Transcending the Self
In each of us, there exists an authentic self which can be discovered through psychological and spiritual self-striving. Self-realization is a higher plane of human development that helps reveal the undiscovered, authentic self. This self includes not only the cognitive and emotional aspects of our existence, but the spirit or spiritual self, as well. Thus, self-realization is both practical and transcendent. It allows us to both live in the world in an enlightened way, but also to transcend it and explore the higher reaches of human consciousness and spiritual fulfillment.
Self-realization can only be fully embraced when a person is cognitively and developmentally mature enough to let go of the ego’s constant internal preoccupations, which allows space for the true Self to reveal itself and frees one’s psychic energy to experience reality as it is, free of biases, and ego-driven fallacies.
In his final years, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, who pioneered the concept of self-actualization, added a sixth level to his famous Hierarchy of Needs: Transpersonal/Self-Transcendence.
Self-Transcendence, if not synonymous with the Sahaja meditation view of self-realization, is very closely aligned.
In a posthumously published critique of his own self-actualization theory written in his final years (Maslow, 1996, p. 31) Maslow revealed his thoughts that self-actualization “was not enough for a full picture of the optimally functioning human being.” What was missing, he said, was self-transcendence; in other words, self-realization.
He believed that the self-transcendent person seeks to:
- experience a communion beyond the boundaries of the self through peak experiences, which may involve mystical experiences, experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences and/or other transpersonal experiences, in which the person experiences a sense of identity that transcends or extends beyond the personal self
- further a cause beyond the self, which may involve service to others, devotion to an ideal (e.g., truth, art) or a cause (e.g., social justice, environmentalism, the pursuit of science, or spirituality/a spiritual community), and/or a desire to be united with what is perceived as transcendent or divine;
The Intersection of Self-Actualization and Self-Realization
The terms self-realization and self-actualization are often conflated, but they are not precise equals. These two concepts can be thought of as being more like sequential rungs on the ladder reaching to a higher, more evolved consciousness, with self-realization being the higher rung.
Self-realization and self-actualization may also each include characteristics of the other. For example, self-realization, by most definitions, can include personal psychological growth and development and self-actualization can include aspects of spiritual development and fulfillment. However, being and becoming is an ongoing dynamic, thus, it can be very difficult to draw a hard line between where one ends and the other begins. And they are both just words, after all, subject to any number of contexts and variations across different cultures and languages.
Perhaps the greatest distinction between the two concepts is that self-actualization enables us to fulfill our potential primarily at a worldly, cognitive, personality level. Self-realization, on the other hand, operates at a higher level of consciousness — it enables us to transcend the self. It is steeped in the knowing of a purer consciousness that cannot be achieved at the ordinary cognitive plane of consciousness.
One way to look at it is this: Having a single transcendent experience is one thing, but having one’s motivational life be centered at the level of self-transcendence is entirely another. High self-actualizers may experience many peak — as well as — plateau experiences. And while these experiences may give them the sense of feeling connected to a higher consciousness, they may not necessarily allow them to transcend the self.
Self-transcendence allows for a richer conceptualization of the meaning-of-life worldview dimension than self-actualization. Self-realization sets in motion a separate force within the psyche that extends beyond mental health. It is about more than having reached the highest peaks of the B-values (see: Are You Self-Actualized?) or being free of symptoms of psychological disturbance.
For self-realized individuals, self-actualization is no longer the dominant motivation. They are strongly motivated toward self-transcendence.
They seek a benefit beyond the purely personal. They seek communion with the transcendent, perhaps through mystical or transpersonal experiences. They come to identify with something greater than the purely individual self, often engaging in service to others. At the height of self-transcendence, one’s own needs may be put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others or to some spiritual higher force outside the personal self.
Not long before he died, Maslow came to believe that perhaps Being-cognition was more closely aligned with the province of self-realization rather than self-actualization (Koltko-Rivera, 2006). (Being-cognitions revolve around meaningful, growth-oriented needs and manifest as a more universal type of consciousness, as compared to Deficiency-cognitions, the ordinary way of perceiving reality which focuses primarily on deficiency and fulfilling basic needs.)
Maslow wrote that “the awakened, the illuminated, the high-plateau self-actualizers who B-cognize as part of normal living” were actually self-transcenders, who functioned at the transpersonal level above typical self-actualizers.
He noted a couple of other problems with viewing these higher B-values and B-cognitions as part of self-actualization. For example, this paradox: Peak experiences can lead the self-actualizer to transcend the personal concerns of the very self (identity) that was being actualized. The person becomes more self-transcendent or universally-oriented. Or as Maslow put it:
As the person having repeated peak experiences gets to be more purely and singly himself, he is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formerly not-self; for example… the creator becomes one with his work, the mother feels one with her child. That is, the greatest attainment of identity, autonomy, or selfhood is itself simultaneously a transcending of itself, a going beyond and above selfhood. The person can then become relatively egoless.” (Maslow, 1961/1999b, p. 117)
Here’s another paradox that he observed:
“The goal of identity in self-actualization seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. This is like saying its function is to erase itself. Put the other way around, if our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence, of leaving behind self-consciousness, . . . then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong, authentic self. (Maslow, 1961/ 1999b, p. 125)”
Maslow seems to be saying that the best path to transcending the self includes first developing a strong authentic self. In this context, self-actualization may be viewed as a gateway to self-realization or self-transcendence. Psychiatrist Carl Jung, who proposed that the unconscious had two layers — the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious — said: “The personal unconscious must always be dealt with first… otherwise the gateway to the cosmic unconscious cannot be opened.”
Characteristics of Self-Transcenders
Self-transcending or self-realized individuals may share many or all of the characteristics of self-actualizers. (see Self-Actualization Characteristics: Are You Self-Actualized?) But self-transcenders have more frequent and more important peak experiences and B-cognitions. They may also have more serene and contemplative plateau experiences rather than climactic ones. These experiences provide illuminations, insights or cognitions, which change their view of the world and of themselves. Some more highly evolved self-actualizers may even have some of the characteristics below, but to a lesser degree than self-transcenders.
Self-transcending people tend to have the following characteristics:
- For transcenders, peak experiences and plateau experiences become the most important things in their lives, the high spots, the validators of life, the most precious thing in life.
- Transcenders speak more easily, normally, naturally, and unconsciously the language of Being (B-language), the language of poets, of mystics, of seers, of profoundly religious men, of men who live at the Platonic-idea level… under the aspect of eternity. They better understand parables, figures of speech, paradoxes, music, art, nonverbal communication.
- They perceive unitively or sacrally (i.e., the sacred within the secular), or they see the sacredness in all things at the same time that they also see them at the practical, everyday D-level.
- They are much more consciously and deliberately meta-motivated to pursue the values of Being…, e.g., perfection, truth, beauty, goodness, unity, dichotomy-transcendence, etc. are their main or most important motivations.
- They seem somehow to recognize each other, and to come to almost instant intimacy and mutual understanding even upon first meeting.
- They are more responsive to beauty or have a tendency to beautify all things and to have aesthetic responses more easily than other people do.
- They are more holistic about the world than are the more practical self-actualizers… and such concepts as the “national interest” or “the religion of my fathers” or “different grades” of people or of IQ either cease to exist or are easily transcended.
- Transcenders experience a strengthening of the self-actualizer’s natural tendency toward synergy —intrapsychic, interpersonal, intracultural and international — that transcends competitiveness and zero-sum, win-lose gamesmanship and the dichotomy between selfishness and unselfishness. They can easily include them both under a superordinate concept.
- They more easily transcend the ego, the self, the identity.
- They are more lovable, more awe-inspiring, more “unearthly,” more godly, more saintly in the medieval sense, more easily revered.
- They are far more apt to be innovators, discoverers of the new, than are the healthy self-actualizers who are apt at doing a very good job of what has to be done “in the world.” Transcendent experiences and illuminations bring clearer vision of the B-Values, of the ideal, of what ought to be, what actually could be, and therefore of what might be brought to pass.
- They can be more ecstatic, more rapturous, and experience greater heights of “happiness” (though this is a too-weak word) than the happy, healthy self-actualizers. But they may also be more prone to a kind of cosmic sadness or B-sadness over the stupidity of people, their self-defeat, their blindness, their cruelty to each other, their shortsightedness. Perhaps this is a price these people have to pay for their direct seeing of the beauty of the world, of the saintly possibilities in human nature, of the non-necessity of so much of human evil, of the seemingly obvious necessities for a good world. Any transcender could sit down and in five minutes write a recipe for peace, brotherhood, and happiness, a recipe absolutely within the bounds of practicality, absolutely attainable. And yet he sees all this not being done. No wonder he is sad or angry or impatient at the same time that he is also “optimistic” for the long run.
- Transcenders recognize that some things are better than others, but also recognize the inherent beauty in all things. They are better at managing the inherent conflicts over the “elitism” that is inherent in any doctrine of self-actualization — they are after all superior people whenever comparisons are made. Conflict is more easily solved or at least managed by transcenders than by the merely healthy self-actualizing. Transcenders can reconcile more easily the absolute necessity for some form of reality-testing, comparing, elitism in the Deficit-world (e.g., you must pick a good carpenter for the job, not a poor carpenter). This is possible because they can live in both the D- and B-realms simultaneously and sacralize everybody much sooner. This sacredness of every person and even of every living thing, even of nonliving things … is so easily and directly perceived in its reality by every transcender that he/she can hardly forget it for a moment.
- Transcenders show a stronger positive correlation — rather than the more usual inverse one — between increasing knowledge and increasing mystery and awe. Mystery, to them, is attractive and challenging, rather than frightening. At the highest levels of development of humanness, knowledge is positively, rather than negatively, correlated with a sense of mystery, awe, humility, [comparatively] ultimate ignorance, reverence, and a sense of surrender to the Divine.
- Transcenders are likely less afraid of “nuts” and “kooks” than are typical self-actualizers, and thus are more likely to be good selectors of creators (who sometimes seem nutty or kooky). To value such people takes, in principle, more experience with transcendence and therefore a greater valuation of it. Transcenders are better able to screen out the nuts and kooks who are not creative (which includes most of them).
- Transcenders are better “reconciled with evil” in the sense of understanding its occasional inevitability and necessity in the larger holistic sense; i.e., “from above,” in a godlike or Olympian sense. Because they better understand it, they have a greater compassion for it and a less ambivalent and a more unyielding fight against it.
- Transcenders regard themselves as carriers of talent, instruments of the transpersonal, temporary custodians, so to speak, of a greater intelligence or skill or leadership or efficiency. This means a certain peculiar kind of objectivity or detachment toward themselves that, to non-transcenders, might sound like arrogance, grandiosity or even paranoia. Transcendence brings with it the “transpersonal” loss of ego.
- Transcenders are, in principle, more apt to be profoundly “religious” or “spiritual” in either the theistic or nontheistic sense. Peak experiences and other transcendent experiences are, in effect, also seen as “religious or spiritual” experiences.
- Transcenders find it easier to transcend the ego, the self, the identity, to go beyond self-actualization. They know who they are, where they are going, what they want, what they are good for, in a word, as strong Selves. They use themselves well and authentically in accordance with their own true nature.
- Because of their easier perception of the B-realm, transcenders have more end experiences (of suchness) than their more practical self-actualizing brothers do, more of the fascinations that we see in children who get hypnotized by the colors in a puddle, or the raindrops dripping down a windowpane, or the smoothness of skin, or the movements of a caterpillar.
- Transcenders should be somewhat more Taoistic, and the merely healthy self-actualizer somewhat more pragmatic. B-cognition makes everything look more miraculous, more perfect, just as it should be. It therefore breeds less impulse to do anything to the object that is fine just as it is, less needing improvement, or intruding upon.
- Transcenders have “postambivalence,” i.e., total wholehearted and unconflicted love, acceptance, expressiveness, rather than the more usual mixture of love and hate that passes for “love” or friendship or sexuality or authority or power, etc…
- Transcenders are interested in a “cause beyond their own skin,” and are better able to fuse work and play.’ They love their work and are more interested in kinds of pay other than money pay. They may generally prefer “higher forms of pay and “metapay,” such as loving service and creative expression. (Mystics and transcenders have, throughout history, seemed spontaneously to prefer simplicity and to avoid luxury, privilege, honors, and possessions.)
Maslow claimed that one could find approximately as many transcenders among businessmen, industrialists, managers, educators and political people as one would find among the professionally “religious,” the poets, intellectuals, musicians, and others who are “supposed” to be transcenders and are officially labeled so. “Any minister,” Maslow said, “will talk transcendence even if he hasn’t got the slightest inkling of what it feels like.”
Maslow’s characteristics of self-transcenders are strikingly aligned with the qualities that are naturally developed through Sahaja meditation’s self-realization process.
For an in-depth look at how Sahaja meditation offers the process of self-realization and develops self-transcendence, see Achieving Self-Realization Through Sahaja mediation.
Koltko-Rivera, Mark E.. Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification. Review of General Psychology, 2006, Vol. 10, No. 4, 302–317.
Maslow, A. H. (1961). Are our publications and conventions suitable for the personal sciences? American Psychologist, 16, 318–319.
Maslow, A. H. (1962a). Lessons from the peak experiences. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2(1), 9–18.
Maslow, A.H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
Maslow, A. H. (1999b). Peak-experiences as acute identity experiences. In A. H. Maslow,
Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed., pp. 113–125). New York: Wiley. (Reprinted from American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1961, 21, 254–260).