I’m always writing about depth—deep feelings, deep thoughts, deep relationships. But I know too well that when you focus too much on one quality, its opposite begins to stir, complain, and beg for attention. Could there be something about height that’s important?
For one thing, the spiritual traditions often place the realm of the holy and the most meaningful in the sky, or even beyond it. This is poetry, of course. They’re not talking about literal angels and bodhisattvas in the clouds.
Try a simple experiment. On a clear blue day, look into the sky and simply contemplate it. Feel wonder awaken in you. Notice where your thoughts go. The sky can spark your imagination to consider the most important matters in life and your highest ambitions and ideals. Do the same with a night sky and contemplate the mysterious black vastness. You may well get to thinking about the mystery of it all and your place in the cosmos.
This simple practice of stopping, looking, and wondering can be a powerful ritual. But you may find other rituals that inspire you to transcend yourself. Being intimate with other aspects of the natural world; chanting or handwriting or reading deeply the world’s spiritual literature; doing a sparkling job of teaching or parenting; listening to or playing inspired music—all these natural experiences can be more than an emotional peak experience. They can place your life high in the sky, at the edge of your reality, making you dizzy with possibility and awe.
One of the most serious problems we have had with religious means of transcendence, of being identified with our highest self, has been to take it all too literally. Instead of seeing the sky as a metaphor, so many have expected some physical being to appear divinely in that region. We have also lost touch with an inner transcendence, a personal sky, and a sensation of being close to our ideals and to our cosmic destiny.
The profound ancient Greek philosopher Herakleitos once wrote: “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” But what does this mean? Perhaps that it’s necessary to go both up and down, or that you discover the same mystery upward or downward. Maybe we shouldn’t make such a distinction between ascending and going deep.
A clue may be hidden in the very old document known as the Emerald Tablet, used by alchemists and others. This is a long, mysterious statement often summarized to mean “as above, so below.” The world we discover in our highest meditations is reflected in the realm of ordinary life or deep in our psyche. The Christian theologian Origen said, “We all have a sky within.”
What all this means is that the transcendence that inspires us and charges our souls with wonder and idealism takes us up out of our current condition, but at the same time it is immanent—deeply personal and down in the glowing heart of nature and of things.
This idea of our highest self being mirrored in our deepest experiences holds our world together. We can do everything possible to be in touch with the unknown vastness of possibility, while also working out our painful past, our daily work and challenging relationships. In fact, as long as we do the one openly and with constancy, we can achieve the other.
Belief is not quite the right action for the highest self. It has to go further by seeing no end to the discovery of what the world and life are all about. The language we use may seem fixed and unchanging—God, eternity, and even the infinite—but the opening up of that language to mystery is one of the important things we can do if we are to truly stand at the edge of our world and glimpse the enlivening mystery of it.
It helps to have concrete methods of maintaining a higher self: sublime art, generous service to humanity, regular contemplative practices, extraordinary love and sex, work that contributes, and exploration of the world. We may have to find our own particular practices that make a hole in the sky—keep us open to the mysteries.
Part of you is always growing and maturing, and that process will never stop. Be faithful to that process and you will know in your own being what transcendence is. Your endless discoveries will help you appreciate the endless mysteries of life itself. In this way, your highest self is not just an idea. You feel its presence, and endless transcending becomes a way of life.
Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and for the past 30 years a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is The Soul of Christmas, from Franciscan Media.