I laid on the bottom of the ocean and stared into space.
The surface of the water was so still and flat that it ceased to exist. The light of the stars traveled unimpeded trillions of miles, through the Earth’s atmosphere and 20 feet of water.
I held my breath, the sound of my heartbeat joining the primordial hum of the Atlantic.
I pushed off the bottom. Underwater like in space one is weightless.
That night off the coast of Key West, I slowly kicked towards constellations, no difference between air and space. I swam into eons and lightyears, not an observer of the universe but part of it.
I stood in my backyard in Indiana, waiting for my dog to pee.
The lightning bugs at their peak. Each flash reflected off the surface of the pond.
The stars were free from fossil-fueled light pollution and danced in the darkness of a new moon.
Stars below, above, and around me. As if the heavens descended.
In the Rocky Mountains, no tent, just the sky, and more shooting stars in one hour than I had seen in my entire life.
Holding my daughter for the first time.
Holding my son for the first time.
Pouring water onto the back of a beached pilot whale and feeling it’s sonar go through me.
Each of these was a moment of transcendence in which I felt small, but part of something much bigger than myself. In her book The Power of Meaning Emily Esfahani Smith includes transcendence in her four pillars of meaning alongside a sense of belonging, purpose, and storytelling.
She writes about the paradox of transcendence:
[Transcendence] simultaneously makes individuals feel insignificant and yet connected to something massive and meaningful. How can this paradox be explained? The experiences of practiced meditators, who describe similar phenomena, may offer a clue. At the peak mystical moment, they sense the boundaries of their selves dissolve and, as a result, feel no more separation between themselves and the world around them. They experience, as a meditator in one study put it, “a sense of timelessness” … the brain can no longer separate the self from the surrounding environment. Individuals feel connected with everyone and everything—they feel a sense of unity.
So many of my transcendent moments have involved stars, so it makes sense that Esfahni Smith would write about the experiences of astronauts looking back at the pale blue dot we call home.
Their values, according to one study, shift from self-focused ones like achievement, enjoyment, and self-direction to self-transcendent ones, like unity with nature, belief in God, and world peace. “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world,” another astronaut has said, “and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch. ” Scientists have dubbed this dramatic shift in perspective the Overview Effect.
When have you had such moments? It wasn’t taking a selfie–a moment when you certainly aren’t in the moment or looking outside of yourself. But what about Facebook? But what about Instagram? When we think about our audience we leave the moment thinking of how to share this moment instead of experiencing it. I’d argue that no one has ever experienced transcendence while taking a selfie.
I’m not one to worry about the decline of religion in our culture today, but I do worry that it may contribute to a decline in the amount of transcendent moments people experience. We need people who feel small. We need people who discover moments to wonder at the stars and not always feel like a star themselves. A study in 2014 found that students who stared up at a 200-foot tall eucalyptus tree for one minute (one minute!) felt more generous and less self-centered. People feel more satisfied, more connected.
One terminal cancer patient who didn’t believe in an afterlife participated in a study in which psychedelics were used to produce transcendent experiences. Before her trip she felt the dread of not existing, but after she felt much more connected. “There was not one atom of myself that did not merge with the divine.”
So you could try magic mushrooms, find a God, lose yourself in the mystery of art and existence, or my recommendations, and something I should do more, mediate and soak up nature, hug a tree, stare up at the branches, or swim in the stars.
But find something that makes you feel small, yet connected and do that. Our society and the fate of our planet depend on it.
“To the dull mind all nature is leaden. To the illuminated mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir