THE BLOG

Transcendence for Realists

06/18/2015 11:11 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

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Time and Space. (Credit: Brisbane Falling via Flickr)

A rush of powerful, transforming emotion. A love that overwhelms. A bolt of altered perspective. An encounter with pure beauty. A profound realization of significance--or insignificance.

One common understanding of transcendent experiences is an encounter with a world beyond ourselves, beyond full comprehension.

But why must this be interpreted as supernatural?

A naturalistic worldview offers a bountiful understanding of transcendent experiences.

There is the momentary rush when confronting unfathomable scientific reality: Deep time, with our lives constituting just a blip. Deep space, in which Earth is just a speck.

More than that, transcendence-- experience beyond the ordinary--is perhaps most powerfully felt not in our encounter with universals, but when we are overcome by particulars, experiences that are supremely individual.

For some, it is triggered by new romance, an exercise high, the culminating moment of a particular song, the death of someone we knew, sudden acceptance of profound insight, or sex.

After he survived a heart attack, Abraham Maslow felt as if "everything gets doubly precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things...every single moment of every single day is transformed."

It's a very personal thing. Every once in a while, out of the blue, I'll look at my children doing something commonplace--playing sports, sleeping, or just laughing--and I'll feel it. The wow of being a parent. The rush of life's transience and joys. The sense of meaning. It's the highest of highs tinged with sadness all at once. It's intensely personal--these are my children, my life.

Then there are transcendent experiences of consciousness that are not "about" anything or anyone. These take many forms, from meditative awareness, to consciousness expansion, to self-actualized acceptance of being and world.

There is grandeur and beauty all around us, and at times, often just for a moment, it comes rushing in.

Those having such experiences need not discount reason, and need not interpret a profound experience or emotion as being part of a supernatural explanation. Numinous is not synonymous with miraculous.

Transcendence properly understood--a naturalistic transcendence--embraces the non-rational, not the irrational.

Non-rational transcendent emotions are harmonious with reason, evidence, and naturalism. They can be cherished as supreme human experiences.