The current social and political realities in the United States and abroad have made clear the shortcomings of democracy, capitalism and enlightenment rationalism. While I am no political scientist, this fact seems self-evident.
Even as they have contributed to greater freedom and an enhanced quality of life for many, they have also resulted in the opposite for countless others, let alone the destructive impact on our fellow inhabitants here on Earth and the biosphere itself.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, a researcher and highly regarded thinker, has claimed that human life is currently as good as it has ever been. While that may be true, it is impossible to ignore how distant we are from living in a world in which all people, animals and the natural world are treated with the dignity deserved by unique and infinitely valuable manifestations of the All.
To address this problem, I suggest we add a fourth ingredient to the stew of democracy, capitalism and enlightenment rationalism. Rather than religion, as some may propose, I suggest that we stir in the mystical. Through this, we can be reminded that there is something more; something that transcends our material reality and that connects us all.
I grew up in London in the 1970s and 80s. Our family lived on the Woodberry Down Estate, which was, by the time I lived there, synonymous with inner city blight. Like urban housing projects here in the U.S., it consisted of bland, multistory concrete and redbrick buildings packed closely together and inhabited by a diverse array of low-income families.
Mercifully, Finsbury Park was nearby. Opened in 1869, the park was created to provide open spaces to offset urbanization and provide havens for the poor. By the time I first visited more than a century later, it was still living up to its founding mission. It was, and still is, a large park spanning some 110 acres, with a lake for boating, a running track, basketball and tennis courts, lawn bowling and wide-open spaces. I mostly climbed trees, but also played basketball with my brother and tried, but failed, to beat my dad in the 100-yard dash. I loved that park.
I had a recurring experience in the park during those years that has stuck with me throughout. I often slipped into a trancelike state and experienced the sense that I was running on the grass and that, if the wind was just right and I was going at just the right speed and I could catch the tips of the blades of grass in just the right way, I could ascend upward and fly across the sky. The power of these experiences was such that I wasn’t sure if I had actually been flying or not. To this day, I am still not completely sure.
I have come to understand those early experiences as the pull of the transcendent self, up and away from the material self; that my soul was trying to return to its Place (makom).
Pulled as we are between the poles of our physical reality and our transcendent nature, we are caught in the oscillations between the two. But if we can become more aligned with our transcendent selves through the cultivation of spiritual practices, the polarity of our existence can begin to fall away.
Abraham Joshua Heschel has described it this way: “Polarity is an essential trait of all things. Tension, contrast and contradiction characterize all of reality. However, there is a polarity in everything except God. For all tension ends in God. He is beyond all dichotomies.”
If God language is hard for some to come to terms with, replace it with “transcendence” and you arrive at the same place.
As I have grown older, the experiences of transcendence have taken on a different, possibly more mature, quality. Recently I experienced my transcendent self joined with what I can only describe as Compassion (HaRachaman). It/I held my material self from above as we hovered in the cosmos, like the time God took Abra[ha]m “outside” (Genesis 15:5).
In that moment, It/I (Anochi?) engulfed my material self with what I can only describe as unlimited compassion, or love. The transcendent self was with Compassion, with Love, together, as one, even as it encompassed the material self.
I sense that this is what Jewish mystics have identified as the sefirotic realm of Hesed/Grace which, as Jewish mysticism scholar Arthur Green has described it, “represents the God of love.” Most important of all, it “calls forth the response of love in the Human soul as well. Hesed in the mystic’s soul is the love of God and of all of God’s creatures, the ability to continue this divine flow, passing on to others the gift of divine love.”
Although I struggle to find the words to adequately capture or express it, I am drawn to believe that this experience of transcendence and divine love contains within it the missing ingredient in our stew of politics, economics and rationalism. Returning to our transcendent selves contains within it the possibility to repair the brokenness that surrounds us.