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Self-Transcendence & Self-Actualization

Self-Transcendence & Self-Actualization

“Why is it that we are all born with limitless potential, yet few people fulfill those possibilities?”

-Abraham Maslow

The religious historian Karen Armstrong wrote that, when traditions no longer adequately address a society’s spiritual needs, people will find “new ways of being religious.” Indeed it is in our nature to pursue and find meaning in the transcendent imperative. But we have yet to articulate comprehensively an approach that is equal to, and definitive of, the unique challenges of our times.  Perhaps some of the ideas I present to you now, can help us to shape a new collective consciousness.  

A great deal of focus is paid to achieving self-actualization, the pinnacle of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Maslow, however, didn't believe this was the real pinnacle of human development: he stated that self-transcendence was. Maslow soon died after conceiving of this new pinnacle, which is why we hear little about it today. 

“A peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need,” wrote Maslow, “is that the whole philosophy of the future tends also to change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, … life itself tends to be defined in terms of eating.” But as those baser needs become satisfied, we find ourselves needing more and more sophisticated things: shelter, love, esteem, and then, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, self-actualization. This refers to our need to realize all our potential, to become everything that we can be.

It was toward the end of his life that Maslow began to have some doubts about this model. In his personal journal, published only after his death in 1970, Maslow wrote:

“All sorts of insights. One big one about [self-actualization] stuff, brought on, I think, mostly by my deep uneasiness over articles. . . . I realized I’d rather leave it behind me. Just too sloppy & too easily criticizable. Going thru my notes brought this unease to consciousness. It’s been with me for years. Meant to write & publish a self-actualization critique, but somehow never did. Now I think I know why.”

Why did Maslow want to revise the hierarchy that he would ultimately become famous for? The answer is that he had realized the hierarchy was incomplete. Self-actualization wasn’t the pinnacle of his pyramid — self-transcendence was.

“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos” 

-Abraham Maslow

 The concept of self-transcendence dips its toes into the spiritual or mystical, something that psychologists avoid doing even to this day. Human beings have a drive to become more than their individual selves, a desire that should be studied regardless of whether it manifests in religious, spiritual, or mystical settings. The lack of such a study is arguably one of the reasons why Maslow felt his hierarchy to be incomplete.

There are a few things you can do to propel your development and reach toward self-transcendence:

Discover what puts you into “theta” (the quiet and peaceful state just between asleep and awake) and harness it to enter the inspirational and expanded state more often.

Explore meditation techniques—even if you’re an experienced meditator! Empower yourself with knowledge and wisdom to build your awareness.

Make time to get creative, and allow it to lead to inspiration, new experiences, and self-transcendence. Keep a journal.  Put your thoughts and feelings onto paper to separate yourself from them.

Get out of the house and go where you are closest to nature; allow yourself to “commune” with nature, finding inspiration, healing, and perhaps a sense of transcendence through nature.

Engage in “shadow work”—make time to reflect and dive into your deepest, darkest parts. It’s vital to acknowledge and address that which is worst in us as well as that which is best in us.  “Our present conscious self and our shadow must learn how to coexist. The first step to attaining personal transcendence commences when the conscious mind and the unconscious mind square off and battle for preeminence. A person who achieves self-realization understands the interworking of both their conscious mind and the unconscious mind and integrates their unique dichotomy into their sense of a self.” -Kilroy J. Oldster

Practice excellence—in whatever you do, wherever you go, whoever you’re within your day-to-day life. It doesn’t really matter what it is (as long as it’s not harmful to anyone), all that matters is that you’re doing what you do well.

Don’t be afraid of the journey to find insight. Find your own spiritual techniques that bring you closer to your higher purpose and your ideal self.

Raise your vibrational frequency (live in a positive and transcendence-conducive environment).

The most important factor in achieving self-transcendence is simply an awareness and openness to the idea. When we open ourselves up to the good in life, we cannot help but be transformed by the experience. Keep your mind and your heart open to self-transcendence, and you will have taken the most vital step to achieving it.  

Dogan Zenji was a Japanese Buddhist monk, writer, poet and philosopher. He wrote:

"To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self. 

To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things."

But how does one forget the self? Certainly not by trying. That would be like trying not to think of a Green Car: the more you try, the more persistent the thought becomes. One forgets oneself by becoming one with the task at hand. At these moments, released from the burdens of ego and selfhood, one experiences a state of spiritual wholeness that guides and supports one’s everyday consciousness.

Like any conscious entity, the self seeks to maintain and enhance its existence, and yet that same existence is a burden from which it craves relief. It’s enough to drive one to drink, literally. Indeed, it was in recognition of this state of affairs that Freud called alcohol the “universal solvent” for the anxious ego. Carl Jung, carried Freud’s assertion further, into the realm of religion, by locating in the roots of alcoholism a distorted expression of an innate spiritual impulse.

Alcohol is, of course, one of many ways one might seek to sidestep the transmutation of selfhood through the dulling of consciousness. Ironically freedom from the self comes not through the dulling of consciousness but through its refinement, by not dissolving the ego but through moving beyond it.

The egoic self is just a small part of who we are, and that to live entirely within its confines is to experience only a small part of the life we are given. Just as we need a strong sense of self to function well, so do we need freedom from the self to function freely.  Oh the paradoxes abound!  

I believe that the way to become your best self is, paradoxically, to become more selfless. In a world of cut-throat competition, the best strategy to survive and prosper for is to give our best in serving each other. May I suggest that you entertain the following ideas for personal growth:

You need to lose yourself in order to find yourself.

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Do not ask what you can get from life, but ask what you can give to life.

The more one forgets themselves—by giving themselves to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human they are and the more they actualize themself. Self-actualization is possible ONLY as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

Self-transcendence is a determining feature of all mystical experience. The self is to be transcended since it is considered to be a barrier to the goal of union with the divine.

“Self-transcendence gives us joy in boundless measure. When we transcend ourselves, we do not compete with others. We do not compete with the rest of the world, but at every moment we compete with ourselves. We compete only with our previous achievements. And each time we surpass our previous achievements, we get joy.” -Sri Chinmoy

"The truth is that the more ourselves we are,
the less self is in us."
—Meister Eckhart

 “Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence.” -Jonathan Haidt

 "The most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?" 

-Martin Luther King Jr.  

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