Abraham Maslow, Transpersonal Psychology, and self-Transcendence

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) founded the Association for Humanistic Psychology in 1959 and, then, going a quantum jump further, established the Association for Transpersonal Psychology in 1969. He achieved both endeavors with the help of his colleague Anthony Sutich, with whom he helped edit the academic journals for both associations, The J. of Humanistic Psychology and the J. of Transpersonal Psychology.

During this time Maslow was a professor at Brandeis University from 1951 to 1969, and then a resident fellow of the Laughlin Institute in California until his untimely death from heart disease in 1970 at the age of 62.

Maslow, born of uneducated Jewish immigrant parents from Russia, grew up in Brooklyn before going on to attend City University of New York, then graduate school in psychology at Univ. of Wisconsin and Columbia University. He became a very original thinker, interested in taking psychology beyond its first "two forces," Freudian theory and Behaviorism, and their obsession with psycho-pathology. He thus called his Humanistic Psychology the "third force" and Transpersonal Psychology the "fourth force" in the field of psychology.

Humanistic Psychology wants to examine what is really right with people, rather than just what is wrong with them. That is to say, it wants to focus on psychological health and well-being rather than merely on mental-emotional-behavioral disorders.

Going much further, Transpersonal Psychology is interested to explore extreme wellness or optimal well-being. It is interested in those cases of persons who have often or perhaps permanently expanded their "normal sense of identity" to include the supra- or trans-personal, the Self of all selves, the One underlying the Many. Transpersonal Psychology explicitly acknowledges and makes use of the profound spiritual psychologies of the Great Traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, mystic Christianity, Judaism and Muslim Sufism), as well as new insights and methods in the human potential and consciousness-expanding movements.

Maslow articulated such key concepts as “self-actualization” (development of one’s capacities) for Humanistic Psychology, then exceeded it with his Transpersonal Psychology ideal of “self-transcendence” (full spiritual awakening or liberation from egocentricity), along with the notion of “peak experiences” (and “plateau living”).

Maslow is also famous for positing a hierarchy of human needs, ranging from “deficiency needs” or “D-needs” (i.e., needs for safety, nourishment, love, belonging, respect, self-esteem, etc.—the lack of which can lead to neurosis or psychosis) up to higher Being-needs, or “B-needs” (the need to engage in meaningful, helpful work and service, to promote justice, to creatively express oneself, to find spiritual fulfillment and self-transcendence in realizing what is True, Beautiful, Good—the lack of which can lead to “metapathologies”).

Human history is a record of the ways in which human nature has been sold short. The highest possibilities of human nature have practically always been underrated. Even when 'good specimens,' the saints and sages and great leaders of history have been available for study, the temptation too often has been to consider them not human but supernaturally endowed…. If we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, value growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our most moral, ethical, or saintly people.” — Abe Maslow.

Here below are excerpts from Maslow's landmark 1969 article, “Theory Z” (re-printed in Maslow's basic text on Transpersonal Psychology, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, NY: Viking, 1972):


Abraham Maslow:

I have recently found it more and more useful to differentiate between two kinds (or better, degrees) of self-actualizing people, those who were clearly healthy, but with little or no experiences of transcendence, and those in whom transcendent experiencing was important and even central…. I find not only self-actualizing people who transcend, but also nonhealthy people, non-self-actualizers who have important transcendent experiences. …

[Transcenders] may be said to be much more often aware of the realm of Being (B-realm and B-cognition), to be living at the level of Being… to have unitive consciousness and “plateau experience” (Asrani [serene and contemplative B-cognitions rather than climactic ones]) … and to have or to have had peak experience (mystic, sacral, ecstatic) with illuminations or insights or cognitions which changed their view of the world and of themselves, perhaps occasionally, perhaps as a usual thing. It may fairly be said of the “merely-healthy” self-actualizers that, in an overall way, they fulfill the expectations of [Douglas] McGregor’s Theory Y [which holds, beyond industrialized society’s idea of Theory X that people are inherently lazy, that people actually do want to work, contributte and achieve]. But of the individuals who have transcended self-actualization we must say that they have not only fulfilled but also transcended or surpassed Theory Y. They live at a level which I shall here call Theory Z.

1. For transcenders, peak experiences and plateau experiences become the most important things in their lives….

2. They speak more easily, normally, naturally, and unconsciously the language of Being (B-language), the language of poets, of mystics, of seers, of profoundly religious men….

3. They perceive unitively or sacrally (i.e., the sacred within the secular), or they see the sacredness in all things at the same time that they also see them at the practical, everyday D-level….

4. They are much more consciously and deliberately metamotivated. That is, the values of Being…, e.g., perfection, truth, beauty, goodness, unity, dichotomy-transcendence, B-amusement, etc. are their main or most important motivations.

5. They seem somehow to recognize each other, and to come to almost instant intimacy and mutual understanding even upon first meeting….

6. They are more responsive to beauty. This may turn out to be rather a tendency to beautify all things… or to have aesthetic responses more easily than other people do….

7. They are more holistic about the world than are the “healthy” or practical self-actualizers… and such concepts as the “national interest” or “the religion of my fathers” or “different grades of people or of IQ” either cease to exist or are easily transcended….

8. [There is] a strengthening of the self-actualizer’s natural tendency to synergy—intrapsychic, interpersonal, intraculturally and internationally…. It is a transcendence of competitiveness, of zero-sum of win-lose gamesmanship.

9. Of course there is more and easier transcendence of the ego, the Self, the identity.

10. Not only are such people lovable as are all of the most self-actualizing people, but they are also more awe-inspiring, more “unearthly,” more godlike, more “saintly”…, more easily revered….

11. … The transcenders are far more apt to be innovators, discoverers of the new, than are the healthy self-actualizers… Transcendent experiences and illuminations bring clearer vision of the B-Values, of the ideal, …of what ought to be, what actually could be, … and therefore of what might be brought to pass.

12. I have a vague impression that the transcenders are less “happy” than the healthy ones. They can be more ecstatic, more rapturous, and experience greater heights of “happiness” (a too weak word) than the happy and healthy ones. But I sometimes get the impression that they are as prone and maybe more prone to a kind of cosmic sadness or B-sadness over the stupidity of people, their self-defeat, their blindness, their cruelty to each other, their shortsightedness… Perhaps this is a price these people have to pay for their direct seeing of the beauty of the world, of the saintly possibilities in human nature, of the non-necessity of so much of human evil, of the seemingly obvious necessities for a good world…. Any transcender could sit down and in five minutes write a recipe for peace, brotherhood, and happiness, a recipe absolutely within the bounds of practicality, absolutely attainable. And yet he sees all this not being done… No wonder he is sad or angry or impatient at the same time that he is also “optimistic” in the long run.

13. The deep conflicts over the “elitism” that is inherent in any doctrine of self-actualization—they are after all superior people whenever comparisons are made—is more easily solved—or at least managed—by the transcenders than by the merely healthy self-actualizers. This is made possible because they … can sacralize everybody so much more easily. This sacredness of every person and even of every living thing, even of nonliving things … is so easily and directly perceived in its reality by every transcender that he can hardly forget it for a moment.

14. My strong impression is that transcenders show more strongly a positive correlation—rather than the more usual inverse one—between increasing knowledge and increasing mystery and awe…. For peak-experiencers and transcenders in particular, as well as for self-actualizers in general, mystery is attractive and challenging rather than frightening. … I affirm … that at the highest levels of development of humanness, knowledge is positively, rather than negatively, correlated with a sense of mystery, awe, humility, ultimate ignorance, reverence, and a sense of oblation [surrender to the Divine].

15. Transcenders, I think, should be less afraid of “nuts” and “kooks” than are other self-actualizers, and thus are more likely to be good selectors of creators (who sometimes look nutty or kooky). … To value a William Blake type takes, in principle, a greater experience with transcendence and therefore a greater valuation of it…. A transcender should also be more able to screen out the nuts and kooks who are not creative, which I suppose includes most of them.

16. …Transcenders should be more “reconciled with evil” in the sense of understanding its occasional inevitability and necessity in the larger holistic sense, i.e., “from above,” in a godlike or Olympian sense. Since this implies a better understanding of it, it should generate both a greater compassion with it and a less ambivalent and a more unyielding fight against it….

17. … Transcenders … are more apt to regard themselves as carriers of talent, instruments of the transpersonal, temporary custodians so to speak of a greater intelligence or skill or leadership or efficiency. This means a certain peculiar kind of objectivity or detachment toward themselves that to nontranscenders might sound like arrogance, grandiosity or even paranoia…. Transcendence brings with it the “transpersonal” loss of ego.

18. Transcenders are in principle (I have no data) more apt to be profoundly “religious” or “spiritual” in either the theistic or nontheistic sense. Peak experiences and other transcendent experiences are in effect also to be seen as “religious or spiritual” experiences….

19. … Transcenders, I suspect, find it easier to transcend the ego, the self, the identity, to go beyond self-actualization. … Perhaps we could say that the description of the healthy ones is more exhausted by describing them primarily as strong identities, people who know who they are, where they are going, what they want, what they are good for, in a word, as strong Selves… And this of course does not sufficiently describe the transcenders. They are certainly this; but they are also more than this.

20. I would suppose… that transcenders, because of their easier perception of the B-realm, would have more end experiences (of suchness) than their more practical brothers do, more of the fascinations that we see in children who get hypnotized by the colors in a puddle, or by the raindrops dripping down a windowpane, or by the smoothness of skin, or the movements of a caterpillar.

21. In theory, transcenders should be somewhat more Taoistic, and the merely healthy somewhat more pragmatic. B-cognition makes everything look more miraculous, more perfect, just as it should be. It therefore breeds less impulse to do anything to the object that is fine just as it is, less needing improvement, or intruding upon. …

22. … “Postambivalen[ce].” …Total wholehearted and unconflicted love, acceptance, … rather than the more usual mixture of love and hate that passes for “love” or friendship or sexuality or authority or power, etc.

23. [Transcenders are interested in a “cause beyond their own skin,” and are better able to “fuse work and play,” “they love their work,” and are more interested in “kinds of pay other than money pay”; “higher forms of pay and metapay steadily increase in importance.”] Mystics and transcenders have throughout history seemed spontaneously to prefer simplicity and to avoid luxury, privilege, honors, and possessions. …

24. I cannot resist expressing what is only a vague hunch; namely, the possibility that my transcenders seem to me somewhat more apt to be Sheldonian ectomorphs [lean, nerve-tissue dominated body-types] while my less-often-transcending self-actualizers seem more often to be mesomorphic [muscular body-types] (… it is in principle easily testable).

[Maslow concludes:] I have found approximately as many transcenders among businessmen, industrialists, managers, educators, political people as I have among the professionally “religious,” the poets, intellectuals, musicians, and others who are supposed to be transcenders and are officially labeled so…. Any minister will talk transcendence even if he hasn’t got the slightest inkling of what it feels like. And most industrialists will carefully conceal their idealism, their metamotivations, and their transcendent experiences under a mask of “toughness,” “realism,” “selfishness”… Their more real metamotivations are often not repressed but only suppressed, and I have sometimes found it quite easy to break through the protective surface by very direct confrontations and questions.