A Trans-Rational Approach to Meditation

A Trans-Rational Approach to Meditation October 16, 2017

Trans-Rational Approach to Meditation

Transcend and include. That is an idea from Ken Wilber that changed the way I thought about several things, including meditation. If you buy into several well-researched growth models that generally show that human beings grow from being egocentric to mythic to rational to pluralistic to integral, then it is worth entertaining this idea of transcendence and inclusion.

What does it mean to transcend and include?

In the simplest sense it means that when you grow from one stage of development to another, you bring with you whatever you believed in the previous stage but, having transcended it, you see the previous stage in a new light.

Let’s say for example that you grow from mythic to rational.

At the mythic stage, you believed that myths (unsubstantiated truth claims) were literally true. Once you entered the rational level of development, however, you had two choices. You could (1) disavow the mythic stage altogether (transcend and repress) or you could (2) start doing what Joseph Campbell did, which is read into myths from a rational standpoint (transcend and include).

When you grow from the rational stage to the pluralistic and integral stages you have the same two choices. (1) Dismiss rationality as being all-bad (this happens quite a lot in pluralistic New Age circles, as in, “don’t live in your head man”) or (2) include rationality and honor it, while at the same time seeing its limits. As an example of this, Huston Smith rightly pointed out that even with all its fantastic capacities science (rationality) is unable to look “above itself.”

Both are Irrational—but Not the Same

Once you accept growth models and the process of transcending and including, it is important to grapple with another Wilber concept that he calls the pre-trans fallacy.

Because both pre-rational (mythic) and trans-rational (pluralistic, integral) levels of growth are in some ways irrational, people often confuse the two. Without discernment, people are more likely to embrace mythical or even magical ideas in relation to their meditation practice. For example, most Eastern philosophies (the original vehicles for meditative practices in the West) have strong mythical foundations. Without assuming a trans-rational stance, which includes but is not limited to rationality, then a student is apt to swallow the mythic philosophies, hook, line, and sinker.

This is something I struggled with in the past—especially when I was beginning on the path in my early twenties—discerning between the trans-rational meditative techniques, which don’t throw rationality out the window, and mythical philosophies, which essentially preach make-believe in the form of great stories (let’s face it, all myths tend to be great stories).

Without rational interpretation—i.e. focusing on what the stories can teach us about human nature—we quickly get sucked into a parallel world that has more in common with Alice in Wonderland than with actual spiritual experiences.

Rational Plus, Not Minus Rationality

In its essence, meditation is a non-dogmatic practice. These days, you can learn several different meditation techniques without feeling pressured to adapt to mythical teachings. However, because meditation is so deeply steeped in ancient myths, it is important to have the mental tools to deal with them, which is exactly what the trans-rational approach provides.

For example, if you have grown psychologically and repressed the previous level, you will tend to make fun of the myths or discard them all together. If you transcend and include, on the other hand, you will be able to entertain some of the great teachings found in ancient myths without having to swallow them whole.

When I first encountered this understanding, it completely changed the way I interacted with meditation teachings. I had been resistant towards many of my teachers and several of the books I was reading on the topic, but, armed with this new understanding, it was easier for me to navigate the space without getting sucked into the world of mythical stories and magical beings.

I created a simple way to remind myself. A trans-rational approach to meditation is rational plus, not minus rationality, which means that it can never go completely against the scientific understanding and rational thinking that I so value—but it can add to it.

Don’t worry, though. It took me several years from the time I first encountered these ideas to fully assimilate what they meant to my life. If your interest is peaked by this short column, I urge you to study these growth models. My introduction came through an audio program back in 2005.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author & Interfaith Minister

Read my article about Stages of Faith to learn more about this topic.

Picture: CC0 License

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