I have had beef with Descartes for years.
Mind-body dualism never sat right with me. I have no personal belief in a metaphysical realm, but I am not so committed to the physical world that I’d rule it out completely.
This Other Place has been described as an astral plane, a higher dimension, a substrate, the spirit realm.
I’ve decided to investigate for myself. I want to transcend — close my eyes here and arrive somewhere else.
Like many, I first heard of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a form of silent mantra meditation, via the filmmaker David Lynch. I read his book “Catching the Big Fish,” which espoused the joys of uncovering what he calls the “ocean of pure consciousness.” It promised a lasting sense of stillness, a receptiveness to unconventional ideas, and a newfound self-awareness.
But he never explained how to do it. So I found a local info session, wrote down the address and headed up Massachusetts Ave.
I arrive at a historic brick and marble facade. Pan up camera one: I read the sign above the door. It’s a Masonic lodge. The doors are locked. I check the sides of the building. No alternate entrances. Just as I’m about to give up, a man in a suit appears between the marble columns. He welcomes me inside. I get the eerie feeling that I’m in an escape room.
“We’ll be meeting in the basement,” he says.
On the way downstairs, I scan for alternate exit routes.
I am shown into a small room with beige walls. Four others have arrived for this talk: a New Age-y white couple, a skeptic who works for a nonprofit, and a man who never stated what his business is, only that he has Clients.
The man in the suit, who informs us he is a Ph.D candidate, gives us a conceptual walkthrough of TM. Using a mantra — a repeated sound — to quiet your “active mind,” you descend into the Substrate. Twice a day, for 20 minutes each, you dive in.
The man insists that TM brings a new relationship to possibilities and people, an uninhibitedness that breaks away from the “script” of discouraging thoughts.
But how do I get there? Still, I feel them skirting around the how of the technique. The focus is entirely on the results, the corroborating research, and the infinite potential that lies inside each of us.
The key to success is all in the mantra, apparently. The sound is crucial and you can’t choose yours — a certified teacher has to find the one that’s right for you. The key to unlocking the infinite well of potential within you is just one phoneme away.
Oh, and a cool $1000 for the training class.
The student discount is still more than last month’s rent. I talk to the couple afterward, who are also troubled by this “financial gatekeeping.” There must be another way.
Turns out Google has a (free) treasure trove of TM mantras. Back home, I anoint myself with lavender oil to open my third eye. I YouTube search “sounds for transcendence.” I put on binaural beats, which I first heard about years ago via a concerned call from my father, who said kids were listening to bleeps and bloops to hallucinate the effects of Drugs. (Actually, a study I read found that using binaural beats decreased need for fentanyl in anesthetics. But I digress.)
I focus on the mantra. As Mr. Ph.D Candidate said, your attention determines what connections are strengthened in your brain. I struggle not to engage with the thoughts that float by.
The image of unfolding, becoming unbounded, is pervasive in Lynch’s book. By detaching from the tangible choices of the everyday world, new life pathways emerge. It may seem counterintuitive, but serenity recedes when you seek it out too aggressively.
The silence is the hardest part. My brain keeps fighting to stay engaged. Focusing on the sound helps me surrender. I’m becoming still.
To reach the “ocean of pure consciousness,” I leave myself and my thoughts behind. So who is the ‘I’ that arrives there?
I try to access this realm in another way — through sleep. According to a YouTube guru, the astral plane is where we go every night in dreams. Some say the dead hang out there too. Because we’re not fully conscious, we don’t always remember this place.
I talk to Ross J. Miller, a psychic who uses dream analysis to help his clients confront trauma. Miller says our fears and anxieties are the products of trauma from potentially hundreds of past lives. The key to spiritual enlightenment, or transcendence, is to cleanse oneself of these fears — acknowledge, release, forgive.
Lucid dreaming — when you’re aware that you’re asleep — is a way to face these issues in the subconscious realm. Miller describes a dream wherein he was being chased by a monster and turned around to hug his pursuer. It instantly transformed into a bouquet of roses.
Much like in TM, lucid dreaming requires an assumption of control over one’s mental state, coupled with an openness to the negative emotions that we evade in waking life.
Astral projection, an out-of-body experience that can happen at the onset of a lucid dream, is what I explore next. This dreamworld looks virtually the same as our own. When you leave your sleeping body, your astral self can go anywhere — outside, your cousin’s house, even other planets.
The gateway to reaching this state is hypnagogia, the state between waking and sleeping. To reach this gateway, you must keep your mind awake but allow your body to fall asleep. The psychic YouTubers say it takes focus and discipline.
Once again, there’s a need to be passive. If you fight too hard, you’ll wake yourself up. And you might want to fight it. Sleep paralysis can be alarming. So are the vibrating sensations and ambient sounds that astral travelers report.
I lie on my back and soak in the white noise. Slowly, I sense myself slipping into the in-between state. Every time the vibrations intensify, I notice I’m falling asleep. I jolt awake.
It takes a couple weeks of practice, but eventually I do leave my body and walk past the co-op, where I live, down Sacramento Street. Within what feels like five minutes, the whole affair is done: I lie awake in my bed.
I’ve watched a TED talk or two about how our subjective experiences are just sophisticated hallucinations. Is this Sacramento Street just as real as the one outside my window? Am I ‘there’ even while I’m in this astral realm?
To transcend, you release parts of yourself or your experiences that do not serve you. It’s a difficult task, but a worthwhile one.
I don’t know if this newfound portable stillness will make my dreams manifest in the earthly world. But David Lynch said that, through meditation, “you become more and more you.” I want to lean into this paradox to release myself from my fears.
Staring into your mind, the vast construction of your world, can be daunting. But witnessing the well of unweighted possibilities is humbling. It reminds me that no choice I make is divine or dire in itself.
I close my eyes. Somewhere else, a door opens.
—Magazine writer Sophia M. Higgins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @LAVAGXRL666. This is the first installment of her column, Further Realms, which will explore rituals that uncover hidden worlds.