From Transcendence (issue 18), released April 28th at Octopus Literary Salon in downtown Oakland.
I took a meditation class on my phone, but when the free trial ended so did my practice. I hadn’t been very good at it: I’d always forget to take my shoes off until the gentle voice of the instructor asked me to feel my toes against the ground. Often my mind would stray and I’d begin listening for the woman down the street who went hoarse screaming at her husband and child on a daily basis. After ten minutes the British man on my phone would end the meditation by asking me to open my eyes. I’d do so, and my body would feel heavy. For a little while I’d be at ease, but it was a fleeting feeling, like you’d expect from a bath or a brief nap. In short, I don’t believe that I arrived at the deep mindfulness thought to be the goal of meditation.
A nebulous idea of inner peace — that was what I was after, as too often I gave in to my woeful impulses and seemed to be in a constant state of irritation. My aim had been to furnish my mind with a sort of psychic relief valve that would allow me to take a slight step out of my head and calm myself.
On a more subconscious level I believe I was also searching for another supposed product of meditation: transcendence. Meaningful experience beyond the physical order. In my head this is something that we’re all privy to, if we try — a space beyond discreteness. I believe in this space as a matter of faith; that because we’ve all breached from the same primordial glop, we share a common experience and a common pathos. Transcendence is something we can all access.
“One of the main characteristics of life,” writes Nabokov, “is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish.”
The inside versus the outside. I still think, in many ways, that transcendence can mean mind versus body, though that “versus” might sound a bit combative for the alleged serenity of our topic. But I do think it is versus, as you’re recognizing that your body is just a body — flimsy, breakable, wearable, in all cases superable — while what actually makes you you is so much more: tapped into something that is protean and magic: a mind at work, a consciousness, an “I.”
And the body thwarts the mind, limits it. The body defines what is possible. It’s in the physical realm that a person lives and dies, while the soul is thought by theosophists/mystics to ascend onward to an astral plane. This is the place where the dictionary definition of transcendence begins to intersect with religion and loads the word up with all the sticky loftiness that has made this essay so difficult to write. Such an exhilarating idea! but it’s become so embedded, so trivialized that I feel like a dope for attempting to say something novel about it or to even approach it. I’ll have to circle around, look on from a distance, wait…
In high school my close friend would always complain about some part of his body hurting—his legs, stomach, chest, throat, arms, head, or just the whole thing—but he would refuse all types of medicine. His mother was a school guidance counselor, and so wallowing in pain was something he’d more or less been bred for. He didn’t believe in medicine, not due to any specific reason, I think it was just an attitude like, “pills never helped me before, why would they help me now?” He did use over-the-counter medicine, though, but only to get high. Triple-C’s: Coricidin Cough and Cold. If you ate about ten of them you could get really fucked up.
But to simply take an Advil to relieve pain was something my friend didn’t believe in, and so when he’d complain of these indistinct aches I was never really sympathetic; in fact, I remember telling him that being his friend was like being friends with an old Jeep: constantly breaking down, never at one hundred percent.
Another memorable remark re: his chronic pain was when he suggested, I think after another joke-y exchange, that if he and I swapped consciousnesses I would literally die from the pain, a premise I shrugged off at the time.
What point am I trying to make here? Is it that I was young, callous, naïve — wouldn’t accept, in fact, actively reject this simple claim, perhaps one of the oldest in human history: I hurt?
As Nabokov said, in that quote above, “one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness,” and that is a simple fact, an unfortunate one. Really there was no rejoinder when my friend suggested I would die if I even briefly occupied his head space, except for maybe suggesting the same thing right back at him. What about my pain? What if you were the one that died motherfucker?
You can read the full essay in our upcoming journal, Issue 18 on Transcendence. You can pick one up at our book release party at Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland, CA on April 28th.
Andrew P. Heath was born in upstate New York and currently lives in Oakland, California. He is the fiction editor of 580 Split.