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There are those who aspire to reach the pinnacle of human development, which Abraham Maslow refers to as “Self-Actualization”, others refer to as “Self-Transcendence”, and I refer to as “Enlightenment”. They all refer to a similar point in terms of human development, where individuals consciously seek to understand life, their purpose in life, who they truly are, so to finish life with a sense of deep satisfaction that they have given it their all and achieved being their full potential. Each person’s unique definition of what this is the culmination of their life experience, learnings, beliefs, values, with a common value to give something back.
My focus in this post is on self-actualization and in particular on the motivation that is needed to achieve our highest need to find purpose and meaning in life, understanding who you really are, your gifts, and how to share them. So let’s begin with some definitions.
Self-Actualization is “the highest level or stage in his model of human motivation: the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. According to the hierarchy of needs, self-actualization represents the highest-order motivations, which drive us to realize our true potential and achieve our ‘ideal self’.” Another term that relates well to this type of growth is “Self-Transcendence” which is defined as “the overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires in spiritual contemplation and realization.”
As Maslow suggests, we cannot achieve self-actualization until the basic needs are met. The motivation to Self-Actualize comes first by meeting these lower needs, along with a conscious desire to become our full potential within our life. It is this aspect of growth that I will focus on here.
Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs played a key role in the development of my own framework for Enlightenment, which I would relate to Self-Actualization and Self-Transcenence. I use the analogy of a tree to explain the stages, or needs, that become the path to enlightenment. In a similar manner, we must first develop our psyhcological and mental health, characterized by a healthy self-esteem, a victor (vs. victim) mindset taking responsibility for their own life, healing one’s past, a positive attitude, along with a desire to stand on their own two feet. Once this is developed we can take that hard look within to examine our attitude, beliefs, values, personality, to discover who we are, our uniqueness, along with revised definitions of success and happiness that meet our individual needs and desires. This is the stage of Self-Discovery. And finally, for those who receive “The Call” (see quote below), aspiring to grapple with the most challenging questions to life (e.g. meaning of life and how I fit in), to discover another level of self that is often associated with the Enlightenment stage.
You can view my posts further explaining this framework:
A Framework for Personal Growth, Self-Discovery and Englightenment
Stage 1 – Personal Growth
Stage 2 – Self-Discovery
When I conduct my talks and workshops on the topic of Personal Growth, Self-Discovery and Enlightenment, I ask the participants why they are attending. Shown here are the most common reasons stated.
In effect most of these represent an “Intrinsic Motivation” (defined shortly), or a deep inner desire to find greater meaning, purpose, love and joy in their life and to become their full potential. Many of those attending would relate very well to the following quote regarding a “call” to achieve this ultimate step in life.
Throughout your life, there is a voice only you can hear. A voice which mythologists label “the call.” A call to the value of your life. The choice of risk and individual bliss over the known and secure. You may choose not to hear your spirit. You may prefer to build a life within the compound, to avoid risk. It is possible to find happiness within a familiar box, a life of comfort and control. Or, you may choose to be open to new experiences, to leave the limits of your conditioning, to hear the call. Then you must act. If you never hear it perhaps nothing is lost. If you hear it and ignore it, your life is lost.THE CALL – JENNIFER JAMES
There is often little to no need for me to sell them on a reason to attend, since they have already come to this conclusion. There is now simply a thirst for knowledge, ideas, steps to achieve their goals which is what my talks and workshops are all about. These are the ultimate sessions to facilitate since the individuals attending are naturally engaged because they want to be there.
What drives people to self-actualize? The motivation is more Intrinsic (personal satisfaction) vs. Extrinsic (external reward). For me it is a calling, a deep awareness that this is something I must do, not because anyone is telling or suggesting to me that this is important, but that I believe this to be an absolute in my life. I have had this calling for as long as I can remember. Early on I felt that I must be crazy. However as life unfolded for me, and I received The Call from a colleague, I realized that I was not crazy (maybe partially), but that this was a real calling. There was no going back with this awareness. All characteristics of intrinsic motivation.
Another key motivation to self-actualization and self-transcendence is to end the pain and suffering that is a part of the human existence. Upon my investigation of many religions and belief systems, I stumbled across Buddhism which has at its core, the “Four Noble Truths”. I am not an advocate of any one religion but am an advocate for investigating multiple religions and belief systems to identify what works for you. Religions are helpful in that they provide a framework (belief system) along with a community (Need for Love & Belonging). However, their dogma (“a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”) can limit the pursuit of other ideas and beliefs. For me, the simple yet profound teaching of Buddhism related to one of my primary motivations, to end the pain and suffering that consumed most of my life. The Four Noble Truths are:
- The truth of suffering (“dukkha”)
My interpretation of this relates to my own personal experience with pain and suffering in my own life, along with the realization that on my world tour, that pain and suffering existed everywhere. My own conclusion from this is that this is a key aspect to life since pain can stimulate growth (No Pain, No Gain), as it was for me.
- The truth of the cause of suffering (“samudaya” = craving or attachment)
When we are able to move past the victim mindset that blames others for our woes, pain and suffering, we can realize that we attach ourselves to specific ideas, desires, people, wants. When these do not develop or satisfy our expectations, we experience pain and suffering. Relationships are a prime example since we come to expect that others will always be there for us, which is not realistic nor probable. Rather than loving someone for who they are (unconditional love), we prescribe to conditional love where we love others for who we expect them to be.
- The truth of the end of suffering (“nirhodha”)
“The Second Noble Truth tells us that we cling to things we believe will make us happy or keep us safe. Grasping for one ephemeral thing after another never satisfies us for long because it’s all impermanent. It is only when we see this for ourselves that we can stop grasping. When we do see it, the letting go is easy. The craving will seem to disappear of its own accord.” (source)
- The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (“magga”)
“Once a person has decided to pursue Buddhist principles in order to decrease their suffering, find inner calm, or even attain enlightenment and nirvana, they can follow the magga.” (source) One way is to learn and apply Buddhist principles. In my case I learn and apply techniques that I have learned from a number of sources. I have come a long way, but still have a long way to go. The key is being able to recognize that I am experiencing pain and suffering, and then asking myself what is it that I am attached to that is creating this? It is so often my expectations that set myself up for pain and suffering.
“By themselves, the truths don’t seem like much. But beneath the truths are countless layers of teachings on the nature of existence, the self, life, and death, not to mention suffering. The point is not to just “believe in” the teachings, but to explore them, understand them, and test them against your own experience. It is the process of exploring, understanding, testing, and realizing that defines Buddhism” (source).
As I ventured and volunteered across the globe, I realized how predominant pain and suffering is as a part of the human condition. Instead of being a bad and terrible aspect of life, I came to the realization that pain and suffering is “the great motivator”. We have a choice, to become victim (blame others and succumb) or victor (rise up and take charge of what is in your control). A favorite resource on this topic is Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Even within an extreme case of pain and suffering, the Auschwitz concentration camp, Viktor was able to transcend above this. (By the way, I visited Auschwitz on a volunteer trip to Poland. The experience was incredibly difficult, but ultimately helped me to realize the need for humanity to self-actualize. Self-actualized people typically do not hurt others, but instead help others!).
As I reflect back on the stories of the hundreds of people I met and talked to on my travels, a few stand out as representative of this type of growth and motivation.
KHAYELITSHA TOWNSHIP – South Africa
During my travels to Africa I was fortunate to have volunteered in one of the Townships in South Africa. These were born largely as a result of Apartheid, and housed tens of thousands of native Black South Africans in deplorable conditions including disease, crime, starvation, gangs, shootings and more (massive pain and suffering). It was here that I met and was guided by Sgt. Natawahe, who lived in this township and arranged visits to many of the citizens who lived there (see image below). I was there as a result of my own quest to Self-Actualize by experiencing and understanding the state of humanity around the globe and find ways to help if possible. If it were not an intrinsic motivation, there is no money or reward that would visited such an area so absent of hope and full of despair.
I met a man who went by the name of Michael. When I arrived at his “home” I noticed that his home, a shack, looked like it was hit by a tornado. And there was Michael, crawling around with only one leg putting the pieces back together.
He shared the account of a gang war, which were common events in the Township. In his case, his home and family were in the middle of such a gun fight. It was during this war between gangs that his wife and daughter were both killed. His own leg was lost in the event. Now a few months later, he was putting the pieces of his home together. While my own anger surfaced, I asked him why it appeared that he was so peaceful. He went on to describe that he was driven to make the most out of his life and that this is what his wife and daughter would have wanted. He was driven to work with the gangs in an effort to reduce the violence. The pain and suffering from this event had transformed into a desire to become an agent of change.
I was overwhelmed with how he went from a victim to victor, developing a new purpose for his life without any interest in rewards or recognition. He was intrinsically motivated to make a difference!
Note: This was one of several volunteer efforts abroad that was so overwhelming to process and experience. At one point, a few backpackers staying at the youth hostel where I stayed, asked if they could see the Township. This was approved for one day. Following a day of experiencing situations similar to my visit with Michael, they were noticably anxious and ready to leave. Once we returned to the hostel they went on a several day binge, consuming large amounts of alcohol stating that this experience left them angered and overwhelmed. I too wanted to run away from this experience, but it was my connection that arranged this volunteer event, that reminded me of my own stated purpose, to learn about life around me and help in ways I can. This is one of my more powerful stories that I share in talks about my “Modern Day Vision Quest.”
By the way, a notable story from this experience worth sharing. At the end of my visit to the township, I met with Sgt. Natawahe in his home (picture above). You can see his wife outside doing their laundry while holding their child. He asked about my experience there and I stated that it was overwhelming and VERY eye-opening. However, I felt that offered little to no help since it was so overwhelming. He was shocked to hear this since he felt that the opposite was true, that I made a HUGE difference. He stated that very few people are willing to experience their situation and listen to the difficulties they experience. I sat in tears as he pulled out his only materialistic possession, his electric piano, which he hooked up to an old car battery for power. He played and sang to me which brought me to tears. He was giving me his own gift in return for the help that I provided to his community. I was so overwhelmed by this whole experience, yet learned that just being there with an open heart and mind was considered to be a gift we can all share with others experiencing tough situations!
Camp Good Days & Special Times – Children’s Oncology Camp
Camp Good Days & Special Times is an international camp for children who have cancer. I volunteered in several capacities there. There was a group from Poland that I was working with. They were young teenagers who typically had limbs removed in there fight with cancer. Beata, a 16 year old girl, had her own leg removed and was still receiving treatment. What was so noticeable about Beata was her amazingly positive attitude about her cancer.
Beata spoke openly about her cancer as did most of the other children. Her and the group from Poland made me promise that I would visit them in Poland. I lived up to that promise.
Beata’s family opened their doors so that I could stay with them. It was an incredible experience to experience their life. It was a stark difference from life in America, consisting of a simple approach to life. During the trip I visited all of the kids I worked with at the oncology camp. I was also invited to see experience more of Poland. The most notable side trip was to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp. It provided an up close and personal understanding of the atrocities that millions of people experienced and often died in. Another powerful moving experience that took a while to process.
On the last day of my visit, Beata shared a poem that she had written about her experience with cancer. It was titled, “How Cancer Became My Friend”. It was about her experience with cancer and how it helped her to learn how to live life. She understood the preciousness of life and what was really important. She spent her time with her family, loved ones and friends. She died two years later, losing her battle with cancer, but apparently winning at her life experience!
Once again a tough situation served to reframe her concept of life and how she lived it. She lived life to her fullest and clearly became her own full potential, and at such a young age. Her motivation was all from within. She continues to be an inspiration to me whenever I experience my own challenges. She became one of the many amazing teachers who taught me how to live life and pursue my own self-actualization.
Frankly my life changed significantly as a result of the examples shared here along with hundreds of similar experiences. I returned home following my Modern Day Vision Quest overwhelmed by my experiences that would require several years to process and learn from. My eyes were torn open by my own will to see life for what it is. There were periods of time where I questioned my intention to self-actualize because of the painful and challenging situations that would open up my eyes and heart. But I had already changed significantly on the inside. I would come to recognize the value these experiences had on helping me to grow in my awareness and understanding. There was no going back and the periods of questioning my decision was overshadowed by my intrinsic desire to keep growing and learning.
I had lost interest in those aspects in my life that focused on extrinsic motivation, and instead focused on how I could make a difference. The path was lonely at times since I realized I no longer fit into mainstream America. I felt like I did not fit in anywhere, and as a dear friend stated, I was now a “Man Without a Country”. I settled down and raised a family including adopting one of my children from China. As my son was born and I held him in my arms I realized that I had another key purpose. Following the traumatic childhood I had experienced, I would focus on providing my children with the best love and support I could. I would heal my past by making a difference with my own family. I found ways to adapt to Corporate America which was needed to keep the family financially afloat. It was hard at times since I had no interest in politics yet this was how things largely worked. As an educator and coach, I found a way to help others within the confines of Corporate America.
It was my desire to Self-Actualize in life along with my purpose that kept me going which was purely fueled by intrinsic motivation. The decision to publish a book with my learnings on personal & spiritual growth, and authentic leadership, and more recently using social media, helped me to take actions to hopefully help others with similar aspirations. The knowing that there is meaning to life reminds me that my life experience is worthwhile and to keep growing. There is no turning back now, nor would I want to. The highlights come from events where I learned about life and helped others. The feeling attained from these experiences were beyond any fathomable extrinsic reward. No matter how difficult my journey may be, I keep moving forward using the deep convictions I have now. I have learned to be resilient, courageous, and to persevere.
My words to those who have similar aspirations in life to self-actualize from within is that the journey is the most difficult and challenging jouney you will make in life. It is the journey of finding your way back home after being lost, battled, and bruised. You will most likely learn to leave behind what is cherished in society today for that intrinsic reward of finding meaning and purpose. You will change from the inside out, the best way to make lasting change from the core of our attitude, beliefs, and values. You will also find yourself walking on paths where few others wander, having to grapple with the feeling of loneliness. So why in heck would one want to do this? Because my soul was heard and my life would have been lost as The Call noted. I will conclude my life with an ultimate conviction that I did it. I pursued more of what my soul called rather than what others expected of me. Here is to those who choose to make this journey!
Michael is an award winning author, speaker, facilitator and coach on the topics of Career Coaching, Leadership, Personal Growth & Self-Discovery. Check out “Discovering Michael: An Inspirational Guide to Personal Growth & Self-Discovery” You can also view my latest development book on Leadership, “Leadership From The Inside Out: Building Your Leadership Foundation” which utilizes the concepts covered in this Framework to develop great leaders. Visit my website for more information growhumanpotential.com including links to my YouTube Channel, “The Ripple Effect”, Podcasts and more. You can contact Michael at email@example.com