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On the Nature of the Profound, And What Lies Beyond Meaning


While life is often swallowed up by mundane tasks and ingrained routines, there are times when conventional experience is swept aside, overrun by moments that are incomparable, beyond our paradigms of meaning. As we remain silently present at the death of a parent, lost in the wonder of holding a newborn for the first time, basking in the radiant morning meditation during a silent retreat, feeling a kind of freedom and wonder flooding into the mind, or witnessing helplessly as accident occurs before us in what appears to be slow motion, the transcendent leaves a deep impression, changes the way the relate to the world, yet leaves us deeply frustrated in our inability to express, in any adequate way, what occurred.

When we reflect on these, the most deeply engrained, singular moments of life, we are recalling experiences in which discursive thought switches off, allowing awareness to open up for a richer form of consciousness, wherein the mind takes in more than sights, sounds and one's inner commentary; these are the occasions where the body itself becomes a recording device, receiving and noting a myriad of sensory impressions, while the perception time slows, taking in movements in far greater detail; the mind is then spacious and wide, not landing on any single object, but rather bathing in the fullness of 360 degree being. This is the transcendent, for it transcends the normative reliance on thoughts and visual impressions; in full awareness the mind is not limited to a single perspective, it is larger than what sits behind our eyes and between our ears.

The Buddha:
"The run-of-the-mill mind is always thirsty: for food, short term pleasures and ideas, and the kind of consciousness that arises from it grows thoughts and a craving for more and more."
"When the mind is fully present, no longer thirsty for food, short term pleasures or ideas, a [transcendent] consciousness arises, one that does not land on any single object, it stays spacious, without growing thoughts or craving more."

In 1790 Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, noted a distinction between the 'beautiful,' which is connected to an encounter with an object's form—for example one of Goya's late paintings, or a solo by John Coltrane—by and the 'sublime,' which is not limited to any single object or form, involving a state that is "boundless," extending beyond normal consciousness. Kant noted that our sense and cognition stand in awe during these sublime experiences: how natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes expose language's inability to express the event in a suitable way that captures the fullness of what occurred.

So the sublime and transcendent exist beyond perspective or meaning. Simply put, meaning is a production of language, there can be no 'meaning' outside of, prior to or after language. Yet our richest experiences are resistant to words and labels. Why is this? While visual experience can be described, and sounds recreated by the voice, the body itself is a recording object during the profound moments of life, it takes in the feel, which appears in flood of fluid sensory impressions that cannot be disentangled; what's felt cannot be adequately described.

*     *     *

After a loved one dies, people rush in to contain the sense of the loss by adding trite statements. We're told the lost "lived a long life" or "got to travel" in the hopes that our grief can be contained, the blow softened, and we all can go return to life as usual without learning anything from the experience of mortality and impermanence.

New York Mayor Guilliani's message to the world on the day after 9/11:
"The advice that I would give today, if they're home from work, is to go about a normal day. Take the day as a day to go shopping."
—9/12/2001

And as we return to normal consciousness, we are left with the task of defending the experience from being cheapened by looking for trite labels or easy meanings. So we have an obligation to safeguard the sublime from those that degrade it with agendas: think of how many so called patriots rushed in to claim 9/11 as a justification for war, vengeance, capitalism. As the buddha noted we're addicted to the habits and routines that make sense of life (silabbatupadana), and will rush in to convert experience to views and opinions (disshupadana) to avoid any real change in life.

For a spiritual practitioner,  the challenge is to retain the pureness of sublime experience, to stay present in transcendent consciousness (Viññāṇa anidassanaṃ in pali). It's impossible to retrieve the openness and fullness of the profound after all words flood back in; we don't need to know what an experience "means," we simply need to feel it and allow it to play out in our future perceptions. Rather than being translated by the brain's left hemisphere (language), the transcend must be worked on by the right, which oversees relational patterns, behaviors, actions.

In short, it doesn't matter what the transcendent means; the rush to explain or make 'sense' is simply the expression of a discomfort with the mind's inability to tame the profound, to contain its power. In the end, seeking to make sense only violates the experience, attempting to cram its resonance into categories and concepts that we can carry around, rather than allowing them to change us forever.

—Josh korda, DharmapunxNYC, June 12, 2014

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