1819–1892 • United States
Walt Whitman left school at eleven and worked at a variety of trades — he was a printer, a teacher, a newspaper writer and editor, a stationer, and a real estate speculator. One never would have guessed he was destined to become America’s seer.
In his early thirties, he began to have experiences that transformed him. In 1855, when he was 36, he published his collection of poems Leaves of Grass. The poems seemed so radical in form and content that he became a revolutionary figure in American literature. In fact, he was initially acclaimed more as a prophet of democracy and of the “common man” in the Western world than as a poet.
His aim, he states in the book’s preface, is to “wellnigh express the inexpressible.” “I celebrate myself,” he sings at the beginning of “Song of Myself” — but, as quickly becomes clear, the self he celebrates is not the ordinary self we usually experience. It is far more expanded.
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity — yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre), creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.
Whitman is clearly describing an experience of transcendence. The experience, he tells us, is “independent, lifted out from all else.” It is unbounded — “it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.” It is highly abstract, the “most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams.” Yet it is the ultimate reality, Whitman asserts, the “hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts.”
What exactly is Whitman talking about? He is describing the experience of the fourth state of consciousness, beyond the familiar states of waking, dreaming, and sleeping — the state Maharishi calls Transcendental Consciousness. In this state, the mind has settled inward. Moving beyond all perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, one experiences consciousness by itself, consciousness knowing itself alone — pure consciousness, unbounded and fully awake within itself. This, Maharishi explains, is the true Self.
Whitman goes on to describe the nature of this unique experience:
Only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality. . . . Only here, and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight. Only here, communion with the mysteries. . . . The soul emerges, and all statements, churches, sermons, melt away like vapors. Alone, and silent thought and awe, and aspiration — and then the interior consciousness, like a hitherto unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines to the sense. Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one’s isolated self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable.
Here again Whitman talks about the transcendental quality of this experience. When he says “the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality,” he means the mind is awake but unshadowed by thoughts or perceptions — the Self stands alone by itself. This, he tells us, is a state of “devout ecstasy.”
Whitman makes clear that this “interior consciousness” is the most important thing we can experience in life. In comparison, he says, all intellectual beliefs, all creeds and conventions, “become of no account.” “All statements” about the nature of reality “melt away like vapors.” Direct experience alone matters, he says — and full direct experience takes place exclusively through “the noiseless operation of one’s isolated self.”
The central, inner reality of life, Maharishi observes, is pure consciousness, the Self. Throughout this passage, Whitman seeks to convey precisely this knowledge — and the fact that one can experience it directly.
In the following lines, from his poem “Passage to India,” Whitman eulogizes this transcendental field of life:
O Thou transcendent, Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou center of them,
Thou mightier center of the true, the good, the loving,
Thou moral, spiritual fountain — affection’s source — thou reservoir,
(O pensive soul of me — O thirst unsatisfied — waitest not there?
Waitest not haply for us somewhere there the Comrade perfect?)
Thou pulse — thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastnesses of space,
How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how speak, if, out of myself,
I could not launch, to those, superior universes?
These beautiful words hardly need a comment. Whitman speaks directly to the transcendent, the source and center of universes, the center of truth, goodness, and love — and declares at the end that everything he does, everything he is, depends on his ability to transcend, to move “out of myself” to that superior state.
Whitman’s transcendental experiences enabled him to produce some of America’s greatest poetry, expressing a vision of the inner glory of life and the invitation for everyone to join him there.
Whitman never said anything about how he was able to have this experience. Like so many people through history, it seems to have been a matter of good luck. Maharishi’s great work was to bring to light, from the world’s most ancient continuous tradition of knowledge, a simple, natural, and effortless procedure — the Transcendental Meditation technique — for experiencing the fourth state of consciousness. Now this priceless experience is no longer a matter of good luck. Now anyone can, in Whitman’s words, “reach the interior consciousness.” Now anyone can “reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable.”
Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: J.S. Redfield, 1871), 41.
“Democratic Vistas,” in Walt Whitman, 47.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891), 315.
Whitman’s works are available online at http://www.whitmanarchive.org/
First – Probably 1854. Daguerreotype. Photographer unknown: probably Gabriel Harrison. Saunders #5. Courtesy of the Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan University.
Second – Steel engraving of Walt Whitman. Published in 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Source: Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan.
Third – Photographer: Matthew Brady, ca. 1860 – ca. 1865.
Fourth – Photographer unidentified.
Dr. Craig Pearson is Executive Vice-President of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. He has served the University in a variety of roles over the past 33 years, including Dean of Faculty, Dean of Students, Director of Maharishi University of Management Press, Director of Freshman Composition, and Professor of Professional Writing.
He holds a PhD in Maharishi Vedic Science from MUM and is the author of two books on the development of full human potential, The Complete Book of Yogic Flying and The Supreme Awakening: Developing the Infinite Potential Within (forthcoming). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment.
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