Theosophy urges people to think things through for themselves and weigh things impersonally and fairly.  Self-Reliance is at the heart of this concept.  We will take up some selections from Emerson's Essay called Self-Reliance and we will take up quotations from world literature and Theosophical teachers as well.

What does Self-reliance mean?  How do we practice it?  Why is it such a strong admonition in theosophical circles?  What are the ways in which we unconsciously run away from Self-reliance?

From Emerson's Essay

"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,— — and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. . . ."

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More From Emerson' s Essay Self-Reliance

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. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Emerson spoke like a Theosophist.  He urges us to turn within, to find the divine light within ourselves. He falls in the theosophical tradition, in my opinion, because he insists on the integrity  of an inner revelation and turns away from admonition of organized religion and ism to believe this or that. 

Self-Reliance is one of the key concepts of transcendentalist tradition in America.  It makes us pause to ask the question: Who and What is the Self?   and Who am I?

I have often thought he, like Thoreau and maybe even Whitman, communicated theosophical ideas without using theosophical terminology.

Emerson's essay on the Oversoul is evidence of this sentiment Gerry.  This essay is mentioned several times in HPB's writings.  Most notably she makes reference to it in the Secret Doctrine with high praise.

From a 1890 HPB article

"Thousands of men and women who belong to no church, sect or society, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, are yet virtually members of that Silent Brotherhood the units of which often do not know each other, belonging as they do to nations far and wide apart, yet each of whom carries on his brow the mark of the mysterious Karmic seal -- the seal that makes of him or her a member of the Brotherhood of the Elect of Thought. Having failed to satisfy their aspirations in their respective orthodox faiths, they have severed themselves from their Churches in soul when not in body, and are devoting the rest of their lives to the worship of loftier and purer ideals than any intellectual speculation can give them....Carrying in the silent shrine of their soul the same grand ideals as all mystics do, they are in truth Theosophists de facto if not de jure."

This might be one of the secrets for spreading broadcast the teachings.   We need to learn how to communicate theosophical ideas without technical terminology.

No doubt we can find elements of theosophy in the insights and pronouncements of just about all reflective souls.  Some shine brighter than others.

The same might be said of Plato. He taught theosophy without using contemporary theosophical language.

This is why we New Englanders love Emerson.  He is always good for a swift kick in the pants. Each man is a ray of divine light, reach for it, trust it, act like it.  This is what I hear him saying.

West Coasters love him too.  The whole self-reliance admonition sounds to me like an invitation to turn inwards.  I wonder what others think?

The transcendentalists, especially Emerson, have their admirers on the Continent too. The concept of self-reliance is strong in the Greek tradition.

The world got smaller. The great Greek philosophers have their many admirers here in North America.

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.


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Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on April 19, 2015 at 4:15pm

This rings true for us in theosophy.  The self Shakespeare is referring to, one would hope, is the one universal Self.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on March 22, 2015 at 9:10pm

From Emerson's Essay

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on April 11, 2015 at 11:24am

There is a certain majesty and power behind these words.  It strikes a universal chord while saluting the power of the individual.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on March 24, 2015 at 11:01am

Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.

- Henry Ford

We visit others as a matter of social obligation. How long has it been since we have visited with ourselves?

- Morris Adler

Permalink Reply by Alex Papandakis on March 25, 2015 at 2:23pm

Is Self-Reliance, in practical terms, trusting our own best judgement?

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on April 1, 2015 at 8:29am

It is interesting how often we do not trust our best judgement and simply conform to the ideas, norms, patterns and attitudes of the crowd.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on March 25, 2015 at 5:31pm

A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.   - Mark Twain

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.  - Eleanor Roosevelt

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on March 27, 2015 at 5:34pm

Does the sevenfold nature of man given in Theosophy help us understand the concept of Self-Reliance?

Permalink Reply by Helena Kerekhazi on March 28, 2015 at 7:21am

 Hi Gerry,

Even before subdefining ourselves to seven, even Higher and Lower helps enormously!

We don't separate ourselves into our constituents, but we do place a mindfulness upon our different aspects and shift our focus and attention towards a direction that helps us get out of our ruts, and back up on our horses if you will. There is tremendous power in this.

Just think of all who are not aware or just beginning to be aware of how empowering it is to raise ourselves up by Ourselves, suffering ourselves not to be lowered, as the Gita inspires us to healing that is to awaken this shift...and to help others who might not be able to make that shift without us...for karmic reasons...

Oh what a wonderful life it would be!



Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on March 28, 2015 at 2:55pm

Wonderful point Helena.  Keep it simple, how about 3 parts: Oversoul, Individual soul, incarnated man.

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on March 28, 2015 at 2:59pm

When thinking about Self-Reliance the first question that arises of course is what Self are we relying upon? It seems the whole idea begins with turning inwards, trying to find within oneself something trustworthy.  This is difficult because when we examine our motives and actions we often find ourselves working at cross purposes.  Our ideals are not aligned with our actions.  Our best thoughts are often contradicted by our first reactions.  I believe this is where the concept of integrity comes into play.  A person with integrity has narrowed the gap between the two: integrated.

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on April 1, 2015 at 8:30am

Why is Self-Reliance so difficult?  Or is it? What stands in the way?

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Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on April 10, 2015 at 12:11pm

It is interesting how difficult it can be, isn't it? Outwardly, we seem to be naturally social beings, so there's a kind of in-built sense of shared-reliance. I think one of the main impediments to true self-reliance is that we tend to think it means reliance upon ourselves personally, but the more I ponder and try to practice it, the more self-reliance seems to me to be one and the same as that shared reliance: after all, we're trying to rely upon the one SELF underlying all selves, much more so than upon our own little personal self. So I'd say our mis-identification with our personal self is probably the main thing that stands in our way. Perhaps this is where Emerson's "Oversoul" comes in as a compliment to his "Self-Reliance": we need both ideas to lead us to true self-reliance.

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on April 13, 2015 at 8:04am

I like your point here Jon.  Self-Reliance is reliance upon the Over-Soul within us.  It is a reliance upon what is universal and not what is partial or limited.  What is interesting about Emerson's essay is that he makes it patently clear that the quest for what is universal has to do with an intense turning inward.  If we plumb the depths of our consciousness, really reach deep, we can find a Light that is absolutely trustworthy.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on April 11, 2015 at 12:44pm

I think it is partly because we are so accustomed looking to the outside and expecting an answer instantaneously, especially in this electronic age.   We are not used to turning our attention inward and delving deeper into our self and wait for a response.  But if we ponder on a problem long enough, the answer usually comes and sometimes, not in the way or form that we expect it.  Self-Reliance is the process where we learn to build the bridge between our lower and higher self, which is a necessary aspect of discipleship. 

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on April 13, 2015 at 8:07am

Brilliantly put.  Self-Reliance is bridging the gap between the Immortal Soul and the personality in the world.  And theosophy teaches us that the immortal soul is the Actor and the personality is the role in the play.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on April 5, 2015 at 10:37pm

From Emerson's Self Reliance

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.' Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on April 9, 2015 at 10:30pm

Galatians 6.5

Every man shall bear his own burden.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on April 13, 2015 at 9:12am

If we presume that humanity is by and large unenlightened, and if we presume that most of us have not as yet established the antahkarana bridge to the Higher Nature then what is it that most of us are relying upon as we live our lives?

Permalink Reply by barbaram on April 13, 2015 at 8:36pm

Don't you think we, as students of the Ageless Wisdom, rely on the teachings to live our lives?


Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on April 13, 2015 at 10:59pm

To what degree?  A lot or a little?  What does it mean to internalize the teachings?  What does it mean to follow an idea mechanically perhaps with the wrong motive?

The problem is a separate sense of self.  As long as there is any semblance of a separative self there will be blockages.  This was clear in the Buddha's teaching. The separative sense of self is capable of usurping the teachings for its own purposes.  "Look at me, look at how holy I am, look at me the model disciple." etc.

Permalink Reply by Peter on April 14, 2015 at 8:37am

Gerry writes: 'If we presume that humanity is by and large unenlightened, and if we presume that most of us have not as yet established the antahkarana bridge to the Higher Nature then what is it that most of us are relying upon as we live our lives?'

That's a very good question, Gerry.  I guess we mustn't romanticise the notion of 'self reliance' to the extent that it becomes just a nice idea that makes us feel good to think about while having little practical value in everyday life.

If self reliance is to mean anything at all it must be something we can draw upon when we feel we are not in touch with the universal; when the perfumed fragrance has deserted the flowery spiritual words we so often use; when we find ourselves facing the challenges of life and feel that we stand alone with our doubts, difficulties and profound ignorance; when we don't really know what is the best course of action, but still need to choose and be willing to accept the consequences which follow.

Only we can forge our own understanding and make whatever teachings we follow our own. Only we can translate that understanding into action taking one step after the other, making many mistakes on the way.  We find this principle in the 3rd Fundamental Proposition of the SD:

“The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits of no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.”    (SD I 17)

Perhaps a question that needs to accompany that of 'self reliance' is, 'for what reason do we seek to develop it?'

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on April 14, 2015 at 11:05pm

Because it is the responsibility of each man to seek out the divine within himself, no one can do it for him.

Permalink Reply by Keith Pritsker on April 13, 2015 at 5:23pm

“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”  --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance contains within it the potential for the awakening of budhi-manas, the spiritual mind of man.  Only that awakening can safe us from the self-destructive extremes religious blind faith and self-indulgent materialism.  The declaration of the United Lodge of Theosophists contains within it the very same concept.

Such self-reliance is the gateway to divinity that lies within each of us.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on April 25, 2015 at 8:39am

What does it mean to say "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind"?

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on April 14, 2015 at 11:33pm

More from Emerson

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on April 18, 2015 at 3:45pm

"In the long run we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility."

-Eleanor Roosvelt

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on April 19, 2015 at 4:17pm

Our choices are the turns of the wheel upon our journey through life.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on April 22, 2015 at 9:09am

The Jewel in the Lotus selection on Universal Theosophy is the beautiful passage from the Gita that describes the Self-Governed Sage.  What connections and what insights can we gain from looking at Krishna's description of the Sage and Emerson's  admonition for Self-Reliance?

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on May 4, 2015 at 7:55am

The Self-governed Sage describes an enlightened human being that has aligned oneself with the Atman, the Self of All.  Nothing in the outside world troubles him, nothing that the senses and organs (think lower mind) desire redirect him.  He lives wholly from within, Self-Reliant.  "...when he is become acquainted with the Supreme (Self), he loseth all taste for objects of whatever kind."

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on April 25, 2015 at 10:42am

More from Emerson's Self-Reliance

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.