Walt Whitman’s Vision and Practice
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that Walt Whitman said incomparable things incomparably well. As the decades have passed between the poet’s lifetime and the present, a filter has dimmed our understanding of an essential aspect of Whitman’s intent for Leaves of Grass. More than anything else, Whitman’s poetic philosophy was an expression of spiritual insight gained from a profound perception.
For decades, in an attempt to protect and enlarge Whitman’s literary reputation, academia has sought, often with the best of intentions, to strip Whitman’s mystical inspiration out of its primary place as the source of Leaves of Grass‘ insight. To the scholars who have shaped and controlled Whitman’s reputation since the middle of the last century, Whitman’s vision was metaphorical and not experiential.
Could it be that Whitman’s vision and poetry was the result of a sustained spiritual practice? Is it possible that like other great mystics from Buddha to Jesus Christ, Paul, Plotinus, St. Theresa, William Blake and more recently Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Buber and J. Krishnamurti and others that Whitman’s poetic voice and vision was the true voice and expression of God residing in each of us?
Did Walt Whitman really meditate? Yes, it appears he did. This is an original track of research I am investigating that suggests that not only did Whitman meditate, but his ability to access spiritual dimensions gave him his unique insight. There has been ample research done about how drastically Whitman’s style of writing changed in his early thirties inexplicably.
What some may say is inexplicable, I suggest is a predictable state of awareness that can be enhanced and accessed through meditation. Whitman’s transformation from a conventional newspaper editor and hack fiction writer to a poet with highly-developed and articulated ideas about our sense of connectedness between the material world and that of formless consciousness was remarkable.
Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, a Canadian psychologist and friend of Whitman’s studied his life and devised a term for people with deep insights into the spiritual. He called it Cosmic Consciousness. Bucke believed that some people were supernaturally endowed and he implied that those gifted with cosmic consciousness represented the cutting edge of evolution for humanity. Unlike Dr. Bucke, I believe that nearly all people have access to cosmic consciousness through the practice of meditation.
This is important because developmental and integral psychology maintains that spirituality evolves through practice toward ever deeper realizations and enlightenment. A peak experience may give a glimpse of a different level of consciousness but you have to do something to maintain this level of enlightenment otherwise it will be fleeting, not permanent.
Walt Whitman Meditation Insights
Walt Whitman Writing In The Ecstatic State
Before we examine Whitman’s meditation that I discovered in Whitman’s notebooks housed at Duke University, let’s take a look at a few examples of Whitman’s insights that Illustrate Whitman’s mystically inspired state of consciousness in his own words:
We should, each of us press forward and develop a towering selfhood, not physically perfect only – not satisfied with the mere mind’s and learning’s stores, but religious, possessing the idea of the infinite… realizing, above the rest… for purposes beyond – and that, finally, the personality of mortal life is most important with reference to the immortal, the unknown, the spiritual, the only permanently reality, which as the ocean waits for us and receivers the rivers, waits for each and all. (PW, 1:403)
Alone, and identity, and the mood – and 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 hither to unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines to the sense. Bibles may convey, and priest expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one’s isolated self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach divine levels, and commune with unutterable. (Democratic Vistas)
The whole scene shifts-the relative positions change-man comes forward inherent, superb-the soul, the judge, the common average man advances-ascends to place-God disappears. The whole idea of God, as hitherto, for reasons, presented in the religions of the world, for the thousands of past years… disappears. (WW. NVPM. VI: 2097)
Light had flowed in upon me… the mists and clouds have cleared away, and I can now behold things as they really are. (Sun-down papers)
There soon will be no more priests. Their work is done. A new order shall arise, and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. (Preface to 1855 ed of LG. II)
The whole scene shifts, -The relative positions change. Man comes forward inherent, superb-the soul, the judge, the common average man advances- ascends to place-God disappears- The idea of God, as hitherto, for reasons, presented in the religion of the world, for the thousands of past years …disappears. (WW. NVPM. VI: 2097)
A trance, yet with all the sense alert-only a state of high exalted musing-the tangible & material with all its shows, -the objective world suspended or surmounted for a while, add the powers in exaltation, freedom, vision-yet the sense not lost or counteracted. (WW: NVPM, IV: 1401)
In that condition the whole body is elevated to a state by others unknown-inwardly and outwardly illuminated, purified, made solid, strong, yet buoyant. A singular charm, more than beauty, flickers out of, and over, the face-a curious transparency beams in the eyes …the temper partakes also. Nothing that happens-no event, rencontre, weather, etc-but it is confronted-nothing but is subdued into sustenance-such is the marvelous transformation from the old timorousness and the old process of causes and effects. Sorrows and disappointment cease-there in no more borrowing trouble in advance. A man realizes the venerable myth-he is a god walking the earth, he sees new eligibilities, powers and beauties everywhere; he himself had a new eyesight and hearing. The play of the body in motion takes a previously unknown grace. Merely to move is then grace… gratification, drink, spirits, coffee, stimulants, mixtures, late hours, luxuries, deeds of the night, seem as vexatious dreams, and now the awakening; many fall into their natural places, wholesome, conveying diviner joys. (PW II: 678)
Objects gross and the unseen soul are one. (A Song for Occupations) (WW. LG, p. 216)
The soul or spirit transmits itself into all matter, into rocks and can live the life of a rock-into the sea, and can feel itself the sea-into the oak…into an animal, and feel itself a horse, a fish or bird, into the earth-into the motions of suns and stars. (notebook I, Holloway, II, 64)
There is, apart from mere intellect, in the make-up of every superior human identity …a wondrous something that realizes without argument…an intuition of the absolute balance…of the world; a soul sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things…such soul sight and root-center for the mind. (WW, PW, 1, p. 257-258)