A transcendentalist seeks to transcend the normal experience of life. With a sense of ultimate reality, the infinitude of our soul is made real through transcendent experiences. In Concord, nature’s wildness is usually where that happens, but this transcending of ordinary life can occur in all times and all places. The indigenous people who lived here for millennia also seemed to have a transcendental consciousness. So how do we seek, and how do we find, this transcendental consciousness?
In his lecture “The Transcendentalist” Emerson said, “what is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism. Idealism as it appears in 1842. As thinkers, [human]kind has been divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists: the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell.” So how do we transcend materialism to become mindful idealists? What is the consciousness we seek? For Emerson spiritual idealism was simply part of the perennial philosophy, honored in all places and times.
I had my first transcendentalist experience in nature at age 13 in 1969, but had no language to describe it, until my high school English teacher introduced me to Emerson and Thoreau. I was hooked when he showed me Emerson’s description of his first transcendental experience. “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration… Standing on bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes, I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God.”
Emerson read incredibly widely, with frequent references to Hindu and Buddhist texts, Sufi poetry, and Christian mystics. In his lecture on “The Oversoul” Emerson drew freely from Spinoza, Kant and Coleridge to explicate his beyond personal ecstatic experience of the inexplicable divine mystery. My wife Loretta and I moved to Concord in 1986, shortly after my thirtieth birthday, and I immersed myself in the writings of the transcendentalists and in exploring the wildness of Concord’s many walking trails.
Like Thoreau, in wildness I found the preservation of my world. He observed, “We do not commonly live our life out and full; we do not fill all our pores with blood; we do not inspire and expire fully and entirely enough… We live but a fraction of our life. Why do we not let on the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion? He that has ears to hear, let him hear. Employ your senses.” Like Thoreau I wished to embrace the vital facts of life, and if it is mean to know its meanness fully, but if sublime to open myself up to ecstasy. This is how I began my own journey towards becoming a transcendentalist.
I wanted to live my life out and full, so I began to explore transcendental experiences as described by Islamic Sufis, Chinese Taoists, Shamanic mystics, as well as Christian and Buddhist wisdom teachers. Over the next thirty years I would travel on mystic pilgrimages with practitioners from each of these traditions, and more, to discover the secret longings of my mystic soul. Each mystic’s Way was different, yet they were each willing to teach me their spiritual practices so that I might find my own unique Way of the Spirit. After three decades of seeking, I found, and awakened to ultimate reality. Now I walk Walden country with peace and equanimity, happy to say with Thoreau, “Oh, what splendid serendipity, that I have lived in the best possible place, and indeed in the nick of transcendental time.”
Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord. He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing. His new book, SPIRITUAL PILGRIM: Awakening Journeys of a Twenty-First Century Transcendentalist is coming September 2018.