Our greatest struggle is against a void. The void we associate with death, dying, or more specifically the absence of us. We want to be felt in the world and by the world. We are afraid of not existing. Because of this struggle, and the struggle is real, we have developed some practices in service of the notion of transcendence. Transcendence lets us feel as though we exist beyond the confines of our body, mind, and lifetime. Transcendence lets us feel that in the face of this void we remain somewhat and somehow.
In religions—the word religion, itself, born of our desire to connect to things beyond ourselves—the transcendent element comes from a supernatural iteration of a concept in nature. It is not just human love, it is God’s love that permeates one’s life. It is not just peace, happiness, joy, and understanding, but enlightenment that recuses one from the void. Religions and spirituality also offer impossible solutions to the problem of not-existing; some part of you lives forever in varying Afterlifes: heaven, hell, purgatory, reincarnation on this planet, reincarnation in other dimensions, celestial paradises, etc. It is natural to desire a solution to our terminality. The Humanist response to this problem is to accept the real interconnectedness that we witness. There are real ways to tap into the transcendent elements in our lives.
Our bodies are connected to the stars in the sky by way of emergentism and evolution. We are one result of the Big Bang and as such can find transcendence in the knowledge that our existence was made possible by an event 13,800,000,000 (13.8 billion) years ago, and every other thing on our planet and in our universe, originated there and then. We are connected to that immense history. The universe doesn’t know us just as it doesn’t know itself or any other entity. Some may find that dizzying perspective comiserable instead of awesome. However it strikes you, know it connects you to things beyond yourself. Know, too, that others have felt the same for as long as humans have felt.
The simplest way to transcend your own body is to unite it with others. Physical contact proves that your body is connected to another, knowing, sentient being. Unlike the reorienting and disorienting sense that you are linked to everything in the universe, physical contact is not just the feeling, but it is the being felt, which amplifies the sense of transcendence. Another person feels you, responds to your body, shares the same time and space with you. In those moments you are not just you alone, you are you together.
Shared experiences make it possible for us to exist beyond the confines of our minds. The power of physical touch is that it assures you that you are known by another and that same sense can be got by sharing experiences with others. Regarding art with others, whether it is a Rothko hanging in a museum or a Jimmy Buffett concert, confirms the sense that your attention lands, with impact, upon something. The shared sing-along is transcendent because you memorized the beloved lyrics over your lifetime so you carry that history with you as you sing. Every person who joins in is carrying his or her history. All of those life histories swirl in our independent minds and only the vocalized lyrics prove that, at the very least, we share this strain of history and this present moment with others.
As for the Rothko, being that it is abstract makes us explore our own abstract history. I don’t, in fact, believe that our emotional worlds are abstract, but I do know one compelling way to give them form in the external world is through abstract art. When you consider Rothko’s work you are coaxed into giving meaning and value to it in a way that is wonderfully free from outside influence. Indeed you have been influenced your entire life and it those influences that shape your views on art, but in the moment of seeing the Rothko the feelings present arrive as fast as light. You are struck by your own feelings. The same happens to almost all who’ve seen the same work of art. You needn’t share the same response to the Rothko, it is enough to know that you and others have been made to feel something by the same work of art. It is this universal regard that reminds you your thoughts and feelings are linked with people across time and space. It is the steadfastness of art proving to you that your regard is linked with the past and future far beyond your lifetime.
As humans we are creators and in this way we sew transcendent seeds with every creation. Your writing will outlast you. Your sketches and paintings will, too. Your baking, coding, masonry, architecture, and bon mots will stand in some way after you have gone.
We naturally transcend our lifetime when we connect ourselves with the world around us. For some there is little comfort knowing the trees you walk among will outlive you, that sing-alongs occur without your voice, or that Rothko will be gazed upon by thousands of others after you. We fear because these are the things we’ll leave behind and we’ll miss them. The sense of transcendence, however, is got by affirming that the people with whom you walked, sang, and shared quiet contemplation will remember their time with you. Your presence persists after you’re gone because your family looks like you and acts like you and your friends have stories about you to share. Linked lovingly as you are to those people, you’re life experience lasts in a small way even after they are gone. You are the embers of the fire helping to bring a blaze and lingering when the blaze has gone. You lived in the world and every time a person wonders who else has walked through these trees, or who marvels at the number of people who love the songs they do, or puzzles over who understands abstract art, your existence is wrapped up in the answer: you did, too.
These transcendent realities are not everlasting but are more precious for it. They are not magical but sweetly and tenderly human. It is you who remember me. It is I who share stories of you. It is you who live in my childhood home. It is I who sing the songs you know as we all watch a fire fade to embers.