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Boxing Transcendence? (Re-edit-shorter)

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    Note: re-edited a longer ramble on same subject of Transcendence. Hope this shorter version is a little clearer and more on track (less side roads.)

    If anyone saw the earlier ramble (decided to keep on back file in case there is confusion) but if Not cool. 😎 then this will be a fresh start.

    P.S. have a thank you paragraph to Stephen and JCF for this site, but may post later.

    The definition of Transcendence

    When I first read Campbell, my sense was that Transcendence evoked the idea of “going beyond” or “pointing beyond.”

    Joseph Campbell’s words brought this image to mind. All those little g Gods pointing beyond themselves or even an individual who comes to awareness that pulls them out/away from ego.

    Or what you think you know, you do not know. That A.U.M. at the end of Power of Myth series…the Ahhhh…

    Transcendence had this all encompassing and expansive sense.

    (Encompassing more than oneself alone, hinting at shared horizons) Or at least that is how it seemed to me. Really loved that.

    Or Transcendence could represent a challenge (pulling one or more to an edge, a mirror, an Awareness.)

    But today, I notice a tendency to see transcendence as old-fashioned, out of date or outmoded or not applicable.

    I understand these critiques, when it comes to the limited patterns of some hero quests.

    But it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around something that “points beyond,” and is all encompassing but open like Black Elk’s hoops center everywhere, circumference nowhere…it’s hard for me to imagine something like That somehow being retro or outmoded.

    First, I thought it might have to do with Campbell hinting at mystery, but maybe that makes this subject lean too metaphysical for some modern scholars.

    Then, I thought maybe Transcendence is being defined differently today in some circles. i.e. instead of Transcendence defined as “pointing beyond” or literally “to go/know across/beyond” or to a horizon…(open ended…)

    Maybe transcendence is being defined today  as “turning away,” (i.e. from society/community etc)

    So That would make sense and explain WHY there would be this different response to transcendence. (A concern that transcendence would or could pull or inspire people away from social duty. 

    Sort of like the man so determined to prove his spirituality by praying for hours on end, but he does so at the expense of his family, community and health. Until a guide or Angel or God comes and says “you are missing the point. This isn’t it.”

    But guess I’ve never thought of transcendence as something you choose to find, but rather something that finds or happens to a journeyer/s along the way.

    Maybe there is a choice eventually, but more about being open to the boon of awareness and choosing what to do with that gift given afterwards.

    It seems to me, that a transcendent experience if accepted, could re-engage (and help re-integrate) a person in a meaningful way, when they return to their village. Or have a similar effect even on a group of travelers.

    That their experience might inspire them in such away, that the boon/gift/awareness could be given to or shared with others. Or that compassion would wake in them unbidden and they would have to answer its call. An inspiration pulling towards…not away…

    But, it also makes sense that if certain concepts are defined differently, then debates and arguments are not directly over those concepts but rather the definition OF those concepts. (Or Translations)

    And that is what makes for such tricky navigation in conversation and working through such heady material from Joseph Campbell to Carl Jung and so many more. Why CoHo really is CoHo…conversation of a Higher Order!

    I might ramble off on tangents but am sensible enough to know I can be a Took. Laugh.

    And Stephen or any others are welcome to disagree with me…that’s part of what makes for interesting and healthy debate!


    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 . . .


    Yes.  That’s brilliant…great metaphor Stephen! Now I’m thinking of how someone might visually explain the beauty of Stephanie’s voice to someone who cannot hear.
    And then speaking of the sixties…;-)

    You get this from John Lennon

    “Listen to the color of your dream.”

    Everything you and Joe Campbell said about transcendence (that’s exactly what I imagined…) the place or experience  where there are no words…

    It really is like “penning a shadow to a wall.”
    I saw what you said in Monica’s forum about Joe Campbell’s conversational style/tone in Reflections on Living (love that book) And it’s true..he reaches out to his audience…it’s lovely.
    I miss him, though I came late to Power of Myth series…in a re-run many years ago…maybe around 1994?
    I love The way Joe Campbell just cuts right to the heart of a matter as you show above. It would be delightful and fascinating to hear him today!…ahh…well…

       I don’t know if it’s because we live in a more technical/digital culture…

    But it is hard for me to think of myths and storytelling just as something that does or could serve a useful purpose.
    It’s that something more, the experience, the spontaneous compassion, the mystery, that has engaged me and so many others I am sure. And has brought many together to  ponder, wonder…dream.
    Joe nailed it (well as close as anyone can laugh) from the start.

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