My son's high school class is studying the Transcendentalists, so he came home with excerpts from Emerson's essay, Self Reliance, Thoreau's Walden, and we had the chance to read those together and discuss them. The Emerson essay was first published in 1841, Thoreau's Walden in 1854, and it was followed almost immediately by Whitman's Leaves of Grass, I believe 1855, just to be oriented.
Emerson was the elder of that generation, although he was writing Self Reliance and giving lectures and sermons, which I gather were not too easily distinguished, because they're not here either, in his 30s, in the 1830s. The spirit behind his talks is one that is very familiar to me in my generation. He grew up in a New England that was quite pious and conformist, and in most cultural ways, still looking to the models of Europe, the classics, and his generation, he in particular, was interested in having their own experience, their new experience, outside the boundaries of conformist society. In a way I think that it's very reminiscent of what happened in the 1950s, when the Beat Generation emerged from a very conformist and preoccupied American society. And certainly figures like Thoreau and Whitman were quickly adopted by that generation as prototypes.
Emerson's Self Reliance is summed up in his motto "Trust thyself." "Be grounded in your own experience." He says, "Genius is the willingness and capacity to totally trust one's own experience." It's not that it is a special set of attributes, but it's that kind of courage to totally occupy your own ground, no matter what it is. And he says, basically, that you have to be honest about what your experience is and be able to say, "That's me." He says something like, "If somebody asks me, 'Well, how do you know that what's inside you comes from something higher rather than from something lower?'" he says, "Well, if it comes from something lower, so be it, and I'll be the son of the devil, but I'll be honest about it. I will ground myself in whatever my experience actually is." That’s very much an expression of the idea we hear in Zen of “Don't put anyone else's head on top of yours.” And it's fairly clear that Emerson had had personal experiences that we would call realizations, that really firmly gave him this grounding. It was not a theoretical, academic argument; it was a genuine expression of a sense of the unchallengability of one's subjectivity.
Someone like Thoreau took this in the direction certainly of nonconformity, but also in the direction of autonomy, the fantasy of “I will build myself a cabin in the woods and be as self sufficient and as independent of society as humanly possible. I will live a simple, Spartan life existence in contact with nature and not be contaminated by other people.” He really emphasized the “self” in “self reliance.”
As we look back on these ideas, particularly from the perspective of our practice, what I see is the way in which, first of all, Emerson is exhorting his audience to be self reliant, and the generation of people who are listening to him and reading him are dependent on his words in order to find themselves. Maybe something happened that he was able, in a certain sense, to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, but his whole role as a teacher and mentor for an entire generation was to provide a model for self-reliance, to provide a language, a framework, a way of thinking and practicing, that others could follow. It turns out that self-reliance may be something we need to learn from others. And that's the paradox of it. It's the paradox of our practice as well, in which we endeavor to be completely honest to our own experience, but that experience is not solitary and inner, it's co-created and constituted by our embeddedness in a practice, a tradition, a sangha, that's not of our personal creation. It's something which we participate in, and our participation is dependent on an acknowledgment of that interdependence. Whitman wrote a Song of Myself, but the self that he sang was not private. His self contained multitudes, contained everything. So he broke out of the definition of a self that is very different from Thoreau. It goes in the opposite direction from autonomy, into complete immersion and embeddedness.
This was also the first generation that really had any access to translations of the wisdom and literature of Hinduism and Buddhism, and like the generation in the 50s, they used these as a way to try to pry open the lid of a conservative Christian, conformist society in which they found themselves. They had no access to real practice, but they were able to use the first texts that were coming over, to say there's an alternative way of thinking about the divine than the one that they were hearing about in church every Sunday.
So there's another case in which their ability to be independent was assisted or stimulated by getting the input from an outside tradition. Getting those texts was enormously enabling for them to begin to think independently, to see that there's a way to see outside the box of the tradition that they grew up in, because they could start to do a little comparative, cultural studies there.
We look back at a generation like that and it's remarkable how much they were able to understand, and make happen for themselves with very little input. They genuinely did create for themselves a great deal that we have inherited and take for granted. We also are in the business of learning to trust ourselves, but the way to do that is often to study and learn from those who've gone before on the same path.