The Meaning of Self Realisation – Philosophy & Psychology

Life is a journey of self-realisation, of understanding and discovering who we truly are, and of maximising our potential. While this might be a life long journey, one can be closer or further from one’s true self.

Søren Kierkegaard: The Self

Søren Kierkegaard was a theologian and a philosopher, considered to be the father of existentialism. He also gave us one of the most profound analyses of the human condition, anticipating some of the fundamentals of psychoanalytic theory and pushed beyond that theory to the problem of faith and so to the deepest understanding of man.

He writes the following of the self:

“The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself…”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

Kierkegaard believes that the self must have a relation with the eternal aspect which in turn relates to us, allowing us to achieve “true selfhood”.

Søren Kierkegaard: Despair

The cause of despair is the inability of a person to become a self, as a person lacks something “eternally firm”.

Kierkegaard’s notion of trying to define a self is one of his many ironies, likely intended to produce despair in one who believes he can figure out his self alone. He talks about two types of despair: infinitude’s despair and finitude’s despair.

The infinitude’s despair is the split of self and body, a split in which the self is unanchored, not bound enough to everyday things – the entire person is pulled off balance. Today we call this schizophrenic psychosis. However, he gives a second and more common type of despair:

“But while one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by “the others”. By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself… does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

This is a great characterisation of the herd mentality, those who do not dare stand up for their own meaning because it is too burdensome and dangerous. Better not to be oneself, better to live tucked into others, embedded in a safe framework of social and cultural obligations and duties.

When one has too much finitude, one is built into his world too overwhelmingly. There is not enough freedom for the inner self. This he calls “finitude’s despair”, or what we would call depressive psychosis. The individual cannot imagine any alternate ways of life and cannot release himself from the trivial obligations that give him no value. By surrendering to others and holding on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, he accuses himself – he chooses slavery because it is safe and meaningful, but soon too this loses meaning.

One has then literally died to life but must remain physically in this world, thus the torture of depressive psychosis: to remain steeped in one’s failure and yet to justify it, to continue to draw a sense of worthwhileness out of it.

He writes:

“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing: every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

In the midst of an existential crisis, Kierkegaard wrote the following in his journals:

“What I really want is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals

Søren Kierkegaard: Leap of Faith

Kierkegaard’s truth which he lived and died for was to take a leap of faith. It is not about becoming our self, but rather to stand before God transparently, whose higher self is the only one that can overwhelm our self. The self must be destroyed in order to become a self, it is a question of death and rebirth.

The individual is thus saved from this madness, by his subjective inwardness being related to God, achieving self-transcendence. However, even a religious person is not entirely free from despair, as a true believer must have his faith constantly challenged.

Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud contributed immensely to the notion of self-understanding, he pushed psychoanalytic theory to its limits but didn’t not come out at faith, he emphasised the creatureliness as the lasting insight on human character, mainly through an emphasis on libido (the pleasure principle).

Freud founded psychoanalysis after discovering that many of his patient’s symptoms were the result of unconscious repressions that had to be made conscious in order to cure them. He focused on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people. Many of his followers developed their own ideas, notably Carl Jung’s individuation, which we’ll talk about later on.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are two psychologists who focused, not on psychopathology, but rather on the growth potential of individuals, which also greatly contributed to our understanding of the self.

Carl Rogers: Self-Concept

Carl Rogers talks about the “self-concept”, which we develop from childhood and continues to form and change over time as we learn about ourselves. It is the knowledge of who one is.  A positive self-concept makes one feel good about who they are. The self-concept is divided into self-image, self-esteem and ideal self.

The self-image is the way we see ourselves physically, our social roles and our personality traits. However, the self-image doesn’t always match reality, one may have a more negative view about oneself and others. This ties in with self-esteem, the value we place upon ourselves, which depends on our comparisons to others as well as others’ responses to us. Low self-esteem occurs when we compare ourselves to others and find out that we are not nearly as successful as they are or when people respond negatively to what we do.

Then we have the ideal self, the person you strive to be, while the real self is the person you are. The ideal self is used as a model to assist the real self in developing its potential. However when there is an incongruence, we become neurotic and are unable to develop a more satisfying personality. We may believe that we do not have an ideal self and our real self turns into a despised self.

The self-concept is dependent on the social situations in which we find ourselves, so we must be aware that it might be manipulated according to the feedback we receive from the environment.

Abraham Maslow: Self-Actualisation

Abraham Maslow gave us an important framework to achieving what he calls “self-actualisation”, the realisation of one’s full potential. He writes:

“What a man can be, he must be.”

Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

Self-actualisation is the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be, and this depends on the individual. It is the pinnacle of the hierarchy of needs, which symbolises the human potential and the need for fulfilment.

Before self-actualisation, one must first meet one’s basic needs. Maslow’s motivational theory is best represented by a pyramid, with the more basic needs at the bottom and culminating in self-actualisation.

We start from the basic physiological needs of food, water, warmth, sex and rest – to the safety needs of security, employment, resources, health and property.  These two are important to the survival of the individual, to cover one’s basic nutrition, shelter and safety.

Then we have our psychological needs: belongingness and love (which include our intimate relationship and friends) and the esteem needs (prestige, feeling of accomplishment and recognition). These four levels make up our deficiency needs.

Maslow described human needs as being relatively fluid – with many needs being present in a person simultaneously, rather than being a fixed and rigid sequence of progression. Nevertheless, human needs can only be fulfilled one level at a time.

In his later years, he explored a further dimension of growth needs, while criticising his own vision on self-actualisation. He added the cognitive level (the need for intellectual stimulation), the aesthetic level (the need for harmony, order and beauty) and on top of self-actualisation, he put self-transcendence. This is quite an interesting add-on, which goes back to Kierkegaard’s idea – the spiritual needs that transcend beyond the personal self. He writes:

“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, Farther Reaches of Human Nature

It is the idea of giving oneself to something beyond oneself, this can include mystical experiences, religious faith, altruism, and so on.

We can link the idea of transcendence with Eastern philosophy. Self-realisation has different meanings in western and eastern cultures. With a few exceptions, the West generally has a multitude of definitions of what the “self” is, whereas the predominant view in the East is that the self is an illusory fiction and does not exist in reality.

Eastern philosophy: Buddhism

Buddhism denies the existence of a self, and believes that it represents a series of transient psychological states. Therefore self-realisation is a contradiction in terms.

For Buddhists life is suffering, that is the first noble truth. But this suffering comes from craving, desire and attachment. One must let go of the craving by practising ascetism, in order to liberate oneself from samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth – where one is reborn depending on their karma – it is an aimless drifting in mundane existence.

To liberate oneself, one must engage in a lifelong practise of what is known as the Noble Eightfold path, which includes the activities that allows one to achieve nirvana, the freedom from suffering and rebirth, salvation is the realisation of the “non-self”.

Eastern philosophy: Taoism

Taoism accentuates the falsehood of language. The so-called “Tao”, the essence of life and the universe, or the Way, cannot be described by human language. According to the doctrine of Taoism: “the self is but one of the countless manifestations of the Tao. It is an extension of the cosmos.” Taoism describes the self in the following way:

“The perfect man has no self; the spiritual man has no achievement; the true sage has no name.”

Zhuangzi

The ideal of Taoism, therefore, is the achievement of a lack of self.

Eastern philosophy: Advaita Vedanta

In Advaita Vedanta, literally “non-duality”, a school of Hindu philosophy and spiritual experience, the goal is to gain self-knowledge, and in contrast to Buddhism and Taoism, seeks a complete understanding of one’s true self or  “Atman”, which transcends our physical bodies.

One can do so by understanding the ultimate reality of existence or “Brahman”, understanding that this world is temporal and is entangled in the web of “Maya”, which is the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that this world is real – things that appear present are a result of an illusion of appearance, this includes our ego, the hallmark of self-ignorance.

Carl Jung: The Self

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, describes the self as the totality of one’s personality, composed of our consciousness and the unconscious. The self is superior to the ego since the latter only amounts to the conscious personality. It is important to recognise that the ego is not the centre of our personality.

Jung writes:

“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self… This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned. I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had achieved what was for me the ultimate. Perhaps someone else knows more, but not I.”

Carl Jung “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, VI. Confrontation with the Unconscious

Jung tells us that our psyche can be split into three different realms: consciousness “the field of awareness” where our ego resides, the personal unconscious “that which is unique to each individual but has been forgotten or repressed” and the collective unconscious, which is the deepest part of our unconscious – the inherited and shared psychic material across all humans, it represents universal patterns of emotional and mental behaviour or “archetypes”.

Only being aware of our conscious personality amounts to self-ignorance and illusion of the reality of the self. True self-knowledge comes upon investigating one’s inner world, the unconscious realm. And for Jung, this is the true journey of life.

Carl Jung: Individuation

His central concept of self-realisation revolves around “individuation”. While it occurs naturally as we grow older, this is a mere passive form and we are not conscious of the process.

Jung proposes becoming consciously aware of individuation, through a lifelong process in which the centre of psychological life shifts from the ego to the self, bringing one’s unconscious contents into consciousness. These unconscious contents include the symbolic manifestations of the archetypes. Thus, one gains the knowledge of the timeless patterns of human life.

Jung’s goal is not to strive for perfection, but rather achieve wholeness of personality. Man becomes whole, integrated, calm, fertile, and happy when (and only when) the process of individuation is complete, when the conscious and the unconscious have learned to live at peace and to complement one another.

The most common way to interact with the unconscious is through dreams. Using the symbolic images of dreams, Jung found that the unconscious was conveying crucial information to help the entire psyche reach a balance which the conscious attitude has repressed, in order to reach a psychic equilibrium. This is known as the compensatory role of dreams. It is on such evidence that psychologists assume the existence of an unconscious psyche.

Throughout his life, Jung interpreted around 80.000 dreams and he discovered that they follow a pattern. If one pays attention to one’s dreams over a long period of time, one will see that certain contents emerge, disappear, and then turn up again. This slow process of psychic growth is the process of individuation.

Some of the common archetypes include: the trickster, the hero, the wise old man, and the great mother – these are not only present in dreams, but are represented throughout human history and mythology.

Modern man believes that he can control himself, but self-control is a rare virtue. Jung writes:

“The one thing we refuse to admit is that we are dependent upon “powers” that are beyond our control.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I “Approaching the Unconscious”

Carl Jung: Shadow & Persona

An important archetype is the shadow, which Jung calls the “unknown dark side of the personality”, it is that which contains the hidden, repressed and unfavourable aspect of one’s personality. We deny the existence of all the things we despise in ourselves, while attributing them to others.

However, it is not only our negative aspects which we repress, but also our positive aspects, such as honesty, creativity and competitiveness, which must be rescued from within our shadow.

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”

Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East

Moreover, one cannot individuate as long as one is playing a role to oneself. The persona is the mask which conceals one’s true self, presenting oneself as different to who one really is. This makes it particularly difficult to interact with the unconscious. We may perhaps become likeable to others, but it is at the cost of our own mental stability.

This is all the more dangerous when one is not aware of this social mask and confuses it with one’s true self. As we please others with our false self, it leaves negative traits that contradict our real self, making us a passive victim of our shadow.

It must be us who integrates our shadow, and not the other way around. This can be done through shadow-work, the practise which includes self-awareness, watching one’s emotional reactions, being radically honest and investigating one’s dreams.

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the “thorn in the flesh” is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12 “Psychology and Alchemy”


Journey to Self Realisation – Psychology & Philosophy

Life is a journey of self-realisation, of understanding and discovering who we truly are, and of maximising our potential. While this might be a life long journey, one can be closer or further from one’s true self.

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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Self Realisation – Philosophy & Psychology

  1. Thank you for this. I latched onto Jung and eastern philosophy around mid-life and have come to understand things a little better through his lens. I’m lately exploring Vedanta and western idealism and finding some insights in that, but there’s such a wide history of thought and ideas I’ve barely touched on. Really enjoy reading your blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

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