Transcendence is a big word that does not get much respect in our culture. Based on the Latin root, it means “to climb over.”
I like that root definition; it clearly implies the work required to progress from a narrow or ordinary state of mind to a bigger, more inclusive state. One doesn’t simply float into enlightenment, or compassion or faith.
When one suddenly experiences a transcendent moment, it’s like coming to the top of a mountain. The complete vista may not be in view until the last step, and thus it may seem that one movement was all it took to get there. In the ecstasy and wonderment of the Big View, one may be tempted to forget all the time spent setting up base camp, trudging patiently over miles of stony trails, and hanging on for dear life to sheer rock faces.
One has to labor for liberation. But it’s liberation that finally gives meaning to the toil it takes to get there.
Our culture is embarrassed, ignorant and fearful of transcendence, often to the point of calling it madness. And yet we see all around us the innate, desperate urge to transcend ourselves through negative means such as alcoholism; drug, sex and shopping addictions; fame, wealth and power addictions, and so on.
In love with our rational and deadly dull view of what constitutes reality, we have devised an awkward strategy to deal with our instinctive transcendent urges: first we ridicule or demonize transcendent experience; then we build an economy—much of it illicit—that caters inappropriately to our frustrated yearnings for transcendence; then we tell our kids to “just say no” to the whole idea.
In indigenous cultures still animated by an instinctive spirituality, it is accepted that transcendent experience helps people understand their purpose in the human community. This is what initiation rituals are for; at their best they help young people get a practical view of what their life on earth is supposed to be about.
That practical view is a kind of triangulation, whose three points might be identified as self, community, and the great beyond. You have to journey into the great beyond—and know how to safely return there occasionally—to keep a sane perspective on your everyday life. That’s just how it is.
Relying on religion to tell us what the great beyond is all about won’t cut it; we have to have some firsthand experience. Fortunately, access is easier than NASA, our religious leaders or our greatest scientific minds might believe. The route is through inner space.
The journey into inner space is not always pleasant.
I was “initiated” to my purpose in life through a prolonged and painful crisis, and I didn’t care for that experience at the time. But the labor of it liberated me. And now, some years down the road, I’m still relearning what I knew in my childhood, but forgot on the rocky road of adulthood:
Transcendence is as near as nature and my own dreams, as readily accessible as looking at the nightly canopy of stars. Transcendence is an inborn capacity to go beyond myself, whenever I am willing to slow down enough to stop worrying about being myself.
Have you ever gazed at a clear sky long enough to realize you are not looking at a huge blue screen, but peering into the infinite? Have you ever watched a large old tree long enough to sense a bit of its incomprehensible might and balance, as it holds up its lengthy limbs toward the warmth of a vastly distant burning star? Have you ever stared at your hand until it seemed a total mystery?
In these and countless other transcendental, easily accessible experiences lies the practical heart of mysticism. Of all the things that our lonely culture is desperately seeking, perhaps it longs to regain a mystical heartbeat most of all. The good news is that we live in the midst of mystery at every moment. We are mystery.
To awaken to transcendence is to admit a simple truth: we do not know what is going on—in our cells, in our own minds, in the core of a tree, in the great distances between planets, stars, and galaxies. The paradox is that by giving up trying to analyze and demystify reality all the time, we can find the key to a practical faith, a deep self-realization, and an illimitable joy.
To admit that we are surrounded by mystery is to recognize ourselves. To learn transcendence is to unlearn the miserable notion that we are alone.
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Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Michael Theis/Fickr