Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
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What exactly is a transcendent experience? To transcend means to go beyond expectation. To go past what has previously been experienced. To transcend is to evolve as a result of either a single powerful moment or a series of transformative experiences, or both. Like a light bulb over our heads or a ground-breaking discovery. An “aha” moment. A sudden realization that, like toothpaste, can’t be put back in the container. A Pandora’s box of change. We’ve all had these. What have yours been like? What have they changed in you? What couldn’t you un-know once discovered?

When we personally experience the transcendent, an experience becomes cognizable, or integrated into our very being. It becomes inextricably woven into the fabric of who we are, how we act, the decisions we make, and the way we feel about ourselves in the world. A transcendent experience adds a new color to our aura, a new tint to our glasses through which we see the world. When we have successfully cognized something, we become one with it to the point of subconscious action. Full integration.

As an example of full and integrated cognition, we cognize gravity. We can’t see it, but we experience the effects of it every day. Our awareness of gravity is integrated into our very existence. It can’t be extracted from our understanding of the world. It’s like an ingredient in soup. It can’t just be scooped out and discarded as if it never existed. Even if we were to remove a chunk of vegetable, the essence and flavor of it still remain in the broth. We don’t understand gravity, most of us. Science only saw gravity waves, which were predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, for the very first time only a few years ago! We are like children when it comes to understanding something as complex as gravity. But does that mean we don’t use it? Because we do not have to understand the full mechanics of how it works to take advantage of it? Gravity is a transcending mystery.

As much as we like to know it all, a certain amount of mystery is perfectly acceptable. We do not have to know how every gear, pulley or belt works in our car to know how to drive it. We have cognized the concept of “car” into our world and lives, even though very few of us understand anything more than how to turn the key and make it go. Transcendent experience is one that is cognized into our being.

Not all transcendent experience is monumental or earth-shattering. Some transformations are quiet and cumulative. Little experiences over decades that form an evolving reality of ourselves. But even these myriad little experiences can suddenly gel in an instant like a flash of realization that everything you have been doing in your life up till now has led you to this moment. And you can never go back.

One of the aftereffects of transformative transcendent experience is not necessarily what you might think. One’s life suddenly does not become “perfect.” In fact, quite the opposite. Transcendent experience upsets the apple cart, sometimes in enormous, even catastrophic, ways. It brings about change, which takes time to calibrate itself. It makes a new you.

Like a chiropractic adjustment, the bones are now in the correct position, but the still-aching muscles need time to adjust to the new reality. They often want to pull us back into the old shape. When we transform for the better, sometimes the people who are friends with the old you no longer make the cut. Sometimes the things you were willing to put up with before no longer are tolerable, even though you tolerated it just fine yesterday. Things you thought once made perfect sense now seem like old tapes.

We are afraid of change. And that’s why we resist it. Transcendent experience lays waste to our old self, not because it ruins the bricks but because it replaces the mortar. You are still you, just stronger. And those who could climb your walls for the gaps between the bricks where the mortar had come undone can no longer take advantage of you for your weakness.

Be brave, be allowing, cognize a new reality, and be fearless about the aftermath. Because if you face it with love, what needs to change will change with grace. If you face it with compassion, what needs to transform will do so with an ease directly proportional to your love.

Do people really convert into something entirely new? Or do we become more fully what we always were? What occurs as a result of transcendent experience? The Hindu goddess Kali is the goddess of destruction and transformation, of tearing down walls as a preparation for something new. But that’s only the first half of the transformation. We fear destruction of our old selves because we fear what will never come back. But on the other side of that destruction is grace. It is new beginnings. It is what we have been asking and praying for suddenly here. Embrace it. For if you do, the change will be easier. What you resist persists.

If you are a person who believes God has a plan for you, would you thwart it? If you knew for a fact that what you are experiencing was eventually going to have a profoundly positive impact on you, how would you approach it now?

In my faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, we have seven principles and six sources, meaning we have seven guiding ideas and six places from where we get those ideas. The first source is us. It is our own experience that matters most. The first source reads like this: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

This source is trying to say: May the forces be with you. It’s a suggestion to be amazed about the unlikeliest of circumstances that occurred — by chance or by choice — to bring about the world as we now enjoy it.

How remarkable a thing it is regardless of what confluence of molecules banged together at just the right moment to set off a billions-of-years-long chain reaction that resulted in the water from which we sprang and the air by which we breathe. We’ve looked at a lot of planets so far and it appears our situation is fairly rare and special relative to the vastness of space. Does that awareness transform you? How?

The first source is an affirmation that humans have the capacity to tap into the wonder and mystery of the existence of the world to the point that it more truly reveals our great oneness to each other. Tap into that wonder and mystery on purpose. Recognize that your life matters to the entire universe. Your life is like a bell. Ring it.

Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. He is the producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube and host of the Our Common Dharma podcast series. Email wildarcangelo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.