What Samuel Johnson, Thoreau, and Charlie Parker Were All Talking About.

Often I become preoccupied with a particular idea, and take a very great pleasure in seeing that idea appear over and over.

I keep extensive notes on many ideas, most of which I never have time to write about, but which have captivated my interest for years. Sometimes they do turn into book – like Profane Waste. What a joy it was to write that book! And to express what I’d been thinking about for so long.

One of the ideas that I’ve traced for years now is the paradoxical idea — to put it in the most simple terms — that in order to find something, you must possess it already. What exactly does this mean? A koan.

I became preoccupied with this idea after reading a line from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. It had great significance for my happiness project, and in fact, I used it as an epigraph for the The Happiness Project. Boswell quotes Johnson remarking:

“As the Spanish proverb says, ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him, so it is with travelling, –a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.’”

Put another way, by Thoreau, in his journal entry from August 30, 1856:

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.”

From Luke 17: 20-21:

“And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Put another way, by Cavafy, in the poem “Ithaka”:

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon — you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

From Charlie Parker:

“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

From Stephen Spender:

“Travel is an art which has to be created by the traveler.”

From Oscar Wilde:

“Great passions are for the great of soul, and great events can be seen only by those who are on level with them.”

One of the small pleasures of my life is finding new examples of this thought expressed by different minds. It has a lot of significance for a happiness project; one of the unhappy truths about happiness is that it’s much easier to find happiness if you’re already happy, or as the researchers put it, one of the best predictors of whether you’re happy now is how happy you’ve been in the past. He who would find the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him. A mystery.

* I was very pleased to be included in this useful list, 50 best blogs for practicing positive psychology. Lots of good resources there.

* Are you reading The Happiness Project with a group? I’ve prepared a one-page discussion guide for book groups, as well as a guide tailored for church groups, spirituality book group, and the like. If you’d like either discussion guide (or both), email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.

  • anonymous

    Two more very well known quotes that I would add:
    ~ “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” (The student must first possess the vision/desire/awareness of the need for growth/etc. – they have a kernel of knowledge within them already which brings more knowledge into focus.)
    ~ “Wherever you go, there you are.” (Whether carrying the wealth of the Indies or years of painful baggage, it will follow you to those recesses of Concord or wilds of Labrador!)

    • gretchenrubin

      I think about “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” ALL THE TIME
      but had never connected it to this idea. Fantastic.

  • LivewithFlair

    I just love that line of poetry about encountering what you already have in your own soul. That resonates deeply with me as a teacher. I learned today that the Latin root of the verb “educate” means to draw out. I think of drawing out what’s already there in a student. There’s so much beauty and joy to just draw out (and not dump in!). http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com/

  • Thank you for such a rich assortment of quotes.

    I feel that this principle applies so importantly to self confidence, motivation, and self esteem. Those are up for me right now because I have several clients who are struggling with those as related to working for themselves. Somehow we need to find inside us the qualities we want to embody. One way is to practice as if you have them. Play the horn, and, in time, what you live will come out of it the way you want it to.

  • Guru eduardo

    I can’t recall who said this but I’ll share it anyway….

    “you already have the answers you seek, you just want me to give you a shortcut”

  • Or as Dorothy said, “if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard.”

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! How did I forget this one??????

  • Elisa

    Beautifully written Gretchen! I only discovered your blog recently and am hogging it up, one post at a time. The collection of these quotes are inspiring and big nudges in the pursuit of happiness. Thank you for devoting your life to this! Elisa @ http://www.business-breakthrough-now.com

  • This is a wonderful post. The quote that has always struck me is “You are what you want to become.” — Thich Nhat Hahn

    • gretchenrubin

      I love that quotation.

      Interesting: just occurred to me that my spiritual master St. Therese of
      Lisieux never said anything along these lines. I’ll have to think about

      • mom2luke

        maybe she did, but just didn’t write it down. Anne Lamont says a similar thing (paraphrased) about all who want to be writers: “If you weren’t OK before you were published, you won’t be OK after you are published.” Write, but write for its own sake, for your own sake…not for the accolades you may or may not earn from others.

  • BerniceWood

    I came across this late last week. Definitely going to expand it into a blog post soon!

    “Your purpose is to act on the resources God gives you. If God gives you a bucket of fish, you have to distribute those fish. If you don’t, they’re going to rot, attract a bunch of flies, and start stinking up your soul.” – Russell Simmons from ‘Do You!’


  • Greg

    Thanks Gretchen for a great piece. One of my favorites you’ve written.

  • http://www.shopdownlite.com

    “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” is my favorite Bible verse.

  • Another wonderful piece of work from Gretchen! Bravo! Once again, a valuable read that enlightens readers about how they could actually decide, choose or will to live, learn and be happy. More importantly, getting to that blissful state is being a happy trekker walking toward that direction.

  • Great post. . and continuing the theme/meme:

    “A man is whatever room he is in.” – Japanese saying

  • Alicej Clark

    Hi Gretchen, I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while and like it a lot. I must say, though, that Thoreau was full of crap (and I don’t very often use that phrase). Labrador would have killed him if he tried to live as he did in Concord. Read The Secret Mountain by Gabrielle Roy for a taste of what wildness and wilderness is.

    • gretchenrubin

      I admit, I’m also not a huge fan of Thoreau! But I do love some things he
      has written.

      I’ll check out the Roy book.

  • jenny_o

    Some of these sayings are certainly more helpful than others.

    The ones which convey “you have the potential for everything within you” send a very different message from those which convey “you can’t find or know anything you don’t already have or know”.

  • Meghan

    These quotes make me think of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. It’s not entirely apt [SPOILER ALERT!!] – his treasure was right where he started, but he had to complete his journey in order to find it/appreciate it.

  • I came across this reference in Richard Donkin’s _The History of Work_: a book by Janosch, pseudonym of Horst Eckhert, called _The Trip to Panama_, in which a bear and a tiger live together in blissful harmony by a river. One day a box floats by. It smells of bananas and has Panama written on the side of it. The smell is intoxicating, so they decide that Panama must be a wonderful place and go off in search of it. They use the box wood to make a sign that points the way to Panama. Adventures ensue, they make new friends, admire the sofa (!) of one of the new friends, and end up at an overgrown house with a sign that reads “Panama.” It is their house, the land of their dreams, but they do not recognize it. They buy a sofa like the one they admired, move in and are blissfully happy, having been, of course, blissfully happy in the first place.

  • JMI

    One to add:

    “The winds were sparkling and diamond clear, and yet full of color as an opal, as they glittered through the valley, and I knew that the Golden Age was all about me, and it was we who had been blind to it, but that it had never passed away from the world.” – George Russell (such a vivid and descriptive statement that I’ll forgive the comma abuse!)

  • Great post Gretchen. I have been inspired by Emerson’s thinking on this issue and wrote the following blog post with that in mind: http://adamschorr.com/2009/08/09/of-socks-and-the-sublime/

  • Agriebel

    Terrifically thoughtful post, thank you!! However, you forgot one of my very favorites…
    “…if I ever go looking for my hearts desire again, I won’t look any further that my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” -Dorothy Gale

  • The photograph in this post makes me happy. 🙂 Also, as a dancer, this post is spot on. You must feel the emotion in order to dance the emotion. “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your [body].”

  • I read this post a few days ago and just last night was reading a book of Rumi’s poetry and read this:

    “No particle can grow to seedling from anything but the whole.”

    This post was the first thing I thought of!

  • passerby

    This message is everywhere now.  Esther Hicks/Abraham says you only will experience what matches your own vibration now (you can’t fake it); so if you want to be rich–you have to find ways to feel as if you already are rich.  If you want to have joy, you have to bring your emotional state up with thoughts that bring joy–like gratitude.  

    The opposite is true as well.  If you keep complaining about something, that’s what you get more of.

  • Pingback: How to be an Awesome Mama Part one: Self Compassion – Life in the Key or E()

  • Z

    A thought from the other side of the same coin: Swami Rama Tirtha said to gain anything first you have to lose it. The secret to the quote is to lose your attachment to it. More on it here (think you’d like) http://www.ramatirtha.org/vol1/fulfildesires.htm