Transcendence involves people's quest for something more.  "Man lives forever on the verge, on the threshold, of ‘something more' than he can currently comprehend" (Richardson, 1969, p.1).   Maslow talks about transcendence as "the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness" (1971, p.279).  The new word here is inclusive or adding parts to the whole.  Wilber also talks about transcendence as inclusive but also that it "adds incredibly novel components" (1996, p.23).  The movement from lower to higher, from parts to wholes adds something new.  This transcendent process is an " urging to discover for oneself the supremacy of the transcendental" (Bugental, 1967, p.326).  Transcendence comes from within an individual as this "urging to discover".  I will look at the following aspects of transcendence: it involves a movement "upward", it includes, there is an arising of new components, and it originates within oneself.

      Let us look at the movement "upward".  I put "upward" in quotes to say that transcendence involves movement, not that it is defined as something "better than anything previously experienced" (Richardson, 1969, p2-3).  The movement seems to me to be from one state to a more enlightened state.  This does not mean that once one transcends something it will never bother them again.  It does mean that by transcending something one knows its nature or essence and is therefore able to accept it.

     If transcendence is movement what does it move from?  Richardson claims that it "counters predicaments" (1969, p.3).  From a Buddhist perspective it is a movement away from Dukkha (sufferring) (1969, p. 3).  Duhkha is the idea that life involves pain.  "If we are seeking eternity or happiness or security, then the experience of life is one of pain, duhkha, suffering" (Trungpa, 1988, p. 12).  To realize that one can be happy, one also has to realize that one can be sad.  Transcendence changes the value of pain by moving away from it.  Transcendence does not eliminate it.  Take the transcendent experience of Sidhartha:

As eyes cannot see eyes, so as long as he is in the midst of suffering, without transcending it, he cannot see the real state of the world.  A keen awareness of the fact that, so long as a man is not awakened, everything is suffering, came to the Buddha after he had attained enlightenment.  The well-known words of the Buddha that "everything is suffering" were, in fact, uttered after he had attained enlightenment. (Hakeda, 1967, p.54)
Transcendence is moving away (or awakening) from a personal suffering to realize that everything suffers.  Once I know I suffer I am able to work with this suffering.  I accept it and perhaps transmute it.  This is an example of the process of transcendence.

     Wilber discusses this in terms of world view.  "So it's not that the earlier worldview is totally wrong and the new worldview is totally right.  The earlier one was adequate, the new one is more adequate" (1996, p.67).  The movement upward is a shift in perspective, a greater understanding of the nature of suffering and how it fits into a person's worldview.  Transcendental  movement is linear only in that there are "basic structures of consciousness" (Wilber, 1996, p. 141).  To illustrate further lets look at Wilber's model of transcendental movement.  He calls it ladder, climber, view.

     The ladder is what Wilber uses to show levels of growth.  A new word that Wilber uses is holons.  For the purposes of this discussion a holon is "an entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole" (Wilber, 1996, p.20).  A holon is a building block of anything; concepts, societies, whatever.  "Just as you must have words before you have sentences, and you must have sentences before you have paragraphs, so these basic holons build upon and incorporate their predecessors . . . the higher rungs rest on the lower, and that is part of the usefulness of the ladder metaphor" (Wilber, 1996, p.142).  If you remove a lower rung of the ladder all the top rungs fall.  It is arbitrary to label these rungs.  It may help to think of these rungs as steps in Maslow's hierarchy of needs or as Erikson's stages.  Different kinds of transcendence take place within this structure of growth.

    The climber is what Wilber refers to as the self.  It "has specific characteristics and capacities that are not found on the ladder itself" (1996, p.142).  The self is what actually does the transcending.  According to Wilber, the self identifies with the rungs of the ladder, incorporates this knowledge and moves onto the next rung.  Each step on the rung has a fulcrum (or a crisis to resolve for Erikson or a need to be met for Maslow).  "(A) fulcrum is simply a crucial fork in the developmental road" (Wilber, 1996, p.144).  Each fulcrum has three parts:

One, the self evolves or develops or steps up to a new level of awareness, and it identifies with that level, it is "one with" that level.  Two, it then begins to move beyond that level, or differentiate from it or dis-identify with it, or transcend it.  And three, it identifies with the new and higher level and centers itself there. (Wilber, 1996, p.144)
If the fulcrum is passed successfully the self continues on its way and a new worldview results.

     Each rung on the ladder provides a different perspective of the world.  These different views involve a new version of the self and others, a new self-identity, new self-needs and a new moral sense (Wilber, 1996, p.145).  This model has implications for therapy.  A therapist can get a good idea of where a person is stuck on the ladder by examining the person's worldview, identity, needs and moral sense.  As with any developmental theory, there can be progress up the ladder even if at one rung there was a miss-step.  These accidents can manifest themselves as psychological problems.  Lets look at the hierarchy of needs.  Suppose a child never satisfactorily felt safe growing up.  S/he can still grows up and moves on, but may always have problems feeling safe.  Their worldview may be one of anxiety and distrust.  They may need safety and so on.  A therapist working with this client will then need to help them transcend this need.

     Transcendence then involves movement away from duhka, or suffering, and toward a different worldview.  This movement takes place by becoming aware of the suffering as universal and integrating that knowledge into the self.  The integration or inclusion is of significance in transcendence because I believe it is a common misconception that transcendence replaces pain with ecstacy.  That transcendence means getting rid of pain or choosing the ‘right' way to live instead of the ‘wrong' way.  But to not integrate these opposites is not transcendence.

     Maslow states that one characteristic of transcendence is the ability to integrate polarities.  "To rise from dichotomies to superordinate wholes" (1971, p.274).  The separate poles are no longer seen as opposites in conflict, but as parts of an entirety.  It is "a higher viewpoint where one can see that these mutually exclusive differences in opposites can be coordinated into a unity which would be more realistic, more true, more in accord with actual reality" (Maslow, 1971, p.274).  Wilber looks at pathologies in individuals or collective worldviews and notes that the cause of most of them is dissociation of one pair of opposites instead of the integration of the polarities.  Speaking in cultural terms, Wilber describes the problem of polarities splitting groups of individuals apart:

Whenever someone wants to get us from a "bad" state to a "good" state, violence is not far behind.  Of course you want to move from pollution to a clean environment, but don't pretend that God sits on one side and the devil on the other.  No matter how peaceful you're trying to be, this split will always lead to aggression.  (Matousek, 1998, p. 106)
     The answer Wilber and Maslow suggest to this problem is inclusion.  The reconciling of these opposites.  "Ultimately, we have to arrive at a notion of spirit as the ground of all that arises, from toxic waste to prisitine clear water.  And that experience . . . is not adverse to other tastes" (Matousek, 1998, p. 106).
To rise above dichotomized nationalism, patriotism, or ethnocentrism, in the sense of "them" against "us," or of we-they . . . My identification with nationalism, patriotism, or with my culture does not necessarily mitigate against my identification and more inclusive and higher patriotism with the human species. (Maslow, 1971, p.275)
This also has implication in therapy.  A therapist begins to notice certain unreconciled poles and can work with the client to integrate them.  This integration brings rise to a new worldview, one that includes the previous one.  Nothing is lost or denied, it is evolved into a new perception or understanding.

     Another aspect of transcendence is that when one has a new worldview there comes into existence new perceptions.  That is, transcendence is creative.  While studying creativity, Maslow discovered that people became "lost in the present" (1971, p.61).  The creative process "is always described as a loss of self or of ego, or sometimes as a transcendence of self.  There is a fusion with the reality being observed . . . a oneness where there was a twoness" (p.62).  Here the polarities are integrated and the transcendent becomes manifest as "a seeing of formerly hidden truth, a revelation in the strict sense, a stripping away of veils" (p. 62).  With the stripping away of veils the process of transcendence creates a new reality out of seemingly nothing.
 This formerly hidden truth, as Maslow puts it, creates a new worldview with new polarities.  Wilber explains this process as one of creativity out of nothingness or Spirit-in-action.  "(I)n that novelty, in that emergence, in that creativity, new entities come into being, new patterns unfold, new holons issue forth" (Wilber, 1996, p.24).  Wilber believes that creativity and holons are the building blocks of the universe.  As "ultimate categories" - which means concepts that we need in order to think about anything else at all - Whitehead listed only three: creativity, one, many. (Since every holon is actually a one/many, those categories really come down to: creativity, holon). (Wilber, 1996, p.25)

     In a sense, nature abhors a vacuum so something is created to fill that vacuum.  Wilber uses the Buddhist term Emptiness to describe the vacuum.  "Spirit or Emptiness is unqualifiable, but it is not inert and unyielding, for it gives rise to manifestation itself: new forms emerge, and that creativity is ultimate" (1996, p.27).

     All this transcending, including, creating and change takes place within an individual.  Each transcending experience is unique to the individual depending on where they are on the ladder.  There are as many kinds of transcendent experiences as there are people.  " . . . the guise in which Transcendence appears varies with the mode of life's deficiency" (Richardson, 1967, p.6).  For a person experiencing anxiety, transcendence means transcendence of fear.  For a person doubting their abilities, transcendence means faith in their abilities.  While transcendence is personal to a point, Wilber points out that there comes a time when things get transpersonal.

     Wilber describes three stages of transpersonal transcendence.  The Psychic, the Subtle and the Causal.  "At the psychic level, a person might temporarily dissolve the separate-self sense and find an identity with the entire gross or sensorimotor world - so called nature mysticism" (Wilber, 1996, p.202).  At the psychic level then, there are moments when the self transcends and includes the material world.  When a person realizes that they are not only connected to their environment but they are that environment.

     The second transpersonal stage is the Subtle.  This stage also involves a dissolving of the separate-self, but this time it finds an identity with God.  "This union or fusion with Deity - union with God, by whatever name" (1996, p.211).  A discussion on what this God or Deity is would make this paper far longer than I want to write it.  Suffice it to say that whatever higher power or God you believe in transcends and includes the environment mentioned in the psychic stage.

     The final stage is the Causal stage.  This is the Emptiness mention before when we were talking about creativity.  This, according to Wilber, is it.  This stage includes all the other stages before it and then some.  In fact it includes everything.  It is:

 . . . a discreet state, which is often likened to the state of dreamless sleep, except that this state is not a mere blank but rather an utter fullness, and it is experienced as such - as infinitely drenched in the fullness of Being, so full that no manifestation can even begin to contain it.  Because it can never be seen as an object, this pure Self is pure Emptiness. (p. 220)
 I have attached an appendix written by Wilber.  The goal of this appendix is to illustrate this pure Self.

      Transcendence up to this point has been a growth process with stages.  But can a person Be transcendent instead of Being transcending?  Is Transcendence simply a journey with no end or is there a point when you have transcended everything, like Wilber claims?  What does it mean today to transcend and is that different from what transcending was when Sidharta sat under that tree or when Jesus got nailed to the cross?

      So I took a look at some aspects of transcendence.  There are many more I'm sure.  I also explored the process of transcendence from Wilber and Maslow's worldviews.  To me everyone is born transcendent.  To transcend something is to merely change your point of view and then return with that new knowledge and make it part of you. There has never been a time when I said, "OK Kyle, this is it.  This is exactly where I want to Be for the rest of my existence."  Life itself is transcendent, it always was and always will be.

     But before I go on spouting metaphysical cliches, I want to mention that it is my belief that transcendence involves a lot of spiritual commitment and discipline.  It is like my Chinese philosophy professor told us.  He looked at our class and I suppose saw an eagerness to become one with the universe.  He said, "for those of you who want to become bodhisattvas instantly, give yourself ten years."  Well, its been six years and I feel only a small bit enlightened really.  I'm just glad there is this whole reincarnation thing.


 Bugental, J. (1967). Challenges of humanistic psychology. New York, NY: Mc-Graw Hill.

 Hakeda, Y. (Trans.) (1967). The awakening of faith. New York, NY: Columbia Press.

 Maslow, A.H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature.  New York, NY: The Viking Press.

 Matousek, M. (1998). Up close and transpersonal with Ken Wilbur. Utne Reader, July-August, 51-55, 106-107.

 Richardson, H.W. & Cutler, D.R. (Eds.). (1969). Transcendence. Boston, MA: Beacon.

 Trungpa, C. (1988). The myth of freedom and the way of meditation. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

 Wilber, K. (1996). A brief  history of everything. Boston, MA: Shambhala.


"So Who Are You?"
By Ken Wilber

Excerpted from the upcoming book: One Taste, The Journals of Ken Wilber
Published by Shambhala Publications.
This document was downloaded from on November 17, 1998.

The witnessing of awareness can persist through waking, dreaming and deep sleep. The Witness is fully available in any state, including your own present state of awareness right now. So I'm going to talk you into this state, or try to, using what are known in Buddhism as "pointing out instructions." I am not going to try to get you into a different state of consciousness, or an altered state of consciousness, or a non-ordinary state. I am going to simply point out something that is already occurring in your own present, ordinary, natural state.

So let's start by just being aware of the world around us. Look out there at the sky, and just relax your mind; let your mind and the sky mingle. Notice the clouds floating by. Notice that this takes no effort on your part. Your present awareness, in which these clouds are floating, is very simple, very easy, effortless, spontaneous. You simply notice that there is an effortless awareness of the clouds. The same is true of those trees, and those birds, and those rocks.  You simply and effortlessly witness them.

Look now at the sensations in your own body. You can be aware of whatever bodily feelings are present-perhaps pressure where you are sitting, perhaps warmth in your tummy, maybe tightness in your neck. But even if these feelings are tight and tense, you can easily be aware of them. These feelings arise in your present awareness, and that awareness is very simple, easy, effortless, spontaneous. You simply and effortlessly witness them.

Look at the thoughts arising in your mind. You might notice various images, symbols, concepts, desires, hopes and fears, all spontaneously arising in your awareness. They arise, stay a bit, and pass. These thoughts and feelings arise in your present awareness, and that awareness is very simple, effortless, spontaneous. You simply and effortlessly witness them.

So notice: you can see the clouds float by because you are not those clouds-you are the witness of those clouds. You can feel bodily feelings because you are not those feelings-you are the witness of those feelings. You can see thoughts float by because you are not those thoughts-you are the witness of those thoughts. Spontaneously and naturally, these things all arise, on their own, in your present, effortless awareness.

So who are you? You are not objects out there, you are not feelings, you are not thoughts-you are effortlessly aware of all those, so you are not those. Who or what are you?

Say it this way to yourself: I have feelings, but I am not those feelings. Who am I? I have thoughts, but I am not those thoughts. Who am I? I have desires, but I am not those desires. Who am I?

So you push back into the source of your own awareness. You push back into the Witness, and you rest in the Witness. I am not objects, not feelings, not desires, not thoughts.

But then people usually make a big mistake. They think that if they rest in the Witness, they are going to see something or feel something-something really neat and special. But you won't see anything. If you see something, that is just another object-another feeling, another thought, another sensation, another image. But those are all objects; those are what you are not.

No, as you rest in the Witness-realizing, I am not objects, I am not feelings, I am not thoughts-all you will notice is a sense of freedom, a sense of liberation, a sense of release-release from the terrible constriction of identifying with these puny little finite objects, your little body and little mind and little ego, all of which are objects that can be seen, and thus are not the true Seer, the real Self, the pure Witness, which is what you really are.

So you won't see anything in particular. Whatever is arising is fine. Clouds float by in the sky, feelings float by in the body, thoughts float by in the mind-and you can effortlessly witness all of them. They all spontaneously arise in your own present, easy, effortless awareness. And this witnessing awareness is not itself anything specific you can see. It is just a vast, background sense of freedom-or pure emptiness-and in that pure emptiness, which you are, the entire manifest world arises. You are that freedom, openness, emptiness-and not any itty bitty thing that arises in it.

Resting in that empty, free, easy, effortless witnessing, notice that the clouds are arising in the vast space of your awareness. The clouds are arising within you-so much so, you can taste the clouds, you are one with the clouds. It is as if they are on this side of your skin, they are so close. The sky and your awareness have become one, and all things in the sky are floating effortlessly through your own awareness. You can kiss the sun, swallow the mountain, they are that close. Zen says "Swallow the Pacific Ocean in a single gulp," and that's the easiest thing in the world, when inside and outside are no longer two, when subject and object are nondual, when the looker and looked at are One Taste.
You see?