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Compassion and Peace (with regards to Ralph Waldo Emerson) July 15, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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“Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens — that’s the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we’re talking about where it touches that sore place — that’s a shenpa. Someone criticizes you — they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child — and, shenpa: almost co-arising.”


– Pema Chödön

When I was growing up, as a Black girl in the South, I got my hair done. You might say I was getting a permanent, getting a relaxer, or getting my hair processed. Either way, getting my hair done was a lengthy (and relatively expensive) endeavor which, as it did in the 70’s, involved lye. Lye, can refer to a variety of metal hydroxides; however, in this case I’m referring to sodium hydroxide (NaOH). The same chemical used in soaps, detergents, and drain cleaner (specifically because it can breakdown hair clogs) was included in most commercial hair straightening products for African Americans with a certain texture of hair. These products could, and often did, result in chemical burns on the skin of men, women, and children. Sometimes the physical scars were permanent; sometimes you were just left with the memory of the horror of feeling like your scalp was being burned off your head. Obviously, this was an experience people wanted to avoid – so, everyone had to keep their cool in the beauty shop. This made some subjects off limits. Specifically, we didn’t talk about sex, religion, and/or politics.

Talking about sex, religion, politics, and any subject that combines one or more of the three is a guaranteed way to “get a rise out of someone.” And, what is inevitably rising is your blood pressure, your body temperature, and your passion (“suffering”). Talking about sex, religion, politics, and any combination of the three is a great way to get “hooked” – which means conversations involving those subjects are great times to practice “compassionate abiding” and the Four R’s (Recognize, Relax, Refrain, Resolve). I would even suggest that if you have a way with words, or you are engaged in conversation with someone who has a way with words, it might be helpful to start the practice before you even start the conversation.

I know, I know, to some my suggestion sounds ridiculous. Yet, people who have a way with words have a way of getting a rise out of you. Words have power. Remember, words are related to the first two powers (siddhis) unique to being humans. People who have a way with words can be very powerful.

“A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue. Then he is instructed in what is above him. He learns that his being is without bound; that, to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness. That which he venerates is still his own, though he has not realized it yet. He ought. He knows the sense of that grand word, though his analysis fails entirely to render account of it.”



– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson had a way with words. He was one of the leaders of the Transcendental Movement of the 19th century and consistently encouraged poets, scholars, the clergy, and everyday people to turn inward, to take a look at themselves. He was a teacher of “Young Ladies” and influenced naturalists and pioneers of the environmental movement, like John Muir, and political and social theorists, like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. He inspired people like Walt Whitman to write poetry, to properly capture the spirit of the United States. He supported abolitionists like John Brown and inspired people like Henry David Thoreau to go into the woods to live deliberately and to discover, through Nature, who/what they were and from whence they came. He believed all things were connected to God and, therefore, divine – radical religious thinking for a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Yet, he was invited to speak to Harvard students twice, in 1837 and 1838.

Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” resulted in an invitation from Harvard College’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837. By most accounts, “The American Scholar” went off without a hitch. It was an introduction to Transcendentalist and Romantic views on Nature, as well as the American scholar’s relationship with and responsibility to Nature. He talked about cause and effect, history, and the scholar’s role in writing history. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called the speech “the declaration of independence of American intellectual life” and, 95 years later, Phi Beta Kappa would name its newly established literary magazine after the speech. The speech also resulted in an invitation to deliver the commencement speech for his alma mater, Harvard Divinity School.

“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.”


– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today in 1838, eleven months after receiving a lifetime of accolades for his “The American Scholar” speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed six of the seven members of the Harvard Divinity School graduating class, Unitarian theologians like Andrews Norton and Henry Ware, Jr., and the Divinity School Dean John G. Palfrey. Keep in mind that, at the time, Harvard Divinity School was closely associated with the Unitarian church (having originally been established as a Unitarian school) and that Emerson was a former Unitarian minister. The fact that Emerson had left his position at a Unitarian church was no secret – in fact, some would say that “The American Scholar” speech was a reflection on his own spiritual crisis. Perhaps, the scholarly aspect of his relationship with Nature was so inspiring that no one paid much attention to the religious part. With the commencement speech, however, Emerson left no doubts about his beliefs.

He outlined how Transcendentalism and Unitarian theology didn’t fit together and proclaimed that moral intuition was a better guide than religious doctrine. Furthermore, he discounted the need to believe in the historical miracles of Jesus (who he defined as a great man, but not God); denied the need for a “personal God;” and basically declared that the clergy (including those in attendance) had killed God and killed the Church with ministry devoid of life.

 “Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. On the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation. As is the flood so is the ebb. Let this faith depart, and the very words it spake, and the things it made, become false and hurtful. Then falls the church, the state, art, letters, life. The doctrine of the divine nature being forgotten, a sickness infects and dwarfs the constitution.”


– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson expected his speech to inspire debate, maybe even a third invitation back to Harvard. Instead, today’s 1838 commencement speech pushed people’s buttons and got them so “hot” (or hooked) his critics started attacking him personally. He was called an atheist and someone who poisoned young men’s minds. It was implied, in print, that his speech was barely intelligible and “utterly distasteful.” Norton called Transcendentalism “the latest form of infidelity,” and Ware (who had been Emerson’s mentor during his time at Harvard) delivered a sermon a few months later that was seen as a point-by-point rebuttal to Emerson’s speech. Instead of an invitation to come back, the 35-year old Emerson was banned from Harvard for 27 years (and 6 days). When he returned to deliver the 1865 commencement speech, his words were a reflection of a country that had been at war with itself, as well as a reflection of a man whose spiritual community had been at war with him.

“MR. CHAIRMAN, AND GENTLEMEN : With whatever opinion we come here, I think it is not in man to see, without a feeling of pride and pleasure, a tried soldier, the armed defender of the right. I think that in these last years all opinions have been affected by the magnificent and stupendous spectacle which Divine Providence has offered us of the energies that slept in the children of this country, – that slept and have awakened. I see thankfully those that are here, but dim eyes in vain explore for some who are not.”


– quoted from the 1865 Harvard Divinity School commencement speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Please join me today (Wednesday, July 15th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom, where I just might push your buttons. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.


“I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.”


– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson




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