Transcendence

There was an email from — this morning. He wonders what it is that I am writing about, whether it is human experience. All my thoughts centre on the fact that there is a transcendental dimension to human experience. Many, maybe the majority, I don’t know, live their lives without any apparent awareness of this dimension. As a consequence death, for all practical purposes, really is the end of life. Therefore their happiness is invested in their relationships and in material things. Which is fine for many. They live happy and fulfilled lives. They have constructed a human world where science and technology have improved the quality of life beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations. At a price. We have also, to use a phrase of Lionel Tiger’s ‘manufactured evil’,* produced a society which is toxic for millions of its members. It is damaging and destructive to the people who constitute it.  Firstly, money has become one of the most important criteria, often the deciding criterion, in decision making.  This, as Marx pointed out, means that all other criteria and values become secondary, including human ones.  This is dehumanising both for those who take advantage of the system and for those who are hurt by it. People are simply resources or commodities, expenses on the balance sheet, to be used or disposed of; their use governed by the need to make profits.  Human values, human aspirations, feelings, truth, beauty, honour, justice all these are of secondary importance if they cannot be quantified in monetary terms. 

Secondly, possessive individualism, the right of the individual, or the individual company, to do what she, he, or it likes within legal limits regardless of the social and personal consequences to others or the environment.  

Thirdly, the culture of hedonism.  This is partly the consequence of one and two.  What is money for if not to be spent for pleasure?  What is the point of individualism if you cannot do your own thing?  This cult of pleasure is given an added boost by the insecurity and fragmentation of modern society.  There is no longer such a thing as a safe job.  Redundancy can strike anyone from a vice-chairman to a machine operative and does so, frequently.  The fact that most people are heavily in debt to banks and building societies means that once these debts can no longer be serviced the individual can go from affluence to poverty overnight.  Those who have jobs find themselves under greater and greater tension as more and more is demanded of them for less and less.  Hence much frenetic pleasure seeking while it is possible. 

Fourth, unemployment and displacement.  One of the consequences of regarding people as resources and commodities to be used, bought, or dispensed with, is that the basic right to work is denied.  Both the Christian and Marxist perspectives agree that the right to work is fundamental to what it means to be human.  It is through work that we make ourselves what we are.  It is through work that we relate to the society of which we are part.  It is through work that we can transform our environment to make it a better place to live.  The type of work we do can diminish us or enhance us.  Though even when work is dehumanising and brutalising the worker is still part of the system, needed and necessary. To have no work, however, to be an asylum seeker, or a refugee, or to be so poor that each day is a precarious hand to mouth existence, is to be an outsider, to be marginalised.  It is to become, almost, a non-person.  It is to have nothing that others are willing to pay for.  It is to be nothing that others want. It is to be an encumbrance, an unwanted expense, a taker and user of resources who can give nothing in return. 

There is something very wrong, therefore, with our human world when it marginalises, dehumanises and subordinates to material factors so many of its inhabitants. And what is wrong is the fact that decision makers lack an awareness of the transcendental dimension which puts human life into a far wider context than that of the pragmatic materialist. They lack a vision of what it really means to be a human person. Lionel Tiger puts his finger on the problem – 

Why are people who are supposed to specialise in right and wrong essentially forbidden to devote their lives to gaining power in the real world?… On the other hand where ethical decisions must be taken non-stop ethically trained people are virtually non-existent. 

Like Tiger, many hold that ethics and religion are not necessarily connected and that it is possible to be a moral person without necessarily having a religious commitment. This is often true, nevertheless while Tiger, for various reasons, dispenses with this connection, religion is not so easily dismissed. Ultimately, all religions assert that there is a transcendental dimension to our human existence and that an awareness, and an understanding (in so far as this is possible) is essential if we are to define who and what we are. 

What is this transcendental dimension? Here we are faced with a paradox. On the one hand whatever transcends our experience cannot be known. It cannot be communicated to us through our senses. The transcendent cannot be seen, heard, touched or smelt.  On the other hand human history tells us that, as far back as we can go, people have been religious,** that is, in some way they have been aware of this dimension, attributing to it supreme importance. Secondly, how can this awareness of what is beyond our awareness be a (determining?) factor in what it means to be a person? There are no definitive answers to either of these questions, nor can there be, however, one can begin by exploring what is involved in them. 

For some time now I have been studying religious experience. The emphasis, unsurprisingly, has been on experience and experiences – what constitutes a religious experience? What is a mystical experience? Do mystical experiences and religious experiences differ; is one a sub-category of the other, or are they really distinct? Is there a fundamental mystical experience which is interpreted differently in various cultures and traditions? What constitutes a ‘genuine’ mystical experience? Is it distinguishable from a self, or dru
g induced experience? I could go on and on. There are a thousand questions and as many answers, some from those who have never had a mystical experience and some from genuine mystics, but there is no objective and independent criterion by which they can be judged. There can’t be. All experience is subjective but my experience of a banana, for example, is of an object which is available to the experience of others. Whereas a mystical experience  is totally subjective. It has no material or objective referent, nothing that can be shown to another, or demonstrated. Usually it cannot even be described accurately. Ineffability, as William James pointed out, is one of the characteristics of a mystical experience. 

I am coming more and more to the opinion that this focus on experiences is a blind alley. It provides rich pickings for academia, for sociologists and psychologists and there is nothing to stop a would-be guru, or teacher, or ‘master’ from setting up his own school and cultivating disciples. You only have to step into Watkins bookshop in London to see that the publishing industry is doing very well out of it all. But, for a person to make the drive for the definitive ‘experience’, for ecstasy, for union, for nirvana or whatever, is to go down the wrong road. It is to decide that you know who you are before you really know who you are, and where you are going before you know where the journey ends. It is to draw your own map and set out on a journey when there are no maps because the journey is within. The inner landscape is trackless and featureless. It is the landscape of the cloud of unknowing, of sunyata. 

[* Lionel Tiger, The Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution and the Industrial System, Marion Boyers, London 1991

** There is archaeological evidence for religious behaviour dating as far back as the Neanderthal period of human evolution. It has been conjectured that the recognition of mortality and the need to transcend it are a primary impulse toward mythology. Campbell, Joseph, Myths to Live By: how we re-create ancient legends in our daily lives to release human potential, Penguin/Arkana 1993]

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