Transcendence

Everyone’s looking for some kind of transcendence.

For some people religion fulfills that purpose. For others, it’s a less-defined sense of spirituality, or other non-organized, faith-based practice.

For still others, the exploration of the physical universe scratches this itch—science, math, learning about human neurology and physiology and sociology.

Transcendence is about being uplifted, pulled out of the humdrum, out of the world we can easily perceive around us, exposed to some deeper meaning or truth or set of questions. And there are as many ways to achieve that state as there are people, but it probably shouldn’t be surprising that our approaches in this space are one of the ways we divide ourselves up, counterintuitively fracturing pieces from the larger whole in our desire to understand the bigger picture.

Reading has always been a prime method of transcendence, for me.

Reading fiction helps me ask questions I didn’t know to ask and allows me to see the world through different eyes. It allows me to imagine countless what-ifs, and often uses language in a challenging way, further pushing me to expand my horizons; to acquire the words I need to describe the things I didn’t realize I wanted to think about.

Reading nonfiction has helped me catch glimpses of the bigger picture. My curiosity has been kept continuously stoked, my mind curious, by ongoing exposure to information and experiences, histories and how-tos. Reading such work allows a person to live the lives of many people, all with their own weaknesses and drives, advantages and hurdles, environmental influences and passions; each set of properties different from my own.

Books poke and prod at my mind, pushing me out the door to live my own stories, to acquire my own stockpile of knowledge I can share.

Travel, by its very nature, tends to evoke transcendence in those who approach it as a learning opportunity; those who step off the plane or boat or motorbike with wide eyes and a smile, open to whatever happens next.

Discovering that other groups of people behave differently from our group of people, and that other individuals lead radically different lives than we’ve led, can pluck us from our cozy, comprehendible universe and deposit us into one that is less known. The world grows bigger the more we explore, and each newly crested horizon exposes us to a new set of horizons we didn’t know existed.

The process of stepping out of our comfort zones and into completely unfamiliar environments can be disorienting, but valuable—confusing, but transcendent.

Importantly, though, it’s not necessary to fill your passport with stamps to achieve these sorts of results.

Inward-facing practices like mindfulness and meditation can help a person transcend what they believed they know about themselves, how they behave, what they want, their place in the world, and countless other seeming realities that prove to be less solid than previously thought, once more thoroughly explored. Inevitabilities become possibilities, and immovable objects are mounted on casters.

One heuristic I’ve found useful in my own pursuit of transcendence is that where you find awe, and where you find growth, you’ll often find doors to larger, broader perspectives than you heretofore knew existed.

Or said another way: building your life in such a way that you’re exposed to intellectual catalysts, be they internal or external, experiential or inferential, science-based or faith-based, makes it more likely that you’ll live a life of less certainty, but more wonder.

That awe you experience is your sense of what’s real, what’s possible, growing. It’s your comprehension expanding to make room for this new data, this new potential—and it feels good, if unanchored. You lose firm footing in these moments, but that’s kind of the point.

Eventually, you’ll build yourself a new foundation: one that takes into account what you now know, these new, wonderful things to which you’ve been exposed. Things that, after a while, will become normal—just a part of your background understanding of things, rather than novel and strange, challenging and mind-expanding revelations.

With time, a transcendent experience becomes just one more data point amongst all the other data points you’ve ever accumulated.

This can lead to two arguably undesirable outcomes: the need for constant hits of novelty to keep oneself mentally alert and happy, and the nihilistic sense that all such sensations will eventually fade, so it’s pointless to pursue them in the first place.

In the former case, becoming a novelty junkie prevents a person from enjoying the aspects of life to which they’ve already been exposed on a deeper level. Rather than appreciating the subtle beauty of their existing understanding in between moments of transcendence, they focus exclusively on ever-larger hits of mind-expanding adventures; which are valuable in moderation, but which can also flatten one’s experiences if pursued at the expense of all else.

In the latter case, succumbing to the notion that all such joy is temporal misses the larger point that ebbs and flows of this kind are valuable and desirable. Low moments are a different experience from high moments, and novelty-filled moments are distinct from those that are familiar and more fully understood. Being able to find satisfaction and joy on both ends of the spectrum, and being able to recognize the value in tiny transcendent moments—not life-altering, perhaps, but still enjoyable and growth-oriented—ensures that we maintain a balanced, sustainable rhythm.

This is just one lens through which to view this topic, of course, but it’s one that has helped me continue smiling and iterating and enjoying, whether I’m situationally a complete fish out of water or taking the time to more thoroughly explore the bowl in which I currently reside.

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