Transcending the self as individual

“To transcend is to exist outside of the limitations imposed by our perception of time… (and) to be able to perceive existence as something greater than the self.” (“The art of not doing”, 2021)

The limitations of our physical bodies – “trapped” in time (or our perception of how it flows) – lead us to rely on our senses and cognitive abilities to understand and define our selves and the world around us. 

In most cases, the sense of self grows as our mental faculties mature. In the womb, the sense of self is at its most limited, at least in terms of what is physically perceivable. From birth, this extends from our bodies and limbs to our immediate surroundings, our parents or caregivers, siblings, closest relatives and friends, gradually growing outwards as our social sphere expands.

At the same time, we also become more conscious of the self as distinct from the consciousness of others. The notion that we were once physically connected to our mothers inside the womb is replaced by a sense of “otherness” as soon as the umbilical cord is severed. 

We become individuals. 

From youth, we are faced with questions of identity – as individuals and as members of a social construct – and most of us learn to define who we are by

  • what we have (be it material, social, or intellectual property) and what is around us (including the social, cultural, and political environment we live in)
  • what we do* and our achievements (*including activities and pursuits determined by our beliefs, values, likes and interests, social relations, and so on)

Both are very closely connected and influence one another, and the effect on our sense of self is mutually reinforcing.

The Modern Age, starting with the Enlightenment and growth of Humanism (in the West), followed by the expansion in trade and the discovery of “new worlds”, led to competition for resources, which in turn led to colonial expansion and imperialism. Advances in technologies of production led to the Industrial Revolution, which in turn led to even greater competition for resources and the need to increase productivity. 

In a world driven by competition and measured by productivity and achievement, the dominant paradigm of what a “meaningful” existence is has been defined by the need to “do” things, to achieve, to be the best.

But this competitive, achievement-driven paradigm has led to a growing disparity between the “haves” and “have nots”, as well as competing ideologies of the right ways to “do” things, organise social, economic, and political institutions, and so on.

A competitive paradigm (to have more, to achieve more, to be more, etc) focussing only on the self and on individual rights has led to a culture of self-righteousness as self-entitled individuals assert their rights and privileges, often at the expense of the rights and privileges of others, especially those who do not have the means or opportunity to do so. 

The disparities between the privileged and the billions of underprivileged who are struggling to survive have become all the more acute in a world of information sharing and ubiquitous social media. 

A redefinition of the self is necessary. 

What does it mean to be an individual, and what does our collective humanity really mean?

We cannot continue to focus only on our respective ideologies of what we believe to be the right way to live. By focusing only on the self – at the expense of our collective humanity – we risk becoming self-absorbed and egocentric individuals who are unable to – or refuse to – see things from others’ perspectives or recognise the rights of those who are different, leading to a world of conflicting views, intolerance, xenophobia, and irreconcilable ideologies. 

A self-centred paradigm focussing on competition and achievement could also lead to stress and anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, fears of failure, and depression. 

What we need instead is a way to transcend the self as individual, and to embrace our common collective humanity. 

“No man is an island,” writes John Donne. Not only are we interdependent, our existence becomes all the more meaningful when conceived as a living tradition of a collective consciousness. 

Featured image: Bayon, 2016, after a photo I took in 2006, acrylic (with genuine lapis lazuli and Italian terre verte) on canvas,40 x 40 cm

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