Transcendence — what’s that about?

..and why does it matter for women, leadership, and everything else?

As I write in this series about the life stories of these women, in their many leadership successes and struggles, transcendence has become a theme. It winds like a bright thread through the tapestries of their lives, through my interviews with them, and through their comments about what matters and what shaped them.

So it’s time to explore the the idea of transcendence, or at least a few important parts of it, before we hear more of Margaret’s and the others’ stories.

We started with a few brief comments about transcendence in an earlier post. There we began to see hints that successful women leaders have transcended suffering, shaming, and others’ disbelief — or even their own — in their abilities and strengths.

What is this transcending, then?

Most generally, the idea of transcending is to pass through something that is blocking movement, change, or progress. It can also refer to finding a way to rise above something that is dragging us down or holding us back from improvement or positive change. The way such passing or rising happens for those suffering or in difficulties is what we’re interested in here. Women (and yes, men, too) in any kind of leadership find difficulties, even suffering, to pass through and rise above.

For some, this idea about transcendence has to do with an extremely rare way of knowing, available only to the most diligent, inspired, or chosen few. Michael Mamas describes this way of knowing here:

…that Transcendental level which lies just beyond our grasp. Cognition is that very rare and precious state when the Transcendental is not grasped, but instead wells up like a fountain from deep within us, illuminating our lives with the light of pure Knowledge. Few people know about cognition, the first type of knowing.

I don’t agree with all he writes. It is a precious state, indeed, to feel our lives illuminated, or to feel this state of transcendence well up from deep within us. I don’t think it’s as rare as he indicates, though — I think it’s available to all of us. Yet it hasn’t been encouraged for most of us. Often, we’re blind to the possibility.

Humanities Ways of Knowing and the “Quotidian Mysteries”

Many of us have had glimpses of this state, though— inklings of depth or expansion that are different and very important ways of knowing. A common pathway toward this is through or with beauty and art — in the world around us on a wonderful day, in cultural events large and small, in music, art, literature, dance. These are in very general terms the humanities — those vehicles for creating, processing, and understanding that remind us of the best forms and results of our human selves. Many have written about what can bring us all to that state Goethe’s Faust hoped to experience so he could say “Moment, stop now, you are so beautiful!” That beauty transcends every- day moments, and might stop us in our tracks. Our knowing and being transcends how we usually know and are.

Another view of transcendence, one with which I’m more likely to identify, is to see those experiences that are very real, but that are beyond scientific or causal ways of knowing and understanding, as transcendent or for some, even miraculous. I see them as transcendent rather than magical. Intuitive knowing, sudden inspiration, or synchronicity are some of the names for these ways of knowing.

They can seem mundane or amazing. They can be suddenly stunning and appreciated as the quotidian mysteries — the daily marvels — of our lives, as Kathleen Norris wrote in her 1998 book of the same title. The book is based on her contribution to a a lecture series devoted to the education for leadership and the spiritual well-being of women. The core of her message there is this:

We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were.

These quotidian mysteries, then, can lead us to a form of transcendence where we suddenly notice, again and again, as if for the first time, that the world and people around us are inspired and inspiring — filled with life and spirit, as are we. The humanities, often in the form of literature and poetry, have shown us the doorways to this kind of transcendence throughout our human history (and more and more, our human “herstory”). That doorway is open for a different way of knowing, by way of the human paradox.

Transcendence in these ancient and recent literary forms is often seen as synonomous with being in direct touch with “god.” Whether we think about or pray to many or none of the entities and ideas humans have given this sort of name to, we can still ponder what we might call “the transcendent.” One example of an open door to the transcendent for me comes via the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He may be obscure or unknown to some, but others find him to be one of the most creative poets of his time. He believed and wrote that the transcendent — in us and induced by art, literature, and nature — was like a flash of light from God. Whatever each of us does or doesn’t connect to in the use of the “God” concept, Hopkins’ poetry shows us much about ways of connecting to nature’s wonder, a master poet’s unique expressions of beauty, and transcendent ways of knowing in daily experience.

Here is an excerpt of just one Hopkins poem that shows us these connections:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. …
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;….
Saguaro cactus in bloom

It is important to note, too, that the remainder of the poem elided here is about humans’ destruction of the environment and disconnections form nature.

Hopkins, Norris, Goethe, and artists everywhere help us remember something that we human beings have felt and known for millennia: there is an experience of knowing available to all of us that seems inspired by something beyond and greater than ourselves. It feels mysterious, miraculous at times, wise in an essential wisdom-way-of-knowing. And it is tied to us in our daily journey in the world — our mundane activities.

This transcendent knowing is available to us and directly within our grasp, but we know that grasping for it won’t necessarily work. We need to invite it in and be ready and available for the “shining from shook foil” and “grandeur” of the still small voice of its wisdom.

And yes, that last sentence is full of transcendent, if counter-intuitive, contradictions!

So this is at least part of what it’s about

The facets of transcendence we explored here are included in these women leader’s stories:

  • Insights about overcoming suffering in myriad forms by walking through and beyond its effects to “fulfillment, healing, even ecstasy;”
  • Insights that well up like a fountain from deep within;
  • Insights from nature, literature, art, and generally from the humanities ways of knowing and experiencing life;
  • Insights from “quotidian mysteries” — daily routines bring transcendent moments that sparkle with mystery and wisdom.

Next time we’ll be back to Margaret’s stories of her struggles and insights and how her particular pathways and leadership adventures included transcendent ways of being and knowing. We’ll also learn from her about some related insights she has gained. As a preview, these are:

  • Insights from accepting what is and working toward change, in a dynamic, continually evolving process;
  • Insights from claiming and living responsibility for compassion and love;
  • Insights for affirming what is most valuable and ethical, and intentionally working toward all of these.