Forget About Having a 'Transcendental' Experience!

I am a rather sceptical sort of person. I am proud of that fact. I refuse to accept or believe in anything unless and until I am satisfied that there is sufficient probative material attesting to the existence or veracity of the thing in question.

Trained as a lawyer to always look for evidence, ordained into the Unitarian ministry (which has always been a sceptical, questioning, open-ended denomination or form of religion), a former president of both the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, and a student of empirical philosophy, I find absolutely no evidence for the existence of any 'supernatural' order or level of reality, any 'transcendental' realm of reality, or any 'paranormal' activity ... and I can't stand superstition of any kind.

As regards the latter (superstition), I am simply amazed, and at the same time equally appalled, at the number of people I encounter who boast how they are 'not religious' in any way but who are otherwise incorrigibly superstitious and credulous, often engaging in New Age nonsense or dubious forms of 'alternative healing' of various sorts in respect of which there is little or no empirical support. Please check out the wonderful websites of Quackwatch and James Randi.

I have never forgotten the good advice received from the American philosopher and Humanist Paul Kurtz to always resist what Kurtz describes as 'the transcendental temptation' as well as to avoid engaging in 'magical thinking'. Kurtz, who is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is one of the world's greatest living philosophers and freethinkers, and the author of many seminal books on philosophy, religion, humanism and freethought, including, not so coincidentally, one entitled The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal. For those interested, you may wish to listen to this YouTube video of Paul Kurtz discussing 'Affirmations of the New Skepticism':

'Supernaturalism.' How I hate that word ... and its supposed meaning! A man I respect greatly, the late Australian Liberal Catholic bishop Lawrence W Burt, once wrote, 'In a universe of LAW there can be no supernatural. There may be the super-physical, or super-normal, but there can be no super-natural. You cannot transcend Natural law, nor suspend it. Every branch of science is a testimony that this is a Universe of inviolable LAW.'

I fully agree. Whilst there may be states of experience which can be labelled transmundane or transnatural (as opposed to 'supernatural', 'transcendental' or 'paranormal'), I see no need whatsoever for us to attempt to ‘extricate’ ourselves from, or otherwise ‘transcend’, our ordinary existence or ordinary states of consciousness or so-called ‘relative experience’ (whatever that means, if anything) ... whether by means of chemicals, prayer, mantra meditation or any other means.

How can we conceive of there being any existence, or other order or level of reality, other than our ordinary ‘natural’ existence, that is, the way in which ordinary things exist in space and time. John Anderson, former Challis Professor of Philosophy, at the University of Sydney, would refer to this as the ‘problem of commensurability’, that is, that any notion of there being different orders or levels of reality or truth is, in Anderson's words, ‘contrary to the very nature and possibility of discourse’.

Yes, any concept of there being some ‘supernatural’ order or level of reality is strictly meaningless and unspeakable. We can have no conception of any such existence, nor any conception of what it might possibly be like. Further, as Professor Anderson often pointed out, even if there were, in fact, more than one order of reality, how could there be connections between them?

Empirical observation can find nothing ‘metaphysical’, ‘occult’ or ‘beyond experience’. Both science and philosophy afford us no evidence or support for the idea that there are any entities beyond space and time which yet work out their supposed purposes within space and time. Both science and logic compel us to reject the unobservable as the cause of the observable.

Forget about having a so-called ‘transcendental’ experience, whether in the sense of supposedly 'going beyond' (whatever that means) the normal, physical, three-dimensional limitations of human functioning, perception and existence or otherwise. We - that is, all of us except, perhaps, those suffering from various forms of delusions, clinical or otherwise - spend most, if not all, of our time in so-called ‘ordinary’ reality, so it stands to reason that, if we are to have any meaningful experience at all, it can, must and will be found in our ordinary day-to-day existence ... as just another occurrence in space and time.

Yes, there is the ordinary ... and the extraordinary ... but the latter is to be entirely found and experienced in and among the ordinary. There is no transcendence except to the extent that there clearly occur transformative events that can be said to ‘transcend’ our expectations and lie outside or beyond our conscious will or control. (As an aside, I shudder when I hear of meditative or other similar practices being trademarked and only able to be taught by certain supposedly 'initiated' gurus. Forget all about gurus, As the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti said time and time again, they are unproductive, and even prevent one from having an otherwise direct relationship with reality [that is, truth] itself.)

Forget about ‘expanded consciousness’. There's nothing to 'expand' (or 'enlarge'), for there is no ‘consciousness’ whose nature it is to be known. I repeat, there is no consciousness whose nature it is to be known ... so there can be no degrees of that which does not exist. Consciousness, as philosophers such as David Hume and William James have pointed out, is not an 'entity' in its own right but simply a name for the logical relationship between the person who knows and the thing known ... the third necessary element in the relation being the act of knowing. So-called 'expanded consciousness' means nothing more than waking up or leaving the cave.

There is absolutely no need to ‘elevate’ your self-awareness. (Indeed, all attempts to do so are bound to end in failure. For starters, there is no 'self' of which to be or become aware.) All you need to do, dear friends, is to become more alert to, and aware of, what is happening in and around you. It’s as simple as that. Become more open, more curious, and more flexible.

So, forget about forms or methods of prayer or meditation which would seek to ‘elevate’ your consciousness or self-awareness or ‘extricate’ yourself from your ordinary state of experience thereby purportedly putting you in touch with some supposed transcendental or supernatural state of reality.

Now, this is fact ... there is only a continuity of moment-to-moment experience and awareness ... a continuous process or transformation from one state to another. Everything is observable, and all things observed exist and are observable on the same plane of observability. Thus, there needs to be a direct continuity between what is proposed as an explanation for any occurrence and the occurrence itself, for if there were no such continuity it would not be possible for us to say how observable effects are produced ... nor even that they are effects at all.

In light of all of the above, it should come as no surprise, except to those who want or choose to believe otherwise, that rigorous independent systematic scholarly reviews over many decades have found little probative evidence of demonstrable lasting health benefits -- other than general relaxation and certain positive spinoff effects -- attributable to, or otherwise associated with, a certain type of meditative practice which invokes notions of ‘transcendence’ in some or all of the senses referred to above. That is not to say that people cannot, and do not, derive benefits of various kinds from all forms of meditation and relaxation ... but, when one looks at the evidence, nothing compares with mindfulness.

Yes, the evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness is abundant and very strong indeed. Since 1967 over 1,500 studies worldwide have been conducted by over 250 independent research institutes and centres showing mindfulness meditation to be clinically effective for the management of, among other things, stress, depression, anxiety and panic disorders, chronic pain, substance abuse, eating disorders, obsessional thinking, impulsivity, strong emotional reactivity and a wide array of other medical and mental health related conditions.

Mindfulness, to the extent that it takes the form of meditation - for it is much more than that as well - is totally unlike all other forms of meditation. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has done more than any other Westerner to promote mindfulness as both a way of life and a therapeutic modality, refers to mindfulness as ‘falling awake’.

I love that ... ‘falling awake’ ... not falling alseep ... not falling into or otherwise creating some dreamy state ... but falling awake! Mindfulness is simply mindful living, as opposed to living on auto-pilot. In addition, mindfulness takes meditation and applies it to one’s entire life. Thus, mindfulness is not something you do for, say, 20 minutes a day, rather it’s something you do 24/7... yes, even when you’re asleep ... at least, to the extent humanly possible.

A single logic applies to all things and how they are related. All things exist in the same order or level of reality ... and on the same ‘plane’ of observability.

So, stop trying to ‘elevate’ your self-awareness. There is nothing to elevate. Stop trying to 'expand' or 'elevate' your consciousness. There is nothing to expand or elevate. Simply wake up ... and become more aware of what is happening in and around you. Stop seeking the ‘transcendental’. There is nothing to transcend or to which to transcend. Finally, stop trying to 'extricate' yourself. There is nothing from which to extricate yourself ... except fallacious thinking.

Seek only the extraordinary within the ordinary ... for you can find it everywhere! It is more than enough ... but don't just take my word for it, experiment for yourself!

Note. The substance of this article appeared as a post on the author’s own blog on 27 June 2011.