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We Are Not Transcending Anything

I took my daughter to run some errands at a local university yesterday, and in the middle of our tasks, as often happens, we needed to take a cookie break.

We sat down upon a cold stone bench, and behind her happened to be the words you see here.

cornell university carved words transcendence

We shall transcend all.

I remembered how, when I was in college, I took courses in “eastern religion” in which ideas like transcendence were discussed. I remembered how important transcendental concepts and enlightenment were in my way of thinking about things.

Looking at my daughter there, eating a cookie in front of those words, I realized how far I have come from thinking about transcendent enlightenment.

Transcendence is no longer on my list of things to do. Neither is enlightenment. There are a whole lot of things I need to get done before even entertaining fantasies about such things again.

Before I can bother transcending anything, I need to deal with the mud I’m stuck in. I need to take care of my kids, and try to sort out the responsibilities I’ve gotten myself into. When that’s taken care of, I have enough time to turn my focus to the larger problems of the world – problems like war, a natural environment gone off kilter, and the withering of practical human freedom.

The gurus of the world may say that I’ve got it all wrong, that I’m mired in the world of illusion. I can assure you, though, that when my son needs his diaper cleaned, it’s no illusion. Neither is it an illusion that my family will be kicked out of our house if we can’t keep paying the bills. The four dollar and ten cent per gallon price of gasoline here in town is very real.

Nirvana? No thanks. As miserable as reality is a lot of the time, I’m not surrendering my efforts to make it better. I am responsible for shaping the reality of other people through my action – or my inaction. I’m not about to pull a Siddhartha and go zone out under a tree while my kids go hungry.

Transcendence sounds great when you haven’t built a life yet, and you’ve got nothing to lose. Nowadays, transcendence sounds more like surrender than anything else.

My daughter wasn’t transcending her hunger when she sat down to eat cookies with me. She was taking care of her hunger so that we could move on and deal with the rest of the day.

It’s not an elegant philosophy, but it’s a practical one, and it keeps my daughter and I safe and sound.

We shall transcend all?

No, we shall not even transcend a mid-morning snack. And, in case you noticed, the Buddha never succeeded in ending suffering for all creatures either.

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