Towards the Transpersonal
In today’s reading we were introduced to the mythological figure of the dakini—the divine force which embodies a wild, provocative energy that enters people’s lives and shakes them loose from complacency and superficiality. The dakini’s nature is to rouse, inspire, and challenge people to go deeper….
That was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s purpose too. Listen to a passage from his work entitled Nature, published in 1836 but it’s still relevant. We need to hear to it today more than ever…. “[A man—and by this he means everyone] works in the world with his understanding alone. He lives in it, and masters it by penny wisdom; and he that works most in it, is but a half-man, and whilst his arms are strong and his digestion good, his mind is imbruted, and he is a selfish savage. His relation to nature, his power over it, is through the understanding; as by manure; the economic use of fire, wind, water, and the mariner’s needle; steam, coal, chemical agriculture; the repairs of the human body by the dentist and the surgeon. This is such a resumption of power, as if a banished king should buy his territories inch by inch, instead of vaulting at once into his throne.” In other words, says Emerson, people have their usual, ordinary way of being in the world. We engage it through our five physical senses and their extensions through technological means: instruments, gadgets, machines. We also engage the world through the different machinery of reasoning—that slow internal process that adds up facts and spits out conclusions. It brings good stuff to us, undeniably. But it ain’t nearly enough to be fully human. That’s what Emerson is really trying to say. To dwell completely within the physical senses and reason is to be “imbruted” not enlightened. It’s “penny wisdom.” But we can be so much more than this… We are birthright kings: the kingdom of love and wisdom is rightfully ours, and yet, the penny wisdom of the physical senses and of reason makes us think we must buy it back inch by inch. Penny wisdom reduces us into half-people. Creates the sense of deep unhappiness and meaninglessness that millions suffer from today. Creates the conditions for addictions and consumerism gone crazy.
It’s so tragic, to stay locked within this, because so much more is possible. We don’t have to live just half our lives…. Besides “penny wisdom,” there is another capacity of mind: an intuitive, holistic capacity—very different. Turn it on, and at once, we, the banished kings, vault to the throne. The world in our eyes becomes transformed into a place of radiance and possibility; subtle patterns of meaning step forward and we are amazed; we discover an inner freedom and peace that no external adversity can shake; we realize the difference between the ways and laws of our society and the higher law of conscience. “Crossing a bare common,” says Emerson, “in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perennial youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel nothing can befall me in life,– no disgrace, no calamity … which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,– all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” That is what Emerson says. Emerson’s peak experience has just enabled him to vault straight to his throne, and through our own peak experiences, we can as well. But to get there, we must open up to the world in a way that’s very different from “penny wisdom.” Only if we expand ourselves beyond our five physical senses and reason, become the transparent eyeball. Only if we become more than we ever thought possible… .
This is Emerson … this is Transcendentalism, which is a form of spirituality that is a gift to the world out of our Unitarian Universalist heritage and history. And the energy it brings into our lives is dakini-like: to rouse, to inspire, to challenge. We are more than we seem to be.
This is the core teaching of Transpersonalism—our topic for today. Transpersonal thought, transpersonal psychology, transpersonal philosophy, sociology, anthropology, ecology. The golden thread of meaning that runs through writers like William James, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof. Charles Tart, Ken Wilber, and on and on. But above all, what I want us to see before I go any further is that Transpersonalism is a home-grown tradition. It’s native to our own history as a religious people. When we talk about transpersonalism, we are coming home.
Let me offer a more careful definition of transpersonalism. Transpersonalism focuses on experiences in which people’s ordinary, ego-centered sense of self is expanded, and they come to understand themselves, others, and the world in a completely different light. The means to this expansion can be many:
experience in nature (as we saw a moment ago with Emerson),
or music and the arts,
or sports (as in experiences of “being in the zone,” or “the runner’s high”),
or dream work (including lucid dreaming, which is a capacity to become consciously aware you are dreaming while you are dreaming!),
or the use of psychedelics (like LSD or peyote),
or shamanic drumming,
or parapsychological experience…
The list goes on and on… varies from well-known and widely practiced to do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do (Twilight Zone theme)….
But what about this—how about compassion? Whatever it was that made the Good Samaritan in the Bible stop and help… And then there’s love. Love is transpersonal too, since it’s about being expanded completely beyond the bounds of one’s solitary, isolated ego… In this regard two quotes come to mind. The first is a short one from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began.” The “trans” in “transpersonal” means MORE. MORE than the personal solitary self….
Here’s the other quote, from Catholic priest Greg Boyle—we met him in a sermon of mine from several weeks back. “Years ago, my friend and spiritual director Bill Cain took a break from his own ministry to care for his father as he died of cancer. His father had become a frail man, dependent on Bill to do everything for him. Though he was physically not what he had been, and the disease was wasting him away, his mind remained alert and lively. In the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents, Bill would put his father to bed and then read him to sleep, exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel, and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling. Bill was exhausted from the day’s care and work and would plead with his dad, ‘Look, here’s the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.’ Bill’s father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eyes. But this wouldn’t last long. Soon enough, Bill’s father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine, ‘Now, come on.’ The father would, again, oblige, until he couldn’t anymore, and the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son. This went on and on, and after his father’s death, Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn’t take his eyes off his kid.” Greg Boyle goes on to say that this story teaches him about how God loves people. “God,” he says, “would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval.” Haters of the transgendered and haters of homosexuality and gay marriage in particular really need to hear this. Love bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never ends. Love is the quintessential transpersonal experience.
The other thing to say about transpersonalism—something equally central to its definition—is that its approach to understanding the world is eclectic, interdisciplinary, integral. It’s not a one-way approach to knowing. And this is very Unitarian Universalist… We have our Six Sources of wisdom and truth (mystical experience, words and deeds of prophets, the world’s religions, our home traditions of Judaism and Christianity, science and humanistic thought, and earth-based spiritualities)—we have all these sources, and Transpersonalism goes, “DIG IT.” Transpersonalism knows that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you’ll see every problem as a nail. That’s what Emerson was really trying to get at. If your only ways of engaging the world are through your five physical senses, their extensions through technology, and reason, then you are going to hammer down a lot of things that are just not nails. Love is not a nail. Meaning is not a nail. Beauty is not a nail. God is not a nail. What we must do instead is heed very carefully something that one of my all-time favorite writers, William James, once said: “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. “ For Unitarian Universalists, it means that if you’ve decided that the First Source (mystical experience) is the only source you’re gonna draw from in understanding the world, then you’re in trouble. You need the other ones too…. Or if the science and humanism source is the only one for you, again, you’re in trouble. There is a place for the five physical senses and technology. There is a place for reason. And there is a place for transparent eyeball experiences…. We must draw from all. Our approach to knowing the world must be eclectic, interdisciplinary, integral.
Now, with regard to the five physical senses and reason—“normal waking consciousness”—not much of an argument needs to be made. You don’t have to argue for the normal. Therefore much of the emphasis of Transpersonalism is to articulate the altered states of consciousness that, as William James said a moment ago, are “parted from normal consciousness by the filmiest of screens… Apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
One quick way to understand altered states is to link them to the experience of timelessness, which is also the experience of flow. Altered states can be either extremely refined and focused forms of concentration, or they can be forms of cosmic, wide-open consciousness … and both put you in a place beyond clock time. Time slows down, time speeds up… An hour is gone in an instant; an instant lasts for what seems like forever…
It’s true of all “transparent eyeball” experiences—like Emerson’s. And here’s yet another to consider: “I was between eleven and twelve years old. It was a summer day and I was playing out back of the house, in an alley in the city where we lived…. A sudden storm came up and interrupted our play. I sat alone between garages behind the house, waiting for it to end. It was near noon. The rain ended almost as soon as it came, and the sun shone hot and bright once more. All at once I felt as if I were seeing everything for the first time. The light seemed like gold, the smell of the wet ground and foliage was like perfume, with the rain water shining and running about in little rivulets, the humming and buzzing of insects and bees was pleasant to my ears. Everywhere I looked there was beauty. In that dirty alley, wherever there was a leaf or blade of grass, it sparkled…. Now I watched a beetle going about its business, and then a small garden spider, and I was glowing with warmth. It was as if all that was inside of me, I felt myself to be a part of it. Then a thought came. It said, `See! Everything is alive, everything lives. That insect, it has a life, the grass, the air even!’ And then I felt joy, and with the joy, love, and then a reverence…. I was a part of all this, but I experienced myself also as an entity, distinct, conscious, of a higher consciousness than the grass and the creatures I was watching. I felt a loving obligation to be respectful and kind, to relate to all of life with a feeling of reverence and love. To be gentle, to never hurt anything because it all had life…. The whole experience lasted only a few minutes, and when I heard my mother call me to come to lunch I said nothing of this, but the glow of it remained for some time.”
Several weeks ago, from this pulpit we heard the past President of our Unitarian Universalist Association and the current President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the Rev. Bill Schulz, say that reality is fundamentally glory, radiance, wonder—and that the mission of our faith community is to dissolve and deconstruct all blocks to the realization of that. Blocks in our larger world, which we experience as cruelty of all kinds. Blocks in our inner worlds, which are equivalent forms of self-directed cruelty. The mission is ancient. Hinduism speaks of ultimate reality as sit-chat-ananda (being-knowledge-bliss); Buddhism speaks of the nirvana experience in which all our self-directed forms of cruelty are extinguished and what we are left with is endless, endless compassion. And then there’s the Christianity of Catholic priest Greg Boyle, who envisions God’s love as the story of a father who just can’t take his eyes off his kid and is so absorbed by this love that there’s simply no time and no will to hate. Our Unitarian Universalist mission in the world is shared the world over, by what is best and highest in all the world’s religions. But how shall we implement this vision if we do not give people the tools and techniques for entering into altered states for themselves? Emerson should not be the only Unitarian Universalist who’s had a transparent eyeball experience. We all need them, to come to know our world and our lives truly and fully. When in doubt, ask: What would Emerson do? WWED.
Definitely, Emerson would love the piece of wisdom that one of the fathers of Transpersonalism, Abraham Maslow, shared. He’s the guy that coined the phrase, “peak experience,” which is a profound moment of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world; more aware of truth, justice, harmony, and goodness. Maslow tells us that when his students began to talk to each other about their peak experiences, they began having them all the time. It was as if the simple act of being reminded of their existence triggered more of them…. When we think and talk about moments of people being saved every day, it makes it more likely that we will have such moments ourselves. Conversely, if we do not talk and think about such things, we may block their happening.
What I’m saying is that yet another means to transpersonal experience—to experiences of the expansion of the self—is the humble conversation. Nothing do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do about that at all. Share your stories. We all have our stories of pain. But what are your stories of joy? Of transcendence? Of knowing that, despite everything, it’s all gonna be OK, and there is an everlasting love that holds us and will never let us go? Start sharing these stories, and it will set up a positive contagion, your story will open me up to my story or may trigger a new story in me… and this is nothing less than a path to the radiance at the heart of the universe, which is the path of all true religion. Let our religion be true.