March 2, 2024

The Sale of Transcendence

If we look around us, it is possible to see that life is a compartmentalised into different spheres. There is a ‘work sphere’; especially geared towards efficient work, with a uniform to distinguish it from the other spheres and a group of ‘others’ included, called colleagues, to wear the uniform with. There is the ‘domestic sphere’; with theories as to how to have the perfect domestic life; appliances to help make it easier and whole ‘lifestyle choices’ to make us feel better about buying into certain brands. There is also a ‘leisure sphere’; which is the one that I will be talking about in this piece of writing.

The leisure sphere has been the most recent of the spheres to be developed (the other two having been developed during the Industrial Revolution) and has only really been completely revolutionised in the last two or three decades.

People find that the work and domestic spheres tend to take up the majority of their time; an hour or so of domestic in the morning, eight or so hours of their time spent in the work sphere and then another hour or two spent in the domestic sphere. With the average 8 hours of sleeping per 24 hours taken off, that leaves an average of 3 to 4 hours left for the leisure sphere. It is no wonder, then, that the leisure sphere has become the most important, and the most profitable, for the modern world. The possibilities of what a person can do in this small designated time frame have been increasing slowly over time. Leisure was quite different when the concept was first introduced; many of the activities were free or were extensions to the domestic sphere.

Now, the person looking for things to fill up their leisure time have a variety of options. Almost all of these options, however, cost money. It is because of this that the leisure industry has appeared and has flourished. It is at this point that I would like to look at why the leisure time of the average person has become something so important; something that we are willing to spend money on. Firstly, there are the time restraints; anything that has a limit placed on it instantly becomes something that is valued highly. Another reason is the possibility of transcendence. Transcendence is also valued highly in Western society, particularly as it is becoming increasingly secular. The possibility of transcendence offered by leisure has a very important element to it. A person engaged in a leisure activity can forget their daily woes and stresses as they drink, laugh, play sports, shoot, watch and dance. Transcendence levels out stress and worry, it makes life seem less complicated and can reduce the difficulties of the world down to very simple choices. A person experiencing a sense of transcendence feels that they are looking down at the world from a great height and can see everything a lot more simply; without all the extra problems that make life stressful and complex.

Traditionally, the concept of transcendence is linked to religion and ritual. The person in church or a religious place can feel part of a greater entity, as part of a congregation, a flock, a spirit higher and greater than them. It was this feeling that separated ritual from the everyday and made it (and the person engaging in it) special. With increasing numbers of people in the modern, Western world not engaging in ritual of any form, it becomes important for us to replace the locus of transcendence. The sphere of ritual has, in part, been replaced by the sphere of leisure.

The modern person seeking transcendence, I feel, can now find some separation from the work and domestic spheres by engaging fully in the leisure sphere.

Another important aspect of transcendence that is important to leisure is the concept that in certain situations, the normal laws and morals of society do not apply; a ‘suspended time’. These moments spent in suspended time allow people to gain a stronger feeling of transcendence from everyday life. If a person does something in this suspended time that would otherwise be frowned upon in everyday life and does not get punished for it, because of the situation, this heightens the feeling of separation from everyday life and heightens transcendence. Ritual has always had an element of this suspended time to it, the feasts of the Bacchanalians and the Roman religious orgies, for instance, but traditional religion has tried to suppress it due to a perceived lack of morality. The transcendence of religion was not to be tainted with the immorality of human weaknesses; religion sought to transcend not only the everyday but also the dirtiness of base society.

Modern examples of suspended time transcendence are things such as the secular Christmas (where people can start drinking as soon as they wake and eat as much as they can without feeling guilty; at least not until the next day) and music festivals (where some people feel able to drink and take drugs liberally, dance and have sex without much fear of being caught or punished). The mindset during the transcendence of this suspended time is: “this is a special time, a time when I can do as I please. Everybody else is doing the same thing and they have just as much likelihood of being punished as me”. It is this feeling of separation from the everyday that can also fuel the mindset of rioting and looting; transcendence can also act like an exploded safety valve on society. The religious and ritualised form of transcendence costs only time and, if one believes in it, your soul; but modern forms of ‘leisure transcendence’ cost both time and money. The modern person has reached the point where leisure time has become almost a burden: “what can I do to fill this time?” This feeling of ‘not wasting a second’ is fuelled by aggressive advertising and lifestyle ‘experts’. People are now made to believe that, by parting with money in order to engage in leisure activities, they are literally ‘spending’ their time wisely. People are led to believe that this separation from the everyday life can therefore be bought.

Let’s look at some examples. When I was walking past an advertising billboard the other day I saw a picture of a bucket of ice with beer bottles in it. In the background of the picture was a glorious sunset with just the feet of dancing people visible in the honeyed light. The slogan of this picture was more-or-less: ‘Friends. Ice-cold beer. Music for dancing. (Sunset optional)’

This picture suggests that in order to gain the transcendence of this lifestyle image, you will have to buy the beer advertised. There is no room to negotiate with an image like this. In a penniless society, the chance to run away and escape to a sunset dance-party like the one featured in the picture is great. The image is alluring; it offers an opportunity to separate oneself from the monotony of life, to transcend the everyday. All you have to do to gain this transcendence is to buy the beer. The advert doesn’t tell you anything about the fact that you have to have the other factors in order to complete the picture; the friends, the music and dancing (the sunset is optional, of course, but it still suggests that you can have it if you buy the beer). The advert also doesn’t mention that the major factors of this daydream are actually free and available without buying the beer. Friends (at least, true friends) are free. Music is free if you can play an instrument or know someone who can (and if you have friends it is quite possible that you do know someone who can play an instrument). Dancing is certainly free (unless you allow lifestyle experts to tell you that you need to have dancing lessons to improve your daily life). And sunsets, the optional part, are perhaps the freest thing featured in the advert. Sunsets happen every day and you really don’t have to spend anything to see them.

We can see, then, that this advert tries to sell us an idea, a daydream, which will follow after we have bought some of the product which they are advertising. This shows the concept of the sale of transcendence.

Another example is the leisure activity of watching a film, watching a television programme or playing on a computer game. I group these three separate leisure activities together as, for me they offer a glimpse of the same type of transcendence. The major form of transcendence offered by watching a film or television programme or playing on a computer game is one of escapism. When we watch something or engage in a computer game, the story and action usually takes place somewhere completely different from the actual world and, even if it doesn’t take place somewhere different, the storylines are usually along the lines of something ‘out-of-the-ordinary’; something that transcends everyday life. This transcendence of everyday that the person watching or playing engages in is what draws most people to watch television or films or play computer games.

There is another element that draws us to this leisure activity and that is the stimulation of feeling and emotion that would not be stimulated by activities in the work and domestic sphere. Emotions such as exhilaration, mild fear, romance, sexual excitement, adoration and elation are not commonly felt in the work and domestic spheres and when they are, they are usually associated with negative occasions (violence, death, etc) or with positive occasions (births, marriages, family celebrations). These occasions are, unfortunately, not as common as we would hope, meaning that the average person doesn’t get to feel these emotions on a regular basis.

Ritual would often be a communal activity, engaged in by the greater part of the local community or congregation, and the transcendence would therefore not be just an individual separation from the work and domestic spheres. The watching of television and film and the playing of games can be a solitary experience, but mostly people share films and games with other people; making the transcendence one that is shared, much like the rituals of the past.

Films and computer games connect with emotions that we feel we are missing in other spheres of life, but these emotions are just the trace of their real counterparts. The actual emotions are hidden deep within the mind of a person and can only be really felt in a situation that actually touches these feelings. When we feel a sense of transcendence from watching a film or playing a computer game, we are feeling a trace of the actual transcendence that we crave, much like the trace of the emotions that we feel. This partly explains the slight feeling of disappointment that we feel after watching a film or completing a game; all we have experienced is the incomplete catharsis of emotion that is waiting for satisfaction within us. This feeling is particularly acute with badly-made films and games; there is no doubt that well-made films and games can touch some levels of emotion. It is also the actual physical separation of the audience from the film or game that stops us fully engaging in the transcendence. The audience feels that they should be able to fully feel the emotions that have been stroked by the film and feel only frustration when they realise the transcendence has been only a half-separation. Badly-made films and games only make this frustration more apparent and deeper.

Of course, we have to pay to indulge in this leisure activity as well. The licence fee for the television, cinema tickets, computer consoles and games; we pay a lot of money to only half-separate ourselves from the work and domestic spheres.

Another area that deals with only half-transcendence is the fitness section of the leisure industry. No-one can logically argue against the benefits of staying fit and healthy; it is important for a long and happy life. What it is possible to argue against, however, is how we stay fit and healthy. One way that many people engage in keeping fit is by joining a gym.

Much like in the discussion of films and games and how they only lightly touch at the emotions they arise, the use of the gym as a way to keep fit is another example of how people are willing to use a specially manufactured thing instead of a real thing. The machines used in a gym are specially made replications of real experiences or sports. The convenience of a gym is that a person can indulge in a number of different sports and activities without the inconvenience of having to go to lots of different places. What the gym user doesn’t always realise is that a lot of the equipment replicates activities that can be done outside of the gym for nothing.

Running is a very good example of this. Gym users pay a fair amount of money for using a running machine among others when the streets and parks are absolutely free to use and probably allow the runner a much better view. Yes, machines do some things better, such as weight-lifting machines and cardio-vascular monitors but as long as we keep ourselves healthy and engage in some kind of healthy activity on a regular basis, then there is no need to worry about building up certain parts of the body or regulating blood flow in certain parts, etc. What the gym user feels that they gain from paying their monthly fee is a separation from the work and domestic spheres. By exercising their bodies they gain a feeling of wholesomeness, a feeling that they are doing something to make them a better person. When the adrenalin flows through their bodies and the endorphins give them a feeling of elation, they feel greater than they ever have before. They feel above everything else that life is clearer, simpler.

This is a good feeling, it should not be overlooked, but the methods of getting there are, again, only a half-transcendence.  By paying money, the gym-user already has a feeling that they are doing themselves good without actually having done anything. The actual transcendence is only gained through exertion and to expect transcendence simply by paying is fallacy. The gym-user is certainly exercising when they are at the gym but they are in actual fact not doing anything. Using the familiar feeling of satisfaction at the end of a workout, the gym-user can cover the feeling of disappointment of not actually having achieved anything. Take walking for example. It is a low energy sport that gets people from one place to another. Add in a beautiful location and some difficult stretches of countryside such as hills and valleys, and you are getting close to that transcendent feeling of elation when you have completed it. Running and cycling are the same; add in a beautiful place, a running-time to beat, etc and you again have a feeling of elation when you have completed the task. What gym users fail to gain is the elation of actually completing something. By paying for the service and doing their hour’s exercise they have made their bodies healthier, yes, but they have failed to do something which leads to the disappointment of half-realised transcendence.

Transcendence is an essential element of human mental health; we don’t want to think that the work and domestic spheres are all that there is in life. Transcendence offers the opportunity to rise above the everyday and engage in something which is life-affirming and humbling. It acts as a tension-release on human behaviour as it allows us to see that work and home life are not the only factors that determine what we are. And so we look for the things that separate mind and body from the everyday; understandably, as we are told that ‘every second counts’ when it comes to ‘living life’.

What we must be cautious of, however, is being sold transcendence. We begin with seeking transcendence. We are able to find a way to reach what seems to be transcendence but only if we pay money to access it. Over time, the exchange of money and this half-transcendence become the same thing and soon only the handing over of money is enough to arose the feeling of ‘transcendence’: “If I pay for, and watch this film, it’ll make me feel better”; “If I buy and play this computer game, it’ll help me forget about the stressful day I’ve had”; “If I buy a drink and get drunk, I’ll forget about my worries”; “If I go to the gym, it’ll allow me to work off the pressure”.  It is easier to pay for transcendence and seems to be worth more if we pay for it, partly because we are taught that paid for items are worth more than items that are free. If we actually look at the free items, however, we can find that these offer the greatest level of transcendence as they offer us actual transcendence as opposed to false or half transcendence.

As already discussed, a group of good friends, music and dancing is a fine form of transcendence rather than having to buy things. Films, television programmes and computer games offer a hint of the emotional transcendence that can be achieved by actual transcendence. As mentioned before, positive occasions can create this separation from the work and domestic sphere; birthdays, Christmas, celebrations, romantic meetings, sex, marriages, family and friend meetings. We should embrace these events fully and on a regular basis as they offer the emotional power needed for a meaningful life. The creation of a full family and friend network is important as it can offer support, love and emotional transcendence.  Finally, gym membership offers a chance to tone up your body but it does not offer the transcendence that is craved by the sportsperson. Only actual and meaningful physical activities can develop transcendence: team sports, running, walking, cycling, boating and less energetic activities such as foraging and picnicking are the moneyless and freer options.

Transcendence can’t be purchased; only meaningful interactions with our bodies, others’ bodies, nature, the world, art and other people can help us gain transcendence.

If we want to spend our leisure time wisely we should seriously consider not spending anything at all.


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