Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Transcendentalism

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Perhaps it was the first exposure of Western cultures to the scriptures of India's millennial old wisdom traditions that sparked a lively interest in 'experiential transcendentalism,' or the possibility that there is a higher and more expansive consciousness above humanity's ordinary 'self' or 'egoic' consciousness and awareness. (The respected 20th-century theologian, in giving the prestigious Gifford Lecture at St, Andrew's College, Scotland, best expressed what is meant by "experiential transcendendalism," when he observed that, "Individual selfhood is expressed in the self's capacity for self-transcendence and not in its rational capacity for conceptual and analytic procedures.") Certainly "Brahma," perhaps the most famous of poem by the 'dean' of the "American Transcendentalists," Ralph Waldo Emerson, was inspired by his reading of that most-famed of Hindu scriptures, the "Bhagavad Gita."

The American Transcendentalists were followed by the birth of what was called the "New Thought" movement, characterized by the writings of Christian Science founder, Mary Baker Eddy, the Chicago-based Emily Tompkins, as well as James Allen and Ralph Waldo Trine in the United Kingdom.

The English public schools between the two World Wars birthed another wave of English spiritual seekers, such as Allen Watts, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, whose presence and influence in America reached heights in the immediate post-World War II 1950's and early 60's. They would influence and collaborate to a greater or lesser extent with Huston Smith, and two young Harvard professors Richard Allport (who would re-emerge as spiritual teacher Ram Das) and Timothy Leary in their research into whether psybicillin (and later L.S.D) could trigger the mystical experiences and higher states of consciousness reported by so many of the world's great wisdom traditions.

Transcendentalism and the search for expanded or higher consciousness may have hit its heights in the 'psychedelic' '60s. With the maturation of the 'hippies' of the '60s into today's 'baby-boomers,' and the disillusionment of the "Me-Generation" of the 1970s and '80s (followed by 'Generations X, Y, and Z'), the search for enlightenment and higher consciousness gave way to the passion for "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll." Now, however, with the aging and pending retirement of the "boomers," the maturation of the "Me-Generation, and the disillusionment of their following generations, it appears that the search for transcendent experience is once again waxing rather than waning. But what exactly is meant by "transcendence" and "transcendentalism?"

Gerald Heard (1889-1971)
"Beat-era" spiritual philosopher Gerald Heard in his classic exploration of these rarified stages of transcendentalism and consciousness, "Pain, Sex and Time," discusses the nature of what he calls mankind's  ordinary "fissured consciousness" and its "ego-impulses," as compared with the evolutionary potential of the "undilated unconscious" and its potential to cause an "interior reintegration for the brave souls who are true aspirants after "higher consciousness" and spiritual awareness.

Written in 1939 and long out-of-print, "Pain, Sex and Time" was, it seems, before its time. A classic outline of how humankind's evolutionary progress and potential for ever greater and higher states of consciousness, Heard's treatise was finally re-published in 2004. It's republication, perhaps, is an indication of a groundswell of interest in man's spiritual and evolutionary potential - a groundswell, aided too no small extent, by the realization that material success and achievement is not only ultimately unsatisfactory to our inner needs, but is damaging to the Earth herself. As Heard, naively and perhaps prematurely (as it turns out), observed in 1939, only months before the onset of the cataclysm that was World War II:
"It is now obvious that men cannot live much longer the life of irrelevant distractions. We are becoming too acutely conscious and aware of time. Any stimulant, however pleasant at the beginning, repeated [often enough] becomes hateful."
[G. Heard, "Pain, Sex and Time," p.193.]
This warning - written nearly 75 years ago - seems eerily prescient in our times, although it shouldn't. For, when we look back at the history of 'transcendentalism,' we have been on a crash course with the limitations that time has on humanity's consciousness throughout what may be called the '"Scientific Age" (which has now rapidly morphed seamlessly into the "Information Age"), and the need for a change in our consciousness has always been readily apparent, if only to the few. As Heard remarked, a handful of generations ago now:

 "There are . . . three great stages in man' evolution; the appetitive animal, the intelligent human (Nietzche's "transitional creature"), and the being who once more knows itself to be a part of the Whole, but this time is clearly aware that the Whole is a comprehensive consciousness."

[G. Heard, "Pain, Sex and Time," p. 153.]
Now, however, rather than an early warning, Heard's remarks may represent the clear statement of an evolutionary imperative and warning. Even the incomprehensibility of man's inhumanity to man, as demonstrated in the Second World War, was unforeseeable to Heard, it seems. How much more incomprehensible would the current challenges we face with what has become a 24/7 global worldview- a population boom, environmental degradation, mass extinction of species, growing rather than shrinking poverty and hunger - have been?

Heard writes that, "Without silent recollection the mind cannot recognize its own unity, still less the wholeness of that into which it would expand."

[G. Heard, "Pain, Sex and Time," p. 181.]

Now, it seems - with our growing awareness of the limitations of our old consciousness and the problems caused by it - that there is an ever-growing recognition that we must strive individually and collectively to meet what is our evolutionary imperative, our call to transcend the collective state-of-mind that has created the problems we face. For, as Heard also notes in "Pain, Sex and Time," those species that fail in continuing to evolve almost inevitably perish.

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