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There is No “You”

Much of life’s problems revolve around our belief in the self. The voice in our heads reinforces on a daily basis the feeling of being a unique and separate entity- a self. We live by stories that we’ve told ourselves. We attach to descriptions of ourselves and say, “this is me” and “I am this” as if we have a unchanging essence. This attachment to identity, ego, to self, compels us to protect our selves at all costs. We get offended, guarded, feel persecuted, feel attacked, feel like something is happening to us because of the ‘self’. But what are we really protecting? I’ll suggest that the self is simply an illusion that creates a façade that gives us the feeling of self-hood.

Imagine having a loved one with dementia so severe that they no longer recognize their own children or even know how to feed themselves. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. Here is the question: What happened to the self of your loved one – from un-demented to a demented state? When family members see their loved one in a demented state, it’s common for family members to express, “This is not my Papa anymore,” or “this is just a shell of my Papa, but it’s not him.” They will often run through a litany of attributes or qualities and say, “Papa was always a gregarious and outgoing guy who loved to fish and spend time with his grand-children, and now, I don’t know who he is?” Now think, when did Papa stop being “Papa”? Was it when he stopped fishing, or was it when he couldn’t recognize his own children? Moreover, who was “Papa” when he was 7-years old? 

This is reminiscent of the ancient thought puzzle, “ship of Theseus” discussed in essays by the historian Plutarch. The dilemma proposed posits a ship that is left in Athens, and the youth of Athens slowly replace the old wooden boards of the ship with new ones. The question raised was this: is the ship the same, despite receiving new parts? Better yet, at which point did the old ship stop being the old ship? Was it when 1 wooden board is replaced, or 13 or 27?  This puzzle can also be applied to a heap of sand. When does a heap of sand officially become a “heap”? The point of the puzzle is to illustrate that we cannot ever truly locate the “ship” or the “heap” of sand. Likewise, when we speak of the “self,” “me” and “I,” it is an illusion. Life experiences changes all of us, minute-to-minute in the most minuscule of ways; thus, the self is never located.

The crux of this essay concerns identity, and the self. We all feel as though we have a self. Every day, our senses seem to reinforce that each of us is “separate” from everything else. When I walk, I walk in my shoes, not yours. When I eat, I am eating and become full, but I cannot eat and have you become full, nor vice versa. It is I who notices the new moon at dusk and shares my wonder with my wife during our walks. It is our relationship with these experiences that compels us to see ourselves as the center of our own universe.

My contention is that we have no true self, no essence, no way to honestly say this is really me. The self is not physical, it’s symbolic. There is no “I”, rather we are constantly be-coming; our identity is in constant flux. Think of the list of adjectives that describe you and then ask yourself, “am I any of these descriptions all of the time?” Nope. Rather, you have different personas that you employ to help you navigate your immediate environment. Our metaphorical ship (a.k.a. self) constantly receives additional lumber with every experience we encounter. The self is not something fixed or static (e.g., teacher, father, son, car enthusiast). You were a different person at 5-years old, and vastly different every year after that. Heck, I am not the same person I was last week! Now, let’s dive deeper into the self.

Locating Your Self

Let’s start simple. Can you locate your ‘self’? Where is the exact location of your self? When asked, most people will point to their head to indicate inside the cranium. Others will gesture their entire body and say, “all of this is me.” But this tells us nothing. The problem with this is that both mind and physical body are in constant change. Given this constant flux, how are we to pinpoint your self?

Returning to one’s demented papa, one can never go back and hit the pause button in one’s life and locate the “self”; Papa’s entire lifespan was a constant unfolding (mind/body) from birth to grave. The self is thus, illusory. Like Papa, you don’t have a “self’ or real you that you can pinpoint. The self can never be pinned down and identified with any certainty.

What is the Self

“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

– Charles Horton Cooley

The “I” is a constructed entity, a collection of opinions, projections, and emotions, rather than something absolute. The “I” is like a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives that seems so real – as if we have been cast as a character in a play. The self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us. People shape themselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person to the next. Spouse, family, boss, colleagues, lover, adoring fans, and beggar in the street each hold a looking glass up to us every time we interact, and we present a different self. You don’t unfold into the world; rather, the world unfolds into you.

Think of the self as a Potemkin village. A Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to a country which is faring poorly, making people believe that the country is faring better. The term has its roots from stories of fake villages built to impress Catherine II during her journeys through Russia in the late 18th century. Likewise, the self functions in the same way as a Potemkin: a façade created to show a respectable image to the world. Simply look at anyone’s Facebook feed or Twitter feed and you will see the ubiquitous attempt to show the good stuff. A constructed façade.  

Ponder this: who are you when you are with your closet friends? Now, who are you when you are in a meeting at work amongst professionals and your boss? Finally, who are you when you are by yourself? Often, I notice the drastic difference in personas between my business focused “work-self” and my “dad-self” when playing with my 3-year-old. We take on personas (e.g., work-self, social-self, alone-self) to help us navigate the world. The personas, however, are a façade. Thus, we modulate our personas, demeanor, facial expression, non-verbal cues, to best match the appropriate tenor of the situation. So, which is the real you? Well, none of these personas are “you”, they are façades that help you relate better to the world around you.

Think of the great actor, Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks knows he is not truly Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump. Yet, he is considered a great actor because he plays these roles, or identities, so well; his commitment and skill create convincing portraits of wildly diverse people that can genuinely move and inspire us. Further, playing these roles serves a useful purpose (in this case, communication and entertainment). Our multiple identities are much like the multiple roles that Hanks has played.

However, unlike Tom Hanks, who knows he is acting, we typically do not grasp the idea that we are constantly and continually playing roles. These roles, or identities, are relative and temporary and serve a purpose, but they are not who we are in an absolute sense. However, they are who we think we are, absolutely. Sometimes we are more self-aware of “performing” for an audience than at other times, and some roles we play are more comfortable and perhaps are more convincing and successful than others. But being a “good” actor doesn’t change the fact that we are “acting” within every interaction and every relationship, even our relationship with ourselves. In our ignorance, we don’t see and understand this; we are not in control of our actions. We are not in control of our life. It is as if our roles are playing us. We react to circumstances or our disturbed emotions without awareness and are unable to control, change, adjust, or stand up to whatever role we are compelled to play. If we are simply playing roles in life, how can we understand better the idea of the self?

Self as a Concept

The notion of self is simply a concept that we employ to help us navigate the world better. Think of “the self” as a heuristic (problem-solving technique) that helps us function and relate to the world in practical terms. The self in this context is not rational or a perfect concept, rather, it helps provide immediate and “good enough” approximations for helping one navigate in the world. The concept of love functions in the same way. Love is not rational or something that can easily investigated through empirical means, rather, it’s a concept people use in practical ways to communicate deep and profound feelings and emotions. Both self and love are illusory terms that lack a solid and fixed essence, yet they convey practical sentiments that help humans flourish. 

You (your name here) are a concept, just like the constellation Big Dipper. There is no big dipper up in the sky. “Big Dipper” is a concept. Humans looked, saw a certain pattern, and then created a concept in our collective mind to describe it: That concept is useful because it helps us recognize the constellation. But it also has another, less useful effect. By creating the concept “Big Dipper,” we separate out those stars from all the rest, and then, if we become attached to the idea of that separation, we lose the sense of the night sky’s wholeness, its oneness. Does the separation actually exist in the sky? No. We created it through the use of a concept.

Does anything change in the sky when we understand that there is no Big Dipper? No. The stars in the sky remain just the same, and the pattern of the stars remains the same. We simply see that the concept that names the pattern of stars, and that separates those particular ones from all the others, does not have any independent existence.

Likewise, realizing that “self” is a concept revolutionizes our understanding by revealing how things have always been. Each one of us is a constellation of mental-physical processes. We recognize the familiar pattern, name it, and then become so identified with the concept that we fall into the great illusion of believing that some being is ultimately there. (Your name here) is just the same as “Big Dipper.” (Your name here) is a concept, a name given to a certain pattern of elements, just as Big Dipper is a name given to a pattern of stars.

The Self is like an Oasis

To be clear, saying the self is an illusion doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist at all, but rather that it’s akin to a mirage in the middle of the desert. The vision of the oasis is real, but the oasis itself isn’t. In this same way, the image of the self is real, but when we look at the image, we find it is simply that, an image and nothing more. The image of both, the oasis and the self, is really just another idea or thought and only the moment it is being thought of.

Now ask yourself: Who is feeling the feelings? Who is thinking the thoughts? Once again, when I refer to the “self,” I am referring to the idea or concept we hold of an unchanging essence to who experience is happening. Thus, when you feel or think, your experience does not refer back to anyone. There is no “self” or “I,” feeling the feelings and thinking the thoughts. The “self” or “I” in this context is the oasis in the middle of the dessert. 

The Dissolving of Self During Meditation

Here is another thought experiment: who are you when there are zero thoughts in your mind? Think about it. During meditation, especially the Buddhist practice of Vipassana (clear insight) meditation, meditators will experience gaps between thoughts. These gaps are an experience of absolutely (and literally) nothing, devoid of thoughts and emotion. Again, the question I raise is this: who are you within these gaps?

It is precisely thoughts, thinking, and feelings that build the façade of ‘you’. Each thought reinforces a sense of ownership of your body and actions, giving you a sense of control and responsibility. However, without thoughts, thinking and feelings, who are “you”? These gaps remove the façade, the ego, and the protective shell to reveal what we may call bare consciousness. I’m speaking of a mental space where you are simply be-ing, with no judgment, and a steady calm. In these gaps, you possess no adjectives, no descriptions and no roles to perform because all of the personas you regularly employ have dissolved.

I experience the gaps of no-self routinely, via meditation. I describe it as an absolute form of freedom because within those gaps I am not attached to anything or anyone. The ego and all of my defenses have vanished because there is no self to protect. However, as soon as a thought arises, I am back to performing in life: What am I going to eat for lunch? I need to call Mike. Do I have any meetings tomorrow? Desires have arisen and now I am compelled to feed my ego, my self.

Conclusion

The benefit of realizing that your idea of self-hood is an illusion is that you can end the bottomless pit of self-mortification. You know, the voice in your head that negatively critiques everything you do and reminds you of all your imperfections. The inner critic loses its power with a dissolved self. Let’s take an example whereby we may all relate. Imagine eating dinner with a small group of people and telling a joke that falls completely flat. Within seconds, humiliation and regret set in. The voice in your head begins, “what the Hell is wrong with me?”… “you’re so stupid!” Now let’s put things into perspective.

You just experienced what everyone experiences at some point in life: a well-intentioned joke that garnered an unexpected reaction. Any negative mental ruminations that follow are as ridiculous and unhelpful as tripping over oneself in public or spilling your drink in front of everyone. At no point is such a momentary lapse in judgement or glitch in motor skills a valid indictment to your self. This illustration extends to every kind of life event, really. Rather than allowing your self to be flooded with shame or self-denigration, imagine if you simply shrugged your shoulders and smile. Perhaps you reign in your thoughts by reminding yourself, hey, it happens to all of us. No suffering is needed. No need to attach your self to a facade you have created. Life moments are like clouds passing by; they roll in and then dissipate into thin air. The world is truly born anew in the very next moment, if you will just let it be. Realizing the self as illusory helps us to observe the clouds rolling by, rather than identifying with them, which is always the beginning of suffering.

Psychological Flexibility: Self-as-Process

Written over the span of 4-days with 21 Pilots playing in my head and hot coffee with tons of half-and-half. Two books that I recently finished that inspired this essay are The Art and Science of Valuing in Psychotherapy by Joanne Dahl, and Feeling Great by David Burns.


Possessing the ability to understand your self-as-process will give you the psychological flexibility to adapt to adverse experiences and emotions. – Me

Psychological flexibility refers to one’s capacity to contact the present moment in order to act in healthy ways. Simply put, this means holding our own thoughts and emotions a bit more lightly and acting on longer term values and goals rather than short term impulses, thoughts and feelings. Psychological flexibility is a state of being in which you are able to take a step back and observe the thoughts and feelings in your mind in a non-judgmental way, without becoming fused or entangled with the thoughts themselves. Between the stimulus and our response, is a sliver of space. The liminal space occurs, for example, between the car cutting you off (stimulus) and your rage that follows (response). Yes, it’s a very small space. Within that space, however, lies the freedom to choose how you can best relate and respond to what just occurred. The issue isn’t whether we’ll have thoughts or feelings about things going awry, but how we relate to those thoughts and feelings.

Just last week I found myself fused to resentment and frustration. I had received an email from a co-worker about a project I had been working on. I interpreted his email horribly wrong and turned his offer to help me as a threat to my work ethic. Anyone objective person reading his email would have thought, “wow, that’s great that he’s trying to help and collaborate with you.” But not me. I found myself ruminating in negative thoughts and emotions- How dare he! He thinks I can’t handle the task! I had fused to particular assumptions (contents) and failed to step back and notice the context.

I had been recently writing and reading on psychological flexibility, so I decided it was time to put it to the test. I went into my room, closed my eyes and began the process of diffusion. I started with a mindful meditation practice whereby I simply focus on my breathing. Now mentally calmer, I began acknowledging how I was feeling and the tension I felt in my body. Next, I re-stated the problem in my head (I feel angry at the injustice of having my work ethic being threatened) and immediately challenged the veracity of that claim. Was that really an injustice? Was there clear evidence that he thought I was being lazy or incompetent? Okay, so my “problem” may not have been an actual problem. So, I wondered what cognitive distortion had me under its spell? I identified the distortion of jumping to conclusions through fortune-telling. In other words, I jumped to a negative conclusion after assuming malicious intentions. Now I thought, okay, I don’t have a crystal ball, so what’s the reality of this situation? And here it is. A co-worker sent me a nice email to offer help – that’s it. Diffusion accomplished. Of course, this matter revealed an issue of insecurity that I need to explore a bit more, and actively address (note to self).

This process of diffusion helps me get out of my head and become more psychologically flexible. It’s incredibly easy to fuse to contents such as labels, emotions, and experiences. In a matter of seconds, we can spin out of cognitive control. We all do it. The hard part is cultivating a practice of self-awareness whereby you rein in your mental chaos and bring yourself back to reality.

One important facet with regards to psychological flexibility is recognizing when you are fused to the contents in your life and understanding yourself as a process. The two phrases I will use is self-as-content and self-as-process. Possessing the ability to understand your self-as-a-process will give you the psychological flexibility to adapt to adverse experiences and emotions. Self-as content and self-as-process sound a bit abstract, so let’s unpack their meaning.

Self-as-Content vs. Self-as-Process

Practicing psychological flexibility involves the training your such that see yourself as part of a larger whole of experiences and roles. You are not a static, fixed or concrete label. You are a process of experiences that ebb and flow. When adverse experiences occur, we have a tendency to isolate a feeling, emotion, or identity, and then we make it fixed and concrete. How many times have you thought to yourself, “I’m a failure,” “I’m stupid” or “I’ll never get over this.” These examples are cognitive distortions. The distortion is a kind of “binocular trick” whereby we exaggerate the negative and minimize the positive. We all fall victim to cognitive distortions of this sort. We fuse with a label, role, or experience and it becomes our only reality. We can gain clarity by understanding ourselves by looking closely at the idea of self-as-process and self-as-content.

Self-as-process helps us take a step back see that we need not be defined, threatened, or controlled by the stories we tell ourselves. After all, we are more than the contents and concepts that we live by. The encouragement here is to be aware of the flow of experiences without attachment to them and without investing in which particular experiences occur. Our roles in life will shift, our status within social groups will change, and there is an ebb and flow to life that is extremely unpredictable. It’s not as if the contents of our lives are irrelevant; it just means that we are not fused to the labels, roles and experiences that shape us. Moreover, self-as-process hold the contents of one’s life loosely, knowing that a cancer diagnosis, divorce, job promotion, or moving to another city change the contents of life drastically. The question is: do you have the psychological flexibility to adapt to the changing contents of your life?

Before answering that question, let’s address self-as-content. Self-as-content refers to the labels, roles, and experiences that help you make sense of who you are. The contents are short-cut descriptors such shy, introvert, fearful, optimistic, husband, employee, student, victim of abuse, survivor of military combat. We all live by contents from our lives that form a story of who we are. I am a male in his 40s who is addicted to athletic competition, who strives to be present for my family, who avoids risk due to a daily visceral fear of dying and is sometimes very insecure. These concepts and descriptors are the content of my self (self-as-content), but they are also part of a larger context (self-as-process). The descriptors I noted are relevant to me now as I write them, but these contents will change as time persists, perhaps even drastically.

So, what’s the problem? The problem occurs when we fuse with the contents of our lives, making them concrete realities. When we live by rigid and literal descriptions (contents), we lose the opportunity to step back and see ourselves as part of a greater narrative. This is why men and women experience a mid-life crisis, because they are fused with the idea of being young. The thought of their life being half over is unacceptable. For the majority, death is unacceptable, as it leaves the bereaved in a deep denial because the relationship is forever different. Even more common are those that fuse with negative self-descriptions and make concrete such contents as: laziness, over-weight, ugly, stupid, etc. Or worse, is those who fuse to labels they put on other people (e.g. “Republicans are ignorant” or “Democrats are evil”). Fusion and rigid attachments we form are a way of self-sabotage, whereby we create a narrow space to act, live, and behave. Such austere rigidity will leave very little room for one to make room for both self-compassion and compassion for others.

Alright, so by now you hopefully understand what self-as-content and self-as-process means and perhaps you are probably reminded of times where you fused to the contents of your mind. The question now is, how do you move from fusion with the ideals, thoughts, and experiences and embrace your self-as-a-process. Here are some tools to consider:

Create space between the stimulus and your response

You can do this making contact with the present moment. When we are swept away through identification with labels, ideals, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is ramped up with a flash flood of stress hormones that elevate your breathing and heart rate. Your SNS is responsible for your fight or flight responses. You can calm your SNS by focusing on your breath through a short mindful meditation. Usually, I’ll prescribe 10 deep breathes whereby each exhalation is counted to a slow beat of 4-6 seconds. All we’re going for here is a clearer and calmer mental space for diffusion.

Acknowledge and observe with non-judgment

Now calmly acknowledge the problem and observe what emotions and feelings arises without any judgment. This is yet another step in creating space between the stimulus and response. The encouragement here is to observe the thoughts and emotions that arise with non-judgmental observation. After re-stating the problem, you may notice emotions of anger, shame, or sadness arise. Without judgment or critique, simply acknowledge and observe the emotion. Welcome in whatever arises. A helpful analogy is to invite whatever arises, as if you are inviting guests into your house for a get-to-gather. Moreover, take notice and observe your physiological responses to the stimulus, for example, tightness in stomach and tension is our shoulders and neck. Once again, welcome in whatever tension or stress your body is feeling. No judgment.

Challenge the content by identifying the cognitive distortion

In this step, you can challenge the veracity of the content or problem. We all fall victim to the toxic spell of cognitive distortions that take our mind (or thoughts) hostage. Being aware of the common distortions can help you identify unhealthy thought patterns. Here is a list to familiarize yourself with. You can use this to challenge the content in your mind by assessing what distortion you are engaging with.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: look at things in absolute black-and-white categories, as if shades of gray do not exist.

Overgeneralization: You generalize from a specific flaw, failure or mistake to your entire self. This involves global labels (like bad mom) or words like always or never (I will never find someone to love me).

Mental filtering: You filter out or ignore the positives and focus entirely on the negatives.

Jumping to Conclusions: You jump to painful and upsetting conclusions that aren’t really supported by facts.

Magnification and Minimization: You exaggerate the negativity in a situation and minimize the positives.

Emotional Reasoning: This involves reasoning from the way you feel, such as: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.”

Should Statements: You criticize yourself or other people with shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, ought tos, and have tos. Self-directed should statements can lead to guilt and inferiority and other-directed should statements can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Labeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization in which you try to capture the “essence” or yourself or another person with a one-word label.

Re-Frame with facts

By this point, you are hopefully calm and are no longer fused to the content that entangled you before. Now you can re-frame your thoughts and beliefs with fact-based reality. Going back to my opening illustration with the email from a co-worker, I re-framed the situation with a fact: a co-worker sent me a nice email, offering help. Even if your “problem” is more serious like a death or loss of some sort, you can re-frame as such: I lost someone I love dearly, and it’s okay for me NOT to be okay right now as I grieve. A fact-based response can help position yourself to act with what is in your control and with a compassionate response that helps your overall well-being.

Remind yourself of the values that direct your life

A final step you can take is to remind yourself of the core values that give your life meaning and value. Why values? Because grounding ourselves in our core values helps extricate our-selves from fusion with the contents of our life. Think of your core values as a compass that directs you to your true north. If you haven’t done so already, it’s helpful to identify your personal core values with regard to family, relationships, health, career, education and particular virtues that help you live with more vitality. This is a good final step because we so easily get lulled away by the contents of our lives and forget who we are, so to speak. Our personal core values can ground us in meaningful directions so that we can adapt to adverse life experiences.     

Remember, we are a process. There is an ebb and flow to life, and the process of your life encompasses the good, the bad, and the ugly. The encouragement here is one of psychological flexibility. I have tried to give some helpful tools so that you can rein in your mind so you understand your self-as-process. Suffering and pain are a part of life. However, possessing the ability to understand your self-as-a-process will give you the psychological flexibility to adapt better to adverse experiences and emotions.

A Defense of Self-Transcendence

The reason I feel compelled to write about self-transcendence is because it is an extremely nebulous word that gets tossed around without proper explanation. Second, self-transcendence is deserving of attention because it is fundamental to the human quest for experiencing the meaning in life. Lastly, I feel obligated to defend self-transcendence against the skeptics attempt to reduce it to just brain states. To the contrary, self-transcendence involves real experiences that can illuminate life, meaning, purpose and significance.    

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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.)     – Abraham Maslow

Recently, I was at the bedside of a patient as he breathed his last breath. As a hospice chaplain, this is a rather common experience. However, this experience was different than most cases because it served as a transcendent experience that changed me.

It was just he and I in the room. His breathing had become labored with the typical ‘death rattle’ in his breathing caused by fluid in his upper chest and throat. He was only 57 years old and had absolutely no one in his life to support him during his last minutes on earth. I sat with one hand on his shoulder, in a cold and sterile room while the final chapter of his life comes to an end. In that eerie and lonely moment, I saw myself in his place. The image in my mind was me as a 57-year-old actively dying man, all alone, in a dimly lit shabby county care facility. The feeling was haunting and chilling. I was haunted by the conception of dying alone in a cold and emotionally desolate environment. It was then that a door in my mind opened up, and thoughts of my wonderful wife, beautiful newborn son, and loving family permeated every fiber of my being. In that moment, I experienced transcendence that was more than a feeling; it changed me.

The experience united me with the axiom that every relationship is precious. Now, to say “every relationship is precious” doesn’t sound very deep or profound. However, sometimes it’s simple truths that hit us like a mack truck. Often, it’s the simple realizations that flip our world upside down and expose the self-centered illusions that entrap us. My transcendent moment brought me out of the mundane and into the experience of being alive. It woke me from my routinized slumber and brought to light something greater than my self-interested mindset. My transcendent moment was a revolution of my soul.

Defining Self-Transcendence

Self-transcendence is an altered state of awareness by which we transcend the mundane and banal routinized modes of life and connect with a greater sense of meaning. Self-transcendence takes you from your myopic, isolated, and individual conception and connects you with a deeper, more meaningful way of existing. For example, we may experience self-transcendence through meditation, music, religious activities, professional sports, nature, drugs, and political beliefs. Self-transcendence occurs when one is deeply stirred by Mozart or the Beatles; when one is united with the whole as you stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon or you celebrate your team’s victory; it’s felt in contrite prayer or LSD; and through feeling love at the deepest visceral level or while eating the best Chilean sea bass you ever had. Self-transcendence is crucial for our well-being for the obvious reason that we each yearn for meaning, purpose, and connection. The opposite of self-transcendence would be all the routinized banalities of life. While my morning routine of showering, brushing my teeth and getting dressed is an experience, it most definitely is not a transcendent one. However, my nightly twenty-minute meditation is a personal example of self-transcendence by which my sense of ‘self’ slowly dissipates and I unite with what feels like an uncontaminated sense of peace.

Why the Need to Transcend?

Self-transcendence is one of the fundamental pursuits of being human. In the deep recesses of the soul is the yearning to be part of something bigger than the idiosyncratic isolated self. On one hand, we live life as individuals fulfilling our individualized goals and desires. On the other hand, we live in a highly socialized world and we see the benefits cooperating with people for a greater good. As Darwin noted, human beings came out on top because we learned how to cooperate in groups. In essence, man found the good in transcending the individual and embracing the unity of the whole. The stronger the affinity for the group, the stronger the group will be and the more likely the group will persist. Like bees and ants, we group together and circle around ideals and truths we hold to be sacred. Religion and politics are two palpable examples that illustrate how people transcend the ordinary routines of daily life and transcend to ideals and virtues that make life worth living and fighting for.

We can go to an even deeper substrate as to why there is a need to transcend. One of the most basic and elemental reasons why self-transcendence is sought and valued is because life is suffering. We are unwillingly thrown into a world rife with pain and suffering while having to solve the most complicated question ever advanced: how can I live a life that is significant, meaningful, and purposeful? The need to transcend the mundane is a ubiquitous pursuit given our close proximity with isolation, alienation, boredom, death and trauma that befalls every person. You are the lead actor in your personal drama of life, and we all want to be the hero in the play that is life; the heroic journey involves transcending the monotonous chaos of life, while reaching up for the deeply meaningful.

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Self-Transcendence as a House With Many Rooms

Self-transcendence can lead to rather ambiguous and esoteric ideas, so allow me to present a helpful metaphor to make it a bit more lucid. Think of the mind like a house with many rooms, most of which we’re very familiar with, but sometimes it’s as if a doorway appears almost out of nowhere, and it opens onto a staircase, we climb the staircase and experience a state of altered consciousness or awakening. The transcendent experience is the ‘ah-ha’ moment which illuminates our way of being. Another way to put it is that it unites us with the sacred.

As a hospice chaplain, I am often surrounded by self-transcendent experiences. Death has a way of catapulting people out of their comfortable little box and into a world of the unknown. Sometimes death opens the door leading us to the stairway of self-transcendence. Once, a daughter of a dying patient of mine described the last minutes of her father’s life. She said that the room was engulfed in peace and all went quiet except the birds chirping outside. Then, she felt as if her ‘self’ simply melted away and all she felt was a unity and love with her father that she had never experienced before. The image that she felt was the warm embrace of her father, and the calm realization that his time on earth was up. He passed minutes later. She would later would tell me how that experience awakened her to a more mindful realization of how meaningful family truly is. For her, the staircase led not to only intense feelings, but it re-oriented her life in such a way that she became a better person for it.

I should clarify that self-transcendence experiences are not necessarily always profound life-changing epiphanies. Often, when the door at the top of the staircase opens, we are awakened to a truth or ideal that causes only minor tectonic shifts in our perspective. When I listen to pianist Michele McLaughlin’s song “Dismissed,” I often experience self-transcendence that enlivens me to a kind of pure joy. It doesn’t, however, leave me in a stupefied ecstatic state that completely rocks my world with awe. Nevertheless, it is still a self-transcendence experience that lifts me from my run-of-the-mill life.

Self-Transcendence Connects Us With the Sacred

Self-transcendence helps us identify what is sacred for us. When something or someone becomes sacred it means that the significance of the thing/person/experience is elevated to a status deserving of reverence, honor, and is hallowed. In religious talk, it’s holy. Our ability to identify things/people/experiences as sacred is paramount for us because the sacred is precisely what makes life worth living. The sacredness we imbue upon, for example, family, love, capitalism, faith, relationships, a hobby and being Republican or Democrat, enlivens us with a greater purpose and meaning in life. A deeper way to think of it is that the transcendent experience re-directs or re-orients us to the sacred. It acts as a reminder, exposing to us what ought to be pursued.

It was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim that spoke of man being homo duplex (man as two). The sacred is part of what makes man homo duplex, which is to say that we occupy (at any time) one of two domains: the sacred or profane. A fundamental aspect to being in the world is that we move up and down a vertical line between the sacred and profane. The sacred and profane is not to be confused with the value judgements: good (sacred) and bad (profane). The sacred and profane are simply two modes of being. The sacred refers to those collective representations that are set apart from society, or that which transcends the humdrum of everyday life. The profane, on the other hand, is everything else, all those mundane things like our jobs, our bills, and our rush hour commute. Self-transcendence is the act of ascending the vertical line, leaving the customary and common for the luminous and lustrous.

Connecting With the Collective Consciousness

Self-transcendence connects us with the collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is when you forget your own individual desires and decide to integrate into the whole. ‘The whole’ is representative of the collective ideas, beliefs, and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. Collective consciousness creates a solidarity of beliefs through mutual likeness. The totality of sentiments common to the average members of the society form a determinate system with a life of its own. Some examples of collective consciousness include the ideals that ‘love is better than hate’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, and ‘flourishing is [most often] better than pain’. Granted, not everyone embodies these beliefs, however, these axioms take us out of our individualistic world and propel us towards solidarity with the whole. History reveals the force of the collective consciousness with examples such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berlin Wall coming down, and 9/11. We join with the collective consciousness when we transcend our boring and tedious lives, and our awareness is ruptured by mass devastation and trauma or random acts of kindness and when our team wins the Super Bowl.

A Rebuttal to Skeptics

Skeptics often roll their eyes at stories of transcendence because they are not real. By ‘not real’, I mean that self-transcendence does not point to something objectively real (i.e. empirically verifiable through scientific method). The claim is that self-transcendence is [just] a subjective experience, thus, not real. Moreover, the skeptic often claims that self-transcendence is just a feeling. Thus, self-transcendence is sterilized and diminished to the compressed notion ‘feeling high’.

The problem with the skeptic response to self-transcendence is twofold. First, it’s a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity) to conclude self-transcendence is just a subjective feeling; as if to infer that the subjective has nothing to do with reality. Pain, hunger, and anger are subjective states, but they are nevertheless real to the experiencer. When the religious person has a near death experience, it is real to them. Just as when the secular person falls in love, that euphoria is real to them. The religious and secular person both experience self-transcendent moments and, most importantly, they embody these subjective realities which cause by real physiological states in their body. It is absurd to dismiss or reduce self-transcendence simply because it cannot be empirically verified through demonstration.

Second, the skeptic is falling into an error of category. What I mean by this is that the realness of subjective experience is in a completely different category than realness in the objective world. There simply is not only one category of reality that all knowledge can fit nicely into. In short, the realness of the computer I am typing on is different than the realness of my hunger. One relies on sensory perception and the latter relies on a physiological reaction. Both are real, yet both are known and/or experienced differently, because they occupy different categories of realness. We need not fall into error by conflating the two.

I do, however, feel the skeptic’s frustration when people use their self-transcendence experience to make objective or absolute truth claims. Again, two different categories (or domains) that need not be conjoined.

Final Words

This is my attempt to define self-transcendence. It will nevertheless always be a nebulous term with numerous interpretations. My goal is to paint a clearer picture so that people can awaken to the reality that life has innumerable opportunities for experiences that are deeply meaningful. We each get one shot at life; that’s it. After being at the deathbeds of hundreds of hospice patients, no one has ever said that they wished they had spent more time in the office or bought more stuff. Satisfaction, contentment and courage come from the ability to transcend the mundane and reach for those moments that remind us the preciousness of being.