a small meditation on the spiritual path
pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson,
including a report of some practical applications
delivered on the occasion of
Emerson's 200 birthday,
May 25th, 2003, at the Alcott School of Philosophy
in Concord, Massachusetts
I am not a scholar of Emerson, and have read only a small part of his
works. Yet, what I have read has made clear to me that for the
last 30 years I have walked in a land in which he walked before
me. We are forced, mostly by the current limits of language, to
use such words as soul and spirit and inner life to point toward this
land, but none of these words serve as more than a mere hint of this
world, so different in nature and kind from the world we know through
I first became aware of this inner landscape through the discipline of
psychology in the early 1970's in Berkeley California.
Shortly after my initial encounter with what was literally a magical
territory, I studied briefly a multitude of various maps to this
land, most of them traditional in one way or another - such as Zen
Buddhism, Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism, the magic path of Franz Bardon, the
remarkable teaching stories of the Plains Indians, coming eventually to
the work of a man named Rudolf Steiner, the founder of what is called
Anthroposophy or Spiritual Science.
It was through Rudolf Steiner that I was introduced to an objective
study of thinking, principally through his works on
epistemology. I very much needed this practical work,
because my main interest at that time, and since, has been in trying to
understand the nature of the social and political existence of
humanity, particularly in relationship to our divine nature. It
was already by then clear to me through experience that we are
spiritual beings, living in a material world, and it was important to
me to understand society in relationship to this and yet remain within
the scientific spirit of the age. Rudolf Steiner set before me
the means to do this, particularly in what he called the practice of
Goetheanism in this sense is a kind of training of observation and
thinking, and has some relationship to what others call
phenomenology. What is done is that thinking remains within the
appearances, rather than to invent theories or seemings behind
them. For Nature, this disciplined thinking produces a remarkable
understanding. What I tried to do was to translate this same
discipline into an examination of the social and political. I
approached the basic phenomena of our shared existence as if in how it
simply was - without adding or subtracting anything - this given
reality was all that I needed to know.
This work was not easily done by the way, although much was obvious
right from the beginning. It took many years to bring to thinking
and observing our social existence the needed discipline, and to
eliminate from my own inner life, conditions of prejudice and
assumption that frequently stood like a dark cloud in between my
thinking-observation and the phenomena of social reality.
I was also aware that I kept adjusting what I was doing in directions
away from Steiner's work and what I knew of Goethe. I felt
comfortable in these adjustments, particularly since I would find
confirmation in the improved results of my research. Nonetheless,
I made changes away from what I thought of as pure Anthroposophy and
Let me also be honest in another way, for this work was produced in
many fits and starts. I was not an academic, but a family
man. I worked at whatever jobs I could find, for example, for the
last three years I worked in a factory, and the ten years before that a
mental hospital. I mostly raised children and lived life with all
the successes and failures one ordinarily finds.
Now I have had the great fortune for the last 16 years to become a
friend of Stuart Weeks, and through him to find a connection to the
Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson. At the same time these
last 16 years have not been scholarship of the bookish kind, so I
didn't read a lot of Emerson. I mostly worked at developing my
thinking and my observational skills, and at gathering what might be
called all the basic facts and experiences that I could.
I had discovered over time that it was important to love the object of
one's thinking. I don't mean by this to become overly
sympathetic, but rather to have an intention willed into the thinking
such that we care and honor and trust those matters which we want to
understand. In this way the essence of the object of our
interest, and our own essence, these two essences draw nearer to
This meant, for example, that I watch a lot of television, and a lot of
movies, and partake of all that could be called American Culture with a
kind of relish. Obviously this Culture isn't representative of
the whole of human social and political existences, but it was the
nearest at hand, and I drank deeply of its nature. You might say
that I read this Culture in much the same way one learns to read a
book. And, of course, watching television and going to movies
wasn't all that I did - its just an example of where the intention to
love can lead someone.
Now to return to Emerson for a moment, before going on to some of the
results of my own work. A couple of years ago I read for the
first time his The American Scholar lecture. This
was really a wonderful experience, for in this lecture I saw, not only
a reflection of Emerson's path to inner discovery, but what was
essentially an exact description of my own path. All those ways,
in which I had instinctively adjusted what had been initially work that
emulated Steiner and Goethe, were here described by Emerson.
Now this is, at first blush, a curious thing. Not having studied
Emerson, how did I come to follow where he had gone before. Well,
the explanation is simply enough. We both read the same
instructional text, which is not out there in the world, but inside
ourselves, within our own inner life. And because we are both
Americans, we share something, for Peoples are not the same all over
the world, but have inner differences of no little import.
So when Emerson writes, as he did in The American Scholar,
that: "In self trust all virtues are comprehended", I knew this
because I had been there and done that. And when he says in his
essay Intellect: "You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then
knowledge, as the plant has root, bud and fruit. Trust the
instinct though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry
it. By trusting to the end it shall ripen into truth and you
shall know what you believe." This too I understood,
for it was where I had walked.
You might recall that I said above: "This work was not easily done by
the way, although much was obvious right in the beginning." Here
you see was my instinct, things I sensed right in the beginning, but to
fully realize them I had to keep at it for a long time, to let it ripen
inside, until there it finally was - as truth.
Now I'd like to speak of my research into the social and
political. By the way, there is no possibility of more than
hinting at this work, so that if you want details and more, you should
just do a Google search for my name and this will lead you to my
The essential aspect of social and political existence is not in the
stream of events, what we tend to call history such as the recent war
or the current political troubles in America, but rather in the
individual biography. The individual biography is the rooted axis
around which all else turns, because it is only the experiences
acquired by the "I am", within its life path, that endures.
All the rest passes away over time - governments, social ideals, legal
systems, religions, even spiritual paths, but the "I am" or spirit
endures and during its biography acquires those transforming
experiences that become an aspect of its Eternal nature.
Our social life does have a great deal of order to it, however, but
this order comes to it from within the biography outward.
Our social existence is fully determined by the individual and common
elements of our human nature, not unlike the way a piece of just melted
wax receives an impression from a signet ring. Our nature is
expressed onto the social organism, giving it all its essential
qualities. This means that we learn as much from the study of
ourselves as we learn from the study of the social.
You might notice that I just used the term organism, for that which we
ordinarily speak of as social existence and form, that is
civilizations, kinds of governments, types of communities, the nature
of families, these are all aspects of a whole which is quite
alive. How could it be otherwise, given that all the component
parts, are individual living human beings?
It is possible then, through a disciplined thinking and observation, to
learn to see with the thinking, how it is that life processes move
though our shared social existence, giving us all the dynamic life
conditions, and more, that we know from biology, such as birth and
death, growth, development, reproduction, and even metamorphosis.
We discover how to know this by learning to move the thinking in
a way that it follows inwardly how it is that social form changes over
time. We don't just look at any social condition in its static
present state, but need to learn to think it in terms of its own
biography. For example, the family has changed considerably since
the 14th Century and the whole of these subtle developing changes have
to be thought, exactly as they unfolded in time.
Not just that, but we also have to think any particular stream of
changes in such a way that we don't take it out of its context.
To continue the example, families are embedded in communities, which in
turn are embedded in nations, which themselves are embedded in
languages and cultures, while the whole ultimately is embedded in
something we call Civilizations. My major work, by the way, a
book not yet finished, is called: Strange Fire: the
Death, and the Resurrection, of Modern Civilization. [no longer
the case as of 2006 ed.]
Once we can see this, then we know that part of the difficulty of
understanding our own Age, is due to the fact that we are within a
metamorphosis-like social crisis wherein Western Civilization is
passing away, and something is being created that will replace
it. It is almost impossibly difficult to appreciate something
like this when we are so intimately connected to it while it
unfolds. Yet, if we want to forge a more human future, this is
the very matter we need most to understand.
Part of our problem is that we can't, using the scientific thinking of
our Time, take hold of the living, because this scientific thinking has
limited itself to the countable and the sensible. The living,
whether it is a simple biological organism, or, to put a crude name to
it, the Life Sphere of the Social Organism, these can't be thought on
the basis of what is merely seen and allows itself to be calculated.
The driving impulses of social existence, fear of death, joy in life, -
all the virtues and the vices that inhabit human beings - these are
invisible, and none of them can be reduced to merely physical causes
without killing the very thing we want, and desperately need, to learn
Rudolf Steiner, in a quite remarkable book called: A Theory of
Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception, wrote: "What
takes place in human consciousness is the interpretation of Nature to
itself. Thought is the last member in the series of processes
whereby Nature is formed.", while Emerson wrote in his essay Nature:
"Nature is a thought incarnate and turns to a thought again as ice
becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated and the
volatile essence is forever escaping into the state of free thought."
What happens when we learn to properly discipline our thinking and
observing capacities is that the Ideas, which are the outer garment of
the Beings who are the essence of what we lovingly seek to know, these
Ideas - this outer garment - appears spontaneously within our
consciousness as part of a cooperative Art in which the Creator Being
of the World Himself participates. We ask and seek and knock,
after which we are given, and find and all is opened to us.
Where this leads is to an understanding that knows that human social
and political existence, which in the cultural East has often been
called Maya, is better understood in the Cultural West as the Creative
Activity of the Word come to living equilibrium. As it says
in Genesis: "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy
because on it he rested from all his work of creation."
That, my friends, is where we live, and have lived and will live as
long as our Eternal spirit needs incarnate existence - within the
living being of the Seventh Day. God has rested, having given us
a most remarkable gift - not just outer Nature, but something much much
more, of which the heart of it is the dynamic and enveloping womb of
our social and communal existence - a living and self evolving
growth environment for the human individuality, Itself ever changing
and becoming as our needs and wants themselves change and grow.
The human biography, with all its ups and downs, tragedies and joys, is
always held within the loving embrace of a great and wise Intelligence,
and if we pay careful attention to our own lives, to all that lives and
breaths there, we will learn to see this for ourselves.
In the beginning of such a journey we might have to overcome
something. For mostly we tend to think in this Age along
the lines that science has developed, wherein all the accidents and
chance encounters in life are just that - moments without meaning,
happening for no intelligence reason whatsoever.
Yet, there is a counter-image to that, an impression that the Ancients
spoke of when they used the ideas of Fate and Destiny and Karma - ideas
that still might be true. The intriguing thing is that we don't
have to go backward and abandon reason to discover the truth
here. Rather we just have to heighten the degree to which we pay
attention - to change the quality of the nature of our
observation. Then we think about it, in our own personal Emersonian
way, trusting more to our own instincts, than to what we have
taught and told to think. We free our thinking from the binding
assumptions of culture and religion and ask ourselves - what is true
here? Is there wisdom enfolding my life? What is its
nature? How does it work? If I look back in my biography,
what has been there as a gift that helped me become who I am
today? What about tomorrow - is there some surprise of special
meaning? What about this moment, right now? How do I
contribute? What is the meaning of evil? How do I
understand freedom in this context?
So many wonderful questions - each one filled with life, for when we
really start to see and think here on our own, in that same inner land
walked years ago by Emerson, all the mundane ways of past thinking that
have blinded us to the endless treasures of each day start to fall
away, and we find once again - as we did first in childhood - that the
world is filled with magic and with love.