Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?

As the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) measure it, "self-transcendence" is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness; transpersonal identification; and acceptance.

First, self-forgetfulness. This is the proclivity for becoming so immersed in an activity that the boundary between self and other seems to fall away. Whether the activity is sports, painting, playing a musical instrument, we might sometimes lose ourselves in it, and the sense of being a separate independent self takes a vacation.

Second, transpersonal identification. This is recognizing oneself in others -- and others in oneself. If you have ever found yourself looking at another person -- or another being -- with a feeling that you are that other, their body embodies you -- or if you have looked at yourself with a sense that your being embodies others -- then you have experienced transpersonal identification.

Spirituality involves connecting with the world's suffering and apprehending that suffering as our very own. The sentiment, "there but for the grace of God go I," can be a start toward a compassionate response. Transpersonal identification goes further. It's not that grace saves you from the unfortunate circumstances others endure. Nothing saves you because, in fact, you are not saved from those circumstances. If anyone is hungry, then you are hungry, for the hungry are you. That's transpersonal identification.

Third, acceptance. This is the ability to accept and affirm reality just as it is, even the hard parts, even the painful and tragic parts. Spiritually mature people are in touch with the suffering of the world, yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection.

"Acceptance" does not mean complacency about oppression, injustice and harm. Indeed, the spiritually mature are also often the most active and the most effective in working for peace and social justice. They are energized to sustain that work because they can accept reality just as it is, even as they also work to change it. Because they are not attached to results of their work, they avoid debilitating disappointment and burn-out and are able to maintain the work for justice cheerfully. Because they find joy in each present moment, they avoid recrimination and blame ("Those evil oppressors!") They see that blame merely recapitulates the very reactivity that is at the root of oppression.

Add together the scores for self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. The sum is the self-transcendence – or spirituality -- score.

Would you want to grow or change toward being the sort of person whose scores in these areas were higher?

Answer carefully, because there are trade-offs.

Cloninger says self-transcendence is disadvantageous in most modern societies where idealism, modesty, and meditative search for meaning might interfere with the acquisition of wealth and power. People who are low in self-transcendence, Cloninger finds, are described by themselves and others as practical, self-conscious, materialistic, and controlling. These are people well adapted in most Western societies because of their rational objectivity and materialistic success.

So maybe, like Otto Ringling, you have all the spiritual development you’re inclined to want.

Or maybe not.

Those low in self-transcendence may be geared for materialistic success, but they consistently have difficulty accepting and adjusting to suffering, loss of control, personal and material losses, and death. When people are confronted with these bombs that explode the long-crafted illusions of control and success, as we all inevitably will be if we live very long, self-transcendence then is, as the psychologist Cloninger puts it, “adaptively advantageous.”

If living in peace in the midst of tragedy, without shutting out the tragedy, is what you’d like to be able to do, then cultivating spirituality might be, for you, worth the disadvantage that you’ll be less interested in acquisition of wealth and power.

* * *
This is part 4 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 3: "The Class Atheist"
Part 5: "But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

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