A few days ago, I was running an errand and on my way back to work in the most beautiful spring sunshine, when I started feeling particularly contemplative. Something had caught my attention - a lamp post, or a reflection in the rim of a passing bicycle - that put me in a very special kind of state of mind. It sounds strange, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but whatever it was, it made me want to … absorb? I wanted to sit down and sketch that lamp post, watch the passing people, get my camera and take photos of reflections and puddles. Of course, there was no time for any of this, so I moved on and back to my office.
I had felt what the author Emily Esfahani Smith calls transcendence. “Transcendent states are those rare moments when you're lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away, and you feel connected to a higher reality”, she describes in her Ted talk, naming transcendence as one of the four key pillars of achieving meaning in life. Transcendent states are powerful and can be linked to increasing clarity of thought, generosity, kindness, happiness, and - especially relevant for designers - creativity.
I’ll be completely honest: I’ve had a few such moments in the past but have never shared these experiences with anyone but my closest family as I am perfectly aware that it all sounds a bit too alternative and wacky to be real. It was Emily’s talk, however, that made me feel like - real or not - this was something a lot of other people experienced and might want to know more about.
For the philosopher René Descartes, this seemed to have been a frequent occurrence. Reading a few pages about his life last week, the circumstances for achieving transcendence seemed to have been cultivated and met frequently. He “was born into a wealthy family and never had to worry about making a living” and spent a number of years enjoying the stimulating buzz of Parisian cafes, and a much longer period of time in almost complete isolation and quiet solitude. Of course, this is something many great philosophers, scientists, artists, and other brilliant minds throughout history have shared - the luxury of not having to do very much in particular in order to get by. “I could be a famous philosopher if I didn’t come home tired from my office job every day”, is a statement I hear a lot.
For the modern designer and others in creative professions (which, by my definition, is almost anyone), this presents an issue. Trying to live a creative life and working creatively while being forced into the regularity and predictability of business processes sure seems rather impossible. In addition to our work-related pressures, the constant bombardment with digital alerts and messages does its part to make sure that we never find a moment to just ponder (which has previously prompted me to write about the power of not taking your phone to the toilet with you). If you recognise the feeling of transcendence and long for getting it back as much as I do, you might be wondering how to feasibly do that in your contemporary life.
We need to be bored
Growing up, many of us have loathed boredom. As a parent, it might be terrifying to hear your offspring scream in frustration: “I’m BOOOOOOORED!”, and many might jump to immediately remedy the situation. However, it is in boredom that we start being interested in what otherwise goes unnoticed. It is moments of boredom, when we notice sounds we hadn’t before, see shades of purple on a leaf we thought green, look up where we usually have our eyes fixed at the pavement, and discover delight in the feeling of a light breeze or the spectrum of a tiny rainbow cast against a wall in a cafe after being refracted by a glass on the neighbouring table.
If you change the input, you get a different output. The creative mind is no exception to this rule, and as our perception changes through the most undervalued lens that is boredom, we not only subject ourselves to the higher benefits of happiness and reduced stress described above but also become more reflective, see facts and information from different angles and, as a result, problem solve better and more creatively.
So seek transcendence, find your boredom
When I attended SXSW last month, I watched a conversation with the author Austin Kleon who was promoting his (excellent) book Keep Going. At some point, he brought up the topic of boredom joking that soon someone will come up with boredom farms, a business where celebrities can be removed from any entertainment, conversation or other distraction (and be charged a fortune for giving them literally nothing). Of course, it turned out that Austin had been too late and these things have already been in existence for a while. What this shows though, is that there must be a genuine need for people to seek out what goes beyond peace and quiet in the countryside.
You don’t have to be a hipster celebrity. Nor do you have to be a millionaire philosopher. Think about what might put you in a transcendent state. What environments, what time of day make you feel particularly peaceful? An art gallery just before closing time? Your sofa in the early morning? The high street on a quiet weekday? Put yourself in that context, and remind yourself to occasionally stop distracting yourself. Exposure to nature seems to be what works for most, so give it a try. Go to a park and sit down on a bench, just look around. Stare at a tree for a few minutes, up into the canopy and close up into the cracks in its bark. Go on, touch it. Can you feel the juices flow? If you can, you are probably getting close to transcendence. Or you’re just a little crazy - like me.