Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Simple Mind

I am on the rollercoaster ride that is Emerson. Last week I liked Compensation even less than Self-Reliance the week before. But this week I am blown away by Spiritual Laws. In it Emerson manages to bring together what is in my mind, the best part of all religions: the moment of transcendence or nirvana or being one with God--whatever you want to call it--that makes us whole. In psychological terms you could say it is the attainment of self-actualization. You could even call it a deep wisdom, that something we all recognize in someone who knows who they are and what their purpose is to the very core of their being and lives it, breaths it, and honors it in everything they do. Spiritual Laws is Emerson's unique take on how to Be. He rightly insists that arguing over "the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination and the like" will get you nowhere. Such arguments are "the soul's mumps and measles and whopping-coughs." What we really need is a "simple mind." Emerson's simple mind does not mean stupid nor does it, I believe, deny complexity. As he says, "the simplicity of nature is not that which may easily be read, but is inexhaustible." A simple mind is akin in my thinking to the Buddhist idea of "Right Mindfulness," the ability to see things as they are with clear consciousness. Emerson suggests that "our life might be much easier and simpler than we make it." And is later echoed by Thoreau's "Simplify! Simplify!" We clutter our lives with so much we are distracted and cannot achieve right mindfulness. As a result we become mechanical and unthinking, sacrificing our virtues: "Love should make joy; but our benevolence is unhappy." With our encumbered lives we create an encumbered society where "laws and letters and creeds and modes of living seem a travesty of truth." But all is not lost. Because this is Emerson, there is ever optimism. The way to a simple mind is itself simple: listen. "There is a soul at the centre of nature and over the will of every man" that will provide guidance. To receive that guidance, all we have to do is listen and "we shall hear the right word." When you listen you place yourself "in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which animates all whom it floats, and you are without effort impelled to truth, to right and a perfect contentment." When you find yourself in the stream you will find your vocation. Your vocation is the work you are meant to do. When a person is "doing his own work he unfolds himself." There are as many vocations as there are people and no vocation is worth any less or more than another. When we discover our vocation we become virtuous. For Emerson "virtue is the adherence in action to the nature of things and the nature of things makes it prevalent." But while action is good, so is sitting still. All action comes from thought, therefore thought is also action:

But real action is in silent moments. The epochs of our life are not in the visible facts of our choice of calling, our marriage, our acquisition of an office, and the like, but in a silent thought by the wayside as we walk; in a thought which revises our entire manner of life and says--'Thus hast thou done, but it were better thus.'
Emerson desires "not to disgrace the soul." The fact that he is (was) here and that you are here and I am here means that the soul has need of us. We should not be falsely modest. We do not need to apologize for being alive. "Be a gift and a benediction. Shine with real light and not with [a] borrowed reflection." Next week's Emerson: Love