During meditation one is not engrossed in bodily and worldly things but the mind is detached from them. In this state people may be more open to spiritual intuition. For example that there is a hidden life force and design within nature. Not measurable by science but felt as something universal and infinite. For those with a religious inclination this transcendent reality is associated with a higher purpose to life and a divine providence – a creative source that is both within and beyond the world: in it, but not of it; simultaneously pervading it and surpassing it.
If we do perceive some sort of transcendent reality, how can we understand it? How can we make rational sense of it? Should we even try?
Limitation of earthly thought
In daily life we tend to perceive things in terms of opposites: for example, high or low, rough or smooth, black or white. Likewise, when using abstract terms we contrast one idea with its opposite – as this or that, one thing or the other, and all or nothing. Examples include good-bad, true-false, beautiful-ugly. We come to depend on these dichotomous categories for understanding experience. This is convenient but human life can be more complex. Thinking in simple polarities creates the problem of how to respond to the shadings in between.
Buddha credited his finding the middle way of Buddhism to the comment of a passing boatman who remarked that a string too tight will break, and one too loose will not sound. The middle way between extremes makes music.
Not surprisingly, using categorical ways of thinking may hinder an understanding of transcendent reality beyond the self, a perception found deep within the soul. Any such reality might be expected to be greater than our worldly minds can easily comprehend.
Non-dual thought & transcendent reality
At the other extreme from earthly thought is the experience of mystics. From a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions, these individuals have experienced what they cannot easily describe. They refer to non-dual experience. They say there is a one transcendent reality behind the universe they call ‘the One’, ‘the All’, and ‘the ground of all being.’; such that everything is linked together.
Does enlightened perception surpass dual ways of thinking? Let’s consider life and death. They are clearly opposites when we see these in an earthly way. A deeper understanding however rises above this duality so that life and death are seen as merging into the same process.
“If all plants did not die, leaf by leaf or as a whole, the earth would have become one dense mass of plants eons ago. It would be a plant disaster. All nutrients would have been taken out of the soil and no new plant would have room to live. Dying is a vital part of living. ” (Wilson Van Dusen, mystic and psychologist)
Another example is sex and love. To those who have a love of sex, the feelings of romance and physical excitement are not the same thing at all. But to those who have an enlightened love of one of the sex, the tender feelings of love merge into the desire to give and receive sexual pleasure.
Rational thinking & transcendent reality
Theological debate is full of polarised ideas – right-wrong, good-evil, God-person, salvation-sin etc. Many of us would probably agree that any kind of intellectual argument for its own sake often gets us nowhere. It lacks a spirit of life when it has no connection with the experience of the human condition.
Yet, I would suggest, reasoning in terms of dualistic categories of thought sometimes has its use for us. This is when we are in touch with imperfection, disorder, even chaos. Whose life isn’t touched by such circumstances?
Helen Keller who was profoundly disabled wrote of her rational discernment.
“My life is so complicated by a triple handicap of blindness, deafness, and imperfect speech that I cannot do the simplest thing without thought and effort to rationalize my experiences. If I employed (the) … mystic sense constantly without trying to understand the outside world, my progress would be checked, and everything would fall about me in chaos. It is easy for me to mix up dreams and reality, the spiritual and the physical that I have not properly visualized; without discernment I could not keep them apart.” (Helen Keller)
Mind states & transcendent reality
Transcendent reality may be goodness itself, but when human beings in their egocentric ways turn their back on this, by behaving badly they create suffering, and misery – for themselves as well as for others. When faced with problems in living, the mistakes and illusions of life can mislead us.
The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg compares each of us to a garden, our understanding to light and our feelings to warmth. When we have both light in our understanding and warmth in our feelings, we are like a garden in summer. Then we are spiritually alive to what is good and our enlightened ideas flourish.
However, although a garden in winter has some limited light, it receives no warmth. Plant life is dormant. At times we are like a garden in winter. For example we may be struggling with temptation and challenge. Then although we may have some limited light of rational ideas, these difficulties separate us from enlightening inspiration.
In other words in the wintry state we lack any good and warm connection with all that is good from transcendent reality. And lacking this warmth to motivate our good intentions, we have no immediate wise perception of what is sensible. All we can do instead is consult what rationally understood ideas we have learned. Perhaps fall back on our conscience and understanding of what is reasonable and ethical.
Conclusion about transcendent reality
We may only occasionally have deep spiritual experiences and they are direct evidence of transcendent reality of goodness within existence. Nevertheless we can learn something about transcendence through rational ideas which we can apply in other states of mind.
Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems