The following article is also available on Psyched in Sf.
With the help of my clients, I have been thinking lately about transcendence. Generally when people talk about transcendence, they are talking about some exalted spiritual state. In both Eastern and Western religions, there are concepts that connote an experience of a realm that is not human, that transcends the human. When people speak of God, they are speaking of something of that ethereal experience.
Many find a transcendental experience through nature. Emerson, writing in his essay on Nature, describes his experience of beholding through nature a realm beyond the human. In his experience, he transcends the sense of an isolated individual: “…all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
Others have talked about such transcendent experiences through a deep appreciation of art, intimacy and sexual relations. As in Emerson’s description above, these experiences describe the individual merging with something else and experiencing oneself in a greater context. Often that experience is achieved through a kind of obliteration of the small self and an experience of (capital S) Self which is more broadly understood.
In an interesting way, psychotherapy takes a different approach in order to reach a similar goal. I once heard a saying that has stuck with me for years: to transcend the self means to first have a self. That saying points in the direction that psychotherapy travels. We can say that psychotherapy is aimed at helping with the formation and further development of that sense of a self. People often come to psychotherapy with a constricted or perhaps nonexistent sense of themselves. They often lack a sense of who they are, what they think and feel, and especially what they want. Or they may have formed core beliefs about themselves and the world which are rigid and limit their experiences.
The goals of psychotherapy are centered on integration and freedom. The experience of merger afforded through psychotherapy is found in the process of integration; in particular, connecting or reconnecting with aspects of one’s self which may have been repressed, ignored, or disavowed. Freedom is the experience of letting go of beliefs and attitudes that constrict one’s life. The result is a sense of release — to be released from some previously binding patterns, a constricted sense of self, or habitual and uncreative ways of thinking. I believe the experience of release is tantamount to transcendence. To transcend those limitations and that limited sense of self is to become more alive and to live more freely.
I have worked with clients who have had this experience in psychotherapy. For some it was the experience of being able to open up to intimate relationships where previously they were closed down and guarded. For others it was a release from a particularly pernicious self-critical part of themselves so that they now have a more benevolent and compassionate view of themselves. And for others this experience involved more fully connecting with their wants and needs, which were perhaps shut down for many years. While these experiences may not be of some transcendent reality beyond the human realm, they are for me no less spiritual. Where there once was some sort of constriction, there is now an openness and greater range of experiencing life. Release and freedom: those are the key words in my mind to describe the aims of psychotherapy. To experience release and a greater sense of freedom is a transcendent experience and one that, when it happens with my clients, provides me with a joyous and profound satisfaction.