Transcendence & wisdom


The problem with Norman Rosenthal’s book Transcendence (2011) is that at its heart the book is not about transcendence but about Transcendental Meditation — (TM) or ™ — which term is officially presented with a trademark sign as the copyrighted product of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1917-2008). Confusion between a common term for what has existed for thousands of years and what has been copyrighted was probably deliberate.

Not only does Rosenthal only discuss the health benefits of TM — much of the research coming from faculty at Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa — but in keeping with the copyright, he refuses to talk about actual techniques. These cost money and will not be revealed. The only real concession is in reprinting a chart of comparative meditation traditions and their effects on EEG frequency bands of the brain’s pre-frontal lobe. The chart proposes that there are basically three meditation methods: focused attention, open monitoring, and automatic self-transcending. The chart is from an article in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. Rosenthal doesn’t mention that it, too, is a journal of Maharishi University.

Brief treatment in the text and this chart, then, are the extent of discussion on comparative methods. Focused attention means focus on an object or mantra, and open monitoring is the absence of a specific object of attention, the latter essentially including all Eastern methods. But, contends Rosenthal, only TM (TM) is constructed so that the meditator immediately sees gains in physical and mental health, sometimes almost immediately. Furthermore, use of the secret mantra given to the meditator once enrolled in the TM program, is not considered focused attention because by its very meaning-free nature and use, the techniques lead to automatically falling away at the right time and yielding transcendence. The term used is “automatic self-transcending.” No other technique can do this, Rosenthal (and the entire copyrighted organization) content.

Rosenthal does not discuss transcendence outside of the usual description of feeling good, and the more technical-sounding brain wave coherence. Anywhere on TM websites, focus, creativity, health, equanimity, and happiness are the guaranteed results. But such a technique, if it gives such results to virtually anyone who takes them up, ought to be freely available, shared, based on a few books, self-taught, and practiced in the privacy of one’s room. At little or no cost, the secular and health-minded person, persuaded by an MD, can go back to Herbert Benson’s classic The Relaxation Response (1975) and its successors. For anyone else remotely philosophically, religiously or spiritually-minded, their tradition already has numerous classics. And at little or no cost.


Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, authors of the book Practical Wisdom, which is subtitled “The Right Way to Do the Right Thing,” are said by the author to consult widely and make presentations at business conferences. Such news immediately sets a pragmatic and even conformist tone to the effort to present practical wisdom as anything more than finding a distilled consensus on how to soldier on with the existing order of institutions, social conventions, and ethics.

Early on, the book presents the idea of practical wisdom as originating in Aristotle’s realism, that humans must manage that into which they have been thrown, and devise a situational ethics to cope. One may speculate whether this had to do with Aristotle’s worldly responsibility of teaching an emperor (Marcus Aurelius is experienced from the other side of responsibility). Practical wisdom can be interpreted as how to deal with the devil, or as how to get out of worldliness, as one sees fit from a higher plane of philosophical thinking. One of the perennial weaknesses of trying to apply situation ethics to broader ontology is represented by talking about wisdom and ignoring the vast tradition of wisdom literature.

Granted that wisdom means a perspective, a self-understanding, a basic functionalism. But no worldly example will ever demonstrate how the asymptote of wisdom will be achieved in any given situation that is not defined as black and white, like a court decision or a military victory — and even then.

Early chapters in the book present the dilemmas of the teacher and the doctor. The teacher is frustrated because she wants only to teach; the doctor is frustrated because he only wants to heal. But nowhere are the more essential questions raised — do we need doctors in order to heal? Do we need teachers in order to learn? Perhaps the allopathic system and the educational system, perhaps the entire economic and social paradigm, the way we eat, buy, believe, create, communicate, love, hate — are all to be questioned first, before we have a set of solutions ready-made. Practical wisdom is not an accommodation but a transcendence. Perhaps the right way to do the right thing is to not discard the way but the things, to let the things organically find the Way (whatever that means to our better self) again, out of the complexity and bureaucracy and atrophied assumptions of the modern technological world.

Morning glory: poems for autumn

Bright morning glory
heart of a flower spirit
appearing at dawn.

Bright morning glory,
we will not last very long.
But, now, together …

Bright morning glory
we two cannot fly away
when the cold winds blow.

Bright morning glory
night approaches, you wither.
Someday, too, will I.

Bright morning glory
birds in trees sing … and sing.
They don’t know that you are gone.