Huxley X Transfiguration: To Utility and Beyond (Building Products That Transcend)

Have you ever experienced transcendence? Experienced a time where you feel suddenly overwhelmed that you are part of a humanity somehow raised to a higher power—that, for one fleeting moment—you are of a mystical higher order where the life’s drab grind succumbs powerlessly to bigger, bolder visions?

The desire for transcendence, the desire to feel like we are greater than skin and bones, and to have experiences that unify our mind with something bigger than ourselves—this has existed forever. It’s pursuit comes it many forms—many seek it unwittingly or under a different name, such as glory or enlightenment.

Men have built armies fit to conquer the world, in hopes of attaining the ephemeral feelings associated with glory. Men have built religion in hopes of creating a structured path to enlightenment by elevating themselves to align with a higher power. Men have created drugs, in hopes of expanding their mind to encompass something truer, more significant, more holy and wonderful than their own base, animalistic tendencies (Ladies, I hope you can forgive the sexist language in light of the fact that it was historically men who created each of these deeply flawed institutions).

And, when we grow frustrated on this quest for transcendence and self-realization, the latent desire exerts such pressure on our minds that society has historically even been willing suppress others, to denigrate in the name of creating only the perception of higher. We saw this suppression in the re-location of American Indians. We saw it in the Holocaust. We saw it in the aftermath of the Civil War, and even today—so many years after the successes of the Civil Rights movement.

Grasping a movement...

Interestingly enough, we also feel temporary transcendence in the presence of a movement with great opposition, such as Civil Rights. We feel it in the presence of a group gathered righteously around a righteous cause. We feel it, as these women did, even just by grasping the arm of Dr. King. They weren’t grasping a man—but a movement.

In many ways, this is the wonder of man compared to beast. We think. And because we think, we can believe. And, we are capable of believing more than is physically true; we are capable of believing in and experiencing transcendent moments—moments where the spiritual overwhelms the physical.

Can a Capacity for Transcendence be Built-in to Products?

Whether it’s a rosary candle or a hit of mescaline, people spend billions of dollars on products that they believe will make them capable of self-realization at the most basic level, and transcendence at the highest level. Furthermore, we often indirectly attribute deeper meaning to products that were created only to serve a specific function—transfiguring mere utility into deep customer loyalty. Is there a formula to creating such meaningful products? Is there a method that can deliver fiercely loyal customers time after time? How can we design products that transcend their own utility to take on a more sustainable meaning?

Now, read me cautiously: I’m not about to advocate profiteering from people’s emotional gaps. But, given that transcendence is a basic human desire, I believe we can create in a way that will help people fulfill this desire.

A Matter of Perception

Let’s start by defining a few parameters. First, transcendence is a matter of perceiving the particular as the universal. This, in Buddhism, is the concept of grasping the suchness of the Dharma Body of the Buddha. Now, a disclaimer–I don’t claim to have mastered every facet of this concept–merely its significance as an example of the particular to universal relationship found in religion, as viewed from Aldous Huxley’s perspective in The Doors of Perception. For those who don’t follow the blog, more on The Doors of Perception here, but we are dealing with Huxley’s recorded experiments with mescaline in a quest to discover the substance of enlightenment—in this case, we arrive on the text as Huxley explains that his mescaline encounter was the first time he was able to understand the concept of The Dharma Body of the Buddha, in which a novice monk learns to see infinite significance in a finite object:

“And I remembered a passage I had read in one of Suzuki’s essays. “What is the Dharma Body of the Buddha? (The Dharma Body of the Buddha is another way of saying Mind, Suchness, the Void, the Godhead.) The question is asked in a Zen monastery by an earnest and bewildered novice. And with the prompt irrelevance of the Marx Brothers, the Master answers, “The hedge at the bottom of the garden.” “And the man, who realizes this truth,” the novice dubiously inquires, what may I ask, is he?” [He] gives him a whack over the shoulders with his staff and answers, “A golden haired lion.”

“It had been, when I read it, only a vaguely pregnant piece of nonsense. Now it was all clear as day, as evident as Euclid. Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of the garden. At the same time, and no less obviously, it was these flowers, it was anything that I—or rather the blessed Not-I, released for a moment from my throttling embrace—cared to look at. Like the flowers, they glowed, when I looked at them, with brighter colors, a profounder significance.”

We see that the particular must be perceived as the universal. The humble hedge at the bottom of the garden, a particular object, is perceived as The Dharma Body, a universal concept. In our previous Civil Rights example, Dr. King (a particular man) transcended his physical presence to become the harbinger of American civility (a universal saint).

Next, presupposed in Huxley’s view, is this matter of perception—specifically, that transcendence is wholly a product of perception. Huxley cites the poet William Blake, who said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”  Again, taking Dr. King as an example—we are essentially assuming that the reason he was seen as a movement, rather than just a man, was wholly attributed to his ability to cleanse the doors of people’s perception. He gave people the ability to see a bigger vision. In the hedge and Dharma Body example, the student is enlightened by how to perceive differently. After listening to the master, he understands how perception can lead one to see the particular hedge as the infinite Dharma Body, by grasping its suchness.

Given these assumptions, there are two basic ways to achieve ‘transcendental products’:

  1. Alter the product’s perception.
  2. Alter the product ‘s ability to be perceived.
Alter the Perception?

Interestingly, this idea of altering perception is already evolving in the marketing sphere. Ad-agency Dial House recently demonstrated this with multiple campaigns aimed at communicating greater meaning. The key to these initiatives was to uncover latent brand meaning, position the brand as a creator and curator of meaning, and elicit consumer participation in delivering this meaning. See their Swedish Fish and Glad campaigns here.

This creative positioning is a wonderful tool—namely for products with some sort of latent meaning. But, the marketing industry is already deeply mistrusted for the thin veil of perception they try to create around otherwise meaningless products. For example, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty campaign questioned society’s definition of feminine beauty by featuring ‘real’ women. Unfortunately, their agency, Ogilvy, created a huge backlash by allegedly re-touching even the ‘real’ women in their campaign.

And, frankly, even if there are some good guys like Dial House influencing perception in an ethical way, a large majority of the marketing profession has already bastardized the idea of meaning-first marketing and inserted it piecemeal into their old ways–not to speculate, but probably the same group that can’t decide whether to grimace or day-dream of the good ‘ole days during an episode of Mad Men. I digress–the point is, I am 23 years old and already exhausted of my profession talking about people as dollar signs that can be conquered with a thin veil of meaning.

I am more interested in how meaning can physically be built into products. So, the ultimate question—how might we take the principles of facilitating transcendence and apply them to a meaningful and monetized product? Yes, Dove, in that order.

Alter the Ability to be Perceived

Let’s distill the components of altering the product’s ability to be perceived by taking several examples—a Vermeer, a seashell, and a chapel.

Vermeer vs. Cezanne: Grasping Simplicity

During Huxley’s experiment, he enters a long discussion of art and artists, particularly comparing Vermeer’s staid utilitarianism, with Cezanne’s groping impressionism:

“This is how one ought to see…These are the things one ought to look at. Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone, in isolation from the Dharma body…The nearest approach to this would be a Vermeer…that mysterious artist was trebly gifted—with the vision that perceives the Dharma-Body as the hedge at the bottom of the garden, with the talent to render as much of that vision as the limitations of human capacity permit, and with the prudence to confine himself in his paintings to the more manageable aspects of reality…Cezanne, who told his female sitters to do their best to look like apples, tried to paint portraits in the same spirit. But his pippin like women are more nearly related to Plato’s Ideas than to the Dharma Body in the hedge…Vermeer never asked his girls to look like apples. On the contrary, he insisted on their being girls to the very limit—but always with the proviso that they refrain for behaving girlishly.”

Vermeer’s lesson is that the universal cannot be expressed through groping for the universe. We express the universal by confining our vision to the more manageable aspects of reality—thereby expressing a suchness that can be seen as universal. We create such a confined, core simplicity that gives rise to understanding the particular object as the universal. Vermeer’s maid can be grasped as an everywoman. But, look intently at her through your own lens of perception, and you might also come to see her as an otherworldly saint–you might come to see significance in the look in her face as she dutifully tips the jug of milk. What significance that is, of course, is at the mercy of your perception. But, Vermeer at once achieves the harmonious paradox between a masterful finished work, and an empty canvas for greater meaning. Cezanne’s sitters may look like apples, but they will never look like more than apples.

A Seashell: Grasping Context

Is it only about paring down? Is simplicity the only key? If it is, how can we express the suchness necessary to create transcendence? Who better to help us answer these questions than the father of the American transcendental movement, Ralph Emerson, which he discusses in two poems—The Day’s Ration and Each and All. 

In The Days Ration, Emerson agrees that transcendence first requires simplicity: He envisions Fate as a filler of his chalice. And, he believes Time comes along as the ‘cunning chemist,’ who melts down the ‘liquor of life’—friends, foes, joys, fortunes, beauty and disgust—all interaction and emotion are distilled by Time into ‘sidereal wine’, which fills Emerson’s chalice to the brim.

And because his cup overflows with the beads of all daily experience, Emerson wonders,“Why need I volumes, if one word will suffice? Why need I galleries, when a pupil’s [draft] after the master’s sketch fills and o’erfills.”

He says, “My apprehension? Why seek Italy, who cannot circumnavigate the sea of thoughts and things at home, but still adjourn the nearest matters for a thousand days?”

But, what does Emerson say beyond agreeing that simplicity is key? In Each and All, he posits a context theory of transfiguration:

“Nothing is fair or good alone. I thought the sparrow’s note from heaven, singing at dawn on the alder bough; I brought him home, in his nest, at even; He sings the song, but it pleases not now. For I did not bring home the river and sky; He sang to my ear, –they sang to my eye.”

In another example, he shows the transfiguration of seashells from transcendence-inducing into ordinary objects:

“The delicate shells lay on the shore; The bubbles of the latest wave Fresh pearls to their enamel gave; And the bellowing of the savage sea Greeted their safe escape to me. I wiped away the weeds and foam, I fetched my sea-born treasures home; But the poor, unsightly, noisome things had left their beauty on the shore, With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.”

Emerson goes on to realize that ‘beauty is unripe childhood’s cheat’—or, that recognizing a beautiful object is all too easy—transcendence requires recognizing the particular object in relation to it’s universal system. To paraphrase the poem’s ending, you must leave beauty behind with the games of youth, and yield yourself to the perfect whole.

It seems that Emerson reveals there is more to the transcendence equation. Simplicity is crucial, but there are plenty of simple things that do not possess transporting powers. According to Emerson, context is the magical second ingredient. We are transported by things with the complexity that leads us to believe they weren’t manufactured, but have somehow always existed. Nature is transcendental because it has a beautiful complexity that we can understand mathematically, but never fully comprehend. But, when only a small piece of the system is removed the beautiful complexity is removed with it–relegating the object back to utility-only.

The Transcendental Equation

Given that you find these anecdotes meaningful, we now have a formula for the transcendental equation. It can be expressed as essence + context + perception (of suchness—i.e. the viewer must value the particular as the universal) = transcendence.  This elicits three rules for creating transcendental products and experiences:

  1. Master the essence. (Create a suchness)
  2. Master the system. (Understand the context)
  3. When all else fails, nudge the perception
Lastly, let’s examine an example of full mastery over these rules.

Mastering the Transcendental Equation: An Ecumenical Chapel

Nothing captures the essence + context equation more fully than the work of Mark Rothko, specifically in Houston’s landmark Rothko Chapel—an ecumenical gathering place that has hosted religious leaders such as Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela (not a bad way to nudge the perception). The chapel features 14 paintings by Rothko—each of which captures the essence of the expansiveness of space—with deep hues of purple fading into a swirl of black night, set in dramatic contrast to eight whitewashed walls of the octagonal building.

Practicing such massive restraint produces an ephemeral effect, and, contrary to some popular opinion–it is not easy to achieve. For those who don’t understand the appeal of such abstract forms, it is usually a matter of believing that an amateur could easily reproduce such a painting. But, the fact remains—an amateur didn’t. The chapel’s benefactor, Dominique de Menil, perhaps said it best, when she exclaimed, “Rothko had the courage to paint almost nothing.” This restraint is echoed throughout the chapel—the porous black stone tiles, the three piece block-benches, the single oculus cut into bare, white, textured ceiling to allow light to pour in from seemingly only one direction, heaven, all come together in glorious harmony to become—no, not grand, but, absolutely meaningless—except for what can be only be seen as their existence’s sole purpose of seizing, re-aligning, and marching all one’s thoughts, feelings and emotions toward the heavens in contemplation of the universal—whatever that is or might be to whoever so chooses to enter. The system is, in effect, a blank canvas for its enterer to paint with their own meaning.

We falsely believe that customers represent the end of the value-chain. But, what if we empowered customers to add their own value, by building transcendental capabilities into the product? Think about it–most companies spend thousands of dollars trying to nail a value proposition, in hopes that the customer will value the product the same dollar amount as its purchase price–wouldn’t this calculation be much simpler if you made something capable of appreciating in the customer’s hands?

Do you believe that we arrived at the correct equation–that essence + context + perception = transcendence? Is your product a Cezanne or a Vermeer?  A masterpiece or a canvas? Displaced or in its rightful place? Capable of being grasped? Capable of transfiguration? If not, will you change anything?

Books Referenced:

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Ralph Emerson, Poems (Everyman's Edition)

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