photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011
– by B. T. Newberg
This post celebrates Non-judgment Day, the day which is not the May 21st Judgment Day predicted by Harold Camping and followers, but rather a day for celebrating who you are, promoted by the queer nuns called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. So, in honor of non-judgment, we have a non-theme: nontranscendence.
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In the last post, I mentioned that Humanistic Paganism does not seek transcendence. This provoked one commenter to remark “this leaves me feeling a little sad.” Yes, it is sad. But when you’re done being sad, it becomes wonderful.
Nontranscendence means not seeking another world, another body, or another life. Instead, there is this earth, this body, this life. However imperfect they may be, they are ours. They are yours. Embracing that fact is the first step to finding yourself in a world that resonates with every step.
I don’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve yourself or the world. On the contrary, such improvement is essential to Humanistic Paganism, as encapsulated in the Fourfold Path under responsible action. There are plenty of challenges to be met, and HP affirms the responsibility and power of the individual to meet those challenges. By so doing, the world can become a better place, and you can become a better person. If that’s what meets your definition of transcendence, then by all means bring it on.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. The idea I have in mind has more to do with the mystical and fantastical. There are many religions and philosophies today that focus on other worlds, bodies, or lives. Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture will arrive today is a case in point, but there are less extreme examples. Christianity and Islam look forward to an afterlife, while Contemporary Shamanism communicates with a spirit world. Many New Age cults concentrate on a subtle or light body, at the same time that the pseudo-religion of consumerism obsesses about that perfect body that you just don’t have (not without product x!). Meanwhile, forms of Hinduism and Buddhism postulate past and future lives, and cryonics panders to the desire for immortal life. The problem is not that these hypothesized other worlds, bodies, and lives are necessarily false – we’ll let empirical investigation determine that. Nor is it that they cannot have psychological benefits – I engage many spiritual practices for that very reason. The problem is that they can distract from something equally extraordinary right here and now: the world of the ordinary.
photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011
The extraordinary ordinary
What do people seek in other worlds, bodies, or lives? I’ll concede that some may genuinely pursue them for their own sake, but I’d hazard to guess that many if not most are really seeking escape from the ordinary. Much of what masquerades as spirituality is really hope for something else. Joseph Campbell suggests that people aren’t really seeking the meaning of life so much as an experience of being alive.
The humdrum rolling on of life, the daily inundation of violent or depressing news – who wouldn’t hope for something more? It’s human nature to always want more. Where we go wrong is in assuming that something more must come from something else.
That’s just not true. The ordinary world, just as it is, has so much more to offer. In fact, it has so much to offer in each and every moment that our conscious minds cannot possibly take it all in, and that is one of the reasons why it quickly acquires a tedious veneer.
Cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson explains in Strangers to Ourselves that our minds assimilate some 11,000,000 pieces of information per second from our sense organs, but only about 40 can be processed consciously. The rest, according to Wilson, are handled by the unconscious. This enables us to consciously concentrate on one thing while unconsciously monitoring the environment for danger. So, the vast majority of perception happens beyond conscious experience, beyond what we normally take for our world. The result: as non-critical sensations are relegated to the unconscious, the everyday environment quickly begins to feel ordinary.
However, how would our experience change if we brought attention to a fuller range of sensations? For example, have you ever stopped to really take in all the sensations of eating an orange – the sound of peeling the skin, the softness of the pulp, the spray of juice as you bite into it? What an extraordinary experience it becomes when you bring awareness to this thoroughly ordinary phenomenon. Likewise, many meditation techniques call attention to the breath. The rhythmic rising and falling of the abdomen, the warmth of air passing over the upper lip, the fleeting moment after one breath is finished but before the next has begun – a sense of peace and wonder may accompany observing these ordinary sensations.
So, experiencing something more doesn’t require something else. It only requires a deeper approach to what is already present. Through mindful practice, the realization gradually dawns that the extraordinary is already available in the ordinary. All it takes is an alteration of awareness. The world begins to resonate, suffused with a new vibrance. The humdrum bursts to life, the droll pulses with vitality. There arises a sense of wonder, or as Campbell puts it, an experience of being alive.
Resonance and the Five +1
The Fourfold Path of Humanistic Paganism addresses this through exploration of the Five +1. These are the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, plus one introspective sense that perceives thoughts, feelings, emotions, and mental imagery. By turning awareness to these phenomena, particularly to those normally relegated to the unconscious, a fuller experience is raised to consciousness. The fruit of such activity is a profound sense of wonder at the world of the extraordinary ordinary.
Is this a kind of transcendence? Maybe. If there are those who wish to use the word for this, I won’t argue. But I prefer resonance. The word transcendence seems to imply getting over or above or beyond something, as if there were some lack to be overcome. On the contrary, the task is not to go beyond but right into the heart of things. Deep in the trenches of experiences is all the rapture I need.
Mythology and Resonance
But wait a minute… what about the Fourfold Path‘s emphasis on mythology? Why isn’t bare perception enough without mythologizing it? Isn’t this just another attempt to go over and above the ordinary, to seek something else?
Here is where we return to what was said earlier about spiritual practices, including those focused on other worlds, bodies, or lives. They can have psychological benefits. The question is whether they orient the individual toward or away from ordinary experience. Approached from a desire to escape the ordinary world, they become escapist and unhealthy. Approached from a desire for resonance with the world, however, they can be profoundly beneficial. Furthermore, they can actually lead the individual to the ordinary by way of the extraordinary.
In a previous post I mentioned a storm in which I felt the majesty of Zeus, god of thunder. This was a case in which mythology reminded me to look deeper at the environment, to open my awareness to a fuller range of experience. As a result, the brooding sky acquired a more vivid, vital aspect. The clouds almost breathed. It was not that I was no longer perceiving the sky, but rather that I was meeting it with more of my being – not just the five senses but also imagination. The entire field of experience, the Five +1, was humanized and unified. By including the imaginal realm of myth in the experience, inner and outer worlds became one. The sky as well as my whole being was in resonance.
It is not necessary to transcend this world, this body, or this life – at least, not in order to have an experience of being alive. What is necessary is to go deeper into everyday experience. Exploring the Five +1 can enable that, as can developing a relationship with mythology. If motivated by a desire not to escape the ordinary but to achieve communion with it, something extraordinary can happen. World, body, and life begin to resonate.