Ananya Sri Ram Rajan – USA
Ignore what they are thinking of you because they are not thinking of you.
Scott Barry Kaufman (www.scottbarrykaufman.com ) is a Humanistic psychologist whose research on Abraham Maslow led him to write Transcendence: The Science of Self-Actualization. For those unfamiliar with Humanistic psychology, the field approaches the individual as a “whole person” rather than from just a cognitive or behaviorist perspective. It adopts the belief in self-exploration, human potential, and acknowledges spiritual aspiration as a part of the human psyche. One could say Transpersonal psychology emerged from the Humanistic field.
To refresh everyone’s memory, Maslow’s Hierarchy starts with basic physiological needs (food, water, shelter, warmth, etc.) The next level is safety (security, stability, freedom from fear), which allows us to be open to feelings of belonging and love (friends, family, relationships). In turn, this provides self-esteem and eventually leads to self-actualization. Kaufman reimagines the Hierarchy addressing the aspects of ourselves that, we in Theosophy view as the denser side of the individual—the physical, etheric, mental, and emotional bodies. He views our material, more primal needs as being in the field of security. He then addresses the subtler thoughts of the individual such as exploration, love, and purpose. This Kaufman states is the field of growth. Growth eventually leads to transcendence, which has many layers not unlike the area of security.
Like teachings found in Theosophical texts about layers and layers of “self” or ego” that must be sloughed off (like an onion) to eventually come to our authentic self, Kaufman acknowledges this journey, emphasizing transcendence is possible if we are willing to let go of our conditioning, rigidity, and defensiveness. Much of what he encourages is reminiscent to the Golden Stairs. Maslow himself was interested in an individual’s inner development. He believed we all have the ability to live life as “whole beings,” meaning as self-actualized. According to Maslow, self-actualization was the bridge that led to transcendence. Sadly, his Hierarchy of Needs was appropriated by the marketing industry and ended up more in business manuals than books on spirituality.
As a mental health practitioner, it is a relief to see Humanistic psychology slowly moving closer to the edge of the spirituality field. To explain everything through one’s psychological processes is like looking at the world through a black and white lens. The view becomes dry and misses the varied nuances that color, in all its glory, has to offer. Exploring the spiritual side of a client was once considered outside the scope of counseling and taboo. The powers that be in mental health believed that spiritual or religious difficulties should be addressed by a priest or rabbi. Thankfully, this is changing.
There are a number of points in Transcendence that may help those starting a spiritual journey. Many clients I meet are searching for a new horizon with which to chart their course. They often feel embarrassed to discuss it with anyone, fearing they will be judged or talked about by others. Gentle validation of their fears is followed by a reminder that the human condition is not something unique. It applies to all humans which is why it is called the human condition. We think our particular situation, mental/emotional distress, or personal situation happens only to us due to our conditioning. What happens to us is not unique, how we handle it, is. Our actions and reactions determine whether our spiritual-self blossoms or withers. We can choose to move, grow, and explore outside of ourselves or remain in the realm of security absorbed with our own thoughts and worries.
This is not to discount how important a strong foundation is to one’s growth. Like Maslow, Kaufman starts by stating that what gives our lives a strong foundation is security. Security encompasses safety, connection, and self-esteem. This is nothing to be ashamed of and does not hinder us from delving into a spiritual practice. There are many who meditate or are part of a sangha and still struggle with moments of fear due to feeling a lack of safety. How many mystics have written about moments of loneliness due to a lack of connection? And several well-known inspirational writers have struggled with feelings of being less-than due to self-esteem issues. We are only human.
Such moments as these are what separate us from those who have given up attachment of any kind entirely and live life in the eternal. To be able to move beyond the grasping of name, form and feeling is, according to many teachings, to live as a realized or enlightened individual. Such individuals, it is said, radiate an indescribable feeling of love and holiness. To be in their presence is a remarkable experience. (In my life, I have personally met only one person who embodied such qualities. It became my benchmark when approached by those who believed they were enlightened. Hint: If you meet someone who tells you they are enlightened, run the other way!) Thank goodness for enlightened beings, they give us something to aspire to!
The beauty of Kaufman’s book is that it is a launching pad for individuals who struggle with issues that could be deemed psychological, but choose to approach it as their spiritual journey. (No different than many Theosophists.) It is the constant becoming of a “whole being.” According to Kaufman, the way to wholeness is “an ongoing journey of discovery, openness, and courage, in which you reach higher and higher levels of integration and harmony within yourself and with the outside world, allowing greater flexibility and freedom to become who you truly want to be.” No different than many Theosophical texts, the understanding is, that there lies within us the potential to transcend beyond our human conditioning, beyond ego.
While Kaufman’s book centers on one’s individual self-discovery, the journey he writes about can easily be compared to the spiritual aspirant. For those who have truly treaded the spiritual path, many start with the belief that they are practicing self-discovery, but quickly find that the journey is not about the “me.” If we are sincerely practicing a spiritual life, the beauty and power of Spirit removes the veil revealing the suffering and the strength of all life. The insight brings us to our knees. In our humility, we cannot help but become “one with every other” as we realize that the Divine that surrounds us, lies within us as well.
Yet getting to such a point seems far away when feelings of inadequacy, confusion, loneliness, lead to anger, bitterness, resentment and so on. What we often don’t realize is that our feelings are by-products of how we are seeing the world. Such feelings lead to actions which, based on the detrimental feelings, create more conflict. Looking at the level of security that encompasses safety and connection, an example of this can be taken from the problem many people have with their family of origin. Raised in a particular way, we are conditioned by the messages we receive from our family members. Based on our upbringing, we take a particular role in the family we are born into. Years later, despite having one’s own family, lifestyle, income, etc., when with one’s family of origin, the feelings felt as a child surface, triggering insecurities, upset, distance, and so on.
For Kaufman, the key is to start with feeling the feelings, recognize them, and address them mindfully. (I call it “following the thread.”) Often, this is where people get stuck. In many spiritual circles we are told we must rein in our feelings, dampen them, or even suppress them. In many older Theosophical teachings, the emotional and mental bodies are called the “lower” bodies, often giving the impression that our emotions and thoughts should be done away with. (In counseling we call it “stuffing” and it is one of the worst things we can do.) No different than other creatures on the planet, “feeling” is initially how we relate to the world around us.
Granted this doesn’t mean we let our emotions and feelings run wild or follow our feelings without discretion, but our sensory body is there for a reason. As we grow, it is through our emotions, feelings, and thoughts that we interact with each other, recognize our likes, dislikes, pleasure, pain, etc. It is our security system which is why it is important for us to be in touch with our bodies. Many of us are not. Our attention lies in our computers, text messages, video chats, and social media. The “still small voice” is telling us to slow down and pay attention, but we are too busy with the next item on our list. We are technologically more connected than we have ever been in the history of the world, and yet so disconnected from the being who resides within. How can we feel safe if we are so disconnected from ourselves and each other? How can we possibly have a healthy view of ourselves (self-esteem) when we keep comparing our lives to what we see on social media?
This article would be exponentially long if I delved into the other parts of the book. For brevity, and a bit of a teaser, I am only touching on the very initial chapters of the book that focus on what Kaufman views as our basic needs: safety, connection, and self-esteem. But Maslow moved beyond this to explore those who live in Beingness. Something many strive for in their spiritual journey, but struggle to maintain. Those who live in Beingness or are “B-loving” people, carry with them “Self-Transcendent Values.” In other words, their concerns become more universal—sound familiar? Universal concern and tolerance for all people. Toward the end of his life, Maslow recognized the characteristics of a “Transcender.” This was someone who moved beyond the societal holds and standards, lived a free life, unaffected by toils and struggles of the world, while embracing and serving every life form with love and compassion.
In many ways, self-actualization and self-awareness could be looked at as one and the same. One term was popularized by psychology and the other from spirituality. And perhaps as humans we need to self-actualize before we can we reach that level that moves beyond labels, form, and feeling. If this is true, then Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization by Kaufman may be a good place to start.