“I cannot count one”: Thoreau and beginner’s mind (Walden 65)

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Thoreau seems swept away by his own thoughts, and his writing becomes passionately choppy and disjointed. He’s on to something that he can’t quite express, and he tries one grand metaphor after another, abandoning each impatiently.

What does he mean that he can’t count one, or doesn’t know the first letter of the alphabet? I think he’s describing what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” the idea that you’ve set aside all your preconceptions and are just sort of an open channel. All experiences, all perceptions will seem new; you see everything, even that which is well-known to you, as if for the first time.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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