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Happiness, Self transcendence … and muskrats?

Happiness, Self transcendence … and muskrats?

I feel always just a little guilty when I order books online. How are fine, independent bookstores going to stay in business, enabling one to browse their fascinating shelves on rainy weekend afternoons, if everyone is buying books on the wretched interwebs?


I salve my conscience by only buying online occasionally and then only from sites that donate all profits to a charity that I support anyway. Within these parameters I can then fully and indulgently enjoy the great pleasure involved in buying books online: arriving home and finding, unexpectedly, a book in the letterbox.

Never having been a particularly materialistic child, I did not experience the frenzy of delight that I read about of greedy children creeping from their beds at un-Godly hours of Christmas morning to fall lustfully upon their Christmas gifts, but I think I understand a little of their pleasure when I get home from a day at work and find, arrived from distant continents as if by aerial reindeer, a book-shaped parcel in my letterbox.

So when I started reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, I was already well disposed towards it, having received it as if from Saint Nicholas himself, and excitedly borne the package that it arrived in from distant England into my house and expectantly unwrapped it.

In the reading, it proved equal to my anticipations.

Indeed the book will bear rereading and has already provided a range of facts and startling images to ponder and share – the 6,000 miles of root hairs of a winter ryegrass plant; the comparison of acres of rats and acres of tulips; the two hundred and twenty-eight muscles in a caterpillar’s head; the 12 thousandths of an ounce of starlight …

It is a fascinating book. They refer to Annie Dillard, apparently, as the ‘heir of Thoreau’. Despite not being an American, I have indeed read Walden several times and a smattering of Thoreau’s other works. I would quietly suggest that the disciple has surpassed the master.

I like her writing style but I admit without any embarrassment that there are passages that I do not understand, where I am completely at a loss as to what certain sentences or paragraphs mean.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has joined the pile of books on the shelf above my bed – the books I am currently reading: Mungo Park’s 1816 Travels in the Interior of Africa, the seventh-century writings of Saint Isaac of Nineveh, a book on the nature of pre-agricultural human society and – The Jewels of Happiness by Sri Chinmoy. A varied bunch.

The final chapter of The Jewels of Happiness is entitled ‘Self-transcendence’.

Throughout his life, Sri Chinmoy conveyed his profound insights into, and teachings on, the nature of humanity and divinity in a variety of ways – in a painting, in a drawing, in some extreme or humble athletic endeavour. And in writing – poetry and prose – of course. His mastery of the English language was profound – a limpid, crystalline style, never less than simple and with a profound balance and symmetry.

If there are things in his books that I do not fully understand, it is not a matter of language but of the inadequacy of the human mind faced with clear and first-hand descriptions of – for example – the distinction between infinity and eternity.

There is, however, one word that appears in Sri Chinmoy’s writings which, I have discovered, seems to baffle many of even the most erudite readers – ‘self-transcendence’. This word indeed appears in his writings frequently because it is one of the most central concepts in his thought.

Admittedly, some readers have encountered this word not in a book but in a situation which provides rather less context – a t-shirt.

Some of Sri Chinmoy’s writings have migrated from the bookcase to the wardrobe. It is unusual to compete in a public running race without seeing a t-shirt printed up on the back with an inspirational poem by Sri Chinmoy. In such a poem the word ‘self-transcendence’ often appears, and the front of such a t-shirt will have on it the name and details of some race organised by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. All such races occur under the moniker ‘self-transcendence’: the Self-transcendence 6-day Race, the Self-transcendence Half-marathon, the Self-transcendence 2-mile Race.

For people whose introduction to the word is in isolation on the front of a t-shirt, it seems to be too unfamiliar and have too many syllables for easy comprehension.

After twenty years of reading Sri Chinmoy’s writings, the word seems straightforward enough to me.

– * –

One of the passages in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which I found particularly appealing was the chapter called ‘Stalking’ in which Annie Dillard describes her experiences watching the elusive muskrats that inhabit Tinker Creek.

She describes the lengths to which she goes and the techniques she employs to stalk and observe these furry aquanauts, and the joy she gets from doing so.

After several minutes of rummaging about in the grass at my side, he eased into the water under the bridge and paddled to his den with the jawful of grass held high, and that was the last I saw of him.

In the forty minutes I watched him, he never saw me, smelled me or heard me at all. When he was in full view of course I never moved except to breathe. My eyes would move, too, following his but he never noticed. I even swallowed a couple of times: nothing. The swallowing thing interested me because I had read that, when you are trying to hand-tame wild birds, if you inadvertently swallow, you ruin everything. The bird, according to this theory, thinks you are swallowing in anticipation, and off it goes. The muskrat never twitched. Only once, when he was feeding from the opposite bank about eight feet away from me, did he suddenly rise upright, all alert and then he immediately resumed foraging. But he never knew I was there.

I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions. My own self-awareness had disappeared; it seems now almost as though, had I been wired with electrodes, my EEG would have been flat. I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly; it is second nature to me now. And I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. Martin Buber quotes an old Hasid master who said, “When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.” This is one way of describing the energy that comes, using the specialized Kabbalistic vocabulary of Hasidism.

I have tried to show muskrats to other people, but it rarely works. No matter how quiet we are, the muskrats stay hidden. Maybe they sense the tense hum of consciousness, the buzz from two human beings who in the silence cannot help but be aware of each other, and so of themselves.

It is interesting that, in this passage, Annie Dillard indicates that it is in the forgetting of self that rapture is found. This is the insight of all of history’s – and pre-history’s – spiritual masters.

It is only when we break down the tiny confines of the quotidian, the boundaries that our mind constructs and our little ego reinforces and defends, that we enter into the boundless and unconfined regions of the soul, the effulgent light of divinity where all division and all duality is lost in the bliss of oneness.

As Jesus the Christ put it with His usual tangible image – ‘… unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.’

This then is the final purpose, the ultimate reaches, of self-transcendence – where the self itself is transcended, where our consciousness breaks out beyond the boundaries and limitations of the mundane ego – the self, which, as Annie Dillard says, spends its time saying hello to itself – and into the domain of oneness, of unitary existence beyond all distinctions where all is indeed bliss – being, consciousness, bliss and nothing else.

In the meantime…

Life is intricate, as Annie Dillard points out, and it has a way of repeating itself and rehearsing itself at ever-expanding or ever-diminishing levels of reality. Thus, in tiny mundane ways, we rehearse that great drama of transcendence.

In a multitude of ways we can transcend the limits of our self. Today we are selfish; tomorrow we can be less so. Today we are harsh; tomorrow we can be gentle. Today we are judgemental; tomorrow we can be understanding. All along we can take little steps – little steps of self-transcendence.

If we apply this philosophy to the field of physical activity we arrive at an idea like this:

‘But remember what your previous time was, and try to make it one minute better. If you did the marathon in seven hours this time, try next year to do it in 6.59.’

Our Sweetest Oneness, Agni Press, NY, 2012, p. 56

And, just as satisfaction is found in the highest reaches of transcending the self, so too it is found in these little steps.

– * –

In 2008 I competed in the Self-Transcendence 10-day Race in New York City. It was the second time I had attempted this race. One runs as far as one can – in ten days.

Sri Chinmoy once said:

‘… we are always aiming at doing difficult tasks. Then only can we value our achievement. Otherwise, if everything is easy, like drinking water, then nobody values it. But to climb up the Himalayas is the most difficult task, and we do value it.’ [[From the book Our Sweetest Oneness by Sri Chinmoy, Agni Press, NY, 2012, p. 53]]


There may be those for whom it is not so, but, for me, running for ten days is – a difficult task!

The first time I ran this race – in 2006 – I managed to cover 819 km.

On my second attempt – in 2008 – as the race proceeded, once again the difficulties descended – difficulties of the body, difficulties of the mind.

It is a strange experience. At one level, hard and painful but at a deeper level one of profound satisfaction – a satisfaction grown from the experience of self-transcendence. Each step takes one beyond one’s own perceptions of one’s possibilities.

One other aspect of the race added further satisfaction.

Despite being held in the middle of the most metropolitan of metropolises, the race is, unexpectedly, an experience of the closeness of Nature. While the course does skirt a motorway it also runs alongside a lake. The trees shelter the runners, the birds sing for them, the rain blesses them, the Moon shines her light on their slow progress, the lake water offers the hope of grace and life. The runners share the course with flocks of geese who fly in in trailing skeins to graze on the grass and add their wild souls to the experience.

‘If peace is not
In Nature’s beauty,
Then where is it, where?’ [[Sri Chinmoy wrote in Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, Part 49, number 48,327]]

During the race in 2008, Nature blessed us with an abundance of her rain.

Other runners, I think, did not appreciate running in the rain, but I revelled in the extra sense of wildness it brought to the experience.

Often during the long, soggy nights as I ran slowly along, I would see furry creatures emerging from the reeds beside the lake to nibble delicately at the grass. Coming, as I did, from an island inhabited entirely by birds, I had no idea what these creatures were. I was, however, full of happiness to see them and of goodwill towards them. “Hello Mr Rat,” I would mutter quietly to them as I passed and they, in turn, showed no fear of the dim figure slowly moving through the night on his pilgrimage.

They were a rather russet brown and it was only after reading Annie Dillard and searching for a picture of her friends that I realised who those furry fellows in the night had been.

On my second attempt at the Self-transcendence 10-day Race I managed 830 km.

And I saw muskrats.

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