Books & Culture

How to Create a Transcendent Experience

Transcendent experiences can be occasioned through many means, through recently, the use of artificial means, namely drugs, to change one’s consciousness has become a rather popular topic of discussion. Yet, I can’t help but feel that artificial means of changing one’s consciousness feels a little like exerting brute force upon a process that ought to be slower, and perhaps involve a little more work than just taking a pill. Michael Pollan in This is Your Mind on Plants writes, “Psychedelic compounds can promote experiences of awe and mystical connection” but he is quick to note that “drugs are not the only way to occasion the sort of mystical experience at the core of many religious traditions—meditation, fasting, and solitude can achieve similar results…”

Drug-induced transcendent experiences feel quintessentially American and capitalistic. We Americans want everything fast. We want fast delivery. We want fast food. We want fast cars. We love guaranteed results or we want our money back. And so it is no surprise to me that so many of us would want our transcendent experiences come to us as easily as swallowing a pill.

I’ve had a handful of transcendent experiences in my life—and the most meaningful ones have taken place when I was completely sober. They were almost always occasioned by nature, sometimes in solitude, and sometimes communal. I have experienced awe and transcendence while hiking, surfing, rock climbing, and while sitting alone in the desert.

There’s something about hostile natural environments that have the potential to occasion these experiences, though I don’t think hostility is necessarily a prerequisite. I have had these experiences while meditating in my living room as well. Though I think there is something to be said about the fact that discomfort, or rather, moving outside of one’s comfort zones, makes a change of consciousness or transcendent experience more likely.

Nature is not the only avenue available through which one can attain transcendence. Profound meditation is another. Oliver Burkeman in his remarkable book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals discusses the ways in which communal rhythms can also occasion transcendent experiences. Burkeman draws from his research to explain that “synchronized movement, along with synchronized singing, has been a vastly underappreciated force in world history, fostering cohesion among groups.” And these experiences are not limited to singers. Burkeman explains: “as dancers know, when they lose themselves in the dance, synchrony is also a portal to another dimension—to the sacred place where the boundaries of the self grow fuzzy, and time seems to not exist.

I’ve experienced this sacred loss of self while synchronizing my body to the rhythms of the ocean while surfing. The feeling of traveling with the energy of the ocean, which itself has often traveled thousands of miles to reach the shore, while also surrounded by kindred spirits who have the same goal, can indeed result in transcendence.

Bread of the Angels. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Bread of the Angels. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood

According to The Cut, “Transcendence is a fundamental part of the human experience. Since the dawn of our species, people have been losing themselves in ritualistic prayer, song, and dance.” Interestingly, transcendent experiences seem to occur on a spectrum. In this conception of transcendence, I needn’t discount the state of flow I experience while surfing or writing an essay, nor necessarily distinguish it from the profound state of awe I have experienced while paddling over waves on the north shore of O’ahu, or while watching the sun set over Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Transcendent experiences have the quality of reminding us that we are not the center of the universe. It is one thing to know that one is not the center of the universe; it is another thing entirely to feel it. It is perhaps why I can read David Foster Wallace’s essay and commencement speech, “This is Water,” and can understand its truth intellectually, but don’t always feel it.

Wallace asks his listeners, who are recent graduates, to remember the importance of humility when it comes to some things they believe are absolutely true. “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.” Wallace concludes that an education’s purpose is ultimately to teach us how to choose what to pay attention to when we “construct meaning from experience.”

Transcendent experiences are perhaps a quality of experience no different than ordinary life, always accessible and present, if only we are able to shift our state of mind. There is enough beauty, and love, and wonder, and awe at the end of the period as there is in the whole universe, as much in a single moment as there is in all time and space. And so, in order to construct a transcendent experience, perhaps the perquisite is simply this: it demands that we pay complete attention, that we be completely present.

Either way, I don’t want to discredit those who have experienced transcendent states while under the influence of drugs. I have read the research and these experiences do seem to provide deep states of peace to those in hospice care and to individuals experiencing mental illness. Psilocybin appears to have profound effects on those who may be struggling. Yet, there’s something about the idea of transcendence through a pill that strikes me as being a little off. It feels a little like forcing open the gates of consciousness with a crowbar, rather than patiently doing the work and waiting for it to unfold. A pill might be able to get you to pay close attention, but doing the work of paying close attention itself can also do the same.

Being a self in a body in time is difficult. I don’t want to put down anyone’s method for making their way through mortality, or for achieving altered states of consciousness. I just think that it’s a symptom of our culture that the easy way is written about and popularized, while the harder ways go seldom explored.

Perhaps the greatest irony of consciousness is that only by settling into the self fully can the self finally transcend itself in place and time. Plants might be able to help us get there. But so can art. So can nature. So can singing. So can surfing, or swimming, or hiking. So can just breathing.

This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.