This mysterious enlightenment stuff is usually made even more mysterious by having magical or mystical or spiritual trappings associated with it, and then wrapped around it, obscuring it.
What is it without all that stuff?
Well in part, it’s a development in presence. It is effortless direct presence without a mediating self.
What’s that mean?!
You’d have to experience it for yourself to know.
Is it Magic? Mystical? Spiritual?
I’d ask — why complicate things?
Is there any other handle on it?
Maybe it’s just natural.
Well, we start out once born into the body as infants; then we develop speech; then we are socialised to varying degrees; and then we become capable of more complex and intricate relationships with each other, with work, with our society; and then at a certain point we become nominally ‘adult’1. Which state, in essence, is the status of being held fully legally responsible for our actions and choices (though different ‘states’ have different concepts of when criminal responsibility is regarded as a given).
Is that the end of the line?
The answer may be ‘no’. Is there something beyond ‘adult’ — a natural ‘super-adult’ possibility? Can we grow up more? Where would we find pointers to this?
Rare psychological insight…
Abraham Maslow was one of not very many psychologists who developed an intuition about this. He is fairly well known as one of the founders of what was to be later known as humanistic psychology. He was interested in ‘healthy’ psychology, rather than ‘unhealthy’2.
It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.
His best-known contribution is usually presented as the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ — which described a perceived psychological ‘evolution’ to ‘higher’ levels of functioning as lower level needs were fulfilled. This is usually presented as a diagram:
What is much less well known is that Maslow went significantly beyond this, but died before publishing much on it.
Here is a diagram representing his last arguments:
What do we have here, apart from more detail?
A new level at the top, ‘Transcendence’.
What did Maslow mean by this?
‘…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 cosmosMaslow, 1971, p. 269
‘… 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 non transcenders might sound like arrogance, grandiosity or even paranoia…. Transcendence brings with it the “transpersonal” loss of ego.’Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1993
To paraphrase the last line above – transcendence brings the loss of ‘self’. Just to demonstrate that this is not cherry-picking:
‘The greatest attainment of identity, autonomy, or self-hood is itself, a going beyond and above selfhood‘Maslow, ‘ Toward a psychology of being’ (2nd ed.) 1961, p.105
Maslow had moved to what is now known as “transpersonal” psychology. He even developed a term for what the post-self ‘state’ would be: ‘the plateau experience’, a sort of continuous peak experience (q.v.)3.
You can go and search for Maslow’s papers on this if you wish, but despite his strong and clear intuition, he died before he had fully worked through his arguments, and much of the writing is theoretical in essence rather than based on direct realisation, though there are strong indications that right at the end of his life he did arrive at the ‘plateau’ himself.
It is fairly well recognised that acting for reasons other than fulfilment of the desires of the self is lauded within moral ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ thought, as well as in some branches of philosophy.
Here we see that academic psychology has also arrived, at times, at the insight that self-fulfilment, or ‘self-actualisation’ as psychologists would have it, may not be the ultimate aim of a fully-developed human existence.
In the present culture, of course, self-fulfilment or self-aggrandisation or self-actualisation is indeed the generalised aim.
Another example and commentary from another psychologist, Viktor Frankl:
… 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 [person] would strive for it, the more [they] would miss it. For only to the extent to which [people] commit [themselves] to the fulfillment of [their] life’s meaning, to this extent [they] also actualize [themselves.] In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendenceFrankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
Enough of the psycho…
That’s enough of the psychology. Psychologists and therapists enlarging on these insights (without having lived them as those quoted above probably did) almost invariably go on from this promising starting point into endless piffle about how to have a really shiny polished self-transcending self, because grasping the idea that self-transcendence means no self is something that any self simply is not going to do. That’s where we start.
Nonetheless, we have seen that in some psychologists there is an intuition — a strong intuition — that there could be something beyond self-fulfilment.
What is that something?
It is the freedom from having a self to fulfil.
But don’t believe me, find out for yourself if it is the truth.
See ‘Future Visions’, the unpublished papers of Abraham Maslow: Hoffman, Edward.
I have drawn from various references apart from the drawings credited above:
- Apparently adulthood is now regarding as happening after the age of 30: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-47622059 …here it did not happen until the age of 65 :) Perhaps
- It may be unfair to suspect that the typical psychologist’s interest in ‘abnormal’ psychology is a disguised form of self-aggrandisement for those psychologists who express it — perhaps? Whatever the case, few are interested in the ‘supranormal’ exceptions
- Experientially it’s not quite like that: there’s no experience because there’s no-one to experience it…