Someone asked how to have transcendental experiences, so I’ll summarize what I know about the subject from my own personal experience.
First, definitions: I would define a transcendental experience as a variety of mystical experience that does not require belief in anything supernatural; the “transcendental” refers back to the Transcendentalists, like Thoreau and Emerson. A transcendental experience is intense and possibly life-changing, and the person having the experience gains a direct knowledge of the ultimate unity of everything and the insignificance of the individual.
Second, a caveat: it seems that only some people can have transcendental experiences — William James estimated that three in four people cannot have them. Perhaps this is because some people simply aren’t able to have such experiences. But I’m inclined to believe that many people either don’t want to go through the trouble of preparing themselves to have transcendental experiences, or if they do have them manage to convince themselves that they didn’t.
Third, mystical experiences seem to have been part of every human culture, and there’s no great secret about how to have one. The classic method to prepare yourself to have mystical experiences is to practice some kind of mental/spiritual discipline. In the Western tradition, this involved some combination of prayer, study of sacred texts and lectio divina (disciplined spiritual reading), and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In the Eastern tradition, this involved some combination of meditation, study of sacred texts, submission to and study under a guru or spiritual master, and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In both the East and the West, the usual interpretation of mystical experiences involved some element of the supernatural: these were experiences of God, or would lead to release from the endless cycle of rebirth, etc.
But I’d like to outline an approach to having mystical experiences that requires no belief in the supernatural (although it can also accommodate a belief in the supernatural quite comfortably). This flexible approach was developed and used by the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians.
The Transcendentalist approach to having mystical experiences had many variations, but Henry David Thoreau lays out a basic approach in his book Walden. His approach includes (in no particular order):
— simple living, including dressing plainly and simply, and not being seduced by possessions and money;
— occasional retreat from the ordinary workaday world;
— eating a vegetarian diet;
— reading the world’s great spiritual texts, including ancient Greek authors, the Bible, the Analects, the Bhagavad Gita, etc.;
— walking and physical labor;
— immersion in, and careful observation of, the natural world;
— sitting quietly in Nature for extended periods of time.
Thoreau specifically links this last item, sitting quietly in Nature, to having transcendental experiences. For example, in Walden he writes:
“Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”
This is about as accurate a description of this spiritual discipline as you can get. Sitting quietly in Nature is how I had my first transcendental experience at age 16. And out of all the methods used by Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, I would say it is the most straightforward: set aside several hours (or better yet several days), go sit outdoors and do nothing, and you too can wind up “rapt in a revery.” (Notice how similar this is to Eastern meditation techniques; it is also similar to what some Western hermits and monks/nuns do; traditional meditation and/or prayer practices are useful supplements to sitting outdoors and doing nothing.)
Mind you, sitting outdoors in Nature is just one of Thoreau’s techniques, and you will increase your chances of having transcendental experiences if you follow more of Thoreau’s basic approach. And the other Transcendentalists explored still other methods that are worth consideration: Unitarian minister George Ripley and others experimented with communal living; Emerson learned from the Quakers; Louisa May Alcott seems to have found transcendence in ordinary home life (and Emily Dickinson clearly did); and so on. If we learn anything from the Transcendentalists, we learn that there is not a single correct method for achieving transcendental experiences.
Even though there is no one right way to achieve transcendental experiences, I would suggest the following basic method, adapted from Thoreau’s method, as likely to work:
— adopt a simple lifestyle: dress plainly; eat simply; minimize media consumption (newspapers, anything on a screen, recorded music, etc.); stay at arm’s length from material possessions and consumer culture
— read great spiritual and philosophical works, and (if you’re able) write in the same vein; as an alternative, attending Sunday services and listening to readings and sermons seems to work for some people
— spend time in and be aware of the ecosystem(s) in which we humans are embedded; this should include time spent outdoors sitting and doing nothing.
None of this is particularly difficult. It is counter-cultural, though, and if my experience is any indication, you will find that friends and family continually try to urge you back into more mainstream behavior.
I have to end this with a warning. Mystical experiences tend to be life-altering experiences, for good or ill. Not all mystical experiences are good, and some are downright frightening. For a cautionary tale of how mystical experience can overwhelm you, take a look at Eckhardt Tolle’s writings — it seems pretty clear that his first mystical experiences tipped him over the line into madness for at least a few months.
If you’re going to seek out mystical experiences, I feel it is critical to have a supportive community that can help you make sense of what you experience. Thoreau had a robust community of friends and family, including his brother John, the Emerson family, fellow abolitionists, and others, who helped him stay stable and focused. I have found that Unitarian Universalist congregations can be good places to look for people who can make up such a community — although you’ll have to avoid the hyper-rationalists and flat-earth atheists who patronize and even make fun of mystics (in direct contradiction of the central UU virtue of tolerance). Of course, in today’s society, the hyper-rationalists and flat-earth atheists are everywhere; ignore them when they tell you that technology and consumerism are going to solve all our problems, and pity them because they are completely unable to have mystical experiences themselves.
Having said that, I think it’s good for mystics to have a few sympathetic but non-mystical rationalists in our supportive communities. One good place to find such people is among those doing social justice work; Thoreau found such people among the abolitionists of his day; in my case, I’ve found them among peace activists, advocates for worker’s rights, and people doing anti-racism work. People in the arts — poets, writers, musicians, dancers, visual artists, etc. — are also a good place to look for a supportive community. While they might not be rationalists, many in the arts tend to be pragmatic, hands-on people who aren’t totally lost in their heads, which is a good thing for mystics and Transcendentalists.
The above warnings should not dissuade you from trying to have transcendent experiences. After all, if you’re inclined that way anyway, it’s possible that you’re going have your transcendent experiences without even trying. Since the mental disciplines that help you have transcendent experiences can also help keep them from overwhelming you, you might as well learn those disciplines, and be prepared if you do have them.