Self-actualization has been a topic of concern in the psychology and philosophy of the East for centuries and the West for many decades, and has more recently become a familiar concept within the general public as well. However, even though the term ‘self-actualization’ is well-known these days, most people have only a vague idea of its real meaning, and more importantly of the depths its meaning can be taken to.
Any attempt to explore the more profound meanings of the term ‘self-actualization’ would have to begin with a definition of the term ‘self’. What is this ‘self’ that is being actualized? Is it something stable with an enduring core around which change and transformation take place? Or does the process of actualization actually define the ‘self’? Is the ‘self’ not so much a state as a process whose only constant is change? Following are a few of the theories, from both East and West, which deal specifically with the idea of ‘self’ and ‘self-actualization’ which will hopefully answer some of these questions.
Buddhism and the ‘self’
The Buddha posited five Skandhas(aggregates of existence) as experiential processes or functions making up individual experience resulting in a sense of self. The first Skandhas was form, physical structures including the human body, the second, sensation, containing the five senses, plus our emotional perceptions of something. The third, perception, entails identification (or labeling) and conceptualization of what we have sensed.
The fourth, and that which we usually identify with ‘self’ in an egotistical way, is embodied in mental ‘structures’ formed and perpetuated by volition, or personal willfulness toward specific attitudes, morality and habits, both negative and positive. Pride, desire, virtuousness, prejudice, and faith are examples of the fourth Skandha. It is the willfulness of the fourth Skandhas which creates the positive or negative karma we are constantly forming around ourselves, moment by moment.
The fifth Skandha, consciousness, is the living platform of awareness upon which the first four Skandhas reside and which merges them together into a holistic, individualized experience.
Skandhas have also been referred to as ‘bundles of attributes’. Each ‘bundle’ is a unit of consciousness conditioned or molded into the structure and function of a specific Skandha, all five of which reside within an individual consciousness. These attributes are not permanent, but engage in a process of constant change in response to the environment (inner, psychological and outer, personal,social and cultural environs). The interaction between these attributes and their environment brings growing awareness and perception to the consciousness they reside in. Thus, these bundles of attributes might be seen as a set of experiential tools by which consciousness ‘hones’ its ability to expand to progressively higher states of being and perception.
The self, then is consciousness or awareness engaged in experiential activities which condition it into increasingly expansive ways of viewing and expressing itself. But, above all the self is an awareness ofbeing, an awarenessof personal existence. As Buddhist theosophist Annie Besant states in Thought Power, (p. 3-4), the self is ‘that conscious, feeling, ever-existing One, that in each of us knows himself as existing…both proof and disproof found themselves on “I am”, the unanalysable (sic) Feeling of mere Existence of which nothing can be predicated but increase and diminution’ (through pleasure or pain). All aspects, expressions or manifestations of this self arise from three basic processes, 1) knowledge (The first three Skandhas), 2) will, and 3) energy or action (the fourth Skandha), all of which take place within the wider, less focused consciousness of the fifth Skandha.
A Few Western Perspectives of the ‘self’
While the idea of self-actualization is many centuries old, the term ‘self-actualization’ from a Western perspective was first used by Kurt Goldstein who defined it as a ‘basic drive’ within all life, ‘the tendency (for some living entity) to actualize itself as fully as possible. Depending on the level of life and awareness, this ‘basic drive’ might operate on varying degrees of instinctual or intentional levels.
Humanistic psychology developed this theory further seeing the innate drive of self-actualization taking place through the interaction of three components making up the concept of self within each individual, 1) self-worth/self-esteem, how we think and feel about ourselves, 2) self-image, how we actually see ourselves on an ongoing basis as we interact with our environment, and 3) the ideal self, who we would really like to be. ‘Self-actualization’ is a process of the perceived self and the ideal self coming into a state of congruence. (Carl Rogers), creating an actualized self in which creativity, peak experiences, and mystical/spiritual experiences are common (Maslow).
Gestalt therapy (Fritz & Laura Perls) defines the self in terms of subjective and objective perceptions of immediate experience. One’s sense of self is a result of the interplay between 1) subjective perception (colored and distorted by past experience) and 2) objective, undistorted perception of present experience.
Gestalt therapy encourages the individual to gain insight into the difference between subjective and objective realities by perceiving the situation as it actually is, unaltered by beliefs and expectations born of past experience. The Perls theorized that most people formed a self-concept based upon past experience, thus lacking any present reality. Freedom from this illusory reality (and the pain it causes) is an act of self-actualization which occurs through progressively deeper insights into the difference between subjective and objective realities. These deeper insights come about through studying the nature of awareness and how to be aware of awareness itself as it goes through the process of perception.
Relationship between Self and Consciousness
Basically, all the concepts of self and self-actualization described above entail sets or bundles of attributes embedded in a platform of awareness/consciousness. These attributes are constantly going through a process of being reinforced and re-molded in response to experience on this physical plane of existence. It is the ‘process’ of change that molds the dynamic ‘self,’ the ever-changing ‘bundle of attributes’ from which consciousness or self-awareness acquires the sense of self. This on-going transformation of beliefs and attitudes in the face of experience is the ‘self’ in ‘self-actualization’.
Viewed from this perspective, the only self there is, is an actualizing ‘self. The process of actualization is the ‘self’, a dynamic, ever-changing ‘self’. That which gives life and continuing existence to this self is the underlying, innate impetus toward actualization. Thus ‘self’ is the act of actualization, an ongoing moment by moment transformation of beliefs and attitudes by which individual ‘selves’ continuously define, redefine and find validity for their momentary realities.
It would seem then that the only stable aspect of self is awareness itself. Yet awareness, through its constant experience with this bundle of attributes it permeates and perceives as ‘self’ is itself constantly expanding its ability to perceive on higher and more expansive levels of existence. That leaves us with only existence as a stable aspect of self. Yet, existence and self seem inextricably intertwined and inseparable. Therein lies the mystery, a mystery only solvable by each one of us through individual experience and effort toward inner as well as outer actualization. One can but assume that through self-actualization, that innate drive within all of us, we, like the Buddha, will one day look out upon our world from an elevated state of consciousness, and say, ‘Ahhh, Now I am awake’.
Self-Actualization and Meditation
Each individual has his/her own way of guiding the self-actualization process. Some blunder through life, learning through haphazard kneejerk emotional and mental reactions to life’s interactions. Those at the other end of the spectrum carefully analyze their experiences in life, consciously guiding the inner growth process toward greater awareness and capability.
If we look closely at our daily lives and listen to the internal dialogue or monologue constantly going on inside our minds, we soon realize that the inner dialogue is a running commentary on our current beliefs and realities, as they reinforce or introduce change into our view of ourselves in the face of new experience and information. If we watch this inner dialogue carefully it could provide invaluable insights into the nature of the bundle of attributes from which we derive our sense of self. It might also show us how to go beyond the ‘self as attributes’ toward a self based within the experience of ‘awareness only, an awareness devoid of the conceptual content that continuously imprisons our awareness within limited realities, more often as not, realities based upon unrealistic assumptions or downright illusions.
What is the advantage of this? Awareness devoid of content is forever ready to merge in an objective, realistic way with whatever it is focused upon, instantly knowing the nature of that object. Put more simply, when an individual is quiet inside, and awareness is in a state of rest, not constantly reacting to that inner mental monologue, and sets of emotional predispositions, the individual is much more able to react to momentary situations with spontaneity and objective perception, seeing the situation as it truly is. This state of awareness merged with awareness and devoid of content is a state of freedom commonly known as meditation.
In the words of Annie Besant, (Thought Power, p. 96) ‘the man of meditation is ever the most efficient man in the world...(he) is the man who wastes no time, scatters no energy, misses no opportunity... he shares the divine life, and therefore shares the divine power’.
Meditations for the beginner
The process of meditation is one of the most efficient strategies for guiding the inner growth process. Meditation helps the individual detach their awareness from the ever-present mental monologue awareness is usually absorbed in. A state of detachment allows awareness to perceive more expansively and see clearly the nature and reasons behind the inner dialogue and belief systems, and with that insight, guide their experience in life more wisely and beneficially for themselves and all they interact with.
There are various meditational disciplines designed to objectively observe and analyze the mind, one of the more currently popular being vipasana. However, meditational disciplines like vipasana require prolonged, persistent concentration, which can be difficult for someone just beginning meditation. There are easier ways to begin, ways which lead quickly to a quieting of the mind and deeper states of awareness, states from which penetrating insight can be had into your ‘bundle of attributes’ and awareness itself. See Candle Meditation and River Meditation for two of these simple, enjoyable meditation techniques. Practice them daily, if only for a few minutes. You will soon see changes in your life. Remember the old saying. ‘If you want to change your life, change yourself’. Meditation will help you do precisely that. And then you, and all of us, can travel the road the Buddha traveled, toward a sunrise with infinite color and majesty, from which we will continue our…self-actualization, all of us together, as one magnificent, incredible Self. See you there.
For further insights into the 'self' and self-actualization see my forthcoming books Freedom: What it is and how to achieve it, Book 1, Freedom and Self, & Book 2, Freedom and Society, due to be published in July of 2018.