transcendental life: An impossible dream?
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Any discourse on the transcendental life is
likely to conjure up the image of a Zen Master on a misty mountain
top or a Trappist Monk in a remote desert retreat. A widely held
notion is that only the esoteric mystics, who have given up earthly
affairs in their single-minded spiritual pursuit, can ever realize
According to this view, the transcendental life
belongs to a selected few who are totally attuned to the ethereal,
ultimate reality. They have achieved such moral excellence and spiritual
maturity, that they are able to be free from worldly cares and temptations
and enter into a mystical union with the infinite Being.
However, in the broadest sense, transcendence
is an antidote to "stuckness". It conveys ideas of escape from the
mundane daily grind and of getting away from life's difficulties.
But its basic meaning is more profound and inspiring. It indicates
the movement of one's soul towards a higher purpose, an ideal, which
is far greater than one's self.
Thus, transcendence offers hope where no hope
can be found; it supplies illuminations, where only darkness rules.
It is the secret yearning of everyone who feels burdened or trapped.
Oh that we may fly away on a broomstick and
vanish our foes with a magic wand! Unfortunately, Harry Potter lives
in a fantasyland, while we are grounded to the real world by gravity!
But fear not. Self-transcendence may be within
reach for us mere mortals without any special endowments. In fact,
this seemingly impossible ideal may be realized, if we are willing
to pay the price.
Transcendence as a basic human capacity for
To self-transcend is a unique human capacity
for freedom - freedom of choice and freedom to rise above internal
limitations and external constraints. This basic capacity is rooted
in our biology and spiritual nature.
Dr. Viktor Frankl has stressed that even when
all freedoms are taken away from us by force, we can still have
one freedom, the freedom to maintain a defiant attitude, to take
a heroic stance. He was able to transcend the most horrible circumstances
imaginable, because of his innate capacity to choose life despite
the terrors of the Nazi death camp. This intentional choice to live
authentically, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, reflects the most
fundamental human freedom.
Pathways to self-transcendence
did Dr. Frankl achieve self-transcendence? His best selling book
Man's Search for Meaning provides some of the answers. Elsewhere,
I have written about the pathways Frankl has discovered: logotherapy,
love, purpose, hope and tragic optimism. We can also experience
transcendence on a daily basis through worship and work, as illustrated
by Brother Lawrence.
These pathways to self-transcendence are full
of trials and tribulations; they can be found in the trenches, prisons
and hospitals. At times, the obstacles seem un-surmountable and
the pains unbearable. Yet, no sooner had we come to a dead-end than
a new vista suddenly opens up.
The transcendental life can be attained even
while one is caught in the throes of earthly struggles for survival.
Let us consider the following scenarios and see how we can find
a way to rise about these difficulties:
- Suffering in the dark valley of depression
- Languishing in the "prison" of meaninglessness
- Feeling paralyzed by fear and terror
- Being betrayed and abandoned by trusted friends
- Grieving over multiple personal losses
- Bleeding and dying with multiple wounds
- Walking wounded by abuses and traumas
- Feeling crushed by the cares of life and
the burden of living
- Being trapped in a toxic workplace or a dysfunctioning
- Being enslaved and destroyed by alcoholism
and drug addiction
- Feeling frustrated and hemmed in by life
- Being oppressed by people who have power
- Being overwhelmed by evil forces
- Being caught in cycles of escalating conflicts
- Being confined in a wheelchair or hospital
- Being marginalized by declining years
- Living in the grips of chronic pains
- Facing a slow and painful death
How can we transcend any of the above scenarios
of suffering? What are the pathways to get away from troubles beyond
our control? Can we pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps from
the horrible pit? Is it possible to be freed from human bondage?
Is there any way to escape a cruel fate? Is it at all possible to
change the misfortunes that have overtaken us?
The transcendental life as a process
When we are at a very low point in our life,
we are apt to be resigned to our plight, and answer each of the
above questions with a resounding No. But even pessimism cannot
hold back the promise of transcendence for long. The defiant human
spirit, according to Viktor Frankl, is always there, empowering
us to rise above adversities and calamities.
Contrary to common perception, the transcendental
life is not necessarily one of quiet contemplative existence, free
from the storms of life. Rather, it is a dynamic, forward moving
struggle, characterized by alternating cycles of action and non-action,
growth and decline. And it shuttles between idealism and realism,
day and night, Heaven and Hell.
The transcendental life is a process rather
than a product. It is a journey of self-discovery and growth. At
the beginning, we may not be sure where we are going, except that
to remain stuck is not a good option.
The only viable option is to risk and break
out from whatever holds us back. This process can be frightening
and painful, but very rewarding. We may never know where it will
lead us, but we do know that life is fulfilling only when we dare
to pursue our ideals.
Ideally, the transcendental life knows no boundaries
and no fears. It is the expression of our potentiality against all
the opposing forces. Sparks fly and energy is generated by the eternal
conflict. In the process, meaning is created, the true self discovered,
and life enriched beyond expectations.
Transcendence through nothingness
would be the worst-case scenario for you? What would happen when
everything is taken away from you? In the valley of tears, in the
abyss of cold darkness, death would be a welcome rest.
All is lost. All is gone. All the clamoring
noises have died down. You may feel that your emptiness is as vast
as the Sahara desert, and as black as the darkest night. Nothingness
looms larger and larger until it fills the entire life space. At
this point, you may loose your grips on life, but paradoxically,
you become open to transcendental illuminations.
The enormity of nothingness can be transforming,
because it liberates us from what has been troubling us. By embracing
nothingness, we discover who we really are and what really matters.
Nothingness signifies the fading away of our
sorrow and grief, and the casting away of all our cares and burdens.
It ushers in a new conscious state of peace and freedom, encumbered
by the past.
Some follow the Buddhist
teaching, which emphasizes the illusionary nature of material
existence and worldly cares. Buddhism offers a way to transcend
karma through gaining enlightenment and achieving nirvana - a state
of liberation from sorrowful existence and the illusionary world.
also teaches mental aloofness and a state of detachment. The basic
tenet of Taoism can be summed up in "wu wei" (do-nothingness) in
order to follow the Way, the law of nature or Heaven. According
Te Ching, "Eternal Tao doesn't do anything, yet it leaves nothing
undone. If you abide by it, everything in existence will transform
The Way, a mystical transcendence, cannot be
clearly communicated in language. It may be grasped through the
metaphor of water, which seeks the path of least resistance. The
essence of the Way is its vacuity, its do-nothingness. One can find
tranquility and even happiness in troubled times by living a simple
life in harmony with nature.
is not difficult to understand the appeal of Buddhism and Taoism
to suffering souls. One can find instant relief from life's troubles
simply by adopting the mental state of detachment. Through an inner
act of vanishing and embracing nothingness, burdens melt away and
earthly strivings cease. Tumultuous emotions are transformed to
still water - calm, submissive, yet stronger than rock. Thus, one
discovers the transcendental self through letting go and dying to
In a similar vein, Thomas Merton (1915-1968),
the contemplative Trappist monk, wrote in The New Man that the highest
form of self-realization is, paradoxically, attained by self-annihilation.
However, in Christianity,
nothingness is more than a mental state. It involves faith in Christ,
as the Logos who became flesh, the immanent presence of the transcendental
God. Faith in a redeemer is the Christian answer to the recognition
of our spiritual poverty and brokenness.
Furthermore, instead of advocating withdrawal
from the world, Christ challenges his believers to transform it
by sharing God's love. This involves the surrendering of self -
the giving up of everything - to serve Him and serve fellow humans.
Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless a
kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single
seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves
his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this
world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow
me; and where I am, my servant also will be" (The Gospel according
to John, 12:24-26).
To follow Christ is to follow his lowly path
of service, which eventually leads to the cruel cross of self-sacrifice.
The transcendental life can be achieved through being dead to the
flesh and being alive to the Spirit of Christ.
Spiritual insights from various religious perspectives
on nothingness hold a great deal of promise to understanding the
psychology of coping with stress and rising above traumas. In fact,
transcendence through nothingness may hold the key to the secrets
of the positive psychology of weakness.
Transcendence as an altered state of consciousness
Another way to approach transcendence is to
focus on the transcendental experience as an altered state of consciousness.
Maslow refers to transcendence as the peak experience of self-actualized
persons. It may be described as a state of ecstasy, spiritual fulfillment,
feelings of awe and wonder, and an encounter with the divine.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi believes that transcendental
meditation provides a pathway to spiritual development. Experienced
TM practitioners can reach deeper levels of consciousness; they
report having experienced a state of enlightenment, a heightened
awareness of infinity and oneness, and an awakening to our creative
It may be helpful to regard such intense spiritual
experiences as by-products of self-transcendence. What really matters
lies beyond our immediate concerns, beckoning us to strive and press
on. In the process, we may be visited by a sacred encounter, when
it is least expected.
The transcendental life may be an impossible
ideal, but it is a necessary antidote to our propensity to be trapped
in our miseries and feelings of helplessness. The very ideal of
self-transcendence is sufficient to restore our true humanity, set
us free, and elevate our souls to a higher spiritual plane.