Emerson’s Down Dog, or Notes toward a Transcendentalist Yoga
By Colin Carman
What does Ralph Waldo Emerson have to do with yoga? What connection, if any, can be forged between Emerson, the high priest of American self-reliance, and an ancient practice used to open the heart and quiet the mind? What does the founder of Transcendentalism and the so-called spokesman for Nature, have to say about the yogic path?
Quite a lot, actually. Not only one of the nineteenth century’s greatest poets, Emerson was a master essayist who wrote not in cohesive paragraphs but in sentences. He was a supreme aphorist and phrasemaker. Comprised of little wisps of wisdom, his prose reads almost like Patanjali’s sutras. One of his confessions from “Self-Reliance” (1841) celebrates, as does the best-known of Patanjali’s musings, stillness. “We must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.” Here Emerson humbly prefers the sound of silence over the steam of words and priestly pronouncements. Mindfulness and meditation, he suggests, matter more than any speech or ceremony. It’s as if whatever Emerson considered, whether it be Nature or the Poet, he couldn’t help but connect these vast abstractions with moral action. That’s because Emerson believed in an essential unity and in the Self as a part/icle of God.
But for those of you whose knowledge of American literature is a bit rusty, here’s – as he came to be known – the Sage of Concord’s life in a nutshell. Emerson was born a minister’s son in 1803 and before dying from pneumonia nearly eighty years later, he lived a long, prolific life in letters and antebellum social politics. In his “Concord Hymn,” he coined “the shot hear round the world” to commemorate the Revolutionary battles of April 1775, and his lines were subsequently recited by American schoolchildren for decades to come. In addition to his experimental essays, he kept over 182 journals, which he indexed and cross-referenced, and after entering Harvard Divinity School, as nine generations of Emerson had before him, he resigned the ministry, citing dogmatism as the problem with Christianity. He was also an abolitionist, an early supporter of female enfranchisement, and, influentially, a mentor to Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden experiment owed much to Emerson since the property at Walden Pond was on a personal loan to him. Like his acolyte Thoreau, Emerson generally distrusted the pleasures of materialism, the reigning standards of “success,” and foreign travel. His opposition to the last of those is particularly interesting. “Travelling is a fool’s paradise,” he declares in “Self-Reliance,” before confessing that though he fled to Naples and Rome to discover beauty, he woke up just as sad and anxious as he was back in New England. The human soul needn’t go anywhere; it need only look inward to the Self, which is manifestly divine.
Such externalities like sermons and world travel serve only as distractions from the Self, which, for Emerson, stands in for the good, and, by extension, the godly. As one of his mottoes from Self-Reliance reads, “Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions by a simple declaration of the divine fact […] for God is here within.” Yet, as Louis Menand and others scholars have noted, the paradox of Emerson’s creed is that he was an authority who told his followers not to listen to authority. Again, the edict was to look and search within, which is an historical hold-over from the Puritans and their faith in rigorous self-examination. His “The American Scholar,” delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837, has been called this country’s literary Declaration of Independence since it urges its listeners to cast off the conformist traditions of higher education and strike it into an altogether new intellectual frontier. Yet many of his pronouncements are spiritually charged. Consider his disavowal of all temporal differences, which he exposes as man-made limitations placed on the infinite nature of the One Mind. “There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always a circular power returning to itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he can never find – so entire, so boundless.” The spiritual subtext of that speech might read: seek Samadhi by surrendering your attachments and adopting total mindfulness. Emerson’s gerund for this is “Man Thinking,” which should be an active agent for change and what he called “the right.”
But there’s more. In his definitional essay titled “The Poet” (1844), he comments, “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.” And by the late 1850s, Emerson shows just how far he’s willing to travel into the mystic. His Transcendentalism grew to encompass Eastern hermeneutics. After reading such Hindu texts as The Vishnu Purana and The Bhagavad-Gita, he dashed off a poem called “Brahma” (published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1857). “I keep, and pass, and turn again/Far or forgot to me is near;/Shadow and sunlight are the same;/The vanished gods to me appear.” The good exists in an eternal sequence, Emerson suggests. Further, the confusion of opposites points toward the yogic hybrid that is hatha (“ha” = sun, “tha” = moon). The circle is a central symbol in Emersonian thought.
Emerson did not, to my knowledge, comment directly on yoga, nor do we know for sure if he ever practiced yoga. Regardless, the image of Emerson and Thoreau in matching tree-poses, standing on the edge of Walden Pond, is a sublime one. What is certain is that the Emersonian tree of knowledge isn’t planted that far apart from ashtanga wisdom and the eight-limbed path. In fact, Emerson’s works help to shed light on how Eastern philosophies began to take root in the late 1800s in America. It’s already well-known that Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” was considered gospel by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Is Emerson not the real “morning star” who shed early light on certain unshakable commitments to nonviolence and equality? The solar metaphors are apt ones since Guru means “remover of darkness,” and in “Brahma,” light and dark become as indistinct as the soul, “returning to itself.” As a guru, Emerson offers a powerful reminder that a good thinker is a good writer is a good citizen is a good yogi is a good poet is a good person.
Colin Carman, PhD teaches American literature and GLBT studies at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, CO. Like Colin Carman on Facebook and find him at Wanderlust Festival Aspen-Snowmass this summer.