It is quite true that [we live] by bread alone—when there is no bread. But what happens to [our] desires when there is plenty of bread and when [our bellies are] chronically filled?
~ Abraham Maslow
The Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) was an American psychologist best known for creating a theory of psychological health known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Textbooks usually portray Maslow’s hierarchy in the shape of a pyramid with our most basic needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top. Note how the iconic pyramid ignores self-transcendance:
The basic idea here is that survival demands food, water, safety, shelter, etc. Then, to continue to develop, you need your psychological needs for belonging and love met by friends and family, as well as a sense of self-esteem that comes with some competence and success. If you have had these needs fulfilled, then you can explore the cognitive level of ideas, the aesthetic level of beauty and, finally, you may experience the self-actualization that accompanies achieving your full potential.
Note that the higher needs don’t appear until lower needs are satisfied; so if you are hungry and cold, you can’t worry much about self-esteem, art, or mathematics. Notice also that the different levels correspond roughly to different stages of life. The needs of the bottom of the pyramid are predominant in infancy and early childhood; the needs for belonging and self-esteem predominate in later childhood and early adulthood; and the desire for self-actualization emerges with mature adulthood.
What is less well-known is that Maslow amended his model near the end of his life, and therefore the conventional portrayal of his hierarchy is inaccurate, as it omits a description of this later thought. In his later thinking, he argued that the we can experience the highest level of development, what he called self-transcendence, by focusing on some higher goal outside ourselves. Examples include altruism, or spiritual awakening or liberation from egocentricity. Here is how he put it:
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. (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.)
Notice that placing self-transcendence above self-actualization results in a radically different model. While self-actualization refers to fulfilling your own potential, self-transcendence puts your own needs aside to serve something greater than yourself. In the process, self-trancenders may have what Maslow called peak experiences, in which they transcend personal concerns. In such mystical, aesthetic, or emotional states one feels intense joy, peace, well-being, and an awareness of ultimate truth and the unity of all things.
Maslow also believed that such states aren’t always transitory—some people might be able to readily access them. This led him to define another term, “plateau experience.” These are more lasting, serene, and cognitive states, as opposed to peak experiences which tend to be mostly emotional and temporary. Moreover, in plateau experiences one feels not only ecstasy, but the sadness that comes with realizing that others cannot have similar encounters. While Maslow believed that self-actualized, mature people are those most likely to have these self-transcendent experiences, he also felt that everyone was capable of having them.
Given that Maslow’s humanistic psychology emphasized self-actualization and what is right with people, it isn’t surprising that his later transpersonal psychology explored extreme wellness or optimal well-being. This took the form of interest in persons who have expanded their normal sense of identity to include the transpersonal, or the underlying unity of all reality. (Thus the connection between transpersonal psychology and the mystical and meditative traditions of the world’s religions.)
Let me conclude by looking at two succinct and eloquent statement of the difference between self-actualization and self-transcendence. The first can be found in an excellent summary of the Maslow’s later thought: “Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification” by Mark Koltko-Rivera of New York University. As he puts it:
At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential [whereas] at the level of transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others …
Finally, Maslow’s conclusion that self-transcendence is the highest level of psychological development reminds me of the thinking of Victor Frankl, about whom I have written many times in this blog. In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most profound books ever written and one that I have taught out of many times, Frankl states:
… the true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within [our own] psyche … the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization. Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life’s meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
This seems to line up perfectly with what I think Maslow had in mind.
I like the idea of going beyond self-actualization or fulfillment of personal potential to furthering causes beyond the self, or to experiencing communion beyond the self through peak and/or plateau experiences. I am receptive to these ideas as long as they derive from human or transhuman concerns without reference to a supernatural (imaginary) realm. I can accept mysticism if that means that some things are mysterious, but I reject it if it refers to anything supernatural—the mysterious is not supernatural, and the supernatural is mysterious only to the extent it is non-existent.
What especially appeals to me is how Maslow’s later thinking about self-transcendence can be understood as prefiguring transhumanism. I doubt that Maslow consciously thought about it in this way, but clearly his questions about the limits of human development—and the possibility that there are few limits—foreshadows transhumanist thinking. As Maslow said: “Human history is a record of the ways in which human nature has been sold short. The highest possibilities of human nature have practically always been underrated.” Perhaps we need meditation, altruism, communion with nature, and technologically-aided human enhancement through technology to transcend ourselves .
Addendum: Excerpts from “Theory Z” (re-printed in: The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)
1. For transcenders, peak experiences and plateau experiences become the most important things in their lives….
2. They 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…
3. 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 …
4. They are much more consciously and deliberately metamotivated. That is, the values of Being…, e.g., perfection, truth, beauty, goodness, unity, dichotomy-transcendence … are their main or most important motivations.
5. They seem somehow to recognize each other, and to come to almost instant intimacy and mutual understanding even upon first meeting…
6. They are more responsive to beauty. This may turn out to be rather a tendency to beautify all things… or to have aesthetic responses more easily than other people do…
7. They are more holistic about the world than are the “healthy” or 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…
8. [There is] a strengthening of the self-actualizer’s natural tendency to synergy—intrapsychic, interpersonal, intraculturally and internationally…. It is a transcendence of competitiveness, of zero-sum of win-lose gamesmanship.
9. Of course there is more and easier transcendence of the ego, the Self, the identity.
10. Not only are such people lovable as are all of the most self-actualizing people, but they are also more awe-inspiring, more “unearthly,” more godlike, more “saintly”…, more easily revered…
11. … The transcenders are far more apt to be innovators, discoverers of the new, than are the healthy self-actualizers… Transcendent experiences and illuminations bring clearer vision … of the ideal …of what ought to be, what actually could be, … and therefore of what might be brought to pass.
12. I have a vague impression that the transcenders are less “happy” than the healthy ones. They can be more ecstatic, more rapturous, and experience greater heights of “happiness” (a too weak word) than the happy and healthy ones. But I sometimes get the impression that they are as prone and maybe more prone to a kind of cosmic 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…
13. The deep conflicts over the “elitism” that is inherent in any doctrine of self-actualization—they are after all superior people whenever comparisons are made—is more easily solved—or at least managed—by the transcenders than by the merely healthy self-actualizers. This is made possible because they … can sacralize everybody so much more easily. 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 …
14. My strong impression is that transcenders show more strongly a positive correlation—rather than the more usual inverse one—between increasing knowledge and increasing mystery and awe… For peak-experiencers and transcenders in particular, as well as for self-actualizers in general, mystery is attractive and challenging rather than frightening … I affirm … that at the highest levels of development of humanness, knowledge is positively, rather than negatively, correlated with a sense of mystery, awe, humility, ultimate ignorance, reverence …
15. Transcenders, I think, should be less afraid of “nuts” and “kooks” than are other self-actualizers, and thus are more likely to be good selectors of creators … To value a William Blake type takes, in principle, a greater experience with transcendence and therefore a greater valuation of it…
16. …Transcenders should be more “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. Since this implies a better understanding of it, it should generate both a greater compassion with it and a less ambivalent and a more unyielding fight against it….
17. … Transcenders … are more apt to 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 nontranscenders might sound like arrogance, grandiosity or even paranoia…. Transcendence brings with it the “transpersonal” loss of ego.
18. Transcenders are in principle (I have no data) 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 to be seen as “religious or spiritual” experiences….
19. … Transcenders, I suspect, find it easier to transcend the ego, the self, the identity, to go beyond self-actualization. … Perhaps we could say that the description of the healthy ones is more exhausted by describing them primarily as strong identities, people who know who they are, where they are going, what they want, what they are good for, in a word, as strong Selves… And this of course does not sufficiently describe the transcenders. They are certainly this; but they are also more than this.
20. I would suppose… that transcenders, because of their easier perception of the B-realm, would have more end experiences (of suchness) than their more practical brothers do, more of the fascinations that we see in children who get hypnotized by the colors in a puddle, or by the raindrops dripping down a windowpane, or by the smoothness of skin, or the movements of a caterpillar.
21. In theory, transcenders should be somewhat more Taoistic, and the merely healthy somewhat more pragmatic.
22. …Total wholehearted and unconflicted love, acceptance … rather than the more usual mixture of love and hate that passes for “love” or friendship or sexuality or authority or power, etc.
23. [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”; “higher forms of pay and metapay steadily increase in importance.”] Mystics and transcenders have throughout history seemed spontaneously to prefer simplicity and to avoid luxury, privilege, honors, and possessions. …
24. I cannot resist expressing what is only a vague hunch; namely, the possibility that my transcenders seem to me somewhat more apt to be Sheldonian ectomorphs [lean, nerve-tissue dominated body-types] while my less-often-transcending self-actualizers seem more often to be mesomorphic [muscular body-types] (… it is in principle easily testable).