Transcending Transcendence


I saw dragons in the sky.

I was driving to B’s to watch the Silva-Weidman Tate-Rousey double-header. There’s a stretch of I-5 where I’ve a view of the mountains on a clear day, but this wasn’t one of those days. Clouds were roiling on the horizon, building over the mountains: a line of perfect Chinese dragons swimming the sky. One of them was especially clear, a magnificent snowy elder of a dragon, head rearing high and several coils of its serpentine body cresting the sea of the sky.

I laughed in delight, wishing I could pull off the freeway and capture them on camera. I love to show you such things. Alas, no chance. But there was a Chinese artist of the Song dynasty who saw dragons in clouds, and he captured some of the essence:

Detail from Nine Dragons, a handscroll painting by Chinese artist Chen Rong. This shows clouds that look like the breaking waves of a sea, and within them, a dragon.Image courtesy Jebulon via Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from Nine Dragons, a handscroll painting by Chinese artist Chen Rong. Image courtesy Jebulon via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a time when I would have believed I’d just seen evidence of magical beasts floating above our world. And yes, I admit it, it changed the experience. I remember the almost unbearable, childlike excitement when I thought I’d seen beyond the mundane. Knowing that what I was experiencing was water vapor and adiabatic cooling with a healthy dose of cultural conditioning and pareidolia wasn’t quite the same.

Do I miss that? Miss transcendence?

Fleetingly, yes, in the way we all sometimes miss our naive childhood selves. But I remember that being a kid wasn’t all magic and rainbows, and I wouldn’t trade the atheist me for the believer me. I’d rather know and have my mind blown by real things.

It took a while to get here, but I’m quite content without the glamour* of religion and belief. I’m comfortable with the fact that this life is it, and that the so-called mundane is the sum-total of the universe. I’m not pining for faeries or dragons or gods, excepting ripping good tales told by talented human beings – and even then, I’ve gradually lost my passion for made-up stories. Oh, I still love fiction, but I’m quite busy with reality.

I mean, this universe is full of fascinating stuff. If I want transcendence, I head for Hubble. This takes me right out of being human and leaves me as a mote of stardust trying to comprehend an impossibly beautiful infinity.

V838 Monocerotis and its light echo, imaged by Hubble. This is a red variable star in the constellation Monoceros. It looks to me like a Taoist dragon - what do you see?

V838 Monocerotis and its light echo, imaged by Hubble. This is a red variable star in the constellation Monoceros. It looks to me like a Taoist dragon – what do you see? Image courtesy NASA/ESA.

Pascal got it in one:

By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world.

If I want to feel part of an immeasurably vast whole, I can look to this universe I arose from and am a part of. If I want to simultaneously feel the weight of incomprehensibly ancient time and at the same instant feel timeless, I turn to the Earth and her ages, from her fiery beginnings to her complex middle age. A mote of silt silently drifting to the sea floor; a particle in a roaring, roiling ash cloud – I’ve been them. I’ve felt tranquil ages and fraught seconds.

Do I need to feel at one with everything living? Biology and evolution make that easy. My cat is my cousin; so are those flowers I love to photograph and that tree Luna delights in climbing. All my family. Buddhism taught me that, too, but it didn’t have the cladograms to make it more than metaphysical.

Now I’ve seen all this stuff, even just having drunk a few molecules of that immense ocean out there, I’m bored by religion. I’m chafed by its stunted imagination and impatient with its false “truth.” I’ll take the unknown over the pretending-to-know any day. Give me chaos over a false order, thanks. I’m not afraid of it anymore.

Once, I needed the universe to care about and for me, like so many others given that sweet, sacred story. Isn’t it nice to think the architect of creation cares about lil ol’ you? Long ago, the thought that my life had great meaning and purpose to such a majesty was flattering. Then I noticed how nobody agreed on who or what that majesty was. Then I realized it didn’t actually exist. Well, not all our human ideas of it, certainly. Sure, it’s vaguely possible there’s an ineffable something out there, but I’ve found no evidence it exists, much less that it gives a single shit about some jumped-up apes on a wee rock if it does. And I don’t need it to. I’m not a child, to need the firm hand of an omnicient parent to guide me along. Lost that need, don’t need it back, would rather stumble about discovering things and getting sidetracked, thanks. It wasn’t that way when I first found myself wandering about alone, but I’m good now.

I don’t need the universe to care about me. I delight in it, but it’s like my rock collection: I love every bit to bits without needing a single bit of affection returned.

So yes, I do vaguely understand why some folks cling so desperately to their notions of more. I know what it was like, wanting so desperately for magic and/or gods to be real that it felt like a physical need. Trying to understand how the good and the bad in my life were part of some over-arching design, because the idea there wasn’t an ultimate purpose scared me into believing it must be there, otherwise what was life for? The hardest thing on the path to atheism was realizing it’s not for anything. It just is. I’m the one responsible for giving it a purpose and meaning. Terrifying? At first. Despair? A few moments here and there. But it got better.

And that’s what I want to tell these folks who cling so tightly to transcendence: it’s hard, desperately hard, to let go, but it gets better. It’s never the same again, it will never feel like it did when something supernatural totally existed for you, but you survived learning the truth about Santa and you will survive this. And you can thrive. Besides, in so many ways, this universe transcends transcendence. It’s more beautiful and terrible and vast and wonderful than we could imagine.

And we’re part of it.

That’s the best thing there is.

 

Planetary nebula NGC 5189. Image courtesy NASA/ESA.

Planetary nebula NGC 5189. Looks superheroic to me. This universe is far more spectacular than we can comprehend. No gods necessary. Image courtesy NASA/ESA.

*In the magical sense.

 

(Inspired by In Praise of the Mundane and From the Mailbag: Deconverting from Hinduism.)

Comments

  1. Johnny Vector says

    Yes. Exactly!

    Dragons.

    Four black dragons,
    Spitting fire

    I find transcendence is easily available with no need for religion.

    And the earth trembled,
    And the sky cracked,
    And I thought it was the end of the world.

    It is found in the pages of a book, or the flickering images on a screen. It is found in the roiling crash of a world-changing invasion transformed into beauty by Sondheim, from the sublimity of Coltrane to the profanity of Zappa. It is the clever lyrical interplay of a Cuttlefish, or the evocative tales of volcanic explosions that alight in the mind from the words in this place. It is found in the planes and spaces of a low-ceilinged house in Bear Run, PA, in the grace of Ophelia drowning 20 feet in the air on blue silks, in the beams of a dozen Elation Rayzors on a foggy stage.

    It is, as Poe said, in the songs of birds, in the harp of Æolus, in the sighing of the night-wind, in the repining voice of the forest, in the surf that complains to the shore, in the fresh breath of the woods, in the scent of the violet.

    And i thought it was the end
    And i thought it was the end
    Of the world!
    Of the world!

    And it was

  2. moarscienceplz says

    tiko,

    I see the head of a dragon with it’s ear, eye, and snout in a straight line looking down on the red star from about the 11 o’clock position (if you think of the red star as the center of the clock’s face).

  3. moarscienceplz says

    Personally, I’m glad there’s no such thing as magic. One of the defining features of magic is that it’s very unpredictable. If your lizard spleens are too green, or your concentration gets broken at the wrong time, or you just don’t have a sufficiently forceful personality, suddenly your love potion turns into an acid that eats through the bottom of your cauldron. Who wants a universe that works like that? I have a hard enough time with Quantum Mechanics.

  4. tiko says

    @moarscienceplz

    Ah yes I see that.
    Apologies ,I should have stated I was referring to the painting.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    tiko,

    Oh, OK.

    If you click on the painting, you’ll get a much larger version. I think you’ll see the dragon then.

  6. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I saw dragons in the sky.

    You saw the constellation Draco last night then I take it? ;-)

    See :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/dra-t.html

    Incidentally, Arrakis of Dune novels fame is a real star name from there – Mu Draconis.

    Draco is a bit too circumpolar north for me, sadly.

    The hardest thing on the path to atheism was realizing it’s not for anything. It just is. I’m the one responsible for giving it a purpose and meaning. Terrifying?

    “No fate but that we make for ourselves.” -Terminator II (& Terminator I too I guess on reflection.). Yeah, silly popular movie reference but I do love that line myself.

    I also love this blog post Dana Hunter. Despite the slightly flip tone of this comment, sorry, just, another twisted view from em right now~ish. Very well written. Agreed. Something maybe I still struggle with but yes.

    PS. Another totally trivial note – I suspect given her use of other star names (e.g. Regulus,Sirius, Bellatrix, etc..) J. K. Rowlings name for the eponymous Malfoy boy may not be co-incidental either.

  7. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Its not the absence of Meaning due to the absence of any God that disturbs me personally so much as the absence of any Cosmic Justice that implies.

    That so often here on Earth Justice, Karma, doesn’t seem to happen with horrendous things happening to good people and bad people getting away with quite literally murder as well as rape and fraud and genocide and so much more that if there’s no god, nothing beyond what happens here in the physical tangible world then the lack of fairness and justice is terrible.

    That’s what gets me.

    I don’t want hell in the religious sense to exist because unending torture isn’t right – but some sort of limited truly Fair and Just purgatory or karma happening is something that I wish were true in reality. Even as I know and hate the fact it almost certainly isn’t. Because our justice system we do have in this “mortal coil” certainly doesn’t provide what the name suggests or what most folks would hope it does.