The Self-Transcendence Spectrum

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University who is best known for his study of happiness and the notion of “flow,” says, “we are happiest when in a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”* This is the state of flow.

When you get in the “flow,” you are completely preoccupied with the matter at hand. It engulfs your mind so entirely that you are no longer conscious of who you are, where you are, or why you are. You escape the chambers of the subconscious where you are constantly analyzing yourself, your life and everything around you. In the state of flow, you simply exist and move through creation in an ebbing and flowing exchange of action and reaction without having to think about good and evil.

Photo by Aditya Romansa

Since we ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, our blessing has become our curse: we always know good and evil. Whether intuitively or learned, we are able to feel/know when something done to us is good or evil. If someone calls you an insulting name, you can experience (feel and know) the evil in it. We, like most mammals, seem to be aware of experiencing good and evil. Unfortunately, knowing good from evil also forces us to question whether the things we think, say, and do to other people are good or evil.

Part of being human is that we become aware of how we cause good and evil. Our blessing of conscious and self-awareness becomes our curse. And, since we tend not to like evil, we seek to avoid feeling/experiencing it. But, more importantly, we also seek to avoid knowing the very haunting fact that we cause evil in the world. We try as hard as we can to live within the simple fact that “ignorance is bliss” when it comes to evil and the problem of pain.

Photo by Aditya Siva

Csíkszentmihályi talks about how there is a limit to the amount of information that the human brain can intake and process at any given time. When someone is fully engaged in what they are doing, they don’t have mental capacities to think about how they are doing; not even realizing if they are hungry or tired. In his words, when one is in the state of flow, “existence is temporarily suspended.”*

To avoid knowing the evil we cause and to avoid feeling the evil caused by others, we often distract ourselves. If we can preoccupy our minds with something else, we don’t have the mental capacities to think about other, less comfortable things.  We utilize “flow” to distract ourselves in many ways: a job that engages us, a story (books, movies, TV), hobbies, etc. We seek to be “in the zone” where everything (ourselves included) flows through time without our being conscious of it. This is a form of self-transcendence. There is a spectrum of ways we distract ourselves so that we flow through time without our being conscious of it. Distractions can be harmless but they can also become addictions and coping mechanisms.

It seems to be our curse that we are self-aware and know good and evil. I stated early that we are conscious of every passing moment; conscious that every step we take brings us closer to our own grave. This consciousness is, at times, uncomfortable. In a culture obsessed with youth, we would rather not think about the fact that we are getting older. And there is nothing we can do about. We don’t like not being the one in control. But we are in control of our ability to distract ourselves.

Photo by Clark Young

Our consciousness hinders us from being free to move through the creator’s garden uninhibitedly. We are cursed to know the pain of this world, to know the pain we ourselves inflict and the pain we experience. We cannot escape it. But we always hope to escape the knowledge of the evil that we cause and contain. This hope to escape the knowledge of evil can lead in two directions: positive or negative.

To varying degrees, we as humans, move towards things that distract us from being present in any unpleasant moment. But to distract ourselves is not fundamentally wrong. There are forms of self-transcendence on the spectrum that lead to positive outcomes, both for the individual and society.

The positive path leads us to seek engagement of our facilities for a purpose. In this circumstance, it is important to have routine or intermittent breaks from work in order to reground oneself in the embodied reality of the present. We are able to find sustainable and healthy rhythms of work and rest. Ultimately, if aligned with one’s skills and passions, engagement in one’s facilities can lead to brief moments of “existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.” That is to say, while engaging in certain activities, we forget we are limited human creatures capable of causing and experience evil and pain and, instead, exist in complete mental occupation. Ironically, these moments only exist when we are unaware of them; they only exist when we are completely unaware of everything except our present and momentary engagement.

The negative path (basically escapism) leads us to seek the extremes. Perhaps we are discontent with our jobs, our family, or our lives so we seek to escape the knowledge of our un-fantastic lives. We seek to escape the pain of knowing we are limited within our own lives and our own bodies. We seek to escape our own personal world where reality disappoints us, drains us, or brings us to slow death. We seek distraction (methods of escapism) through excessive TV/movie watching, books, social media, alcohol, drugs, or even spirituality.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel

Stories (fiction books, most TV shows and movies) can give us an immediate exit from the very stories we inhabit. Concentration and focus on the story offers respite from the pain of our own embodied lives. With nonfiction books, articles, reality TV and documentaries, ideas capture our brain and pull us out of the world in which we physically live in and fully into our heads. Excessive social media can become a way to numb our brains to our own story in the midst of other people’s current stories.

Regardless of any moral judgement, these are all mental exercises in distraction. In many ways they are methods of self-transcendence; they enable one to pursue something that will completely preoccupy them and, therefore, allow them to be incapable of contemplating one’s existence and the good or evil they contribute to the world.

Most of the things I listed are generally innocuous (although they can be used in addictive, unhealthy manners). They offer us the ability to distract ourselves and temporarily alter our perception of existence in ways that require concentration and some level of imagination. However, there are other forms of self-transcendence that are more passive. Chemical alterations to the brain from external stimuli also alter our perception of experience. With drugs, for instance, we seek to escape our mind: the baseboard for interpreting experience and the world. With drugs we can attempt to self-transcend our human experience through disorientation of the senses. Drugs can more easily fall on the far side of the negative end of the self-transcendence spectrum.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl

Career can become an obsession where we seek to escape the realities outside of a balanced human life. We, Americans, work obsessively for many different reasons. Perhaps to achieve fulfillment. Perhaps to feel meaningful. Or perhaps to avoid things. Perhaps to avoid a life with a lot of empty downtime. We often toil relentlessly into levels of poor health so that the brief free-time we do have is occupied with attempts at self-transcendence: sustaining an entertainment-high (drug-like) through constant entertainment (or constant consumption of experiences) that escapes the monotonous rhythms of a normal healthy life. However, in order to sustainably exist, we need lows in order to truly experience highs. In this way, one uses a career to escape the inevitable lows that life brings us; it can be argued as a positive or negative form of self-transcendence on the spectrum because it helps contribute to a positive outcome but can still be a method to cowardly escape the realities of daily embodied life in its entirety.

Consumerism, the relentless pursuit of commodities and experiences, is often pursued to gluttonous levels as means to escape and self-transcend the realities of life. Often, it is coupled with the career-transcendence to fill in the off time (ie: nights, weekends, and holidays). For many people, consumerism is a religious experience where they give themselves to the pursuit of goods and experiences in order to avoid the void inside that longs to be filled. We, as humans, are so bombarded by marketing targeted at our discontented nature that we unintentionally attempt self-transcendence through a never-ending pursuit of void-filling via constant consumption. 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

Even spirituality is a means to self-transcendence for many. For some it is an emotional and/or spiritual experience where we are able to break free from ourselves, and carry ourselves into something else – something beyond ourselves. Some yearn to transcend their humanity in order to achieve oneness with the universe, to become nothingness, to be in communion with God, to be one with God, or to become part of God. We have become “dabblers in transcendence,” engaging in spirituality with the specific hope to transcend our bodies, if even only for a little while.**

All of these are ways to escape reality and to live in some fantastical world that is not our present place and time within our human bodies. Too often we long to be anywhere but here- right now- in this present body. We do not escape for the sake of escaping; we escape as means to an end, and that end is self-transcendence. We escape in order to transcend our humanity. We seek self-transcendence in order to escape our human reality. We seek to escape the limits of our bodies and our minds.We seek to transcend our humanity in order to no longer experience and cause pain. We seek self-transcendence in order to return to our pre-Adamic state before the fall where we do not know the difference between good and evil.

Cover photo by Martin Sattler

*Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-092043-2

** Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book

One thought on “The Self-Transcendence Spectrum

  • I was reminded of this Richard Rohr quote as I was reading this Lee.

    “When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering, human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity”

    And in order to have our pain transformed we have to live in it and not run from it, like you are saying here. It is so easy to get ourselves distracted and not deal with our pain and stuff we need to deal with. Thanks for the reminder to not give up on our own humanity in order for us to be transformed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *