The reason I feel compelled to write about self-transcendence is because it is an extremely nebulous word that gets tossed around without proper explanation. Second, self-transcendence is deserving of attention because it is fundamental to the human quest for experiencing the meaning in life. Lastly, I feel obligated to defend self-transcendence against the skeptics attempt to reduce it to just brain states. To the contrary, self-transcendence involves real experiences that can illuminate life, meaning, purpose and significance.
Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.) – Abraham Maslow
Recently, I was at the bedside of a patient as he breathed his last breath. As a hospice chaplain, this is a rather common experience. However, this experience was different than most cases because it served as a transcendent experience that changed me.
It was just he and I in the room. His breathing had become labored with the typical ‘death rattle’ in his breathing caused by fluid in his upper chest and throat. He was only 57 years old and had absolutely no one in his life to support him during his last minutes on earth. I sat with one hand on his shoulder, in a cold and sterile room while the final chapter of his life comes to an end. In that eerie and lonely moment, I saw myself in his place. The image in my mind was me as a 57-year-old actively dying man, all alone, in a dimly lit shabby county care facility. The feeling was haunting and chilling. I was haunted by the conception of dying alone in a cold and emotionally desolate environment. It was then that a door in my mind opened up, and thoughts of my wonderful wife, beautiful newborn son, and loving family permeated every fiber of my being. In that moment, I experienced transcendence that was more than a feeling; it changed me.
The experience united me with the axiom that every relationship is precious. Now, to say “every relationship is precious” doesn’t sound very deep or profound. However, sometimes it’s simple truths that hit us like a mack truck. Often, it’s the simple realizations that flip our world upside down and expose the self-centered illusions that entrap us. My transcendent moment brought me out of the mundane and into the experience of being alive. It woke me from my routinized slumber and brought to light something greater than my self-interested mindset. My transcendent moment was a revolution of my soul.
Self-transcendence is an altered state of awareness by which we transcend the mundane and banal routinized modes of life and connect with a greater sense of meaning. Self-transcendence takes you from your myopic, isolated, and individual conception and connects you with a deeper, more meaningful way of existing. For example, we may experience self-transcendence through meditation, music, religious activities, professional sports, nature, drugs, and political beliefs. Self-transcendence occurs when one is deeply stirred by Mozart or the Beatles; when one is united with the whole as you stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon or you celebrate your team’s victory; it’s felt in contrite prayer or LSD; and through feeling love at the deepest visceral level or while eating the best Chilean sea bass you ever had. Self-transcendence is crucial for our well-being for the obvious reason that we each yearn for meaning, purpose, and connection. The opposite of self-transcendence would be all the routinized banalities of life. While my morning routine of showering, brushing my teeth and getting dressed is an experience, it most definitely is not a transcendent one. However, my nightly twenty-minute meditation is a personal example of self-transcendence by which my sense of ‘self’ slowly dissipates and I unite with what feels like an uncontaminated sense of peace.
Why the Need to Transcend?
Self-transcendence is one of the fundamental pursuits of being human. In the deep recesses of the soul is the yearning to be part of something bigger than the idiosyncratic isolated self. On one hand, we live life as individuals fulfilling our individualized goals and desires. On the other hand, we live in a highly socialized world and we see the benefits cooperating with people for a greater good. As Darwin noted, human beings came out on top because we learned how to cooperate in groups. In essence, man found the good in transcending the individual and embracing the unity of the whole. The stronger the affinity for the group, the stronger the group will be and the more likely the group will persist. Like bees and ants, we group together and circle around ideals and truths we hold to be sacred. Religion and politics are two palpable examples that illustrate how people transcend the ordinary routines of daily life and transcend to ideals and virtues that make life worth living and fighting for.
We can go to an even deeper substrate as to why there is a need to transcend. One of the most basic and elemental reasons why self-transcendence is sought and valued is because life is suffering. We are unwillingly thrown into a world rife with pain and suffering while having to solve the most complicated question ever advanced: how can I live a life that is significant, meaningful, and purposeful? The need to transcend the mundane is a ubiquitous pursuit given our close proximity with isolation, alienation, boredom, death and trauma that befalls every person. You are the lead actor in your personal drama of life, and we all want to be the hero in the play that is life; the heroic journey involves transcending the monotonous chaos of life, while reaching up for the deeply meaningful.
Self-Transcendence as a House With Many Rooms
Self-transcendence can lead to rather ambiguous and esoteric ideas, so allow me to present a helpful metaphor to make it a bit more lucid. Think of the mind like a house with many rooms, most of which we’re very familiar with, but sometimes it’s as if a doorway appears almost out of nowhere, and it opens onto a staircase, we climb the staircase and experience a state of altered consciousness or awakening. The transcendent experience is the ‘ah-ha’ moment which illuminates our way of being. Another way to put it is that it unites us with the sacred.
As a hospice chaplain, I am often surrounded by self-transcendent experiences. Death has a way of catapulting people out of their comfortable little box and into a world of the unknown. Sometimes death opens the door leading us to the stairway of self-transcendence. Once, a daughter of a dying patient of mine described the last minutes of her father’s life. She said that the room was engulfed in peace and all went quiet except the birds chirping outside. Then, she felt as if her ‘self’ simply melted away and all she felt was a unity and love with her father that she had never experienced before. The image that she felt was the warm embrace of her father, and the calm realization that his time on earth was up. He passed minutes later. She would later would tell me how that experience awakened her to a more mindful realization of how meaningful family truly is. For her, the staircase led not to only intense feelings, but it re-oriented her life in such a way that she became a better person for it.
I should clarify that self-transcendence experiences are not necessarily always profound life-changing epiphanies. Often, when the door at the top of the staircase opens, we are awakened to a truth or ideal that causes only minor tectonic shifts in our perspective. When I listen to pianist Michele McLaughlin’s song “Dismissed,” I often experience self-transcendence that enlivens me to a kind of pure joy. It doesn’t, however, leave me in a stupefied ecstatic state that completely rocks my world with awe. Nevertheless, it is still a self-transcendence experience that lifts me from my run-of-the-mill life.
Self-Transcendence Connects Us With the Sacred
Self-transcendence helps us identify what is sacred for us. When something or someone becomes sacred it means that the significance of the thing/person/experience is elevated to a status deserving of reverence, honor, and is hallowed. In religious talk, it’s holy. Our ability to identify things/people/experiences as sacred is paramount for us because the sacred is precisely what makes life worth living. The sacredness we imbue upon, for example, family, love, capitalism, faith, relationships, a hobby and being Republican or Democrat, enlivens us with a greater purpose and meaning in life. A deeper way to think of it is that the transcendent experience re-directs or re-orients us to the sacred. It acts as a reminder, exposing to us what ought to be pursued.
It was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim that spoke of man being homo duplex (man as two). The sacred is part of what makes man homo duplex, which is to say that we occupy (at any time) one of two domains: the sacred or profane. A fundamental aspect to being in the world is that we move up and down a vertical line between the sacred and profane. The sacred and profane is not to be confused with the value judgements: good (sacred) and bad (profane). The sacred and profane are simply two modes of being. The sacred refers to those collective representations that are set apart from society, or that which transcends the humdrum of everyday life. The profane, on the other hand, is everything else, all those mundane things like our jobs, our bills, and our rush hour commute. Self-transcendence is the act of ascending the vertical line, leaving the customary and common for the luminous and lustrous.
Connecting With the Collective Consciousness
Self-transcendence connects us with the collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is when you forget your own individual desires and decide to integrate into the whole. ‘The whole’ is representative of the collective ideas, beliefs, and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. Collective consciousness creates a solidarity of beliefs through mutual likeness. The totality of sentiments common to the average members of the society form a determinate system with a life of its own. Some examples of collective consciousness include the ideals that ‘love is better than hate’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, and ‘flourishing is [most often] better than pain’. Granted, not everyone embodies these beliefs, however, these axioms take us out of our individualistic world and propel us towards solidarity with the whole. History reveals the force of the collective consciousness with examples such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berlin Wall coming down, and 9/11. We join with the collective consciousness when we transcend our boring and tedious lives, and our awareness is ruptured by mass devastation and trauma or random acts of kindness and when our team wins the Super Bowl.
A Rebuttal to Skeptics
Skeptics often roll their eyes at stories of transcendence because they are not real. By ‘not real’, I mean that self-transcendence does not point to something objectively real (i.e. empirically verifiable through scientific method). The claim is that self-transcendence is [just] a subjective experience, thus, not real. Moreover, the skeptic often claims that self-transcendence is just a feeling. Thus, self-transcendence is sterilized and diminished to the compressed notion ‘feeling high’.
The problem with the skeptic response to self-transcendence is twofold. First, it’s a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity) to conclude self-transcendence is just a subjective feeling; as if to infer that the subjective has nothing to do with reality. Pain, hunger, and anger are subjective states, but they are nevertheless real to the experiencer. When the religious person has a near death experience, it is real to them. Just as when the secular person falls in love, that euphoria is real to them. The religious and secular person both experience self-transcendent moments and, most importantly, they embody these subjective realities which cause by real physiological states in their body. It is absurd to dismiss or reduce self-transcendence simply because it cannot be empirically verified through demonstration.
Second, the skeptic is falling into an error of category. What I mean by this is that the realness of subjective experience is in a completely different category than realness in the objective world. There simply is not only one category of reality that all knowledge can fit nicely into. In short, the realness of the computer I am typing on is different than the realness of my hunger. One relies on sensory perception and the latter relies on a physiological reaction. Both are real, yet both are known and/or experienced differently, because they occupy different categories of realness. We need not fall into error by conflating the two.
I do, however, feel the skeptic’s frustration when people use their self-transcendence experience to make objective or absolute truth claims. Again, two different categories (or domains) that need not be conjoined.
This is my attempt to define self-transcendence. It will nevertheless always be a nebulous term with numerous interpretations. My goal is to paint a clearer picture so that people can awaken to the reality that life has innumerable opportunities for experiences that are deeply meaningful. We each get one shot at life; that’s it. After being at the deathbeds of hundreds of hospice patients, no one has ever said that they wished they had spent more time in the office or bought more stuff. Satisfaction, contentment and courage come from the ability to transcend the mundane and reach for those moments that remind us the preciousness of being.