As I said in the last post, the big goal this week has been to figure out more about what constitutes a “transcendental experience,” and then, well, to have one.
In class, we read two chapters from Walden, “Solitude,” and “Visitors.” We used these chapters to brainstorm about how we could create our own transcendental moments. Should it involve being alone? Being silent? Should there be some sort of trial or “penance,” as Thoreau says, like the Hindu mystics had?
These chapters also refute the impression many students gathered over the past week that Thoreau was a misanthrope (or “hater” in modern-speak). In these chapters he insists that he really does love humanity and the company of his fellow “creatures.”
Which brings me to my next point. It has occurred to me (and many of you, apparently) through our discussions this week that the central idea of “transcending” has to do with crossing certain types of barriers, or borders. Actually, crossing has nothing to do with it; “transcending” has to do with the realization that those “borders” don’t actually exist.
What do I mean by “borders?” Well, here’s one way to think about it: In most languages we have words for certain concepts, and words for their opposites. The fancy college-talk for these matched pairs of “opposites” (which aren’t always “opposite,” per se) is a “dialectic pair.” (“Why are you telling us this? We’re not in college?” Yeah, I know, but I have to prove I’m smart so you’ll keep doing what I say to do in class. Also, I’m insecure and I like to hide behind fancy vocabulary words that I really only half-understand. Pitiful, I know, yet surprisingly common. I’ll be okay, really. What? Oh yeah. The blog…) Here are some examples:
- Misanthrope (Hater)/Philanthrope (Lover) (not a real word)
- McDonald’s/Burger King
- Tiger/Liger…no, that’s not really one–strike that
- and literally billions more!
The idea we’re developing is that, in the transcendental moment, the borders are erased and the true nature of the world, which is unified, and free of restrictive barriers, and universally meaningful, can be clearly perceived. The differences between students and teachers are erased; optimists and pessimists understand each others’ perspective so clearly that all possible attitudes are represented in each; Ren grows a fat round belly and Stimpy suddenly becomes a sarcastic Scandinavian…well, you get the point.
This may all sound like stupid, New Age babble, and, to some extent it is. In fact, yesterday we actually tried the New-Agey “healing” kind of meditation a lot of people think will lead to the transcendence I just described. I got a CD from the library by a person with a PhD. after their name so we would know it was something really smart we were listening to. The recording starts with a few minutes of nondescript synthesizer tones (not unlike the “voice” setting on a 1980’s vintage Casiotone keyboard) before the good doctor himself begins his guided tour into the depths of our infinite potential. The meditation took us to our own little “happy places”–well, he made us picture a garden where we would meet some sort of friendly being who could comfort us and answer our deepest questions. Personally, I pictured a unicorn with a glowing horn who could only answer yes or no questions, or simple math problems, by stamping its foot like Mr. Ed. Apparently, I have a somewhat limited imagination. The rest of the meditation was all about stress reduction and thinking about being a nice person, and stuff like that.
After we had this possibly-transcendental experience and were all lying around on the floor, very much as if a sudden gale-force wind had knocked us all off our seats, I asked the class what they thought Thoreau would think about this activity. The class came up with what I thought were some pretty deep critiques. It occurred to many students that the purpose of the meditation we just did was basically anesthetize us against the trouble and pain of the real world, while Thoreau went to the woods to feel more connectedto his life. He doesn’t meditate lying in a dark room, but rather sitting on the porch of the house he built, looking out over the fields he planted and tends. Everything about his life at Walden is connected to the physical world, with all the good and bad that may imply.
Many students looked around the room during the meditation and felt silly that we were all doing the same thing, all following this one man’s voice, almost in a cult-like fashion, like we were being hypnotized to be Dr. Weisz’s zombie death squad or something. Many students who have been relishing Thoreau’s anti-conformist ideas now feel uncomfortable doing whatever everyone else is doing. When it comes to something as personal as meditation, I tend to agree.
Transcendentalism seems to have something to do with individuals discovering who they are and what they should be doing by becoming firmly rooted in the natural world and society that surrounds us. A meditation primarily intended to numb us to those outside influences doesn’t seem to reflect the goals of the true transcendentalist. So. Lesson learned.
I’m super-curious to find out what you guys come up with for your own examples of transcendence. Tomorrow, we’ll read Thoreau’s conclusion to Walden and maybe that will provide the final keys to understanding we’ve been searching for. But probably not.