• Apr, 14, 2019

The Poetry of Transcendence

To go beyond or rise above a limit, or be greater than something ordinary
Oxford Dictionary

There is something beyond our mind which abides in silence within our mind. It is the supreme mystery beyond thought.
Maitri Upanishad


I have often wondered about the word “transcendence,” about what it means to go beyond or rise above a limit, as the above dictionary definition suggests. But it was only when I took up Transcendental Meditation (TM) over a decade ago that I gave the matter serious thought. When it came to writing a book about the technique and the state of consciousness that is its hallmark feature, the title Transcendence seemed like an obvious choice.

William James, who is known as the father of psychology, wrote in his classic work Varieties of Religious Experience:

Our normal waking consciousness. . . is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

He goes on to say that people may live their whole lives without being aware of these other states of consciousness but if they apply “the requisite stimulus,” then at a touch, these other states of consciousness become entirely accessible. The state of transcendence, is to borrow William James’ expression, one such “special type of consciousness.” According to Vedic teaching, transcendence is the fourth state of consciousness, the first three being sleeping, waking and dreaming. I must confess that when I first heard about this so-called fourth state of consciousness, I was skeptical of its existence. It is only after I started to practice Transcendental Meditation and experienced the state myself, just as it has been described in the literature, that I believed in its existence. So for those of you who have never experienced it, I do not expect you to take it on faith. Nevertheless, I hope this piece of writing will stimulate your curiosity to find out more about it.

Those of us who practice TM are familiar with transcendence. For us, the requisite stimulus for inducing this state is a mantra or word sound, which we are taught to think in a special way, as passed on from master to student. Over the centuries, however, philosophers, writers, athletes and others have learned to access the state of transcendence in other ways, as beautifully depicted by Craig Pearson in his book The Supreme Awakening.

If transcendence is, as in the above quote from the Upanishads, something that abides in silence within our mind and is such a mystery, how can it be described? Moreover, why even try to find words to convey such a mysterious state? I put this question to Bob Roth, director of the David Lynch Foundation. He quoted Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as saying that transcendence is such a blissful state that describing it would encourage those who are not yet meditating to learn. In addition, for meditators to share the experience could strengthen their commitment to their meditative practice. Let us then consider what poetry, perhaps the most beautiful form of verbal communication, can offer those who wish to better understand the state of mind that Henry David Thoreau described as “like a still lake of purest crystal” where “without an effort our depths are revealed to ourselves?”

Wordsworth: A Transcendent Poet

If ever there was a transcendent poet, it is William Wordsworth, whose responses to nature transcended what he observed in the world around him to encompass the emotions and physical changes these observations evoked in him. Wordsworth transformed these responses into immortal poems, which continue to delight and, I would suggest, heal. A famous example of this effect can be seen in the poem commonly known as Tintern Abbey, an abbreviation for “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.”

Wordsworth had visited the same site five years earlier when he was 23 and in a troubled state. In the poem he revisits the scene, more mature as a person and a poet. After describing the rolling waters of mountain springs, the cliffs, trees, and hedge rows, he goes on to document the way they make him feel physically and emotionally. Here is his famous description.


By Saffron BlazeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 (an excerpt)


These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

As you can see, Wordsworth expresses gratitude for what he owes to the memory of “these beauteous forms.” He accurately describe a certain aspect of transcendence:

… sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration

These words remind me of a patient, a long-term TM practitioner, who described transcendence as something sweet, almost like the feeling a bee might have on sucking nectar from a flower. Wordsworth’s feelings of “tranquility and restoration” are also reminiscent of experiences that commonly arise from meditation.

Wordsworth then describes a cluster of associations to this state, a mixture of joy and gratitude. My fellow meditators and I often experience similar feelings during meditation, as the mantra gives way to pure consciousness and blissful sensations. In referring to “unremembered acts of kindness,” Wordsworth points out how good things that have slipped one’s mind readily return during states of transcendence.

The poet’s focus then shifts, moving from the mind to the body which, as seasoned meditators know, is powerfully affected during states of transcendence.

… that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened

How often do we feel a sense of physical lightness come over us during and after we emerge from a state of transcendence! The effects of this state on the body continue in ways familiar to any TM practitioner, such as the slowing of the breath, which scientists have documented to be a cardinal physical component of transcendence.

Then the poet’s imagination soars as he suggests that even the motion of the blood becomes suspended. According to him, so profound is this slowing down that we are “laid asleep in body” even as we “become a living soul” – a beautiful description of what has often been called the calm alertness of transcendence.

In the final words of this memorable stanza the poet observes the insight that sometimes emerges from transcendence, the ability to “see into the life of things,” to see something anew in all its vibrant vitality.

So, here is what we can say about Tintern Abbey and the light it sheds on the state of transcendence:

  1. Wordsworth describes a state of consciousness that resembles transcendence both with regard to physical and mental attributes: feelings of the breath and body slowing down; and blissful calm associated with lively insight.
  2. Whereas the “requisite stimulus” for inducing transcendence in TM practitioners is the mantra, the corresponding stimulus for Wordsworth is the presence of natural beauty
  3. Wordsworth’s description of both his surroundings and the feelings they evoke within him have the power to heal by eliciting similar responses in the reader.

Varieties of Transcendence

As seasoned meditators know, every meditation session is different and, although the elements described in Tintern Abbey capture many aspects of transcendence, some TM practitioners might describe their transcendent experiences very differently, as might different writers.

Here is a poetic example of transcendence from the Tao Te Ching of Lao-Tzu, beautifully translated by Jonathan Star:

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything
unfolding from emptiness
See all things flourish and dance
in endless variation
And once again merge back into perfect

On a book tour for Transcendence, I was delighted to be accompanied by my friend David Lynch, who was promoting his book Catching the Big Fish, which was also about Transcendental Meditation. When the subject of transcendence came up, I would emphasize how much I enjoyed the calm serenity I experienced from TM. David took issue with me about that. “I don’t want calm serenity,” he exclaimed on one occasion, “I want to splash around in pools of bliss.”

What we see from the excerpt of the Tao Te Ching shown above, is that transcendence can be a complex shifting state, encompassing both David’s description and mine. In eight short lines Lao Tzu describes emptiness, restlessness of mind, everything unfolding from the emptiness, things flourishing and dancing in endless variation, merging once again, and back to emptiness. Such are the many aspects of transcendence. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, time cannot wither nor custom stale its infinite variety.


Wordsworth’s Daffodils and the Expansion of Consciousness

After I wrote Transcendence, with its focus on the growth of consciousness beyond sleeping, waking and dreaming, I thought I had said everything worth saying about the effects of Transcendental Meditation. After all, I had dealt fully with the many benefits of TM, resulting largely from transcendence and its effects on relieving stress, that ubiquitous toxin of our frenetic modern lives. But as I continued to meditate and shared my experiences with fellow meditators, I realized that there was much more to say. Consciousness continued to expand, as Maharishi and the Vedic masters before him had observed, with astonishing results. These observations led me to my second book on TM – Super Mind.

For those readers who might not be familiar with the progression of consciousness, as outlined by Vedic teaching, beyond transcendence – that calm alert state that occurs during TM – the meditator begins to experience similar expansions of consciousness during regular life, so-called cosmic consciousness. As this progresses further, refined cosmic consciousness appears, a state during which the world is perceived in fine-grained detail, as though illuminated by an inner radiance. I have called these advanced states of consciousness the “Super Mind,” because they are associated with a deepening capacity to think and feel and to make such connections as allow an individual to lead a more fulfilling and productive life. It is these next two states (the Super Mind, if you will) that we see in evidence in one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” In a 1995 BBC poll, this poem was rated as the fifth most favorite. It was inspired by a walk Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy through the lake district, a gorgeous part of England. Here is the famous poem.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud 


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

At the very start of the poem, we find Wordsworth in a state that sounds like cosmic consciousness. Even as he is experiencing something like transcendence (as though he is floating high above the ground like a cloud), he is also awake and active. It is in this state of mind that he sees the mass of daffodils, which he describes in such gorgeous detail that they must surely be imprinted on the minds of millions who learned the poem in school. There is such a sense of profusion about the daffodils that even a single glance reveals ten thousand. But a finite number is insufficient to describe their massive expanse, which invites comparison to the stars in the milky way. They are never ending.

At the same time, Wordsworth experiences in the daffodils an inner vitality reminiscent of his transcendent state of mind in “Tintern Abbey,” which enabled him to “see into the life of things.” This state of mind makes the daffodils seem like a crowd of fellow creatures, fluttering and dancing. He imbues them with human qualities. The sparkling waves cannot compete with them, at least with regard to their glee that is so contagious that “a poet could not but be gay in such a jocund company.” He is transfixed by the wonder of the sight but as with “Tintern Abbey,” little does he realize the riches that this natural wonder will continue to yield. Later when “in vacant or in pensive mood” the daffodils will “flash upon that inward eye/which is the bliss of solitude.” Once again, it sounds as though the poet is entering a state of transcendence, triggered by the recollection of natural beauty. He concludes with one of the most memorable couplets in all of poetry.

And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Wordsworth wrote “I wandered lonely as a cloud” in 1804 six years after “Tintern Abbey.” It is tempting to speculate that the capacity for transcendence that infused “Tintern Abbey” continued to grow in such a way that his expanded consciousness entered Wordsworth’s daily waking state and with its further growth enabled him to see the natural wonders around him both with regard to their beauty and their inner life even when they were just a memory.

What’s in a name?

Another great poet who developed the capacity for transcendental consciousness is Alfred Lord Tennyson. As described in William James Varieties of Religious Experience, Tennyson stumbled upon this ability by repeating his own name silently to himself. Here is Tennyson’s description of the state that this practice induced in him:

. . . a kind of waking trance — this for lack of a better word — I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. . . . All at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state but the clearest, the surest of the surest . . . utterly beyond words — where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life. . . .I am ashamed of my feeble description. Have I not said the state is utterly beyond words? . . .There is no delusion in the matter! It is no nebulous ecstasy, but a state of transcendent wonder, associated with absolute clearness of mind.

The famous self-help guru Dale Carnegie counseled his readers that “a person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  In general, Dale Carnegie was surely right, and were Tennyson alive today, no doubt he would agree. After all his name was also his mantra. For those of us practice transcendental meditation, however, it might be tough to choose between the two. Luckily we don’t have to.