Shopping Cart

No products in the cart.

Reply To: Boxing Transcendence? (Re-edit-shorter)


I do appreciate your rumination on the subject, sunbug. And Campbell’s material (like Jung’s) is indeed heady stuff.

Generally, I follow Joe’s lead in this area. He defined the Transcendent as beyond all possible human conception – beyond words, beyond duality, beyond male and female, hot and cold, up and down, alive and dead, beyond good and evil –beyond all possible categories of conceptualization, beyond thought. If you can think about, put it into words, define it, describe it, explain it, then it’s not Transcendent – at least, not as Campbell uses the term.

My magnificent master and great friend of many years ago, Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943), had a saying: ‘The best things can’t be told: the second best are misunderstood.’ The second best are misunderstood because, as metaphors poetically of what cannot be told, they are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts.”

(Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, xxiii)

This is a concept Campbell shares in most of his books. Another example, from Pathways to Bliss: “My old mentor, Heinrich Zimmer, had a little saying: the best things can’t be told—they are transcendent, inexpressible truths. The second-best are misunderstood.”

Why can the best things not be told? Because, as Joe points out in numerous places, the best things are transcendent – they are beyond words, beyond thought, beyond conceptualization – which is why they cannot be told. And why are the second best misunderstood? Because we are using words – everyday conversation – to try to describe what is beyond words, and so they are misunderstood, because most take these words literally.

One day, trying to explain the transcendent to my junior high literature students, I used an eight grader in our class named Stephanie, with her permission, as my example. Stephanie had a beautiful voice – she was chosen to sing the national anthem during a flag ceremony on campus – but she was blind, and had been since birth. So I asked the students in the class to describe the color red for Stephanie in a way that she could understand.

They gave it the best they could. Some pointed out red is hot, like fire, but that didn’t help – red can also be cool to the touch, like cherries, or an apple. Another said red is the traffic light that means stop – but that wasn’t useful either. She knew that people stopped at traffic lights because they claimed to experience something called red, but that didn’t mean she knew red.

The children made every effort to help Stephanie, but the best they could do was to come up with metaphors (an apple, hot coals, etc.) which did nothing to convey to Stephanie an experience and understanding of the color red. For her, the color red simply did not exist. She knew other people believed in it, claimed to see red, and reacted to it (not crossing the street because they experienced a red light, or enjoying a beautiful sunset), but not Stephanie. She responded to other people responding to what they claimed to experience (e.g., she would stop at a light when told it was red, whether hearing it from a friend, or from the sound triggered at some intersections when the light changes).

But just because the color red is beyond her experience, does that mean that mean it does not exist?

And then I drew the analogy of red to, say, “God.” Billions of people believe – and act – as if God exists. They claim to have an experience of God. Others don’t have that experience – for them, God (like red for Steph) simply does not exist. But they do have to take into account the actions and beliefs of those who do believe in God; saying there is no Allah does not protect one from martyrdom, any more than believing there is no such thing as red keeps you from getting run down at intersections.

That’s perhaps too simple analogy, but it does ring true. You are supposed to have trouble wrapping your mind around the transcendent, what points “beyond” – if you can wrap your head around it, then it ain’t transcendent.

However, according to Campbell, it is possible to experience the transcendent – but once you do, you can’t put it in to words and convey the essence to someone who, like Stephanie with the color red, has never had the experience.

This really rang true during my years of acid experimentation. LSD and other psychedelics proctor a transcendent experience – but if you try to describe that experience to someone who has never taken psychedelics, they just don’t get it. You can talk about it, do your best to describe it, but you’re using metaphors, and will be misunderstood unless talking with someone who has had a parallel experience.

Still, we can’t help talking about transcendence, especially in these forums. But trying to nail down the experience for someone else is as easy as stapling your shadow to the wall . . .