Self-Transcendence

The term “discourse” is defined by some as a unit of speech or writing that is longer than a sentence. Discourse stems from a worldview or weltanschauung which in turn stems from a book or a set of books, an oeuvre per se. During the enlightenment period in Europe, there was a consensus among intellectuals that discourse and ultimately the truth were to be attained through reason and intellect rather than medieval ways such as superstition. But some have argued that today’s academic and public discourse as well as the predominant worldview or weltanschauung are essentially a betrayal of the commitment towards reason and truth. In turn, reason and truth have been replaced by “reasonableness,” which is a totally normative and subjective outlook that is nowhere grounded upon objectivity and truth. In essence, “reasonableness” is a strategy aimed towards the containment of reason and thus truth. After all, the truth is hard to handle. As the popular saying goes: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

            In a book titled “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse,” Steven Smith elaborates on the dichotomy between “reason” and “reasonableness” as well as the suppression of reason and truth. For one, Smith states:

“In short, in the eighteenth century, a commitment to reason denoted a willingness to pursue the truth and to follow the argument wherever it leads, with the confidence that reason will ultimately lead people to converge on the truth. In contemporary political liberalism, in stark contrast, ‘reasonableness’ denotes a willingness not to pursue or invoke for vital public purposes what one believes to be the ultimate truth – a willingness based on the judgment that reason will not lead to convergence but will instead subvert a civic peace that can be maintained only if people agree not to make important public decisions on the basis of arguing about what is ultimately true.”

Smith refers to the “iron cage” of “secular rationalism” that is stifling the employment of reason and hindering the pursuit of truth. He notes: “It is that cage – the cage of secular discourse – within which public conversation and especially judicial and academic discourse occurs today.” Thus, in a world of illusions and lies, the employment of reason and the pursuit of truth leads us into an “iron cage” that is imposed upon us by both the intellectual and popular class.

            Certain scientists like Abraham Maslow have argued that the “splitting off” of religion from science creates erroneous facts and values. Thus, the scope of science and scientific inquiry must include religious concepts that are observable in the naturalistic world. In other words, religion can and should be explained through scientific means. Moreover, science is trying to catch up with religion in explaining everything. Steven Smith has suggested that secular discourse is “smuggling” concepts and words from religious discourse in an effort to become replete. The notion that religion is reconcilable with science in the Western world stems from the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

            Through the reconciliation of religion and science, the goal then becomes the identification of values in a largely nihilistic world. Nihilism and the rise of secularism is a novel experience in the world and has occurred only recently, which in turn has had detrimental effects throughout society at-large as evinced by the two world wars of the 20th century, the Cold War, and the development of the atomic bomb which violated all the ethics and rules associated with science. Furthermore, colonial and hegemonic discourse stemming from the rise of Western powers eventually ushered in a postmodern epoch characterized by power as its end-all be-all. In turn, the karmic effect of power has only been death and destruction. As Foucault wrote: “Power…was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself; it culminated in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it.”

            E.H. Carr, in a book titled “What is History?” argued that the goal of humanity is “progress.” One should ask: how can the notion of progress be reconciled with the gradual breakdown of the Western-led global order in the 21st century and the deterioration of psychological and spiritual well-being? “Progress,” one can argue, is marred with widespread social ills which has its underpinnings in hegemonic discourse that served as the impetus of delinquencies such as the resurgence of the Afghan drug trade in 2001 which led to a 700 percent increase in the production of opium, the mental health epidemic, as well as the recent contraction of the American economy by approximately 33 percent.

            In the 20th century, Freud took us to the point of psychotherapy but departed once embarking on the search for meaning and purpose. Nevertheless, Freud did provide his input for those searching for meaning and purpose by stating: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” The materialistic and mechanistic way of life that has now gone global is essentially a distraction from the attainment of the core meaning and purpose of life, which according to Maslow is “self-transcendence” through the attainment of what are known as “peak experiences.” These peak experiences are marked by a sense of ecstasy, joy, and satisfaction by aesthetic rather than material means. There is no identifiable scientific mechanism that prompts peak experiences and self-transcendence. In turn, these peak experiences lead to self-transcendence in the sense that the latter equates to the affirmation of belief in a supernatural power, be it “God” or “Yahweh” or “Allah” or “Tao.”

            Maslow argued that there are only two types of people. For one, there are the “peakers” who are able to self-transcend, and there are “non-peakers” who are deprived of peak experiences and thus are unable to develop in a psychosocial sense. Peakers usually associate with the human species as a whole rather than a local community or group. Also, peakers are not to be blamed for being excommunicated or ostracized from their local community. Spinoza, after all, was excommunicated and ostracized from the Jewish community in Amsterdam during Europe’s Renaissance age for expressing esoteric ideas such as pantheism. Bertrand Russell said that the philosopher who was dearest to his heart was in fact Spinoza. Peakers are often seen as crazy or insane by non-peakers who are overly materialistic and rational. However, insanity is the point. Emerson reflected on the peak experiences of the great thinkers of the past, noting:

“A certain tendency to insanity has always attended the opening of the religious sense in men, as if ‘blasted with excess of light.’ The trances of Socrates; the “union” of Plotinus; the vision of Porphyry; the conversion of Paul; the aurora of Behmen; the convulsions of George Fox and his Quakers; the illumination of Swedenborg; are of this kind.”

Rumi adds: “Intellectuals try not to drown, while the whole purpose of love is drowning.” As Amir Khosrow pronounced: “With the exception of the wine-seekers, no one is sane; drink freely, for we are all acquainted.”

            Thus, the truth and the values that accompany the truth can only be attained through self-transcendence, which is facilitated by peak experiences such as love that lead to an awakening of the soul. As Emerson wrote:

“Thus is the soul the perceiver and revealer of truth. By the same fire, serene, impersonal, perfect, which burns until it shall dissolve all things into the waves and surges of an ocean of light, we see and know each other, and what spirit each is of.”

The goal of religion was to communicate the peak experiences of prophets and saints to ordinary people in order to proliferate self-transcendence. Instead, ordinary people became fixated on the legalistic and ritualistic aspect of religion without considering the core meaning and purpose of these laws and rituals, which are secondary to the peak experiences and self-transcendence that had been experienced by prophets and saints. Positivistic science has completely written off peak experiences as pathological and manifestations of neurosis.

            Yet, it has been contended by the likes of Maslow that education, science, law, and ritualism fail if the inner-subjective experience comprised of peak experiences and self-transcendence is missing. As Emerson said, revelation (and thus truth) is the disclosure of the soul. In terms of the divine and theology, God is whatever you want him to be. As Kierkegaard said:

“The existing individual who chooses to pursue the objective way enters upon the entire approximation-process by which it is proposed to bring God to light objectively. But this is in all eternity impossible, because God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness.”

Thus, religion in an organized sense, as well as positivistic science have failed to explain or incorporate the core essence of human nature, namely, self-transcendence. In the Islamic tradition, this core nature characterized by self-transcendence is known as “fitra.” There are supposedly four ways through which one can undergo self-transcendence and thus attain the truth: knowledge, art, adherence to rules and regulations, and contemplation. However, the peak experiences that facilitate self-transcendence and the attainment of truth are largely triggered through illogical means which can only be explained through existential philosophy, mysticism, and immersion into a divine milieu that is personal and intimate. As a result, truth is embedded in romanticism. As Rudiger Safranski wrote:

“The Romantic is fantastic, inventive, metaphysical, imaginary, seductive, exuberant, unfathomable. It is not bound to consensus, nor need it serve the community or, for that matter, even life. It can be in love with death.”

Safranski adds:

“The Romantic attitude seeks intensity to the point of suffering and tragedy. For all these reasons it is not especially suited to politics. If it does influence politics, it should be with a strong admixture of realism. Politics should be grounded on the principle of preventing pain, suffering, and barbarity.”

            As a result, one can contend that as long as existential and religious questions are divorced from science, there will be no economic and social progress in a positivistic sense. Science and technology, as Maslow has argued, are merely means to an end. If the goal of education, science, and technology is not self-transcendence, then these tools are meaningless and cannot make any meaningful contribution towards broader economic and social progress. What is holding back humanity from utilizing its full potential and thus self-transcendence, arguably, is a broader existential crisis that translates into a mental health crisis which stems from a lack of meaning and purpose in a nihilistic age and culture. French existentialists such as Albert Camus have suggested that meaning and purpose are something that individuals have to choose for themselves. However, contemporary culture overbears any ability to decipher meaning and purpose. As Nicholas Hobbs has suggested:

“Contemporary culture often produces a kind of neuroses different from that described by Freud. Contemporary neuroses are characterized not so much by repression and conversion…not by lack of insight but lack of a sense of purpose, of meaning in life.”

            Ultimately, those who seek meaning and purpose in self-transcendence and the peak experiences that facilitate it will always be in the minority, while the majority will be fixated on the mundane. Arguably, the difference between these two groups is essentially a gap between what a person could be and what they are. Those who self-transcend and manifest their true nature can be referred to as “Saints.” Yet, as mentioned before, the “Saints” will always be the minority group in the world. As Viktor Frankl wrote:

“It is true that [saints] form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”

Thus, what we deem as “normal” is actually pathological. It is necessary to see heaven in order to be normal. After all, seeing is believing. The majority, as Nietzsche said, are deemed to be “pigs.”

            The hallmark characteristic of a saint is his or her selflessness. Yet, the positivism espoused in the past by Ayn Rand and those in the present day and age renders even selflessness as a form of selfishness, thereby allowing the reptilian mind that is commonplace to mischaracterize those seeking to alter their own reptilian mind. However, due to novel scientific concepts such as “neuroplasticity” and the quantum “feedback loop” which corroborate existential and religious concepts such as peak experiences and self-transcendence, there is hope that self-transcendence is attainable for more than just a few individuals. After all, as the saying goes, every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Moreover, self-transcendence is the only lifestyle option we have in a nihilistic age, thus the creation of Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” who leaves no middle ground between transcendence and complacency. “Nihil est sine ratione.” In a nutshell, either we transcend, or we perish.

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