No rapture: Resonance, not transcendence

Vine leaves on pillar

Nontranscendence means not seeking other worlds, other bodies, or other lives. Instead, there is this earth, this body, this life.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

This post celebrates Non-judgment Day, the day which is not the May 21st Judgment Day predicted by Harold Camping and followers, but rather a day for celebrating who you are, promoted by the queer nuns called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  So, in honor of non-judgment, we have a non-theme: nontranscendence.

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In the last post, I mentioned that Humanistic Paganism does not seek transcendence.  This provoked one commenter to remark “this leaves me feeling a little sad.”  Yes, it is sad.  But when you’re done being sad, it becomes wonderful.

Nontranscendence means not seeking another world, another body, or another life.  Instead, there is this earth, this body, this life. However imperfect they may be, they are ours.  They are yours.  Embracing that fact is the first step to finding yourself in a world that resonates with every step.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve yourself or the world.  On the contrary, such improvement is essential to Humanistic Paganism, as encapsulated in the Fourfold Path under responsible action.  There are plenty of challenges to be met, and HP affirms the responsibility and power of the individual to meet those challenges.  By so doing, the world can become a better place, and you can become a better person.  If that’s what meets your definition of transcendence, then by all means bring it on.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The idea I have in mind has more to do with the mystical and fantastical.  There are many religions and philosophies today that focus on other worlds, bodies, or lives.  Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture will arrive today is a case in point, but there are less extreme examples.  Christianity and Islam look forward to an afterlife, while Contemporary Shamanism communicates with a spirit world.  Many New Age cults concentrate on a subtle or light body, at the same time that the pseudo-religion of consumerism obsesses about that perfect body that you just don’t have (not without product x!).  Meanwhile, forms of Hinduism and Buddhism postulate past and future lives, and cryonics panders to the desire for immortal life.  The problem is not that these hypothesized other worlds, bodies, and lives are necessarily false – we’ll let empirical investigation determine that.  Nor is it that they cannot have psychological benefits – I engage many spiritual practices for that very reason.  The problem is that they can distract from something equally extraordinary right here and now: the world of the ordinary.

Tree and lamppost at night in Loring Park

By opening awareness to sensations normally relegated to the dark of the unconscious, the ordinary can become extraordinary.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011

The extraordinary ordinary

What do people seek in other worlds, bodies, or lives?  I’ll concede that some may genuinely pursue them for their own sake, but I’d hazard to guess that many if not most are really seeking escape from the ordinary.  Much of what masquerades as spirituality is really hope for something elseJoseph Campbell suggests that people aren’t really seeking the meaning of life so much as an experience of being alive.

The humdrum rolling on of life, the daily inundation of violent or depressing news – who wouldn’t hope for something more?  It’s human nature to always want more.  Where we go wrong is in assuming that something more must come from something else.

That’s just not true.  The ordinary world, just as it is, has so much more to offer.  In fact, it has so much to offer in each and every moment that our conscious minds cannot possibly take it all in, and that is one of the reasons why it quickly acquires a tedious veneer.

Cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson explains in Strangers to Ourselves that our minds assimilate some 11,000,000 pieces of information per second from our sense organs, but only about 40 can be processed consciously.  The rest, according to Wilson, are handled by the unconscious.  This enables us to consciously concentrate on one thing while unconsciously monitoring the environment for danger.  So, the vast majority of perception happens beyond conscious experience, beyond what we normally take for our world.  The result: as non-critical sensations are relegated to the unconscious, the everyday environment quickly begins to feel ordinary.

However, how would our experience change if we brought attention to a fuller range of sensations?  For example, have you ever stopped to really take in all the sensations of eating an orange – the sound of peeling the skin, the softness of the pulp, the spray of juice as you bite into it?  What an extraordinary experience it becomes when you bring awareness to this thoroughly ordinary phenomenon.  Likewise, many meditation techniques call attention to the breath.  The rhythmic rising and falling of the abdomen, the warmth of air passing over the upper lip, the fleeting moment after one breath is finished but before the next has begun – a sense of peace and wonder may accompany observing these ordinary sensations.

So, experiencing something more doesn’t require something else.  It only requires a deeper approach to what is already present.  Through mindful practice, the realization gradually dawns that the extraordinary is already available in the ordinary.  All it takes is an alteration of awareness.  The world begins to resonate, suffused with a new vibrance.  The humdrum bursts to life, the droll pulses with vitality.  There arises a sense of wonder, or as Campbell puts it, an experience of being alive.

Resonance and the Five +1

The Fourfold Path of Humanistic Paganism addresses this through exploration of the Five +1.  These are the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, plus one introspective sense that perceives thoughts, feelings, emotions, and mental imagery.  By turning awareness to these phenomena, particularly to those normally relegated to the unconscious, a fuller experience is raised to consciousness.  The fruit of such activity is a profound sense of wonder at the world of the extraordinary ordinary.

Is this a kind of transcendence?  Maybe.  If there are those who wish to use the word for this, I won’t argue.  But I prefer resonance.  The word transcendence seems to imply getting over or above or beyond something, as if there were some lack to be overcome.  On the contrary, the task is not to go beyond but right into the heart of things.  Deep in the trenches of experiences is all the rapture I need.

Mythology and Resonance

But wait a minute… what about the Fourfold Path‘s emphasis on mythology?  Why isn’t bare perception enough without mythologizing it?  Isn’t this just another attempt to go over and above the ordinary, to seek something else?

Here is where we return to what was said earlier about spiritual practices, including those focused on other worlds, bodies, or lives.  They can have psychological benefits.  The question is whether they orient the individual toward or away from ordinary experience.  Approached from a desire to escape the ordinary world, they become escapist and unhealthy.  Approached from a desire for resonance with the world, however, they can be profoundly beneficial.  Furthermore, they can actually lead the individual to the ordinary by way of the extraordinary.

In a previous post I mentioned a storm in which I felt the majesty of Zeus, god of thunder.  This was a case in which mythology reminded me to look deeper at the environment, to open my awareness to a fuller range of experience.  As a result, the brooding sky acquired a more vivid, vital aspect.  The clouds almost breathed.  It was not that I was no longer perceiving the sky, but rather that I was meeting it with more of my being – not just the five senses but also imagination.  The entire field of experience, the Five +1, was humanized and unified.  By including the imaginal realm of myth in the experience, inner and outer worlds became one.  The sky as well as my whole being was in resonance.

It is not necessary to transcend this world, this body, or this life – at least, not in order to have an experience of being alive.  What is necessary is to go deeper into everyday experience.  Exploring the Five +1 can enable that, as can developing a relationship with mythology.  If motivated by a desire not to escape the ordinary but to achieve communion with it, something extraordinary can happen.  World, body, and life begin to resonate.

Hailstorm sky

By allowing the world of the five senses and the imaginal world of mythology to meet, inner and outer worlds become one.

photo by B. T. Newberg, enhanced with Typhoeus & Zeus, Chalcidian Black Figure Vase, c 540 BCE

Humanistic Paganism

8 Comments on “No rapture: Resonance, not transcendence

  1. You apparently object to (for example) the pursuit of immortality by cryonics on the grounds that it is a distraction from the richness of the immediate environment. But couldn’t you place any number of things in that category? For example, the pursuit of improved societal morality, or the attempt to make money by fulfilling a need in the marketplace. Aren’t dreams and goals an important part of what makes us human? It seems to me that the ideal is to pursue balance between such distant goals like long-term survival or improvement of the human condition, and the nearby ones such as the appreciation of nature and the love of life.

    • Well said. That’s a fair criticism, and balance between distant and immediate goals does much to overcome any possible objections. The real test, in my opinion, is whether the practice orients you toward or away from the world. With the example of cryonics, if it were motivated out of such a desperation for life in the future that it obstructs really living in the present, it would be objectionable. But if it were motivated, for example, by a sense of wonder for what the human spirit can accomplish (even overcoming death as we know it), that would be awesome.

      • Good points. I think this encapsulates a major point of controversy between “transhumanist” and “old school humanist” thinkers, in that it is not so much a matter of what we want to do as why, i.e. what constitutes a good reason to pay attention to these goals if any. It may be that the term “transhumanist” is unfortunate in that it connotes a distant and “transcendental” future. I think I would be in favor of a term that connotes a focus on incremental advances, with some planning ahead so that we can all adequately to benefit from “best case scenarios”. Perhaps “optihumanism” or something like that.

        What I’ve noticed is that humanists are often suspicious regarding the motives of those who say they want to live forever — it is frequently dismissed as frivolous and selfish or innately gullible. Usually there is an assumption (with some truth to it) that it will lead to obsession. This is understandable, but I don’t think the quest for immortality is something that necessarily distracts from realistic personal development more than, say, a quest to level up your character in a D&D game. It has a cost in terms of attention, but it isn’t an all-consuming thing — and that could be traded for something vastly less important in one’s life, or it could even be a very casual interest, depending on the person and their situation.

        Part of the attention-cost is simply (in my opinion) that it is something so unusual in the current culture that you almost have to be a fanatic to be interested at all. But I see this perhaps fading with time; things like science fiction or (more recently in the US) anime, are some examples of things that started out drawing rather obsessive individuals at first, and gradually became something palatable for broader audiences as more information about them penetrated the broader cultural background. I would expect immortalism to eventually reach such a point as well.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Is there a historical connection between Humanism and Transhumanism? I have to admit almost complete ignorance here.

    The analysis of the attention-cost really puts it in perspective. There’s a range, obviously, of obsession on the matter. I was certainly criticizing the more obsessive end of the spectrum.

    Is there an ethos or way of life that goes along with transhumanism? Is there any focus on quality of life as opposed to quantity? I’m genuinely curious.

    P. S. “Optihumanism.” Sounds like a Transformer. LOL.

    • Yes, Transhumanism is essentially a branch of Humanism which explicitly recognizes that certain aspects of humanity can be improved by technological means. Of course there’s a broad range of ways one can interpret that general idea — use of fire and tools could arguably be considered transhuman for our distant ancestors, as it radically changed their lifestyles without being a part of humanity’s formerly evolved nature. Today’s Transhumanists argue for the use of technology to overcome cognitive limitations and increase lifespan.

      Here are some quotes from some transhumanist writers on the relationship between the two philosophies:

      “Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life rather than in some supernatural “afterlife”. Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system. ” – Max More

      “There is nothing in transhumanism but the same common sense that underlies standard humanism, rigorously applied to cases outside our modern-day experience. A million-year lifespan? If it’s possible, why not? The prospect may seem very foreign and strange, relative to our current everyday experience. It may create a sensation of future shock. And yet – is life a bad thing?” – Eliezer Yudkowsky

      “Transhumanism has roots in secular humanist thinking, yet is more radical in that it promotes not only traditional means of improving human nature, such as education and cultural refinement, but also direct application of medicine and technology to overcome some of our basic biological limits.” – Nick Bostrom

      I’m not sure they all agree that it is something distinct; EY argues that it is fundamentally the same thing, just taken to a logical extreme (i.e. it’s just plain humanism once you get past the element of future shock). But regardless of that, it is helpful to understand the differences between the two schools of thought as they currently exist.

      The trade-off question is something of a FAQ. Most life-extensionists do seem tolerant of the notion of suicide under circumstances where additional life is truly not desirable. It is not usually the “prolong life at all costs” fundamentalist argument seen by pro-lifers, but “usually more life is what we really want, so let’s go for it”. However, the consensus is that most methods of extending life that would actually work would involve restoring youth, or else (in the case of cryonics and/or long-term hypothermia) keeping you blissfully unconscious until this can be achieved.

      For the sake of argument, we could admit to a scenario of geriatric life extension. In this event, sufficient life support to prevent geriatric death entirely would have to be developed — perhaps an exo-suit that prevents infectious diseases and skeletal stress, coupled with routine organ replacements or prosthetic organs. I would venture to suggest that, as long as people had decent relationships and hobbies, they could be happy even with very feeble bodies, for a long time.

      • Sorry, for some reason WordPress marked your last post as spam and I didn’t find it till just now. It’s approved and posted now.

        Thanks for the quotes and links. I’m learning.

        >“usually more life is what we really want, so let’s go for it”

        I like that.

        In the meantime since last talking with you, I watched the movie Transcendent Man. I think in that movie can be seen the attitude that might be objectionable, mainly in Ray Kurzweil who seems to be looking to technology as a salvation from loss and death. The quotes you provide, on the other hand, portray the potential of transhumanism as an affirmation of life.

        And I found it interesting and apt when you point out that the invention of fire may have been the first transhumanism. That puts it in perspective. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Three Transcendents, part 1: Naturalistic transcendence « Humanistic Paganism

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