Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ralph Dog by Kris Lawrence: An Emerson Inspired Essay (Part 1)

The following is Part 1 of an essay by Kris Lawrence. He is a world traveler, philosopher, and producer of both writing and film. With a very fresh perspective on things, Kris is well-worth listening to. Currently, Kris is working on a blog and a podcast revolving around travel and philosophy. Get in touch with him here.

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.  --Ralph Waldo Emerson    


In the current push for an overdue birth of a new age and the race to reroute global breakdown, we find ourselves in uncharted territory.  The cards are down.  Change or die.  It's no wonder then that we're experimenting.  We're a species that  learns, or tries to, by doing; kinesthetic learners as it were.  Attempts like the Venus Project, the Zeitgeist Movement, Evolver Network and others are proliferating, each offering a fresh experimental philosophy with which to address the current crisis.  This is as it should be.  However, in our frantic movement to change and get our friends to change and tell everyone at work to change, we would do well to remember our past.  I know the "p" word has a dirty reputation within the "p"rogessive movement that only lives for the moment, but bear with me.  We come from a history of generations where distraction was dinner time.  People had nothing but time to focus on their craft, and luckily for us, certain of our ancestors devoted themselves to the pursuit of wisdom.  You're going to groan as I now tell you that I'm talking about an early American philosopher.  "American philosophers were the worst!"  That's been my assumption at least, as I watch my own country set the precedent of heedless planetary ecocide.  How could any wisdom be contained within the treatises of such a mutant entity?  I hope you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was when I show you.

   I'm talking about Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man often hailed as the forefather of the Transcendentalist movement of the 1800's.  Along with Henry David Thoreau (and others?), Emerson coined the undeniably American ideals of self-reliance, autonomy, and personal expression, effectively giving voice to the growing sense of individualism that was becoming the unspoken trademark of the new world.  He was the OG badass.  Emerson was one of the first people to write down, with elegant simplicity, just how much he did not care what anyone thought of him.  For a society built on the premise of escape from the stuffy confines of Victorian England, Emerson's writings provided a welcome primer, jump starting the engine of American ingenuity that is only now showing signs of age.  

   Emerson was a self-professed, self-possessed original and called for nothing less than a society of equally original and dare I say it--enlightened--human beings.  However, like all great artists and thinkers, his work was subjected to the pressure-washer of time and even worse, public education. Over the past 170 years, Emerson's potent observations have been diluted into high school and undergraduate anthologies, his essays abridged, his poetry excluded, and his message warped to fit the twisted goals of a system that aims only to standardize its students.  He has been adopted as a capitalist cheerleader as his quotes float around the internet and elsewhere at the whim of marketing agencies and corporations selling the next "unique" style.  To most people, Emerson is just one of the guys they didn't give a shit about in high school English, up there with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Orwell and…I can't remember who else.  That's a shame, because if ever there was a person nestled near the foundations of our country who deserves a second, third and fourth look, it's Emerson.  Throughout the article I'm going to insert direct quotes between the paragraphs because, well, there's just too damn many that need to be seen.

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

The Oversoul    

   In my own estimation, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a covert Buddhist.  He never speaks of the Orient (as far as I have read), but in his essay "The Oversoul," he sounds like every Buddhist teacher and deadhead I've ever talked to.  Only better.  

"I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come."

   He's basically saying that when he works, it's not him doing the work.  He is talking about letting go, being open and receptive to an "alien energy" that provides visions.  (Remember, this guy is taught in textbooks.)  He continues in the same essay, further describing what he has titled "The Oversoul" (Because he probably would have been hanged if he called it God).

"The soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs…is not the intellect of the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, --an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed.  From within or from behind, a light shines through us…and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all."

    Whoah.  The last part illuminates much of what Emerson was all about, namely the fact that the truth of our being is a life force that cannot be contained inside the trappings of human intellect.  The closest we can get to this immensity via language would probably be to call it a "feeling," but even this leaves us lost in the forest of abstraction.  Perhaps the Tao te Ching gets the closest by describing this feeling in negative statements:  "Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.  Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.  As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:  As 'the Mother' of all things it is nameable.  So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence…"  Emerson says it this way:

"And the blindness of the intellect begins, when it would be something of itself.  The weakness of the will begins, when the individual would be something of himself.  All reform aims, in some one particular, to let the soul have its way through us; in other words, to engage us to obey."  

   The thread through both of these examples and countless others is submission.  To Emerson, the truth of any human being was measured by their ability to live from the core of this mysterious energy, their willingness to submit to what he saw as a superior force of authenticity.  To Emerson, the Oversoul wasn't a concept for debate.  It was a simple fact of life.
   "We know truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose…We know the truth when we see it, from opinion, as we know when we are awake that we are awake."

When we have broken our god of tradition, and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.

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  1. Hey everybody Kris here. I would love any thoughts or criticisms you may have. It has come to my attention that Emerson actually was into Eastern thought and had what he described as a classically mystical experience. That explains some things, eh?

  2. Hey Kris,

    I really liked this post! I haven't read enough Emerson but I will definitely start! I am a big believer in the oversoul. One of my favorite activities is to draw and not pay attention to what I am drawing, but instead see what the frequencies of the world send through my hand. It is a great way to bring what is inside out, or what is outside in -- however you want to to look at it.

    I've interviewed a number of creatives and almost all of them reference this "force" working through them. It is really quite incredible.

    Also, I think you would enjoy this Ted talk. While she doesn't use the same words as you she is clearly talking about the same thing -

    Keep exploring this path. While it's very hard to put into words, the deeper you discover it the more personally beneficial it will become.

    Thanks for the good read,



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