I often use this word, which of course in strictly dictionary terms can mean many things, depending on context. You might be surprised to hear it from me, a psychiatrist with a solid footing in science, since from the sound of it, transcendence seems to denote an esoteric, far away place in some kind of spirit world you may or may not believe in. That is too vague a notion to be useful in our context of meditative explorations of the mind, which is why a clearer explanation is in order.
Our seemingly seamless experience of reality is a well-constructed illusion. For example, you see a seamless field of vision without dark spots in the middle of it with nothing there, and yet those dark spots very much exist. They are the blind spots resulting from the fact that where the optic nerve enters the retina, there are no light sensors. The brain skillfully compensates and creates the illusion of continuity, where there is none. This same principle applies to consciousness in general. In quite the same way, we don’t notice that our ‘perception’ of reality is far from an objective or ‘pure’ perception. Instead, it is a complex, often largely distorted construction, involving concepts, words and stories we create on the basis of information bits the brain has already unconsciously manipulated to suit the occasion, so to speak, and not the pursuit of truth and a clear vision of reality. We are not conscious of living in a narrative envelope that mediates a virtual experience of reality we mistake for direct experience of reality. In other words, we keep trying to feed on the menu and don’t realize we never have the meal in front of us.
We can call this situation tragic, because it causes untold human suffering. Subjectively so deeply ensnared in fictions of our own construction, the only reality left for us to orient ourselves by is the external, objective scientific one, against which everything gets measured. What objectively works becomes worthwhile and in fact the ultimate goal of human growth. We learn to function, perform, accumulate knowledge and measure outcomes. We measure success by accomplishments and possessions, and by how well we solve problems, fix things, improve our lives, develop and get somewhere, wherever that somewhere may be. We draft legislations that exclude all that is not evidence-based and measure psychological wellbeing by symptom scales, as if they were reflective of the person being measured. We value well-functioning adaptation to life, which includes professional and financial success, the picket fence fantasy of an accomplished life and a family life that allows its members to conform and survive, maybe even thrive.
This does not sound so bad, you may say, and I would not only agree, but even subscribe to its usefulness and importance for a well-lived life. What I described is a useful fiction indeed, that ensures our ability to survive, put in place what concrete aspects of life we need and pay our taxes on time. Most counselling and psychotherapeutic approaches to mental health, and most mindfulness meditation approaches used in Western societies, teach techniques that address this practical aspect of our human lives. But that is not the whole story. Many people who live these principles successfully, are in fact not satisfied with life at all, living with a nagging sense of something fundamental missing. In addition, the more arduously they try to improve this fiction, the clearer it becomes that nothing can fundamentally change. Stuck in a nightmare, one cannot improve one’s life experience by improving the nightmarish world.
The human being as experiencing subject (as opposed to constructed object) unwittingly retreats into the shadows of non-consciousness under the overwhelming power of the tyrannical narrative mind, which research shows seems to be in part mediated by the overwhelmingly controlling left brain. We can barely taste our meal, because we overwhelmingly see menus. You can imagine how this keeps us hungry and causes us to become dysfunctional, diseased and unhappy. The question becomes, ‘what would reality really be like, if we had access to our subjective experience of life outside the narrative envelope, if we had complete access to our full subjective experience beyond concepts and stories we construct for ourselves’? This question opens the door to a very different aspect of human existence, one that is much more difficult to access.
This process of liberating ourselves from the restrictive stories we envelop ourselves with, and through direct experience engaging in the journey of discovering an infinitely wider context of truth we are embedded in, is what transcendence is all about.
In this other realm of human reality, the scales, values, calculations and therapeutic approaches to the mind described above are not applicable. We have to learn ways of extricating our consciousness from the restrictive narrative envelope we are so familiar with by learning how to relinquish all striving for improvement, and instead diligently practice the art of entering the non-verbal flow of our organism’s energy through direct experience. Rather than seek and add more to what we think we know, we need to learn the opposite – unknowing, undoing, unlearning, surrendering and getting out of our own way, in order to make room in our consciousness for a depth and contextual vastness of experience we cannot even fathom. Because the only way we know how to find meaning is through the stories we create, the moment we fall out of this narrative envelope, there is no meaning to be found in the familiar sense of the term we know. Instead, we discover a vast, wide open (energy?) field of consciousness, the direct experience of which is timeless, nameless and empty of any conceptual essence we were used to construct. Not being familiar with this aspect of human existence, we are often overcome with fear when we first encounter it, and cannot fathom the infinite and powerful healing potential it has, when we are able to consciously become transparent to it, and live by it as the ground of Being. Stuck in a nightmare, the only way to really heal is to wake up from it. When we wake up to our collective, transcendental truth, we experience life radically differently.
Although we live in the same world we did before, with the same car, same house, same profession, and the same people, the additional dimensions of consciousness we gained access to through practicing transparency to the transcendent, open a completely new vista onto the same landscape of human existence. It is like the ball moving through a two-dimensional world. If you were a flat, two-dimensional being in a two-dimensional world with a two-dimensional consciousness, a ball moving through that world would appear to you as a process, not an object in motion. You would see a point growing into a line up to a maximum length, then shortening again until it becomes a point and disappears. The moment you developed a three-dimensional consciousness, you would realize that the moving phenomenon of a point becoming a line and then a point again is in fact a ball moving through space. Same world, different views with different possibilities. Consequently, with access to the transcendent, entirely new possibilities of making choices and living our lives become a reality. With that comes a significant decrease in the amount of suffering we create.
The paradox is that transcendence is like being poor and sitting on a wooden box we don’t know is filled with gold. While desperately looking for gold elsewhere, we miss what is hidden in plain sight. Transcendence is about stepping outside of a self-imposed, constructed prison of our own making, realizing that the doors to freedom have always been open, but we just could not see it. This is why we sometimes talk of transcendence (= Latin ‘stepping beyond’) towards immanence (= Latin ‘dwelling inside’), whereby we have to effect a leap out of the box, so to speak, an orthogonal shift in consciousness, to discover what has always already been there, hidden in plain sight, unseen, unheard and therefore rendered powerless.
Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.