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August 16, 2010

self-actualizationSelf-actualization is a term that gained currency in our culture about half a century ago.  At first blush the concept appears benign enough: it appears to do no more than to reflect our innate drive to achieve our full potential, to bring to fruition our unique capacity for human flourishing,  Hence the dictionary definition: the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, esp. considered as a drive or need in everyone. (The New Oxford American Dictionary)

    The self-actualizing tendency would seem to be ideally suited for life in societies structured around competition.  Here, though, a different picture begins to emerge.  Is the so-called self-actualizer pursuing a path of inborn possibilities, or is s/he unwittingly bending to cultural imperatives that lead to loneliness and isolation?  The “promise” of self-actualization is slippery indeed, if in fact the search for one’s direction in life culminates in the exclusion of other people and the refusal of the mystery as it manifests itself in all dimensions and spheres of one’s existence.  Adrian van Kaam portrays self-actualizers as those who believe “they should follow their own inclinations and give form to their lives in absolute transcendent freedom . . . free from any implicit or explicit form tradition.”  (Formative Spirituality, Volume I, p. 53)  Personal freedom is paramount for the self-actualizer.  Van Kaam continues:

. . . anything which strikes people as a meaningful directive for their own life is, in and by itself, automatically meaningful  for their self-actualization.  The formation direction for their life receives its validity exclusively from their own subjective experience.  This autonomous self-experience transcends all vital, functional, social, cultural, and religious directives, as  well as all form traditions.  (Ibid.)

    The spiritual traditions of humanity say something different: We cannot do it by ourselves!  Human flourishing is not an individual project but the flowering within a person of the transcendent directives offered in common to adherents yet lived out faithfully and in community by the individual adherent.  Over and over again in the literature of spirituality we read about the need for grace to assist us in our aspiration to become who we most deeply are.  Alone—on our own—we are insufficient, and incomplete.  By nature we are made to require the integrity and wholeness that are available to us only through prayer and repentance and spiritual communion.  Thomas a Kempis declared his need for God: “Lord, I have great need of your grace,” and prayed accordingly in The Imitation of Christ:

O Lord, by seeking myself

I lost you

and myself as well.

Now in seeking you again,

I have found both myself

and you.

Similarly, Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle can be read as a progressive account of relinquishing one’s autonomy at every stage of spiritual development in favor of living more and more in obedience to what God is prepared to give the soul now for its most beneficial nourishment and for its ultimate union with God.  Although one does not give up working and doing one’s part to cooperate with grace, it is clear that for Teresa the greater work lies in submitting one’s will to God’s will so that the personal will gradually  becomes a “love-will,” a greater expression of God’s life in the soul.

          Contemporary expressions of need and personal insufficiency can also be found.  In particular, “Reflection,” a poem by Franz Wright, resonates with images of sinfulness in Teresa of Avila’s dwelling places of The Interior Castle:  (Quoted in full)

I wear this small fish hook

of crucifix


how it helps

keeps the head weighted


down with same, with

the glory

and shame

Right here

it hangs,


the heart’s

hidden room


a table stand

set for me


a dark bar

(no more

that pointless horror)


for two: one

invisible host

and the guest

who is anyone


thirsting and


and meeting himself

for the first

time, the maggot


in the mirror

there at

the bottom

of the


chalice ―

In one of her very short, short stories, “Examples of Remember,” Lydia Davis offers: “Remember that thou art but dust.”

    If the Judeo-Christian tradition puts autonomous self formation in question, Eastern spiritual traditions question the very notion of a substantial “self.”  In short, there is no self to actualize.  According to Kosho Uchiyama, to take but one example:

Actually there is no I existing as some substantial thing; there is only the ceaseless flow.  This is true not only of me, it is true of all things.  In Buddhism, this truth is the first undeniable reality, that all things are flowing and changing,… and that all things are insubstantial….  (Furthermore) our attachment to our self as though it were a substantial being is a source of our greed, anger, suffering, and strife.  It is crucial that we reflect thoroughly on the fact that our self does not have a substantial existence; rather, it has an interdependent existence.  (Opening the  Hand of Thought, pp. 99-100)

In Volume four of his series Formative Spirituality, Adrian van Kaam writes, “Spiritual formation is thus understood as a universal graced possibility of human life.”  If we understand the unfolding of our human potential to be “an intimate participation in an all-pervasive mystery of formation and transformation” . . . it follows that “formation by the mystery is not a facet of self-actualization or human development.  Rather it is a way of intimacy with a mystery that forms us.” (p. 114-115)

    Our current notions of progress are prone to derail authentic spiritual advancement, which has much more to do with the inner life than with outer circumstances relating to profit and gain.  We would do well to remember that the “pilgrim’s progress” was about the soul’s enrichment in virtue, i.e. spiritual growth, not in the illusion of self-betterment, material enhancement, and worldly success.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.