Emerson’s Experience: Present and Eternity Colliding
We’re in the midst of a cultural revitalization, a reorientation of interest towards the nature of individual, subjective experience. Or, in today’s more à la mode term: consciousness. As more and more encounter the limits of what existential enrichment may be found through material development, we’re turning our gaze inward, asking if the next frontier of well-being may be found in the landscape of our own minds. Though new fields are emerging to serve this interest in the architecture and potentialities of consciousness — from ‘contemplative science’ to ‘neurophenomenology’ — the inward turn towards experience is largely a revitalization of what philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson called for nearly 200 years ago. That our own experience — or consciousness — is the medium through which we most vividly and earnestly encounter life’s nourishing nectar was boldly put forth in Emerson’s infamous essay, “Self-Reliance”.
Perhaps nobody, at least in American history, did more to vivify the imperative of individual experience than Emerson. But this priority upon experience is not impartial. Experience exists upon as diverse a spectrum as they come, and the “self” implicated by Emerson’s self-reliance is particular. In defining “self-trust”, or, which varietal of ‘self’ is implied by self-reliance, Emerson writes:
“…not faith in a man’s own whim or conceit as if he were quite severed from all other beings and acted on his own private account, but a perception that the mind common to the universe is disclosed to the individual through his own nature.” (Emerson, Ethics)
Emerson frequently depicts this quality of experience as the ideal, where one transcends egoic habits of mind and the “mind common to the universe” is made available through our own individual nature. The distinction between experience as “severed from all other beings” and transcendental experience without reference to a self is crucial in understanding what exactly Emerson is advocating.
But such moments of transcendental experience are drastically rare. Their infrequency must call into question their primacy, however indelible a mark upon the experiencing subject they may leave.
The question laid bare: how can Emerson preach such ardent reliance upon a transcendental experience that is so elusive? How could something so fleeting and foreign to ordinary consciousness be argued as the rightful gravitational center of human experience, of a life?
Process and Results
Emerson’s basic point appears at the outset of his first book, Nature:
“Our age is retrospective…It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”
We are to find that which we seek buried in our own soil, or nowhere at all. Retrospective spirituality is impotent, diluting the integrity with each degree of separation. To adopt the revelation of others is to turn away from our own experience, to stunt our own search for an “original relation to the universe”.
But neither are we to take this emboldening of our own experience, whatever lives within our own minds, as self-evidently divine. Emerson’s aforementioned whims and conceits of a consciousness “severed from all other beings” is the default state most of us find ourselves in. A severed consciousness is the mammalian tendency towards survival, replete with self-affirmation, constant self-reference. This default mode of severed consciousness is, to Emerson, just as magnetically repulsive to that revelatory selfless experience as is acquiring knowledge of God devoid of experiential correlates. Both are obstacles towards an authentic “philosophy of insight”.
Emerson’s reverence towards individual experience does not rid it of an essential duty to go beyond the severed consciousness, the self-referencing mode of experience. To praise experience is not to bathe apathetically in whatever varietal we may espouse. Towards this end, Emerson referred to Bildung — self-development, or development of the self, itself — as the “central purpose of human existence”.
To Emerson, these personal, experiential insights he spent his life contemplating, ironically, came in moments where the individual person dissolved into the inseparable whole:
“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 eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” (Emerson, Nature)
As Beat Poet Jack Kerouac would later ask: “why be selfy and unfree, Man God, in your dream? Wake up, thou’rt selfless and free”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection (1839), perhaps the biggest influence upon Emerson’s early years and a book Emerson often copied in his journals, provides this experiential space beyond egotism with the significance reflected in Emerson’s transparent eyeball passage:
“That which we find within ourselves, which is more than ourselves, and yet the ground of whatever is good and permanent therein, is the substance and life of all other knowledge.”
Emerson came to refer to this self-annihilating, beyond-time variety of experience as ecstatic. And though he would note in his journals that ecstatic experience may be as natural to the universe as gravity, and that it may contain the potential energy for a copernican revolution in human life, its rarity cannot be overlooked. The prior question looms: Given the elusive nature of ecstatic experience, should we really spend so much of our lives concerned with it?
Emerson’s response seems to be that it’s not the having of the experience itself that matters, so much as the existential orientation of oneself to the pursuit, the self-cultivation that aspires towards the experience. Towards “that which we find within ourselves, which is more than ourselves”, as Coleridge deftly puts it. Rather than transcending the self as life’s purpose, it’s the rendering of the experiencing self as large and porous as possible to that which lies beyond the self, yet within us, sparsely garnished by these rare moments of complete selfless being. A coaxing of ecstatic experience into one’s self, rather than shedding the self as ecstasy’s recipe.
Emerson never sought to relay what he glimpsed from the ecstatic viewpoint. He never wanted to describe reality back to us over his trailblazing shoulder. Rather, he sought to enliven the inquisitive function in each individual that digs beneath the immediate layers of experience. To turn us all into pioneers of subjectivity. American poet, Mary Oliver, distills Emerson’s aim in her introduction to his collected works:
“The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look — we must look — for that is the liquor of life, that brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow.” (Mary Oliver, introduction to The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson)
It’s this degree of attentive brooding, how seamlessly it’s woven into our lives, that serves as the rubric for a life well lived. In each moment of existence, whether we’re washing dishes or changing lightbulbs, there exists an undercurrent of thought. Our mental experience is often severed from whatever act we may be performing. When we wash a dish, we don’t often pay attention to the sensations of the process, or examine the way in which our stream of consciousness interacts with what we’re doing; we daydream. But these two channels, that which we do and that which we think while we do, are what co-create our total experience of any given moment.
Oliver describes the imperative of attending to this undercurrent and its incisiveness. But through, and towards, what should this incisiveness be directed? Whatever lives within us, yet carries us beyond ourselves. Whatever carries our brooding beyond self-reference.
For Emerson, this brooding supersedes the particular circumstances of one’s life. Focus is given not to what we brood upon, but that we brood at all. The “liquor of life” comes not from any results, but the vividness of the process itself.
The idea of such contemplation is wonderfully refined by political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who shares Emerson’s view on the necessity of learning to think for oneself. She emphasizes the redemptive quality of the process itself, that this, not specific results, is what develops a life’s essence:
“Thinking accompanies life and is itself the de-materialized quintessence of being alive; and since life is a process; its quintessence can only lie in the actual thinking process and not in any solid results or specific thoughts. A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop its own essence — it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers.” (Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind)
Further bolstering his response to the looming question: Emerson’s self-reliance does not ask us to accumulate any particular experiences, but to give attention to our process of experience. He rejects the infrequency of specific results as subordinate to the integrity with which we look for them.
Nature Through Nature
Writing, for Emerson, carried the import of his thought. Writing, as with all art, is less seen as the creation of anything so much as the unveiling of what already exists at the bottom of all things: life’s “quintessence”, normally concealed by the lack of incisive thought, lack of contemplative the brooding that transcends habit, narcissism, and self altogether — lack of meditation.
Emerson’s biographer, Robert D. Richardson Jr., offers that Emerson’s conception of the writer — of the artist — is more an editor of nature than a creator, engaging with already existent, but veiled material:
“…he [Emerson] conceived of the writer, the poet, as an editor of nature. If poetry was all written before time began, then the poet — and the critic and the editor — were all engaged in the same enterprise of trying to get the thing to express itself, free of its accidental, idiosyncratic, and individual baggage.” (Richardson, Emerson: Mind on Fire)
Art then creates and maintains a bridge between the transient now and the ecstatic experience underlying all appearances. Beyond writing, living, itself, becomes an art. To become, as much as possible, a breathing conduit between the updrafts of eternity and the embodied consciousness of the present moment. We cannot, ourselves, endlessly bath in the “blithe air” of eternity. But we can perform the self-work, in whatever way comes natural, of “trying to get the thing to express itself” through us. This may come in forms spanning a magnum opus to a bottomless laugh (look no further than Osho’s laughing meditations to experience the ecstasy of a good laugh).
Emerson’s is a deep faith in the farther reaches of awareness. That we can transcend the inevitable ignorance of circumstance — adopted as impressionable minds encounter engrained cultural precepts — through an honest and investigative, artistic, approach to living. It — that which is always present, yet deeply embedded — may then be unearthed, cultivated, and stabilized (which is, incidentally, the itinerary of many formal meditative traditions: to unpack and stabilize an expansive awareness veiled by narcissistic tendencies).
The paradox Emerson asks us to sit with is large. A constant imperative on self-cultivation, a duty to continue working towards something not yet attained, is balanced by a constant imperative on the present moment of experience as the unchanging final destination. At 18 years of age, Emerson writes of this ever-present “eternal sameness”, the recognition of which relies upon changes in the perceiving mind:
“…we complain of change and vicissitude…[yet] there pursues us an eternal sameness, an unchanging identity…the world, the universe is just the same only each man’s mind undergoes a perpetual change.” (The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson)
To orient our attention to the present is to dismantle the toxic putting-off of salvation. It creates in the present moment, and therefore in all moments, an opportunity for the “liquor of life” to be delighted in, always here and now. As Emerson writes in Experience: “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road…is wisdom”. That each step simultaneously moves onward, and delves inward.
A life is not measured by the frequency of its pure ecstatic moments, but on the expansiveness of its experiencing self; how large and porous can that cognitive filter be rendered, and how committed to that enlarging process is the individual?
This was always Emerson’s point, his response to the initial question. How could one preach self-reliance upon ‘no-self’? It’s nice to peek beyond every now and then, but we inevitably lead embodied lives. However, the vital process is one that orients us towards the Self through the self, to Nature through our nature; towards that space of consciousness — of experience — beyond ‘I’, nevertheless within each and all. This ever-present and elusive space, the experience Emerson grappled with from nearly birth until death, is not a particular point of arrival, but a commitment to the endless commute towards an eternal destination.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Brooks, Ed Atkinson. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Modern Library, 2000.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Aids to Reflection.” Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Princeton University Press, 2017.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Harvard Univ. Press, 1992.
Kerouac, Jack. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. City Lights, 1994.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: the Mind on Fire: a Biography. University of California Press, 1997.