and he wouldn’t read the life of Chalmers!’” 

Nature seemed to Thoreau what ideas were to Socrates: wormholes through which the filtering self is slipped, time is side-stepped, and consciousness forgets its body. 

Thoreau spent no less than three hours a day outside, typically walking amidst the very willows and frogs, elements of nature, that would set off his fits of absorption, what some may consider symptoms of cultivated presence, while others speculate Socrates may have been victim to cataleptic fits (not unlike Robert Pirsig’s experience of ‘hard enlightenment’, where interviewer Tim Adams writes “he either found enlightenment, or went insane, depending on how you look at it”). 

But Thoreau’s condition does not appear sudden, distressing, nor cataleptic. His self-diagnosis reads like the aspiration of ardent meditators, the state of constant wonder towards which philosophers aspire:

By some fortunate coincidence of thought or circumstance I am attuned to the universe, I am fitted to hear, my being moves in a sphere of melody, my fancy and imagination are excited to an inconceivable degree…Now this is the verdict of a soul in health.”

It rings somewhat sacrilegious to speculate about the ‘purpose’ of presence, but if we do, might Thoreau’s self-reported condition provide an example? An, idiosyncratic to be sure, blueprint of what cultivating presence might look like: staring at a tree for 10 minutes, or listening in stillness to croaking frogs for half an hour. When Thoreau stands listening to the frogs, he is not aware of himself as Henry who is listening to frogs, his entire awareness has collapsed upon the croaking, so that for however long he remains, he is the croaking frogs. 

More broadly, a cultivated availability to those wormholes through which an individual consciousness learns to progressively forget itself. 

In this sense, presence seems a vulnerability, an openness where self-preoccupation once contracted the mind. Thoreau himself did not share similar openness with the affairs of mankind, which he often derided as trivial and repulsive, preferring his position in untainted nature. But he himself defines genius, what strikes me as the rubric of presence, with that very indiscriminating quality he lacks:  

“What is called genius is the abundance of life or health, so that whatever addresses the senses, as the flavor of these berries, or the lowing of that cow…each sight and sound and scent and flavor…intoxicates with a healthy intoxication…Heaven is…in the condition of the hearer.”

If heaven is in the condition of the hearer, and whatever addresses the senses ought to be capable of inciting the heaven of intoxication, then what difference does the source of the stimulus, whether ‘natural’ or manmade, make? In theory, whether discussing politics or studying trees, in isolation or in company, presence ought to be always available, the condition of the hearer always open to the abundance and absorption presence invites. 

Thoreau offers a piece, a partial view of a form living with presence may take. What he lacks in the total embodiment of presence may be nothing less than the contours of his humanity, the imperfect rough edges of being human; a melting pot, battleground, of evolutionary, social, cultural, and mental forces. 

We can each aspire towards our own partial expressions of presence, imperfect by their nature. Though Thoreau bemoaned community, their union in concert with each other may build towards a presence larger than any individual. Still, as Thoreau knew, the collective project of presence begins, invariably, with the individual.