Retreat Focus: Transcend

Transcendence refers to the state or quality of being beyond the limits of ordinary experience or physical existence. It can also refer to the act of rising above or going beyond these limits. The term is often used in spiritual contexts to refer to the attainment of a higher state of being or consciousness.

“Though we invest so much into building our lives, the few decades we are on this earth amount to very little compared with the billions of years that the universe has existed before us and will continue to exist long after we are gone. You might expect the insignificance we feel in the face of this knowledge to highlight the absurdity and meaninglessness of our lives. But it in fact does the opposite. The abject humility we experience when we realize that we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning. A brush with mystery—whether underneath the stars, before a gorgeous work of art, during a religious ritual, or in the hospital delivery room—can transform us. This is the power of transcendence.

The word “transcend” means “to go beyond” or “to climb.” A transcendent, or mystical, experience is one in which we feel that we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality. In Buddhism, transcendence is sometimes described through the metaphor of flight. The seeker begins on earth, but then flies upward, “breaking the roof.” Then, writes the religious scholar Mircea Eliade, he “flies away through the air [and] shows figuratively that he has transcended the cosmos and attained a paradoxical and even inconceivable mode of being.” The metaphor of “breaking the roof” captures the key element of the mystical experience, whether religious or secular. You break out of the profane world of checking email and eating breakfast, and yield to the desire to commune, however briefly, with a higher and more sacred order. Many people have had transcendent experiences, and they consider them among the most meaningful and important events in their lives.

During transcendent states, two remarkable things happen. According to psychologist David Yaden of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on transcendence, first, our sense of self washes away along with all of its petty concerns and desires. We then feel deeply connected to other people and everything else that exists in the world. The result is that our anxieties about existence and death evaporate, and life finally seems, for a moment, to make sense—which leaves us with a sense of peace and well-being.

In recent years, scientists have begun to study the emotional response to mystery, which they refer to as awe. We feel awe when we perceive something so grand and vast that we cannot comprehend it, like a magnificent vista, an exquisite piece of music, an act of extraordinary generosity, or the divine. As the eighteenth-century philosopher Adam Smith wrote, awe occurs “when something quite new and singular is presented” and “memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.” In other words, awe challenges the mental models that we use to make sense of the world. Our mind must then update those models to accommodate what we have just experienced. This helps explain why encounters with mystery and transcendence are so transformative—they change the way we understand the universe and our place in it."

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