The experience of the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for the human animal who delights and revels in her place, who craves security, certainty, and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting, but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear. We crave stimulation, we long for a temporary derangement of the senses, we seek opportunities to lose ourselves in rapture or intoxication. Yet once we have tasted such ecstasies, we often sink back with a sigh of relief into the dullness of routine.

To experience the everyday sublime one needs to dismantle piece by piece the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing oneself and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and mine. It means to embrace suffering and conflict, rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the radical attention (yonisomanasikara) that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty, and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a lifelong practice.

From “The Everyday Sublime,” by Stephen Batchelor, published in After Mindfulness: New Perspectives on Psychology and Meditation, edited by Manu Bazzano © 2014 Palgrave Macmillan. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Stephen Batchelor is a teacher and writer known for his secular or agnostic approach to Buddhism.

Related: The Atheist Pilgrim: An Interview with Stephen Batchelor

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