Up until age 18 my life was pretty darn great. No major tragedies or divorces, fun playing sports and chasing girls, which for me meant obsessive crushes that the objects of my affection never even knew about because I was too mortified of being rejected to ever make anything remotely resembling a move. But that’s another story for another time.
Then senior year brought my first true-blue relationship and the inner tumult that threw me into my first existential tizzy. To sum it all up, and with credit to Dickens, it was the best of times (truly) followed by the worst of times.
Seeing that I was in a funk, a friend of my girlfriend’s father introduced me to several classic spiritual works. One of those was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance. I first read it in 1982 at age 18 and to this day it has had a greater impact on me than anything I’ve read.
One caveat for any female readers before diving in: Emerson wrote this in 1841 when men still dominated American society, thus his use of “man” in a few of these quotes.
With that, here are six quotes from the essay that capture its essence.
1. “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
This one pretty much says it all. Imitating others gets us nowhere. Cultivate the plot of ground the universe/God gave YOU and only YOU. As Emerson says, the traits given each of us are “new in nature,” in other words completely unique.
So the purpose of our lives comes down to two simple steps: 1. Figure out what our ‘plot of ground’ is, then 2. Cultivate it! Go after it with everything we’ve got. Because it is true to our nature, it won’t feel like work at all.
How do we figure out what our ‘plot of ground’ is? That leads to quote number two:
2. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
I take this to mean listen to your intuition. Or, listen to your insides. Don’t listen to society or your parents or your friends or, most important, your MIND, which is just an amalgamation of all those influences. Listen to your insides. And whatever you hear, trust that that is the best way to go.
Many may say, “But hearing my insides is hard. It’s noisy in there. What do I do?” That leads to quote number three.
3. “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”
Here Emerson refers to the ineffable, sublime effect of stillness. This one resonates with me because I absolutely agree: Whenever I’m in a church, whether for a funeral, a wedding or the occasional service, I always notice that it is the times of silent stillness that raise and inspire me. That’s because it is from a place of stillness that we access our true inner selves, God and the universe, which I contend are all versions of the same thing.
How do create stillness inside ourselves? We practice meditation, mindfulness and anything else that works to quiet our chattering minds.
What happens when someone goes all the way with this and devotes his/her life to eliminating their egoic, mind self and merging with that true, God-like inner being inside us all? Emerson describes this with unmatched poetic beauty in this fourth quote.
4. “When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.”
I’m more than a few country miles from realizing this state. But when I read that quote, I think of those who do personify it: the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, Michael Singer, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass and many other spiritual leaders. These are people who exude equanimity, serenity and, most important, compassion for their fellow humans.
It’s my sense, optimistic as it may be, that humanity is evolving toward a place where all of us will reach the level of consciousness that Eckhart, the Dalai Lama and the rest have attained. What an awesome world that would be.
These higher beings got that way by living from within, by being in the world, but not of it. They lived by this quote that ends the essay.
5. “A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event raises your spirits and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
That last sentence captures it all: ‘Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.’ Money, power, fame…none of these will bring you peace. How many times do we, especially here in America, need to hear this before we actually believe it and, more importantly, LIVE it?
The crux of it is, work on your insides if you want to be happy. It’s the only path to peace.
I’ll conclude with a quote from the essay that is vital for all to take to heart, but especially those in their teens and twenties who are struggling to find their way in the world.
6. “I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I must be myself.”
If you have a teenager, wallpaper their bedroom with this! I’ll be drilling this one into my three kids for years to come.
So many people, young and old, struggle with this. It’s about looking inside ourselves, taking an honest inventory of who we are and then telling the world to take it or leave it.
I don’t like to use the word ‘fight’ much in my spiritual teachings, but it is apropos here: We need to fight like hell for ourselves, our authentic selves. We need to be our own best advocates. It’s critical. Why? Because if we get this one right it makes the rest of life a whole lot easier.
At the end of the day, Self-Reliance is about listening to the mysterious, sacred voice within us all and then acting on what we hear…no matter what. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and do so. You can find a free online copy here.