"Self-actualization is only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence." (Frankl, 2014)
While it is true that our meaning in life exists and unfolds within our own individual existence, I love the point Frankl makes in suggesting that it is better realized through self-transcendence.
Basically, those who strive to be better, who search for purpose and for the unfolding of their higher Self, are engaged in a process that has been termed “self-actualization”. This term, however, as well as many philosophical teachings that accompany it, can be inherently misleading. To discover who we are, what we are meant for, our purpose, it is very easy to get lost in an endless stream of self-centred analyzation and insight. Or if this is not your problem, then there is an alternative and equally unhelpful state of being at a loss for any insight at all. Both of these misdirected states can lead to some kind of “existential vacuum”, as Frankl puts it. By understanding self-actualization as a by-product of self-transcendence, we can begin to get out of our mind’s futile search for a magical “end all be all” purpose, and direct our awareness toward the actual life material that can serve as fuel for true enlightenment.
The very term “self-actualization” tempts one toward a very ego-centric view of life’s purpose. To really become self-actualized, however, we need to get out of our own heads (which according to many eastern philosophies are really just extensions of the material world anyway) and into the world. To loosely quote Frankl, “Life is not about what we ask of the world, but about what the world, through our current situation, is asking of us”. Every circumstance we encounter in life is an opportunity to expose meaning and purpose. Every question life asks, every task it presents, is an opportunity for us to come up with new answers, new insights. Every challenge overcome or joy fully known creates new growth and a more evolved understanding of what it means to live. Therefore, rather than turning the wheels within over and over to try to understand ourselves, perhaps self-actualization is better realized by living in the moment, and asking yourself how you can be of greatest service, connect as deeply as possible to the place or the people around you, or carry the burden of current unavoidable suffering with as much purpose and grace as you can creatively imagine.
It’s important to acknowledge that the goal of self-actualization is finding your meaning with respect to your place in the world. How do you fit into “the world”, why are you here? This is a different question than: What are you / what is your truest essence of being? To confuse and combine these two concepts into one question will result in a kind of neurosis disguised as eager, well-intentioned spiritual pursuit. Often, as spiritual philosophers in search of meaning, we innocently jump right to the latter question, trying to comprehend our deepest truth - who and what we are – without first embarking on our worldly path, fully living and learning about ourselves through the experiences life has to offer us. There is a level above self-actualization, in which this deeper truth becomes apparent, where one’s even truer meaning is found. With this being said, the spiritual process seems more like: 1)self-transcendence, which produces 2) self-actualization, which then leads you to 3) an even higher state of self-transcendence or, true enlightenment. However, to reach directly for this enlightenment without first experiencing the necessary steps to get there, creates a journey troubled by misguided ego-centric crises.
In short, before being completely free of the world, you must first find your place in it. Instead of asking yourself what it all means or what’s the point of it all, open your eyes to what’s around you, and ask yourself where you can find utmost purpose, today.
Frankl, V. E. (2014) Man's Search For Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press