What Is Self-Transcendence? Maslow & Kaufman Explain

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Transcend" by Scott Barry Kaufman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is self-transcendence? What are the key characteristics? What are transcendent experiences?

According to Abraham Maslow, some people can transcend self-actualization. In Scott Barry Kaufman’s book Transcend, he explains how people can reach this state of self-transcendence by losing themselves to a bigger cause and being motivated by values that go beyond the self.

Read on to learn about what self-transcendence is and how to reach it, according to Maslow and Kaufman.

What Is Self-Transcendence?

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization sits at the top, representing the pinnacle of human potential. Yet, in Scott Barry Kaufman’s book Transcend, he notes that toward the end of Maslow’s career, Maslow noticed that some people can reach for something greater—they can transcend self-actualization and reach self-transcendence. But what is self-transcendence? According to Kaufman, self-transcendence means they can fulfill their deficiency and growth needs while simultaneously being motivated by values that go beyond the self, like beauty, truth, or justice. Kaufman suggests that some people are able to consistently live by such transcendent values and that this is the level of being to which we should all strive.

(Shortform note: Kaufman argues that transcending self-actualization means living by values that extend beyond the self. In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins also emphasizes the importance of values, saying that living by your values brings you fulfillment and joy. Although he doesn’t explicitly say you should live by selfless values, he maintains that you should work to understand which values are most important to you so you can actively pursue them. With this in mind, perhaps an important step in transcending self-actualization is to determine which transcendent values are most important to you.)

What Are Transcendent Experiences?

To better understand what self-transcendence is, Kaufman examines transcendent experiences. Transcendent experiences occur when you experience a heightened sense of joy, awe, or wonder—when you’re completely absorbed in the present moment, detached from your usual fears, anxieties, and needs. According to Kaufman, transcendent experiences give a glimpse into a higher form of human potential that goes beyond the needs of self-actualization. 

Transcendent experiences are often seen as spiritual experiences, but they don’t necessarily have a religious or spiritual association. Kaufman points to the feeling of awe as the most common transcendent experience that most people have felt. The most common trigger of awe experiences, according to Kaufman, is natural beauty, but awe is also triggered by things like athletic skill, music, art, or an epiphany. When people feel a sense of awe, they often feel a minimized sense of self, a connectedness to the people or world around them, and a sense that time is slowing down. After the experience, people often report a renewed sense of self and a more optimistic view of life.

(Shortform note: Awe and its ability to transform the way people think and behave is a long-studied psychological phenomenon, one that can be difficult to conceptualize. But modern psychological research suggests that awe-inducing experiences really can change our views of ourselves and the world around us. One study found that feelings of awe changed how people thought about themselves. After experiencing awe, people are more likely to view themselves as part of a larger group than as individuals, suggesting that awe can indeed make us feel more connected to others. Additionally, the tendency of awe to make us feel “beyond” ourselves is likely why it’s been often interpreted as a religious experience.)

Losing the Sense of Self

Kaufman argues that a key aspect of self-transcendence is that people lose their sense of self. When you’re in a transcendent state of consciousness, you enter an egoless state in which you’re primarily focused on the present moment and less focused on your own thoughts and feelings. You temporarily forget about your pains, fears, and anxieties while also feeling more connected to humanity and the world. Research suggests that those who enter this state regularly have stronger mental, physical health, and social health—they have stronger familial relationships, a stronger sense of purpose, and exhibit more charitable and social behaviors. 

Kaufman points out that though anyone can have a transcendent experience, self-actualizing people are able to live a more transcendent life. In other words, people who have all their deficiency and growth needs met are more likely to be absorbed in the present, simultaneously fulfilling their individual needs while reaching for something greater. Those who do this on a regular basis may experience self-transcendence not just as a temporary, fleeting moment, but as a sustained state of being. Such people are able to remain in touch with themselves while also being less concerned with their egos and material possessions. They reach their individual potential while also connecting with and helping others.

Understanding Different Views on Self-Transcendence 

Self-transcendence is receiving increasing attention in the scientific world, and some suggest a better public understanding of self-transcendence could be a major benefit to society. One researcher, Paul Wong, argues that self-transcendence is an essential aspect of well-being, even going so far as to argue that self-actualization doesn’t lead to self-transcendence, as Kaufman claims, but that self-actualization is a side effect of self-transcendence. In other words, the more we lose ourselves to a bigger cause, the more we can be our true selves and reach our greatest potential.

Another way to think about self-transcendence is provided by Viktor E. Frankl’s argument that humans are driven by a desire for meaning. Frankl maintains that the human desire to seek and create meaning in our lives is a fundamental aspect of human nature. This “will to meaning,” while echoing Kaufman’s need for purpose, is a form of self-transcendence because it involves looking outside the self to make sense of the world and your place in it. Finding meaning outside of yourself can provide the will to live even in the most dire of circumstances. 
What Is Self-Transcendence? Maslow & Kaufman Explain

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  • An updated, modern take on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs
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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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