Evolutioanry Nonduality and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Evolutionary Nonduality, at least as it is taught by Andrew Cohen, is ultimately about recognizing that we are not separate from the entire process of cosmic evolution. We tend to relate to the idea of evolution as if we are a thing – a separate object – that exists within an evolving process, something like a piece of wood floating in a running river. When we experience an evolutionary nondual awakening we recognize that our experience of “being human” is not only an experience that we are having as a separate entity. It is an experience that the universe is having through us through our separate-entity-ness. This is direct recognition that you do not only exist in an evolutionary process – the evolutionary process is who you are! You are that process and your experience of being “a person” who has a “name” and a “personal history” is not only the experience that “you” are having – it is the experience that the universe is having right now through you.

From one perspective an experience of evolutionary nonduality means that a human being is waking up to the fact that it is not just a separate entity, but an expression of the process of evolution itself. From another perspective – an even more nondual perspective – an experience of evolutionary nonduality means that the universe itself is waking up to the fact of its own existence and realizing that it had mistaken itself for a human being.

This understanding, as you can see, is far from our normal conception of reality – in fact it might sound absurd. I would contend that this is because we are deeply habituated to seeing ourselves as separate entities that exist within a variety of background contexts – a culture, a world, a universe. This sense of separation is maintained though a constant activity of personalizing our experience. We habitually define ourselves as separate from some background and in so doing we develop a solid sense of being a “something” that exists over, against and separate from everything else. Traditionally enlightenment has always involved the disillusion of the boundary between self and other, self and world, self and universe. When this habit of separation falls away we see the truth of nonduality, the truth that there is no boundary, that all is one and that we are that.

As I see it there are precursors to the experience of evolutionary nonduality in classical American philosophy. Perhaps the first of these precursors are Ralph Waldo Emerson’s beautiful descriptions of his own experiences of oneness with nature. In a journal entry written on April 11, 1834, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a few lines to describe an experience that I would easily place in the general category of non-duality at least in the sense of a breaking down of the boundary that separates our human experience from nature. The concluding lines of that journal entry read as follows.

“I saw only the noble earth on which I was born, with the great Star which warms and enlightens it. I saw the clouds that hang their significant drapery over us. It was Day— that was all Heaven said.”

In the larger journal entry of which these lines are a part, Emerson described an experience of Oneness with nature that he had one afternoon while walking through the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This experience is considered to be a defining moment in Emerson’s life. The concluding line for me is a non-dual declaration of reality. “It was Day – that was all that Heaven said.”

As I picture Emerson on that day, I imagine him transfixed in recognition of the explosion of life that he saw all around him. Emerson also saw that the deep emotional surge of exuberance that burst inside himself in spontaneous response to the beauty around him was as much a part of that day as anything else. There was only one thing happening – and it was day! Emerson’s teaching rested on this recognition that the deepest part of our “human nature” was completely inseparable from all of nature. Nature to Emerson was not something that happened outside, but was the continuous bursting forth of life into being that included everything.  In other words, there is only one thing happening.

Emerson’s first book was called Nature and it was published in 1836. The first Chapter of that book includes what may be Emerson’s most often quoted description of non-dual awakening.

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

In this quote Emerson is making a very clear reference to the experience of the disappearance of the separate sense of self. His “transparent eyeball” metaphorically communicates the experience of pure awareness after the sense of being someone has disappeared from consciousness. This realization of “no self” is often associated with Eastern thought, particularly the enlightenment experiences of Buddhism. Emerson loved Eastern spiritual philosophy and incorporated many of its conceptions into his own thinking and by doing so he helped to ensure that the experience of non-duality would play a prominent role in the development of the American mind.