There's a trend in personal development of constantly striving to better and improve ourselves. Many pop psychology books encourage moving towards the best version of who we are, or who we could become. On the other hand, if we look at literature in transpersonal psychology, such as the works of Stanislav Grof and Michael Washburn, a distinctly different approach emerges. Many transpersonal theorists suggest that the aim of inner work is not necessarily about bettering or improving who we are, but rather coming into alignment with our real self.
Self-growth often emerges in the power struggle between living our personal truth and meeting the outer expectations that surrounds us. A great deal of people regard their accomplishments in the world as indicators of their self-worth, for example. In our modern society, such a viewpoint is favoured, as there's value perceived in ever moving upwards, onto the next visible achievement.
But, what if this upward direction is not the best, or even healthiest, approach to real personal transformation? More importantly, what if the appeal of external accomplishment is at odds with real inner work?
It can seem counter-intuitive to view personal growth as something that isn't linear or clear-cut. Perhaps a part of us thinks that if we're not moving forward then we must be moving backwards. The traditional view of climbing a ladder might come to mind.
Yet, let's consider a different mental image, one reflected in Michael Washburn's work, which represents the unfoldment of self as a spiral. From this perspective, we can see that in life it's often necessary to regress backwards, to expand outwards, or even to ruminate in stasis. These experiences are perfectly acceptable, and can be as nourishing and enriching as chasing achievement.
We are all raised within certain traditions, cultures, and social structures that encourage some aspects of self-expression, while discouraging others. There are many outside expectations that push us along a narrow path in life. Family rules, rigid tradition, and social pressure, to name a few, serve as common examples. These can facilitate personal growth, but they can also hinder it. Sometimes many of these factors work under the guise of offering opportunities for inner development, while actually working to maintain a certain face value or image. Unfortunately, it's easy to get fixed on an idea of who we are as well as the roles we are expected to take on in this life.
An alternative starting point can be considered in terms of the All-Self, a concept sometimes found in transpersonal literature. When we think about life from this perspective, our focus can shift from improving or becoming better, and towards living in alignment with our most authentic self.
Expectations and truth
What would happen if we reflect on our lives from a wildly hypothetical perspective, one in which we never actually needed to live up to a perceived expectation, to please any one person specifically, or to placate convention? Without expectation on our shoulders, we have the opportunity instead to trace back to what we might term the possible ground of experience.
In transpersonal thinking, the Whole-Self, or All-Self, represents the embodiment of all possibilities. Let's visualise this as a hollow circle, with nothing shaded in. As we expand outwards, anything and everything is possible, but nothing quite yet defined.
Most of us, after progressing through schooling earlier in life, have a large portion of this hypothetical circle shaded in, as we move away from the centre of possibilities and towards the margin of probabilities. These pre-set earlier life experiences determine, at least to some degree, the possible scope of our future. Yet, we never actually lose the opportunity to return to the centred state of being, where we can re-discover ourselves anew. It is here that we have the chance to revisit our core nature, which at the heart of things, is limitless.
The phrase "I am that" by Nisargadatta Maharaj calls us to anchor ourselves not in our fleeting identity within the world, but to a more pervading sense of being
This connection with the spectrum of possible arises and is ever present in each human. It is not lost just because we form fixed roles and ideas about who we are in the world. It is always inviting us to re-experience a child-like potential, ever open to all possibilities. That deeper, perennial aspect, is what we might refer to as the true self, or even more boldly, the possible self present, permeating our experience before we construct a more fixed sense of identity and habitual way of being in this world.
If we do not take the time to re-connect with this deeper aspect of ourselves, we may instead encounter its presence in imagination and fantasy. We might visualise what it would be like to be someone else, or to have a different life. For some, vicariously living through the lives of others, fictional or real, can also serve as mechanisms for playing out the spectrum of the possible self.
Yet this core place of inner growth is ever available within us, accessible and approachable. It is well worth our while to dwell in this place of possibility from time to time, rather than always pushing full steam ahead to the "next best thing".
Trajectories and pathfinding
Carl Jung's practice with mandalas, for example, involved exploring the hidden or non-apparent aspects of mind. Spending some time drawing a mandala is one practice that allows us to reflect on how our lives have unfolded, to introspect on what we have learned to value, as well as which opportunities or experiences we might have not embraced along the path. This is an entirely different way of being than that which most of us are used to. We can directly connect with parts of ourselves not quite prominent at the margin of experience, but pervasive on the spectrum of potential.
Likewise, in transcendental meditation practice, we can take a step back from the enmeshment with our own lives, so to speak, and return to this centre of being, where nothing is definite, but all is possible. We can see the paths taken, if you like, and also the possible paths and journeys ahead of us.
There are proactive steps we can take too. These involve deciding to become emotionally and mentally responsible for our own lived experience. One simple technique involves ever questioning the paths we have chosen in life — discovering whether these were guided by outer pressures or by a search for true personal meaning.
From social to personal meaning
Many of the barriers to living out our truth are mere illusions ingrained in tradition, culture, and expectation that we set upon ourselves. It shouldn't be within someone else's power, whether a single person, organisation, or whole society, to dictate the scope by which we live our lives. Yet, so many continue to cave to the immense pressure from these external forces.
These trajectories tend to follow hard historical, cultural, and generational/familial lines in the sand: Paths that have long been walked before us, and will continue to carry the weight of many after us. However, it is absolutely necessary for some of these lines to be broken in the pursuit of discovering who we really are, as we move from enculturation to individuation. We can think of these trajectories as possibilities of self-hood that were decided by generations before us. It's important that we reclaim some of the responsibility for our own lives and meaning, to move past fixed roles and to re-connect with our own truth.
"This – is now my way – where is yours?" thus I answered those who asked me "the way". For the way – it does not exist! – Friedrich Nietzsche
As social beings, we tend to look to each other for ideas about life such as the meaning of freedom, happiness, and success. But the truth is that unless we examine our own unique path, by tracking back to a space of possibilities rather than definites, we ever fall into the trap of structure over substance, or rigid repetition over creative form. Alan Watts reflected on this very problem of identity and society in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity: "A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet".
Imagination and lived experience
The problem of set trajectories is that they narrow the possibilities for the future. As we take one step in life, the margin of future possibilities constricts. It's important to ensure that the steps we walk are not taken along the margin of tradition, societal expectation, or roles that we were prescribed, but are rather taken for our own sake — for the exploration of our own truth. Otherwise, the real self, rather than being embraced, becomes an Idealised Self, never quite attainable due to impossible outer standards.
In our world we lack good mentorship and guidelines for inner pathfinding of this kind. Instead, we're encouraged to be as efficient as possible in finding our role and place within the world of structure, never delving too far into the inner world of imagination and possibilities. Personal growth is often incorrectly measured by outer accomplishment rather than the extent to which we take time for this deeper introspection and nourishment of all parts of ourselves. When we walk the spectrum of possibilities, new trajectories of our inner being can come to form. These new potentials then arise not from outer pressures, but from an inner reservoir of creative potential.
This article is a revised version of an addendum to "Hearts in Transcendence" titled "Trajectories" which was not published
The Emergent Self by Peter Philippson