Walt Whitman – “The luminousness of real vision”

by Craig Pearson, Ph.D. on August 24, 2010

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Walt Whitman

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.

Walt-Whitman-youngIn his prose work Democratic Vistas, Whitman describes the kind of experience he enjoys:

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.”

Walt-Whitman-FriendWhitman 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.”

REFERENCES

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/

PHOTO CREDITS

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.

Other posts by Craig Pearson:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – “A state of transcendent wonder”

Helen Keller – “I feel the flame of eternity in my soul”

Laozi – “His mind becomes as vast and immeasurable as the night sky”

Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty”

Henry David Thoreau – “We become like a still lake of purest crystal”

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  • http://None Emmanuel Karavousanos

    Approaching 78 years of age, my interest is no longer in money or fame. It is in transmitting Whitman’s and Maharishi’s “transcendence” or, what others called, higher consciousness, mystical state, nirvana and indeed, other names. After more than 40 years of study in analyzing that so-called mystical experience which is, of course,the onset of the mystical state, we can come to know that this gift of gifts can only arrive from within through a sudden insight. And what is “sudden insight” but an idea — a sudden realization! Though we know what it is, we have not know why it occurs or how to attain it. I suggest that we now know WHY and HOW this phenomenon occurs. It has to do with analysis of familiar, obvious and known things, and things we have taken for granted. Is there a basis for this. The basis rests with Whitehead, Hegel, Heraclitus, Gibran, Huxley, Shaw, Koestler and indeed, others. Whitehead, in his book, Science in the Modern World, said: “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” Hegel gave us these words: “Because it’s familiar, a thing remains unknown.”
    Emmanuel Karavousanos
    Author, Speaker

  • http://www.iqtestexperts.com/brainteasers/ Kim

    Hi , Walt Whiteman is an incredible figure in America’s historical literature . I am thankful to you for having shared such an informative post about him.

  • http://www.stokstad.com Paul Stokstad

    It’s great to see these scintillating descriptions of higher human experience that you have harvested from Walt Whitman. I knew that Tennyson and Wordsworth had described such episodes, but not Whitman. Such poets inspire and elevate. They relate their experiences. For a moment we float in their minds, and get some taste of what they felt. There is a sort of immortality in that, for such a literary artist. But I think they would be far more gratified to know that some readers were inspired to the point of having their own exalted experiences. Which is, as you indicate, one of the charming effects of doing TM.

  • http://www.laughingbaba.com Louis Guadagnino

    Thank you so much for this long overdue acknowledgment of Walt Whitman and his role, as not only an American poet, but also as one of the first writers to share and wonder aloud about his experiences of transcendence. I became a lover of his work many years ago and his descriptions of transcendental consciousness encouraged me and gave me hope. TM, not only fulfilled my hope but made it simple and natural.

  • Patti

    Thank you for this article on Walt Whitman. It’s lovely, clear and inspiring.

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