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Three Transcendents, part 1: Naturalistic transcendence

October 14, 2012
Hope, by H. Kopp Delaney

Experiencing your participation in something greater transforms your way of being-in-the-world

- by B. T. Newberg

As my wife and I slogged along on our bicycles, generally irritated at each other, suddenly there was a pop.  Her back tire went flat, and we were in the middle of nowhere on a Korean highway.  We had to find a repair shop, communicate our problem, and somehow make it home.

As we pulled through this minor crisis, a peculiar thing happened: we were no longer irritated at each other.  Through working together as a couple, each of us had moved from me to we.  In some small way, we’d experienced a tiny moment of transcendence.

The urge to transcendence

“Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and humans gotta be part of something greater than themselves.”

These are the words of social scientist Jonathan Haidt in a recent Point of Inquiry podcast.  He expands on this insight in a video interview:

“Happiness comes from between.  Happiness comes from being merged in, bound in, connected in the right ways to other people, to your work, and to something larger than yourself.”

In both of these quotes, Haidt links human nature to transcendence, feeling part of something greater or larger than yourself.  The first suggests a brute need for it, the second that happiness itself is the result.

This squares with evolution.  Multilevel selection theory observes that humans have a remarkable capacity to organize into groups, and well-organized groups out-compete others, leading to enhanced reproductive fitness for members.  Thus, it does not seem a stretch to speculate that our evolved capacity to form into groups may derive from a general urge to be part of something greater than ourselves.

Naturalistic transcendence

When I speak of naturalistic transcendence*, I mean an experience of something greater than you not only in degree but also in kind, yet in which you nevertheless participate.  In experiencing your participation in this something greater, you encounter something which challenges and transforms your whole sense of who and what you are, your way of being-in-the-world.

For example, stand at the foot of a mountain and you may be impressed by how much greater it is than you in degree, how alien it is from you in kind.  Climb that mountain and confront limits of endurance beyond which you thought yourself incapable, feel the relation between yourself and the mountain’s flora and fauna as part of one interdependent ecosystem, and discover how the experience of the mountain becomes part of you and changes who you are – then you may draw close to something like transcendence.

Symbols of transcendence

One of our recent Thing on Thursday polls asked what symbols of transcendence most appeal to our readers (the poll is still open if you’d like to vote).  From these, I’d like to distill a set of symbols that may stand at the heart of a naturalistic path and embody its vision of transcendence.

Your personal symbol set may vary, but I’m going to pick out a triad that groups the most popular and vital together.  The three are:

  • nature
  • community
  • mind

The triad lends itself well to any kind of triple representation, like the triple spiral for example, but I prefer a series of concentric circles, like this:

Three Transcendents, by B. T. Newberg

Near the middle is a dot, representing the individual vantage point which makes up our conscious experience.  It is off-center to underscore that you are not the center of the universe.

The individual ego is transcended by the whole mind, conscious and unconscious (inner circle), each mind is transcended by its communities (middle circle), and all communities are transcended by nature (outer circle).

Concentric circles are also the pattern of ripples, which one can imagine radiating from any point in the mandala to interact with the other circles.

The three bear some similarity to John Halstead’s “kindreds” (the physical world, ancestors, and the deep self), ADF’s Three Kindreds (Nature Spirits, Ancestors, and Gods and Goddesses), and the first two of three of Brendan Myers’ Immensities (the Earth, other people, death, and solitude).

Since these are intended as symbols and not analytical constructs, they may be interpreted broadly.  Various alternative or elaborative terms may stand in, if they speak to you (e.g. cosmos for nature, ancestors for community, psyche for mind, etc.).

Also in keeping with symbols, these invite one’s own experiences to be reflected in them.  Insofar all are included in nature, and nature includes all that is, every experience and every thing can be found somewhere within this triad.  It thus forms a mandala for all experience.

The Three Transcendents share a few characteristics:

  • they are greater than us in both degree and kind
  • we participate in them even as they transcend us
  • when they manifest as challenges, they do so not as problems that can be solved but as predicaments that can only be confronted and integrated
  • there is no avoiding or escaping them for any human being; they are part of the human condition
  • they demand to be handled with care, so as to affirm rather than negate the individual
  • they are “Immensities” in Brendan Myers‘ sense, a term he borrowed from Yeats:

When we have drunk the cold cup of the moon’s intoxication, we thirst for something beyond ourselves, and the mind flows outward to a natural immensity

In parts 2-4 of this series, I’ll explore each of these symbols in depth.  For now, I’ll conclude with a final justification for why such symbols are needed at all.

Why symbols of transcendence?

“Ritual is the engine of shamanic ecstasy and symbol is the pilot.”  (Laughlin, McManus, & D’Aquili, Brain, Symbol, and Experience)

In my experience, what’s missing from Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, and other such movements is a consciously-recognized, explicitly-articulated valuation of transcendence.  John Halstead has made a similar observation of Unitarian Universalism, identifying the missing element as the enthusiasmos of transformative experience.  The imagination must be captivated and transformed by a vision, not of what one is not, but of what one is or could be.

This missing element may be embodied in symbols that remind, invite, and inspire.  The individual must be able to interact imaginatively with the symbols in ritual or meditation, and fill them up as it were with experience and affect.  At that point, when they are charged with personal meaning and emotion, they may become powerful motivators of thought and behavior.

They radiate the power to transform.

UPDATE:  John Halstead has posted a response to and extension of these ideas, which is well worth reading.

* I have not always been entirely friendly to the language of transcendence.  In fact, I have argued for non-transcendence as a key value.  What I meant, though, was non-transcendence of the physical universe, of this earth, this body, or this life.  Nowadays, I recognize that naturalism better sums up what I meant then.
12 Comments
  1. October 15, 2012 7:55 am

    Great post Brandon. I really like the idea that “In experiencing your participation in this something greater, you encounter something which challenges and transforms your whole sense of who and what you are, your way of being-in-the-world.”

    This statement was interesting and I was wondering if you would elaborate here or one of the subsequent parts: “when they manifest as challenges, they do so not as problems that can be solved but as predicaments that can only be confronted and integrated”

    • October 15, 2012 8:19 am

      >I was wondering if you would elaborate here or one of the subsequent parts: “when they manifest as challenges, they do so not as problems that can be solved but as predicaments that can only be confronted and integrated”

      Sure. This theme is big in Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue, and it’s one that makes much sense to me. Some challenges you can find a solution to: malaria, for instance. Others, like death, you can never hope to solve (wild science fiction fantasies aside). You can only discover a way of relating to them that is meaningful and positive. That’s what I mean by “can only be confronted and integrated.”

      Nature, Community, and Mind all present challenges in some way or another, perhaps as a fundamental aspect of being the kind of creatures we are. For example, as the Buddha observed, being born as a natural being entails that you will get sick, grow old, and die. However, contrary to Buddha, I would seek not ultimate escape from that cycle of suffering, but a perspective from which I can embrace that suffering in a way that is meaningful. For example, birth entails suffering but also growth, discovery, and joy, and some amount of suffering is necessary as part of the package of getting these others wonders of life.

      I think the dichotomy “problem vs. predicament” comes from economist Abraham Kaplan, but others have made similar observations.

      Does that clear it up?

      • October 18, 2012 11:40 am

        Yes, it does. I like how you phrased the issue. I think our (Western? American?) culture ehphasizes “overcoming” obstacles more than “integrating” challenges, to our detriment I think.

        • Rua Lupa permalink
          October 23, 2012 6:06 pm

          “I think our (Western? American?) culture ehphasizes “overcoming” obstacles more than “integrating” challenges, to our detriment I think.”

          You may be right. It would be an interesting thing to explore.

  2. Rua Lupa permalink
    October 23, 2012 6:28 pm

    “Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and humans gotta be part of something greater than themselves.”

    This quote and the implication of creating community being a solely human phenomenon is fallible. There are many species that form groups to improve their circumstances for survival and to thrive. And that is just it. Grouping is due to ensuring a species survival, there need not be more to it, such as something “greater than themselves.” I can’t help but think, “why bother” and feel that there are more important things to concern ourselves with. But that’s just me and can understand the feeling of wanting something more, having been there, but got over it as it were. For me, it stopped mattering because I no longer let it matter. In other words it had only mattered then because I made it matter. Now I just shrug it off and carry on with what I feel really meets my needs. I still agree that community is valuable and important psychologically for the individual and the group. Just not for the same reasons.

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