It’s morning. I complete my bathroom ablutions and sip some coffee. Making my way to the study, I pause to light a single candle centered on a small table. Sitting in a large, wooden straight back chair, I begin. Sometimes I start with a chant and other times a favorite hymn. While reflectively reciting a familiar psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures, I become aware that I am no longer just sitting in a chair. Instead, something opens inside of me that seems to take me to a dimension that is vast, wide, and beyond my ability to grasp.
Spiritual writers over the ages have referred to this experience with many metaphors: the inner way, the royal road, the interior castle, the divine ladder, or the inner light. Because the experience itself is greater than one can contained in words, these various metaphors poetically describe the ecstatic experience of union or communion with something beyond self.
Stepping out of the poetic metaphors used by spiritual writers, psychologists refer to the experience as self-transcendence. Neurological studies have determined that the experience of self-transcendence is rooted in particular areas of the brain and caused by the release of specific neural chemicals. Self-transcendence can be measured both through brain scans as well as written assessments which help to quantify the experience.
As a psychologist, the neuroscience that describes the physiological dimension of self-transcendence is something I find engaging. It underscores that human beings have a particular capacity for spiritual experience on a physiological level. Self-transcendent spiritual experiences are neither delusions nor unscientific.
While the poetry of religious and spiritual traditions provides particular interpretations of these experiences, these interpretations are reflective of specific worldviews or beliefs. The experience itself is universal and not limited by religion, creed, or other distinguishing characteristics typically used to divide people. The experience itself is both a movement into self and a movement beyond self. As one friend described it once to me, “I’m here and I’m gone. I don’t know where I go, but I’m not just here.”
The self-transcendence associated with religious and spiritual experience is multi-dimensional. One dimension I find worth examining is the movement beyond self to awareness of something greater than self. A great deal of popular spirituality focuses on the relationship between spirituality and self, but “self-transcendence,” by definition, takes us beyond the self.
From my inner world of meditation, I come to understand that there is something much greater beyond me. As I grow in this awareness, I come to understand that the something greater beyond me includes the life of all creatures on this planet. Through self-transcendence, I experience the pulse of life that sustains me and sustains all life on Earth. It is an awe-inspiring experience.
Spiritual writer, Matthew Fox, when describing what he called creation-centered spirituality in the 1980s stated that the appropriate iconic image for meditation is a photograph of Earth taken from outer space. When we encounter the image of planet Earth, we encounter a living entity with land, oceans, and weather patterns not limited by national boundaries but which function as a whole. Thirty years later since Fox’s work on creation-centered spirituality, our spirituality needs to move us from a place of awe at the interconnection to an active realization of our connection in the web of life which makes up our planet. Just as our spiritual practices and experience sustain our lives in transformative ways, so too, the self-transcendence of spiritual experience is a call to live in ways that sustain our planet.
The neuro-psychology of self-transcendence enables us to understand that at the core of who we are, spirituality is not just about our own peace and contentment. Instead, spiritual experience draws us beyond a narrow understand of self and inner peace or fulfillment to a wider experience of all life. Just as our spiritual practice sustains us, our spiritual practice and experience of self-transcendence calls us to sustain our planet. It is this dynamic of spiritual experience that draws us inward to experience self-transcendence that forms the foundation for sustainable spirituality.
© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.