Back in the 1940s Abraham Maslow came up with a Hierarchy of Needs for humans. There are five levels. The idea behind it is one needs to have the first level of needs satisfied before moving onto the second level of needs, and so on.
1. Food, water, clean air, warmth.
2. Security and safety.
3. A sense of belonging through intimacy and friendship.
4. A feeling of accomplishment, knowing one is esteemed by others.
5. Self-actualization, which means to achieve one’s potential.
I read through them, ticking as I go. Yep, my basic physical needs are met. I have food, water and a roof over my head that only leaks in freak storms from the south. I feel safe unless I’m on a roundabout or the top rung of a ladder. I have a man I refer to as True Love, a growing family, and friends who kindly overlook such foibles as me talking too fast and eating apples with noisy gusto. My paycheck, claps on Medium.com, likes on Facebook and loves on Instagram satisfy my sense of accomplishment.
But what about self-actualization?
I stop ticking and start sucking the end of the pen, wondering if I dare assume I’ve reached the height of self-actualization. And if I haven’t, pondering ways to achieve it.
I think about Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ and Tank Man (the unknown protester in Tiananmen Square). If anyone achieved their potential they did. How did they do it? What was their secret?
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl wrote:
What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
Ah, so, according to him I have to experience self-transcendence before self-actualization is possible. But what is self-transcendence?
Frankl put it this way:
The more one forgets himself . . . the more he actualizes himself.
He also wrote:
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.
This mention of taking up the cross reminds me again of Jesus Christ. Putting aside religious claims of his deity, he was a human being. He walked the earth, ate, slept and worked. He had friends and followers. He also spoke about a way of living that got him murdered. He met this injustice with brave, dignified unselfishness. As he was dying he forgot himself. He transcended the pain he felt on the cross and did what he came to do, which was to tell us we are more than human.
Mother Teresa saw suffering and stepped in to alleviate it. Christ continued to speak of love and forgiveness throughout his ordeal. Tank Man risked his life and temporarily stopped an army.
The Power of Mindfulness
Self-transcendence and self-actualization aren’t goals I can write down, aim for and achieve. They arise whenever I forget myself, take up whatever is presented to me in the moment, and do what must be done. This is mindfulness. It doesn’t have to be heroic. A poet writes her best lines when she forgets she’s a poet. An artist produces his best work when he is immersed in the process, his selfhood dissolved. A mesmerising musician becomes the music, the self forgotten.
Mindfulness is to rise above the limiting body; to see beyond the physical form; to express parts of oneself that can’t be seen. It is to be more than just a human being.
Being mindful allows me to forget myself.
When I forget myself I am more than myself.
I am self-actualized. I am living to my full potential.
With love, Marlane