Voices 6: VOICES OF TRANSCENDING
Annette visits the philo-sopher Linda at her home. She wants to consult her about something that bothers her.
“On the surface,” Annette explains, “everything is fine with me. I have a good job and a group of friends, and I get along with my new boyfriend. But I feel a kind of ennui, boredom. Sometimes I feel I have already seen everything there is to see.”
In the conversation that follows, Annette describes several examples of her experience of ennui. Linda points out a certain pattern in that experience, and they discuss the meaning of this pattern. At the end of the meeting, Annette starts to understand why she has a lot of energy to begin new projects, but quickly afterwards she is no longer interested.
A few days later Annette returns to Linda. “I have been thinking about what we said. I now realize that I am stuck in one narrow ‘theory’ about what life should be like. There is no place in my world for gradual progress, slow development, long-term projects – everything has to be new and exciting. But what can I do? I can’t change myself all of a sudden. I am not a piece of clay. I cannot decide that from now on I will enjoy the routine.”
“Annette, so far we talked about you, about your life, about your ‘theory’ of the world. We could continue to explore all this. There is a lot more to discover, and a lot more to say, and maybe new doors will open up. But I suggest a different direction. Let’s forget your problems and your boredom. Let’s get away from your world and discuss something else.”
“Any philosophical topic, it doesn’t really matter which one. But this morning I wrote something about transcending - about going beyond ourselves. Do you want to talk about it?”
“But I have never thought about myself in terms of transcending. This topic isn’t connected to any concern I have.”
“Very good, Annette. If we want to do philo-sophy, then we should not be too preoccupied with our personal problems. This is an illnesses of our psychological culture: We are too preoccupied with ourselves, with our little worries, with our anxieties and pains and satisfactions. If we want to grow philo-sophically, then we must also look beyond our personal concerns and personal needs. We must grow beyond ourselves.”
“But, Linda, how is a discussion on transcending going to be significant, if it is so foreign to my life?”
“An encounter with new voices – it doesn’t matter on what topic – opens us beyond the narrow perimeter of our lives. When a new understanding touches our being, it teaches us how to listen beyond our familiar self. The moment of a new understanding, when a flash of realization stirs our entire being, is a precious moment: It is the experience of expanding beyond our narrow boundaries, of being more than ourselves. It teaches us how to be in touch with a greater reality.”
“So is this what philo-sophy tries to do?”
“Yes,” Linda says. “This is, for me, the heart of philo-sophy: To open in myself a new space, broader than my usual perimeter of life. If I learn how to listen to the voices of reality, beyond the usual patterns of thought and behavior, a new world will open up for me, a new dimension of meaning and understanding. To philo-sophize is to explore that different dimension.”
“So why discuss traditional philosophical texts?”
“Traditional texts by good philosophers help us to learn the languages of new voices. Discussing them is like an exercise in listening and understanding. Of course, this kind of discussion is very theoretical, but it prepares us for the real dialogue, for the living encounter. So let us start today’s language class: languages of transcendence.”
HEIKHALOT MYSTICISM – A HEAVENLY JOURNEY
Literally speaking, transcending (or going beyond) means rising above the ordinary plain of existence to a higher level of reality. This assumes that there is a level of reality that is higher than the material world.
Some mystics talk about transcendence in this literal sense: To transcend is to rise to a higher world. An example is the enigmatic books of Jewish Heikhalot mysticism, written about 2000 ago (long before the classic Jewish Kabala), which describe fantastic journeys to heaven. The mystic ascends to the seven heavenly palaces, where he sees great wonders such as angels, palaces, holy creatures and the divine throne. (All this may be metaphors, but it is hard to know what the unknown writers of the Heikhalot books had in mind.)
PLOTINUS – GOING BEYOND THROUGH CONTEMPLATION
It is possible, however, to believe in the possibility of rising to higher levels of reality without believing in mystical journeys to other worlds. Plotinus, the 3rd century philosopher and mystic, held that reality is a series of emanations, from the most perfect to the least perfect: The highest level of reality is the One – a unity beyond distinctions, divisions, and change. From the One emanates the next level of reality called the Intellect (Nous). From the Intellect emanates the Soul, and from the Soul emanates Nature, which includes our bodies and the rest of the material world.
All of creation, including the human soul, seeks to return to its source. The higher part of our soul is therefore constantly turned toward the Intellect and the One. But the lower part of our soul forgets its source and is preoccupied with material objects, such as bodily pleasures, money, food, fame.
That is why we often identify ourselves with our lower desires, and we forget our higher source and our true longing. But we are also capable of identifying ourselves with the higher part of the soul. Through intellectual contemplation we can turn to our source and attain union with the Intellect, and through it with the One. Interestingly, Plotinus’ student, Porphyry, writes that Plotinus had attained such a union four times during the years he stayed with him.
If we put aside the details of Plotinus’ complex metaphysical system, the basic idea is that we can go beyond our everyday concerns and turn toward a fuller, more fundamental, more perfect reality. This going-beyond does not mean that we literally go from one place to another, but rather that we identify ourselves with our true nature and true desire, and connect to the higher reality through contemplation.
PAUL TILLICH – THE SYMBOLS THAT TAKE US BEYOND
For the 20th century German theologian Paul Tillich, the ‘beyond’ cannot be captured in a description or theory. This raises the question: How can we possibly relate to such a reality?
Tillich answers in terms of 'symbols': Symbols can point to realities that lie beyond our descriptive knowledge. For instance, a religious symbol such as Jesus on the cross is only a symbol – there is no Jesus on the cross in heaven - but this symbol directs us toward divine reality which cannot be described in words or pictures. Similarly, the national flag points to the country's power and dignity. Poems and poetic imagery point to aspects of nature which cannot be objectified.
Symbols should be distinguished from signs. A traffic sign, for example, is a metal object that points to another thing, such as a nearby hospital, or the command to stop. A sign, like a symbol, points to something beyond itself. But whereas a sign functions by an arbitrary social convention (the ministry of transportation decided that this is what the sign means), a symbol does not depend on a convention. It has a life of its own in our hearts and lives. For example, we cannot arbitrarily replace the Christian mass with a dancing party and expect that the new ritual would mean the same thing.
This is because a sign is external to the object to which it points. A symbol, on the other hand, cannot be separated from the reality to which it points. A symbol is part of that reality. The national flag not only points to the country's pride, it is also part of it.
Most importantly, a symbol opens to us realities which we have no other way to experience. Conversely, it opens our inner being to those realities. In this double sense, a symbol opens a gateway between us and realities that are beyond the normal boundaries of our knowledge. It allows us to participate in them and experience them.
KARL JASPERS – TRANSCENDING THROUGH MY WAY OF BEING
The idea of transcendence (the ‘beyond’) plays a central role in the writings of Karl Jaspers, the German existentialist philosopher and psychologist. According to him, in everyday life we experience ourselves as living in an objective world – a world of stones and trees and stars. But we also encounter hints - or what Jaspers calls ‘ciphers’ – that point to what lies beyond objective reality, and beyond the boundaries of human knowledge.
We encounter these ciphers in everyday experiences, in nature, in communication with others, in religion, in art and philosophy. There is no technique or method that produces these experiences. We receive them like a gift. When we contemplate them, we get a sense of the limits of our knowledge. Ciphers then bring transcendent reality to our minds and bring us in contact with it. However, ciphers cannot give us any positive knowledge about the ‘beyond’. Transcendence is not an objective reality that can be captured by objective descriptions and theories.
For this reason, reading a cipher is not like looking at an object that is outside me and independent from me. The model of subject-object does not apply to transcendent reality, because the clear distinction between the two does not hold. I can read a cipher only through my own way of being, through my inner struggles to reach it. I can read it only by becoming my true self (or what Jaspers calls Existenz), through my authentic relation to myself and to life. Connecting to the beyond through ciphers is therefore an inner action. It cannot be verified and transmitted in an objective or generalized way.
NIETZSCHE – OVERCOMING MYSELF
Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century philosopher, denies the existence of a transcendent or divine reality that lies beyond the material world. Nevertheless, the idea of transcending plays an important role in his philosophy – in the form of self-transcending, Self-transcending, or self-overcoming, means going beyond my nature and creating my self, my values, my life.
For Nietzsche, our natural self is raw materials: chaotic needs and drives and desires. Our challenge in life is to go beyond this primary material by molding it, shaping it, giving it style. In this sense we are the artistic creators of our own lives, but we are also the creation itself.
Thus, our task is to overcome ourselves and be a self-creation, or an ‘over-man’. Indeed, the noble life – the life of the over-man – is a constant process of passionate and intense self-overcoming. As Nietzsche says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, man is a rope over the abyss, a constant going across.
This process is extremely difficult. People are often too weak, lazy, and conformist for this dangerous and intensive struggle of self-overcoming. We often opt for comfort and safety and want to be like others. In this sense, the over-man not only overcomes his natural animalistic energies, but also the herd-animal in him, the ‘sheep’ that wants to follow the herd.
“Such different approaches!” Annette remarks. “But there is also a similarity: All these thinkers are dissatisfied with ordinary life. They want something higher, something more real.”
“An interesting point, Annette. And they seek it in different ways: through mystical journeys, through contemplation, through symbols, by being authentic, by overcoming our lower drives and needs.”
For a few minutes Linda and Annette discuss this. Then Linda says, “So far, Annette, we have been thinking about these texts from the perspective of our ordinary concepts and opinions. This kind of thinking is fine, but it has its limitations. It expresses only one way of understanding, one specific ‘voice’. There are other ways of understanding, based on different concepts, different assumptions, different logical connections.”
“But, Linda, I can’t think of any other ‘voices’ in me, except for my ordinary way of thinking and understanding.”
“You are right, Annette. Normally we are so immersed in our familiar attitudes that we are not aware of other fountains of understanding, other sources of ‘voices’, other ‘voices’ of reality. It isn’t easy to connect to those other fountains. Our everyday patterns of thought and emotion ignore and suppress them. The result is that we identify ourselves with our ordinary ‘voice’, with our ordinary way of understanding. Today let’s invite other ‘voices’ into ourselves. Let us open inside ourselves an inner space and let them to speak in us.”
“Are you talking about meditation?”
“I am talking more generally about philosophical contemplation. Philosophical contemplation means that we listen to other ‘voices’, other than the ordinary ones we already know from everyday life. One way to do it is to use a text that touches us. Did anything touch you in the five approaches to transcending?”
“Yes, Jaspers’ idea that I can connect to something beyond myself only when I am myself. I am not sure why this idea touched me - I don’t believe in God. His ‘beyond’ is not my ‘beyond’.”
“Good. Let’s read a couple of paragraphs from Jaspers and invite into ourselves a different way of understanding. I’d like to teach you a text-meditation that is based on an ancient technique called Lectio Divina. Today we will do the simplest version. Some other time I will teach you more complex ways of doing it.”
Linda now instructs Annette to calm her mind. Then she gives her an excerpt from Jaspers, and asks her to read the text very slowly. “When you read, open a space inside you for the text to speak. Try to understand it, but don’t impose your ideas on it. Push aside your thoughts and opinions, and just listen to what the words say to you.”
Annette reads very slowly and quietly, almost whispering:
“Reading ciphers is so unlike comprehending a being independent of me, that it is quite impossible unless I am myself… In my actions – in resistance, success, failure, and loss… I have the experiences in which I hear the cipher. What happens, and what I do in it, is like question and answer. I hear from what happens to me, by reacting to it. My wrestling with myself and with things is a wrestling for transcendence… What I grasp in reading ciphers of transcendence is thus a being I hear by STRUGGLING for it. It is indeed only with transcendent being that I have a sense of being proper; there alone do I find peace. But I am always back in restless struggle, am forsaken like someone lost; I lose myself when I lose contact with being.” (PHILOSOPHY, Volume 3, Springer-Verlag 1956, pp. 131-133).
“That’s enough, Annette. Did any part of this text strike you?”
“Yes, the part that says: ‘It is indeed only with transcendent being that I have a sense of being proper; there alone do I find peace.’ I felt that it said to me that I am myself only when I am beyond myself. When I am stuck in my narrow self, when I am busy with my personal concerns, I am not really myself. This is perhaps not what Jaspers meant, but it’s what the words mean to me.”
“Good. Now focus on this paragraph, and again let the text to speak in you. Read it several times and just listen inwardly to the ‘voice’ that speaks to you. You can also ask questions if you want.”
Annette slowly reads three or four times. After a while Linda asks, “Can you remember moments in the past when this ‘voice’ spoke in you?”
“Yes, last week, in a middle of a very busy day. It was the end of the semester, and I had some very important exams. I studied from morning to midnight, and I was very pressured, but also bored to death. I couldn’t stand it anymore. And then I looked outside my window and saw a bird on a tree. And suddenly I felt that life is much bigger than my exams, much wider than my boredom – that life includes not only me, but also this bird, and the tree, and all the birds in this city, and all the trees in the world. I saw that I am just one little atom in a big ocean. I felt very peaceful. My anxiety and boredom were no longer the center of the world. I returned to my books, and for the rest of the day I continued studying, but without the pressure. I can’t explain it. I felt as if I was no longer only Annette. I was more than Annette, I was with the entire world, and yet I was very much myself.”
“That is a very beautiful voice, Annette. Let’s explore it together.”
“You mean analyze it?”
“Later, Annette. First I suggest that you ‘listen’ to it a little more. Invite it to speak in you. Push aside the everyday Annette, your everyday way of understanding, and let this other ‘voice’ speak. Can you connect to it?”
“Yes, I think I can.”
“Good, so keep yourself connected, and let’s talk about yourself, about your boredom, about life in general. Let’s hear what this other Annette has to say.”
Afterwards Linda and Annette analyze that new voice, its assumptions, its inner logic, its language. In a later meeting Annette will return to that voice, and perhaps will find additional voices.
Linda explains that in philo-sophical practice it is not enough to explore our existing patterns of understanding, because we also want to go beyond them towards greater horizons. It is not enough to listen to the ‘voice’ of our small perimeter, we also want to open ourselves to other voices of human reality.
“There is a point where you are no longer just your ordinary ‘voice’. The walls of your narrow world crack, and dormant fountains of new voices awaken. Getting to this breaking point is not just a matter of talking and analyzing. It is a matter of way of being. That’s why philo-sophia is not just philosophy. Voices are much more than ideas, because they also come from fountains of life that animate them. Therefore, inviting a new voice into yourself is much more than theorizing – it is opening a space inside you, attending to new experiences and new voices, receiving them, and engaging them.
“This is the point of rupture: You no longer belong to any specific voice, because you are with all the voices of reality. Your psychology may continue to function in the same old patterns, but your understanding is now open to the many fountains of understanding, of life, of plenitude. This is the point of Sophia.”