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What is Self-Transcendence?

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What is Self-Transcendence? ~ Melanie Fawcett

What pathways can take us to peak experiences? Are those experiences part of the Zen pathway?

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.

Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1971
Music and Video as Pathways to Peak Experiences  

There is something special about running for me. I remember running as a kid. I felt awkward in just about every way, as if I was somehow destined to be a social outcast, with almost crippling social anxiety at school. But when I started to run, it was as if the shackles of self-consciousness fell off and I knew freedom. Or more specifically, I knew the feeling of freedom. It was brief. Reality would always return.

But, for those singular moments when my legs would gain speed and every part of my body would move further and further forward, gaining momentum – I knew what it was to feel connected to all, connected to my true self, connected to nature, connected to something bigger than what I thought of as me.

At the time, I had no language to explain those feelings. That came many years later, when in my PHD research I stumbled upon Maslow’s famous definition of transcendence. And then, my research obsession with self-actualisation, self-transcendence, and self-transcendent media experiences began.

Can you remember a time when a song, or a lyric, or a melody has taken your breath away? Perhaps you were at a live venue? Maybe you were at the gym? Maybe you were listening to something new with someone special, or maybe you discovered a new song on YouTube?

Maybe it was a moment you were alone, but in deep connection with the music, you suddenly found yourself transported, in awe, and connected instantly to something bigger, beyond your normal sense of self?

From media psychology research, this experience is what we might call a Self-Transcendent Media Experience.

Maslow was known in his early work to talk of self-actualisation; the Hierarchy of Needs gave us a model for how humans can understand our own needs, and in what order and ways we fulfil them. In his later work, Maslow went beyond the ideas of self-actualisation at the top of the Hierarchy of Needs pyramid and spoke to a higher level of self-transcendence. This higher level considered that we are not just on a journey to discover our own selves, and that beyond that is a human need and capability to have meaning in our lives for others, to transcend the needs of self and to truly serve in altruistic ways, for the benefit of all.

The Self-Transcendent Media Experience gives us a brief glimpse into the thoughts and emotions of that level of connectedness, where through games, music, social media, or video, we experience an altruistic connectedness with all beings. Through that connection, we feel inspired beyond ourselves, we want to do better, and may even change our thoughts and behaviours in the service of others.

For example, watching a powerful video on social media about the social and environmental consequences of eating meat may prompt someone to change their diet, having been so impacted by the media, they experience a new level of awareness through which they now think and feel. Initial research shows that these types of peak experiences have the ability to affect our thoughts and feelings in ways we are just beginning to understand. As we know on the pathway of Zen training, our learning may happen in very small moments, or it may come in a rush of new understanding whereby it seems that the world just got a lot more beautiful and magical than it seemed yesterday.

So why do these experiences matter as we navigate a world with so many social issues that we must consider? Is it possible that these types of experiences have the potential to heal our own traumas, to connect us to others, to see the world with more empathy and compassion? And how can we as students of Zen embrace and embody these experiences as part of our own practices and understanding?

To truly answer that question with data, we need more research in the area.

However, what can we do in our daily Zen practices so that we can become instruments of change in our own worlds through peak experiences that open our lens? How can our own self-actualisation become self-transcendence? And when it does, how can we use those experiences to be in service beyond ourselves?

I don’t have any answers, but I think when we ask the questions together, we are getting much closer to finding out what questions to ask next.


Melanie Fawcett is a writer, researcher, film maker and educator. She completed her first Zen Leader program in 2021.



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Published on Jul 07 2022