“With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. …I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator…” —Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” Walden
Who is it that lives inside your head? Thoreau was aware of part of his consciousness that stood apart, detached. Here he’s showing the influence of Eastern, especially Buddhist, thought. Today some psychologists are talking about mindfulness, a sort of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, or some aspect of the present moment. Becoming mindful is a form of meditation, but not necessarily one that involves sitting quietly. One can be mindful while going about one’s business. It has benefits such as stress reduction, and seems to make people generally happier. Walden is a very mindful book. As we have already seen, much of it is about paying attention.
Here, Henry is talking about those times when attention is turned inward. He acknowledges, “This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes.” This may be one of the reasons why he liked his alone time. If you’re going to stand apart and watch yourself like a detached observer, the best time to do that probably isn’t when you’re interacting with other people. One could become like the distracted people who keep checking their phone when you’re talking with them.
(About “A Year in Walden”)