In his timeless essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Foreshadowing where this insight would lead, in the development of one of the most significant essays ever written in the English language, Emerson writes several paragraphs later, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” This essay was a revolutionary turning point for me: reading it deeply for the first time in Paris while teaching English and German there in 1988-89, it marked the last bit of Western philosophy I would absorb intellectually before turning with gusto to the practice of Zen — and leaving all the books behind, and gradually the Mahler and the Beethoven as well. Every single line of “Self-Reliance” felt like something my soul had always screamed for, admonitions I had always needed to hear but could not, trapped in dogmatic superstitions for so many years. Emerson’s soul really broke open the cage for me, intellectually but spiritually. “Self-Reliance” (and For while I had already read one Zen book by the time I encountered Emerson’s words, it seemed I needed some affirmation from an intellectual great to confirm that I would be heading in the right direction, were I to go deeper into Zen.
So, how much more these words by Albert Einstein strike open the heart like a similar thunder-bolt of recognition:
Self-reliance, for doing this spiritual work, has been merely the living out of a recognition of being this “lone traveler” who has never belonged to country, home, friends, or even immediate family. “In the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude.”
Except for a seven- or eight-month period when I was about of Providence Zen Center in 1997-98, I have lived outside the United States pretty continuously since 1994. During that time, I have lost all contact with my Yale College classmates and Harvard Divinity School network, and with one of the two significant friendships I had since childhood. (And one of those relationships had zero contact or communication for over 20 years, during the period of my most intensive training and teaching in Asia.) I do not have ongoing relationships with really any of my eight brothers and sisters (or their children), especially in the years since my Mother died. Needless to say, such things as “cousins” and such relations have grown so distant as if almost to inhabit another, pre-verbal phase of some before-life. There is no judgement in this: it is just how things have grown in the years since I decided to “leave home” and enter the monastic path.
I do not feel “American”, except in a cultural sense, in the same way that I do not feel as a “Catholic,” except for some of the cultural and psychological stamps I received from being raised in that worldview. I do not feel allied to any one nation or tribe (except, to be honest, the “tribe” of people who would wake up to their True Nature through meditation).
Einstein’s words, above, capture so perfectly the way I view this life.
Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 12: 47-50:
47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”