The Non-Dual Awakening of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Non-duality in the context of enlightenment is pointing to the ultimate unity of all things. Great realizers of both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions have often described experiences of deep mystical union that have left them certain that the ultimate nature of reality is Oneness, or non-duality. The world of separate objects, of things, is often seen in this light as a superficial illusion, that masks the deeper reality that all is One.
The desire to discover and describe the exact nature of ultimate truth is one of the deepest and longest standing drives in humanity. Generally this quest for truth has resided within the domain of religion, philosophy and more recently science. In addition, as I have tried to show in some of my early posts, it has been a driving force in American philosophy as well.
In the development of mystical and philosophical thought in America the experience of non-duality has played a central role. Such an experience when it occurs in an individual can become the defining moment of an entire life. In the history of American philosophy the non-dual experiences of some of America’s most important philosophers have defined their life’s work. Although the experience of non-duality is often the prime motivator of a great thinker, the way that experience is interpreted often varies dramatically from individual to individual. Understanding how any given individual interpreted their own experience of Oneness can be a source of tremendous insight into the deeper meaning of their work.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the great mystics of America history. He started his adult life as a Unitarian minister, but left the church to become the most celebrated figure in the 19th century American spiritual movement called Transcendentalism. Emerson through a long life as an influential essayist and speaker influenced some of the greatest minds that his era produced. Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Louisa May Alcott and many more cultural icons were shaped in part by Emerson and his work. The influence of Emerson on the American mind cannot be overestimated. In fact, the contemporary literary critic Harold Bloom is noted to have said that, “The mind of Emerson is the mind of America.”
Certainly in future posts I will be exploring more of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, but in this post I wanted to bring attention to two of his descriptions of what I would call non-dual experience. The first comes from a journal entry that he wrote on April 11, 1834.
“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.”
This short quotation was taken from a larger journal entry in which Emerson described an experience of Oneness with nature that he had one afternoon while walking through the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This description is wedded to the experience of nature and is considered to have been a defining moment in his life. His experience is essentially a recognition not only of the beauty of nature around him, but even more, that there was in fact only one thing happening. “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 Easter 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.