Passover and the Art of Self-Transcendence - The Jewish Voice
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Passover and the Art of Self-Transcendence

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Let’s all leave ourselves behind this Passover

By: Tzvi Freeman

Every morning and every night, a Jew has to remember two things:

G‑d is one.

He took us out of Egypt.

They’re the bookends of the Shema Yisrael declaration. It begins with our affirmation that “G‑d is One” and ends with His affirmation that “I am G‑d, your G‑d, who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G‑d.”

It may seem bizarre that the two come wrapped in a single package. What does G‑d’s oneness have to do with leaving Egypt?

But the answer is simple: They are both about self-transcendence.

We leave Egypt every day by transcending ourselves, embracing the state of consciousness that G‑d is one and we are part of that oneness.

With that we are free, and all freedom stems from there.

Leave Yourself at the Door

From where can we learn to transcend ourselves? Mostly from our mothers.

My mother had gone through much pain in life, a delicate woman who had to learn to bounce back again and again. At sixteen, she had immigrated from a palatial mansion in India to a life of struggle in Canada. Her first marriage had been an abusive one, we were not easy kids to raise, and her health was always just on the verge of collapse.

Art by Sefira Lightstone

There were times when she spoke to me as though she were a sister, sharing her most inner feelings.

Like one afternoon in my adolescence, when she sat on the sofa in the living room, hugging her coffee mug and staring listlessly into space. The sight shook even a self-absorbed teenage boy such as myself.

“Mom, are you okay?” I asked.

“I’ll be just fine,” she answered, “as soon as I stop thinking about myself and start caring for others.”

Years later, that memory resonated when I heard a story of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.1

The rabbi had a wealthy disciple who had fallen into heavy debt and could no longer fulfill his commitments. The man came to him and poured out his heart. After listening attentively to the man’s sorrows, the rabbi answered.

“You’ve told me all that you need. You haven’t said a word about why you are needed.”

“The world needs you to enlighten it with your Torah and the labor of your heart,” he continued. ”G‑d needs to provide you with a living and all your needs. You do what you need to do and let Him do what He needs to do.”

It might sound a little harsh. The guy’s in pain. He’s an honest man and he wants to keep his financial commitments. He needs a loan, not a swift kick. In fact, the story goes, the man passed out and had to be carried out of the rabbi’s study and revived.

But the rabbi gave him a gift greater than any loan. He gave him the key to happiness. Dwell on your own self and circumstances and you’re guaranteed to become depressed.2 Get out of yourself. See the big picture and find your place within it. You’ll be much happier and the entire world will benefit as well.

Getting Back to the Garden

From the dawn of human consciousness, we have been clutching for the magic doorknob that takes us out of ourselves.

How did we get locked in this prison? Nachmanides wrote that we entered the cell of self-knowledge and lost contact with the transcendent when we surrendered to our sensual impulses in the Garden of Eden.

Noah, the Zohar explains, attempted to escape that prison of self by means of a psychotropic produced through the fermentation of grapes, a.k.a. strong wine.

From the dawn of human consciousness, we have been clutching for the magic doorknob that takes us out of ourselves.

He failed. Humanity only became yet more entangled within its own web. But that hasn’t prevented others from attempting similar ventures, up to this very day.

Not all such attempts involve chemicals. In the 1950s, neurophysiologist William Grey Walter discovered he could induce hallucinogenic states by flashing lights on closed eyelids at the same frequency as alpha brainwaves. That inspired artist Brion Gysin to create the “Dreamachine”—billed as a drug-free avenue to spiritual enlightenment for the masses. The machine was recently reincarnated and is booked to travel this summer across Europe. It even has its own roadies: a team of neuroscientists to cull data from the experiences of participants.

Today, researchers at several prestigious institutions are experimenting with inducing self-transcendent states through forms of meditation, exposure to awe-inducing stimuli such as towering Tasmanian eucalyptus trees, or even transcranial focused ultrasound.

Indeed, few shifts in our society are as tectonic as the rising prominence of the search for self-transcendence in mainstream psychology. A simple n-gram in Google Books shows a 600% climb in the usage of the term since 1960, mostly beginning around 1985, and increasing almost every year since.

The truth is, the benefits achieved through these methods in the treatment of pain and depression are impressive. But I don’t think anyone believes this is Moses coming to liberate us and take us to the Promised Land. Or back to the garden. We’re still repeating Noah’s folly.

For one thing, other than the mindfulness practice path—which by all accounts takes the greatest investment of time and effort—all these interventions are extrinsic. How, then, could they effect any real and lasting inner change? No pain, no investment, no gain.

In Vancouver in the 70s, we had a wise old man from India nicknamed the Gastown Guru. He used to tell psychedelic trippers, “If you didn’t take yourself there, you never arrived.”

But, more importantly, entangled within a valuable truth, a serious misconception guides all these journeys.

The truth they contain is that people do not become free just because no one is telling them what to do. If every dictator on the planet would die tomorrow, humanity would remain enslaved. Freedom demands a higher state of perception and consciousness. True.

The fallacy is that freedom could be a private affair, a personal enlightenment, unshared, held deep inside. Seductive. But a lie.

No one can claim to be free while living in an oppressive world. No pill, no psychedelic hallucination, not even your own state of blissful enlightenment can render you free while the guy next to you continues to suffer.

Freedom cannot be achieved until we break down the walls of our own egos and feel the other person’s joy and pain just as we do our own. It is by definition a communal state, in which we discover the other guy’s world as we reach beyond our own.

Neither surrender to the suffering of this world or escape from it are acts of freedom. Feeling empowered to do something about it is. We transcend by connecting and each becoming part of a transcendent whole that is capable of real growth, resilience, and transformation.

The only path to freedom, then, is by creating a society of transcendence.

Tools for a Society of Self-Transcendence

Two women who have given us real evidence-based tools for a self-transcendent society are Lisa Miller and Pamela Reed.

In the world of nursing, Pamela Reed’s theory of self-transcendence has become textbook material for nursing. That’s mostly because it has proven itself as a highly effective means to help the elderly cope with the anxiety and depression that plagues the final years. But it has also proven a beneficial intervention in many of the most difficult events of life, such as post-partum depression and chronic illness.

In Reed’s model, nurses help their patients to reach outside of themselves, both by connecting with others, and by seeing the big picture of life and the universe. In other words, this is a psychology that doesn’t see the patient as a lone wolf, but as an integral thread within both a social network and a great big world. It’s a social medicine.

With addictions counseling, the situation is similar. It’s well established by now that if you want a former addict to stay clean after leaving rehab, you must teach him to reach outside of himself, to help others, and to hang on to faith in a higher power. That’s a crucial message for a society in the midst of the largest addictions epidemic in history.

Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020

If you have any doubt that we are wired for self-transcendence, look into Professor Lisa Miller’s twenty years of research into spirituality (defined as “a personal relationship with the transcendent”), especially spirituality in children. It’s not just that children are naturally inclined towards a spiritual view of the world around them. Spirituality, as she has demonstrated in multiple studies, provides kids with “significantly more positive markers for thriving including an increased sense of meaning and purpose, and high levels of academic success.”

In short, adolescents who have a personal sense of spirituality are 80 percent less likely to suffer ongoing and recurrent depressions and 60 percent less likely to become heavy substance users or abusers.

That doesn’t mean they don’t suffer depression—as Miller points out in chapter 10 of her recent book, The Spiritual Child, “Nearly every adolescent suffers from depression at some point; it’s the general rule of growth, not the exception.” A sense of the transcendent provides a young person the means to use that experience as a springboard to greater resilience, rather than a trapdoor to fall yet further.

This is vital data, because kids today are taking a whopping. Data from early 2021 shows that emergency room visits in the U.S. for suspected suicide attempts among girls were 51% higher compared to the same period in early 2019. Indeed, in the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent health.

No, it didn’t begin with the pandemic. Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020. By 2018, suicide was already the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24. Neither is it a uniquely American phenomenon. A UK analysis reported a 68% increase in hospital self harm presentations in 13-16 year old girls between 2011 and 2014.

Is Dreamachine or some other extrinsically induced psychedelic trip going to turn the tide? I don’t think so. I think implementing on a public level what we’ve learned from nursing, addictions and Miller’s spirituality psychology has a far better chance.

The Science Is Now

Our situation in mental health today has strong parallels to mid-nineteenth century London. Smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis had reached unprecedented levels. The stench of the Thames made life in the city unbearable. One person in ten died of smallpox. More than half the labor class died before their fifth birthday, and those who survived had an average lifespan of 16 years. The tradesman class did not much better, with an average lifespan of 25.

Medicine wasn’t going to solve the problem. Cleaning up the river Thames and providing a civic sewage system did. The most significant date in the history of human health was not the discovery of some wonder drug. It was when the British Public Health Act was passed in 1848. If you’re alive today and over 25, that’s mostly why.

Ever since, physical health has become a public responsibility. Modern physical medicine has increased longevity and controlled disease principally not by individual prescriptions, but by molding the way our society functions.

Mental health never had such luck. Its only venture into social reform came in the form of psychometrics—a device of very dubious benefit to society.

While internal medicine has practically eliminated some of the world’s most infamous diseases, in over 120 years since Freud’s epiphany, psychology has failed to make a dent into the killer diseases of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

The reason is obvious: There have been plenty of productive interventions on an individual scale, but in the public realm, we’ve let the social ills that exacerbate these diseases run amok. The stench of the Thames just keeps rising and we are handing out fresh-scented sprays.

But now, the science is there. We know what we have to do. It’s never been more clear that the most vital task of our schools today is to provide our children with the resilient mental health they need to tackle a massively confusing world. We need teachers who can provide children from a very early age a sense of wonder for the universe around them, a personal connection with the transcendent, and a sense of empathy and oneness with the people they can connect with.

We know that works. And we know how to teach it.

Transcendental Science

Which leads us to the big question: What were we thinking until now?

How is it that such an obvious and useful therapeutic device, really an essential in human survival, a vital element for a healthy society, was so long ignored by mainstream psychologists?

In The Will to Meaning, published in 1969, Victor Frankl wrote, “The essentially self-transcendent quality of human existence renders man a being reaching out beyond himself.” The great majority of psychologists at the time dismissed the notion as unscientific, wishful thinking.


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