Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Jesus is just like you and me”: the radical message of R. W. Emerson.

ralph_waldo_emerson_ca1857_retouched

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine graduating from one of the top religious schools in the country, entering the ministry, and after a few years deciding the job isn’t right for you. You find yourself troubled by public prayer, the act of communion, and most of all by the formality and stiffness of the church service itself.

Well, if you’re 29-year old Ralph Waldo Emerson, you quit your job as a minister at a Unitarian church and chart a new course. You start writing essays and lecturing, you publish your first book, and little by little, you begin attracting attention—and for good reason. It’s the 183os and your message is unlike anything most Americans have ever heard.

You see, Emerson believes that God does not dwell up in the heavens, but is within each of us:

“The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

On top of that that Emerson also believes that “while Jesus was a great man, he was not God”. In fact, Jesus is just like you and me. He says that:

  • We possess the same divine spark as Jesus.
  • We share the same connection to God as Jesus.
  • We can communicate with God just like Jesus did.

And for good measure, Emerson discounts any biblical miracles involving Jesus as pure fiction.

So given his thinking, which was contrary to the beliefs of every other religious or spiritual leader of his time, it’s surprising that six years after leaving the church, Emerson is invited to deliver a commencement speech to his alma mater. It’s known as the “Harvard Divinity School Address” and in it he talks about faith—and how the church extinguishes it.

The test of the true faith should be its power to charm and command the soul…faith should blend with the light of rising and setting suns, the singing bird and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely, we are glad when it is done…we shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.

Emerson’s solution is not to improve the church service, but to rely on our inner selves and the grandeur of nature as conduits to the divine. He instructs his audience of graduating religious students to establish their own relationship with God.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone…dare to love God without mediator or veil…trust thyself…that which shows God in me, fortifies me. O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn.

As you might expect, the speech was not well received, at least not by those in power. Emerson was denounced as an “atheist” and “a poisoner of young men’s minds”. But what he had done bears some resemblance to Jesus’s act of turning over the moneychangers tables in the temple—Emerson saw what he believed was a spiritually bankrupt status quo, and fearlessly tried to disrupt it.

Closing Note: How Emerson communicated with God.

Emerson believed in something he referred to as “lowly listening”, a way to access God within us and get the guidance and comfort we need, through solitude, stillness and reflection. Emerson’s favorite place to do this was out in nature, but it can really be done anywhere you can reach a quiet and peaceful state. In Emerson’s words:

Belief and love—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.

The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

For some past stories I wrote on the life and philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, see here or here.

Does God have a plan for your life? Ralph Waldo Emerson has a compelling answer.

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

God’s plan for your life isn’t a map you see all at once, but a scroll unrolled a little at a time, requiring faith. ~Rick Warren, pastor and author

In Christian circles, it’s common to believe that God has a plan for your life. It’s an idea called predestination (aka religious determinism) and, as hinted at by the quote above, it basically means that all the events in your life have been predetermined by God. To back up this claim, the following Biblical passage is frequently cited:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Now this may be comforting to some, but for a lot us this idea has a couple of issues. Problem one: What about free will? Don’t I get a say in what happens in my life? Problem two: How do I know what my plan is? Do I need to live my life on autopilot waiting for my plan to reveal itself?

Well, there are answers to these questions and they come from the person who I believe is our all-time greatest American spiritual philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson. It should be noted here that Emerson is a former Unitarian minister who left his post at age 29, as he could no longer live abide by the church’s rigid dogma. So his ideas are not solely Biblically-based. (See more on Emerson’s spiritual philosophy here.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was convinced we all had a preordained path in life, but also thought that you and I play a vital role in calling the shots. According to noted Emerson scholar Richard Gelhard, RWE believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.” This meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible.

Yet Emerson also believed that “an individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.” In other words, by engaging with the flow of life, we can tap into this power source and use it to help guide us down the proper path.

In an essay titled Spiritual Laws, Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word”. He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.

In another passage from the same essay, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a higher power that can comfort and guide us:

A believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.

Like Emerson, another noted American spiritual philosopher, Ram Dass, also has a belief in the power of intuition to guide us. In this passage from his book Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass instructs us to use this inner sense of direction to our advantage:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within”.

My take is that Emerson’s ideas ring true: there is a personal plan for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we can steer ourselves in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and coincidences appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us to a new one.

Of course, there is still free will, so you can always choose to make decisions that are strictly based on your own brain power and whims. But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that assistance is available when and if you want it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, January 14, 2015.

Leaving the church and finding God.

Church-on-Main-St.-Photo-1-150x150Who is the greatest figure in the history of American spirituality? If you ask me this highly subjective question I will tell you it’s the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here’s why.

A graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson serves for three-plus years as a minister at a Unitarian church. But at the age of 29 he decides to call it quits, not because of a crisis of faith, but due to a crisis of dogma. Emerson has issues with the acts of public prayer and communion, as well as the unchanging nature of the church itself. In his words:

In order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers…this mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it.

Emerson sets out on a new course and it involves writing essays and lecturing across the country. Within a few years, his message catches fire, drawing both praise and extreme criticism from those who hear it. The reason for the mixed response? His ideas on individuality, the soul and God, veer away from the teachings of the Bible toward a uniquely American brand of spirituality based on self-reliance.

At his core, Emerson believes that all of life is connected to God—which therefore means all of life is divine. In turn, the “truth” does not have to come from God but can be revealed through intuition and experienced directly through nature. In his words:

Anyone, at any place and time, can have direct and immediate access to the central truths and experience of life itself.

This is the truly radical part of his message as he is stating we all have the ability to access God from virtually anywhere. It’s no wonder that Emerson deems the church unnecessary as he believes we all are born with the God-given gift of intuition and by tapping into it we are able to access the central truths of life. He writes:

Let us be silent, and we may hear the whispers of the Gods.

So how does one access God? Emerson believes there is a source of guidance available to us all that he calls the “divine soul”.  To communicate with this source, he engages in something he refers to as “lowly listening”:

There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.

“Lowly listening“ is pretty much what it sounds like and involves getting into a relaxed state—which today we might achieve through meditation—and while not trying too hard, listening. The great Emerson scholar Richard Geldard explains what happens during lowly listening like this:

Solitude, stillness, reflection, judgement and understanding all come together to guide us.

Emerson believes that the guidance that comes through lowly listening is an invaluable ally in life and is accessible by all of us:

There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man….we prosper when we accept its advice…we need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

In another passage, he states his belief that lowly listening should be incorporated into our daily routine, as it helps us accomplish more than we ever could using our own wits. In his words:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher law than that of our will regulates events…our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless….only in our easy, simple spontaneous action are we strong.

I once had a friend tell me that she hears lots of words within, the problem is in deciphering which are the ones that come from the divine source. And maybe that’s the hard part. But once you’ re able to tune in to what Emerson calls “the soul at the center of nature”, you may find there’s a single, authentic voice there. It’s a voice that sounds nothing like the rest and whose every word rings true.

Do you know the 100-year old secret behind “The Secret”?

secretWhen it comes to spiritual texts, I’m a voracious reader. I’ve previously written here, and on my Pathos column Wake Up Call, about several of my favorites, including the works of Thomas MooreMirabai Starr and the Gnostic gospels.

And while I usually find value in virtually every book I read, one text that came up a little short for me was The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Based loosely on the Law of Attraction, it seemed to me a faint echo of ideas I had read elsewhere from the likes of Ralph Waldo Trine and Charles F. Hannel.

With The History of New Thought, From Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel, author John S. Haller Jr. sets the record straight as to where much of the thinking behind The Secret and similar modern-day bestsellers originated. It all started with something called the “New Thought” movement.

New Thought was a distinctly American take on spirituality that came to light in the late-1800’s and early 1900’s. The movement represented a move away from traditional religion, and the strict Biblically-based teachings of the church, toward a new-found spirituality.

The founding father of New Thought is generally recognized as the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Protestant pastor who himself had quit the church due to what he saw as the confines of the institution. As Heller points out, Emerson, and many of the New Thought leaders who were to follow him, came from religious backgrounds but had reached a similar conclusion:

Both the Bible and the pulpit had become less authoritative and therefore less weighty in their ability to direct individual thought and activity. No longer did the dogmatic accounts of endless punishment, election, and material resurrection carry the day.

So if the church and the bible were on the way out, who and what would fill the void? A plethora of newly minted free thinkers and philosophers with teachings built around “healing, self-discovery, and empowerment”. As Heller points out, the teachings of these new spiritual leaders were based on wisdom collected from many sources:

They saw no reason why God would speak only through a Moses or Paul and not through someone like Whitman or Emerson. The same applied to the lessons learned from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Confucianism, which they considered as important as scripture.

The names of the New Thought leaders are many and due to the sheer number of personalities and philosophies, Haller is only able to briefly touch on the key players in the movement, including Hannel, Robert Collier and Elizabeth Towne. Yet, what he does tell us is often compelling and whets our appetite for learning more about these individuals.

Take this passage on the religious leader and author Horatio W. Dresser:

A devoted acolyte of Emerson, Dresser viewed individuality as an escape into greater freedom. It was a positive quality that, when augmented by self-reliance, humility, love, and the desire to attain a higher self, led to the Christ ideal made real…harmony of action between the Father’s will and the son’s will.

Or this summation of the philosophy of Trine, author of the spiritual classic In Tune With The Infinite:

One awakened God within not by trumpeting his or her accomplishments…but by choosing silence for short periods every day to contemplate God, by regarding wealth as a private trust to be used for the good of humankind, and by recognizing that character was the greatest power in the world.

Or this quote from Ernest Holmes, founder of the Religion Science movement:

We believe that heaven is within us and that we experience it to the degree that we become conscious of it…we believe in our own soul, our own spirit, and our own destiny; for we understand that the life of each of us is God.

As you can tell by these passages, New Thought was very much a “do-it-yourself” movement, based on the idea that everyone could access “the indwelling God”. This God was not found up high in the heavens as most people had been taught, but was “a universal spirit diffused over all of nature”. As Heller reports, the movement was truly groundbreaking in that it took God out of the church:

A new age had come, one in which human beings were privileged to hear the voice of God through silent prayer and inward illumination…human nature became the means through which God unfolded his plan.

Heller seems to genuinely admire the people in The History of New Thought and it comes through in his spirited, detailed reporting. On the flip side, he dismisses The Secret, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and related texts that have co-opted the New Thought message and transformed it into a system for personal gain.

These recently discovered “keys,” “laws,” “steps,” and “secrets” to health and happiness are little more than plagiarisms of ideas first identified in the nineteenth and early twentieth century…New Thought’s legacy has been compromised time and again by its unsavory commercialism.

It raises the point, why go to an inferior secondary source to search for meaning and enlightenment, when you can access the real thing? Most of the original New Thought texts that are the basis for what became the New Age movement are still in print. Not sure where to start? There’s no better place to sample this revolutionary moment in American spirituality than Heller’s fine book.

A version of this post originally appeared in my Patheos column Wake Up Call on 2/24/13.

Who really chooses your life path? You? Or God?

While I was away, a friend left me a copy of Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita by Ram Dass. I probably should have taken that as cue to read it right away, but it sat on my nightstand for several weeks. Yet now that I’ve picked it up, I’m finding the book overflowing with valuable and insightful lessons.

A master storyteller, Ram Dass retells tales from the Gita making them relevant to our everyday lives, sprinkling in a heavy dose of anecdotes, many of them humorous personal reflections on his own pursuit of spiritual happiness. One passage that really got me thinking was about the choice between free will and predetermination. Put simply, it begs the question:

Do you really call the shots or does God have a predetermined plan for you?

Ram Dass points out that we’re used to answering this question in an absolute manner. We either believe in free will and our ability to dictate the nature of our lives—or believe that God or a divine source has carved out a path for us, perhaps predetermined by the laws of karma. Ram Dass argues that:

 “…on this issue, we have to deal with the paradox that both of these opposite realities exist simultaneously: free will and total determinism.”

Ram Dass believes that “there is a plane of reality on which you think you are a free agent”. You decide what to have for breakfast, what exercise to class to attend today, who you should date and what career you should pursue.

However, he also thinks we co-exist on another plane where our choices, both big and small, are dictated by “a long chain of prior events that absolutely predetermined your decisions. So that long before you made a decision, it was already decided.” In other words, while we think we’re making our own decisions, fate has trumped us by predetermining our actions for us.

The great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson shared this belief in a preordained path but had a slightly more proactive take on it. Quoting Emerson scholar Richard Gelhard, RWE believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.”  This greater order of things meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible. An individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.”

In other words, by going with the flow of life we can tap into an unseen power, and use it to help guide us down the proper path. In an essay titled “Spiritual Laws”, Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word”. He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

“A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine”.

In another passage, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a higher power that can comfort and guide us:

“Belief and love—a  believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.”

The question of free will vs. determinism can be tough to wrap your head around, but it circles around my belief that there is a personal path for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we will be nudged along in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and unexpected coincidences will appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us in a new one.

Like Emerson, Ram Dass also believed in the power of intuition to guide us. In this passage from Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass instructs us to use this inner sense of direction:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within”.

Of course, you can always choose to make decisions that are strictly your own about everything you do in life, including where you live, how you earn a living, or who you choose as friends or lovers. But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that I have a little assistance with connecting with the right path, by simply listening within.

How to listen to God.

Let us be silent, and we may hear the whispers of the Gods. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do evangelical Christians, devotees of the Bhagavad Gita and this humble blogger have in common? We all believe in the power of a direct and personal relationship with God.

For me, this personal relationship means that I start most mornings with a specific ritual. After rolling (or these days, hobbling) out of bed, I flick on the coffeemaker and begin stretching, followed by a cup of coffee, meditation and/or prayer, more coffee and a three or four-mile run.

It’s at different points during this morning routine that I find and connect with the essence of God within. It literally gives me a feeling of warmth and love inside and gets me ready for the day ahead, hopefully to spread the compassion and good vibes I feel to everyone I encounter.

On some days, I take an additional step. I talk to and listen to God.

Now, this is not a traditional conversation, as it’s often wordless and involves more listening than talking. I simply ask for guidance in whatever single area of my life most needs it. While this may sound nuts to those less spiritually-inclined, I’m practicing a tradition that has been around for some time (see John 10:27) and recommended by some of the leading spiritual lights of our age.

One regular conversationalist with God was Ralph Trine, an early New Thought Movement leader. Trine believed there was a “divine inflow” that we all could tap into for guidance and advice on any life matter. In his great lost classic In Tune with the Infinite, which sold over two million copies and was credited by Henry Ford as the key to his success, Trine wrote:

“It is through your own soul that the voice of God speaks to you. This is the interior guide.”

Perhaps our greatest American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also believed there was a source of guidance available to us all called the “divine soul”. Emerson had his own way of communicating with this source which he referred to as “lowly listening” (more on that later):

“There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man….we prosper when we accept its advice…we need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.”

Ram Dass also talked to the importance of listening for guidance in his modern-day classic Paths to God, Living The Bhagvad Gita. Here he discusses the benefits of “adopting a Gita perspective”:

“Instead of always preoccupying ourselves with trying to get what we think we want or need, we’ll start to quiet, we’ll start to listen. We’ll wait for that inner prompting. We’ll try to hear, rather than decide, what it is we should do next. And as we listen, we’ll hear our dharma more and more clearly.”

When it comes to a heart-to-heart with God, I’ve distilled my personal process down to three steps—but by no means do I want to make this sound easy. It probably took me a decade or so to perfect the first step—but after that, step two came much faster, as did step three though I know this can be a tricky one for a lot of people.

1. Go to a place where you can quiet the mind and be still.

Unless you walk around in a perpetual state of Zen, this is a necessary first step. And as a reader of The Inner Way, I’m guessing you already have a good idea what technique for quieting the mind works best for you.

For me, I’m best able to quiet my mind by focusing on my breathing via meditation or by taking a brisk run along the river that lines my neighborhood. But there are many other ways to get there, as well. As Douglas Block points out in his book Listening to Your Inner Voice:

“You can achieve this stillness through any process that relaxes you and slows down your thoughts—meditation, visualization, long walks, exercise, driving on a country road…”

2. Engage in what Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to as “lowly listening”.

It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Once in a relaxed state, put your concern out to God. Then, while not trying too hard, “listen” within. Scholar and author Richard Geldard, who has written two books on Emerson’s philosophy, explains what happens during this lowly listening phase:

“Solitude, stillness, reflection, judgement and understanding all come together to guide us.”

Emerson discussed the process of lowly listening is in one of a series of essays titled Spiritual Laws. He wrote:

“Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into you as life, place yourself in the full center of that flood, then you are without effort impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.”

The key is listening. As author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee points out in his enlightening new book Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism
:

“Learning to pray is learning to listen. Within the heart we learn to wait with patience for God’s words, which may come even when we have not asked.”

3. Separate the word of God from the voice of the ego.

A friend once told me that she hears lots of words in her head, the problem is figuring which are the right ones. And maybe that’s the hard part. But once you’ re able to tune in to the “soul at the center of nature” as Emerson calls it, you’ll find there’s a single, authentic voice there.

When I say voice, it doesn’t always come through in words (though it can), but usually in the form of a deep-seeded intuition. One moment you’re questioning the correct next step at work, at home, in love or in life. The next moment you know the answer with certainty.

The one important part is learning to separate the false voice of the ego with the true voice of the soul and God. Vaughan-Lee advises that
:

“Such listening requires both attentiveness and discrimination, as it is not always easy to discriminate between the voice of the ego and the voice of our Beloved. But there is a distinct difference: the words of the ego and mind belong to duality; the words of the heart carry the imprint of oneness. In the heart there is no argument, no you and me, just an unfolding oneness. The heart embraces a difficulty, while the ego takes sides.”

What’s the importance of this morning conversation with God? Again, in the words of Ralph Trine:

“The little time spent in the quiet each day, alone with one’s God, that we may make and keep our connection with the Infinite source—our source and our life—will be a boon to any life. It will prove, if we are faithful, to be the most priceless possession that we have.”

That pretty well sums it up. It’s a priceless moment, one that helps me—and can help you—start every day in the right frame of mind, with the added assurance that any additional wisdom or guidance you need is never too far away.