What is Transcendence? The True Top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Aug 30 · 18 min read

“Man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him.” — Heschel

This post includes Maslow’s writing on transcendence from The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.

Note: You can use these links to read my “Farther Reaches” book summary and deep dives into self-actualization and self-actualizing transcenders.

Post Contents:

  • What is Transcendence?
  • Maslow’s Various Meanings of Transcendence (35 Descriptions)

As always, all quotes are from the author unless otherwise stated, and I’ve added emphasis to quotes in bold.

What is Transcendence?

Here’s the ultimate definition of transcendence from Maslow:

  • “Transcendence refers the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. (Holism in the sense of hierarchical integration is assumed; so also is cognitive and value isomorphism.)”
  • “Transcendence of self — living at the level of Being — is assumed to be most possible for the person with a strong and free identity, i.e., for the self-actualizing person.”

Maslow’s Various Meanings of Transcendence from The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

Sloww Transcendence Infographic Maslow Hierarchy of Needs
Sloww Transcendence Infographic Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

1. “Transcendence in the sense of loss of self-consciousness, of self-awareness, and of self-observing of the adolescent depersonalization type. It is the same kind of self-forgetfulness which comes from getting absorbed, fascinated, concentrated. In this sense, meditation or concentration on something outside one’s own psyche can produce self-forgetfulness and therefore loss of self-consciousness, and in this particular sense of transcendence of the ego or of the conscious self.”

2. “Transcendence in the metaphyschological sense of transcending one’s own skin and body and bloodstream, as in identification with the B-Values so that they become intrinsic to the Self itself.”

3. “Transcendence of time. For example, my experience of being bored in an academic procession and feeling slightly ridiculous in cap and gown, and suddenly slipping over into being a symbol under the aspect of eternity rather than just a bored and irritated individual in the moment and in the specific place. My vision or imagining was that the academic procession stretched way, way out into the future, far, far away, further than I could see, and it had Socrates at its head, and the implication was, I suppose, that many of the people far ahead had been there and in previous generations, and that I was a successor and a follower of all the great academics and professors and intellectuals. Then the vision was also of the procession stretching out behind me into a dim, hazy infinity where there were people not yet born who would join the academic procession, the procession of scholars, of intellectuals, of scientists and philosophers. And I thrilled at being in such a procession and felt the great dignity of it, of my robes, and even of myself as a person who belonged in this procession. That is, I became a symbol; I stood for something outside my own skin. I was not exactly an individual. I was also a ‘role’ of the eternal teacher. I was the Platonic essence of the teacher. This kind of transcendence of time is also true in another sense, namely that I can feel friendly, in a very personal and affectionate way, with Spinoza, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, William James, Whitehead. etc., as if they still lived. Which is to say that in specific ways they do still live. In still another sense, one can transcend time, namely in the sense of working hard for not yet born great-grandchildren or other successors. But this is in the sense in which Allen Wheelis in his novel, The Seeker, had his hero on the point of death thinking that the best thing he could do would be to plant trees for future generations.”

4. “Transcendence of culture. In a very specific sense. the self-actualizing man, or the transcendent self-actualizing man, is the universal man. He is a member of the human species. He is rooted in a particular culture but he rises above that culture and can be said to be independent of it in various ways and to look down upon it from a height, perhaps like a tree which has its roots in the soil but whose branches are spread out very high above and are unable to look down upon the soil in which the roots are rooted. I have written about the resistance to enculturation of the self-actualizing person. One can examine one’s own culture in which one is rooted in a detached and objective way of a certain kind. This parallels the process in psychotherapy of simultaneously experiencing and of self-observing one’s own experience in a kind of critical or editorial or detached and removed way so that one can criticize it, approve or disapprove of it and assume control, and, therefore, the possibility of changing it exists. One’s attitude toward one’s culture, the parts of it which one has consciously accepted, is quite different from the unthinking and blind, unaware unconscious total identification with one’s culture in a nondiscriminating way.”

5. “Transcendence of one’s past. Two attitudes toward one’s past are possible. One attitude may be said to be a transcendent attitude. One can have a B-cognition of one’s own past. That is, one’s own past can be embraced and accepted into one’s present self. This means full acceptance. It means forgiving one’s self because of understanding one’s self. It means the transcendence of remorse, regret, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and the like. This is different from viewing the past as something before which one was helpless, something that happened to one, situations in which one was only passive and completely determined by outside determinants. In a certain sense this is like taking responsibility for one’s past. It means ‘having become an agent as well as now being an agent.’”

6. “Transcendence of ego, self, selfishness, ego-centering, etc., when we respond to the demand-character of external tasks, causes, duties, responsibilities to others and to the world of reality. When one is doing one’s duty, this also can be seen to be under the aspect of eternity and can represent a transcendence of the ego, of the lower needs of the self. Actually, of course, it is ultimately a form of metamotivation, and identification with what ‘calls for’ doing. This is a sensitivity to extrapsychic requiredness. This in turn means a kind of Taoistic attitude. The phrase ‘being in harmony with nature’ implies this ability to yield, to be receptive to, or respond to, to live with extrapsychic reality as if one belonged with it, or were in harmony with it.”

7. “Transcendence as mystical experience. Mystic fusion, either with another person or with the whole cosmos or with anything in between. I mean here the mystical experience as classically described by the religious mystics in the various religious literatures.”

8. “Transcendence of death, pain, sickness, evil, etc., when one is at a level high enough to be reconciled with the necessity of death, pain, etc. From a godlike, or Olympian point of view, all these are necessary, and can be understood as necessary. If this attitude is achieved, as for instance it can be in the B-cognition, then bitterness, rebelliousness, anger, resentment may all disappear or at least be much lessened.”

9. “(Overlaps with above.) Transcendence is to accept the natural world, is to let it be itself in the Taoistic fashion, is the transcendence of the lower needs of the self — that is, of one’s selfish within-the-skin demands, of one’s egocentric judgments upon extrapsychic things as being dangerous or not dangerous, edible or not edible, useful or not useful, etc. This is the ultimate meaning of the phrase ‘to perceive the world objectively.’ This is one necessary aspect of B-cognition. B-cognition implies a transcendence of one’s ego, lower needs, selfishness, etc.”

10. “Transcendence of the We-They polarity. Transcendence of the Zero-Sum game as between persons. This means to ascend up to the level of synergy (interpersonal synergy, synergy of social institutions or of cultures).”

11. “Transcendence of the basic needs (either by gratifying them so that they disappear normally from consciousness, or by being able to give up the gratifications and to conquer the needs). This is another way of saying ‘to become primarily metamotivated.’ It implies identification with the B-Values.”

12. “Identification-love is a kind of transcendence, e.g., for one’s child, or for one’s beloved friend. This means ‘unselfish.’ This means transcendence of the selfish Self. It implies also a wider circle of identifications, i.e., with more and more and more people approaching the limit of identification with all human beings. This can also be phrased as the more and more inclusive Self. The limit here is identification with the human species. This can also be expressed intrapsychically, phenomenologically, as experiencing one’s self to be one of the band of brothers, to belong to the human species.”

13. “All examples of Angyal-type homonomy, either high or low.”

14. “Getting off the merry-go-round. Walking through the abattoir without getting bloody. To be clean even in the midst of filth. To transcend advertising means to be above it, to be unaffected by it, to be untouched. In this sense one can transcend all kinds of bondage, slavery, etc., in the same way that Frankl, Bettelheim, et al. could transcend even the concentration camp situation. Use the example of The New York Times front-page picture in 1933 of an old Jewish man with a beard being paraded before the jeering crowd in Berlin in a garbage truck. It was my impression that he had compassion for the crowd and that he looked upon them with pity and perhaps forgiveness, thinking of them as unfortunate and sick and subhuman. Being independent of other people’s evil or ignorance or stupidity or immaturity even when this is directed toward oneself is possible, though very difficult. And yet one can, in such a situation, gaze upon the whole situation — including oneself in the midst of the situation — as if one were looking upon it objectively, detachedly from a great and impersonal or suprapersonal height.”

15. “Transcending the opinions of others, i.e., of reflected appraisals. This means a self-determining Self. It means to be able to be unpopular when this is the right thing to be, to become an autonomous, self-deciding Self; to write one’s own lines, to be one’s own man, to not be manipulatable or seduceable. These are the resisters (rather than the conformers) in the Asch-type experiment. Resistance to being rubricized, to be able to be role-free, i.e., to transcend one’s role and to be a person rather than being the role. This includes resisting suggestion, propaganda, social pressures, being outvoted, etc.”

16. “Transcending the Freudian superego and coming up to the level of intrinsic conscience, and intrinsic guilt, deserved and suitable remorse, regret, shame.”

17. “Transcendence of one’s own weakness and dependency, to transcend being a child, to become one’s own mother and father to one’s self, to become parental and not only filial, to be able to be strong and responsible in addition to being dependent, to transcend one’s own weakness, and to rise to being strong. Since we always have both of these within us simultaneously, this is really a matter of degree in large part. But after all, it can be said meaningfully, of some individuals, that they are primarily weak, and that they primarily relate to all other human beings as the weak relate to the strong, and that all mechanisms of adaptation, coping mechanisms, defense mechanisms, are the defenses of weakness against strength. It’s the same for dependency and independence. It’s the same for irresponsibility and responsibility. It’s the same for being the captain of the ship, or the driver of the car on the one hand, and of being merely the passenger on the other hand.”

18. “Transcending the present situation in the sense of Kurt Goldstein, ‘to relate to existence also in terms of the possible as well as the actual.’ This is, to rise above being stimulus-bound and here-now situation-bound, and actuality-bound. Goldstein’s reduction to the concrete can be transcended. Perhaps the best phrase here is to rise to the realm of the possible as well as of the actual.”

19. “Transcendence of dichotomies (polarities. black and white oppositions, either-or, etc.). To rise from dichotomies to superordinate wholes. To transcend atomism in favor of hierarchical-integration. To bind separates together into an integration. The ultimate limit here is the holistic perceiving of the cosmos as a unity. This is the ultimate transcendence, but any step along the way to this ultimate limit is itself a transcendence. Any dichotomy may be used as an example; for instance, selfish versus unselfish, or masculine versus feminine, or parent versus child, teacher versus student, etc. All these can be transcended so that the mutual exclusiveness and oppositeness and Zero-Sum game quality is transcended, in the sense of rising above to a higher viewpoint where one can see that these mutually exclusive differences in opposites can be coordinated into a unity which would be more realistic, more true, more in accord with actual reality.”

20. “Transcendence of the D-realm in the B-realm. (Of course this overlaps with every other kind of transcendence. As a matter of fact, they each overlap with each other.)”

21. “Transcendence of one’s own will (in favor of the spirit of ‘not my will be done but Thine’). To yield to one’s destiny or fate and to fuse with it, to love it in the Spinoza sense or in the Taoistic sense. To embrace, lovingly, one’s own destiny. This is a rising above one’s own personal will, being in charge, taking control, needing control, etc.”

22. “The word transcend also means ‘surpass’ in the sense simply of being able to do more than one thought one could do, or more than one had done in the past, e.g., simply to be able to run faster than one used to, or to be a better dancer or pianist, or a better carpenter, or whatever.”

23. “Transcendence also means to become divine or godlike, to go beyond the merely human. But one must be careful here not to make anything extrahuman or supernatural out of this kind of statement. I am thinking of using the word ‘metahuman’ or ‘B-human’ in order to stress that this becoming very high or divine or godlike is part of human nature even though it is not often seen in fact. It is still a potentiality of human nature. To rise above dichotomized nationalism, patriotism, or enthnocentrism, in the sense of ‘them’ against ‘us,’ or of we-they, or Ardrey’s enmity-amity complex. For example, Piaget’s little Genevan boy who couldn’t imagine being both Genevan and Swiss. He could think of being only either Genevan or Swiss. It takes more development in order to able to be more inclusive and superordinate, more integrative. My identification with nationalism, patriotism, or with my culture does not necessarily mitigate against my identification and more inclusive higher patriotism with the human species or with the United Nations. As a matter of fact, such a superordinate patriotism is, of course, not only more inclusive, but therefore more healthy, more fully-human, than the strict localism which is regarded as antagonistic or as excluding others. That is, I can be a good American, and of course must be an American (that’s the culture I grew up in, which I can never shake off and I don’t want to shake off in favor of being a world citizen). Stress that the world citizen who has no roots, who doesn’t belong any place, who is utterly and merely cosmopolitan, is not as good a world citizen as one who grew up in the family, in a place, in a home with a particular language, in a particular culture, and therefore has a sense of belongingness on which to build toward higher need and meta-need levels. To be a full member of the human species does not mean repudiating the lower levels; it means rather including them in the hierarchical integration, e.g., cultural pluralism, enjoying the differences, enjoying different kinds of restaurants with different kinds of food, enjoying travel to other countries, enjoying the ethnological study of other cultures, etc.”

24. “Transcendence can mean to live in the ream of Being, speaking the language of Being, B-cognizing, plateau-living. It can mean the serene B-cognition as well as the climactic peak-experience kind of B-cognition. After the insight or the great conversion, or the great mystic experience, or the great illumination, or the great full awakening, one can calm down as the novelty disappears, and as one gets used to good things or even great things, live casually in heaven and be on easy terms with the eternal and the infinite. To have got over being surprised and startled and live calmly and serenely among the Platonic essences, or among the B-Values. The phrase to use here for contrast with the climactic or emotionally poignant great insight and B-cognition would be plateau-cognition. Peak experiences must be transient, and in fact are transient so far as I can make out. And yet an illumination or an insight remains with the person. He can’t really become naive or innocent again or ignorant again in the same way that he was. He cannot ‘un-see.’ He can’t become blind again. And yet there must be a language to describe getting used to the conversion or the illumination or to living in the Garden of Eden. Such an awakened person normally proceeds in a unitive way in a B-cognizing way as an everyday kind of thing — certainly, whenever he wishes to. This serene B-cognition or plateau-cognition can come under one’s own control. One can turn it off or on as one pleases. The (transient) attainment of full-humanness or of finality or being an end is an example of transcendence.”

25. “The attainment of Taoistic (B-level) objectivity in the transcendence of noninvolved, neutral, noncaring, spectator-type objectivity (which itself transcends the purely egocentric and immature lack of objectivity).”

26. “Transcending — the split between facts and values. Fusion of facts and values in which they become one.”

27. “A transcendence of negatives (which include evil, pain, death, etc., but also include more than that) is seen in the report from the peak experiences in which the world is accepted as good and one is reconciled to the evils that one perceives. But this is also a transcendence of inhibitions, of blocks, of denials, of refusals.”

28. “Transcendence of space. This can be in the very simplest sense of getting so absorbed in something that one forgets where one is. But it can also rise to the very highest sense in which one is identified with the whole human species and therefore in which one’s brothers on the other side of the earth are part of oneself, so that in a certain sense one is on the other side of the earth as well as being here in space. The same is true for the introjection of the B-Values since they are everywhere, and since they are defining characteristics of the self, and one’s self is everywhere too.”

29. “Overlapping with several of the above is the transcendence of effort and of striving, of wishing and hoping, of any vectorial or intentional characteristics. In the simplest sense this is, of course, the sheer enjoyment of the state of gratification, of hope fulfilled and attained, of being there rather than of striving to get there, of having arrived rather than of traveling toward. This is also in the sense of ‘being fortuitous’ or Mrs. Garrett’s use of the phrase, ‘high carelessness.’ It is the Taoistic feeling of letting things happen rather than making them happen, and of being perfectly happy and accepting of this state of nonstriving, nonwishing, noninterfering, noncontrolling, nonwilling. This is the transcendence of ambition, of efficiencies. This is the state of having rather than of not having. Then of course one lacks nothing. This means it is possible to go over to the state of happiness, of contentment, of being satisfied with what is. Pure appreciation. Pure gratitude. The state and the feeling of good fortune, good luck, the feeling of grace, of gratuitous grace. Being in an end-state means the transcendence of means in various senses. But this has to be very carefully spelled out.”

30. “Specially noteworthy for research purposes as well as therapy purposes is to pick out of the special kinds of transcendence, the transcendence of fear into the state of not-fearing or of courage (these are not quite the same thing).”

31. “Also useful would be Bucke’s use of cosmic consciousness. This is a special phenomenological state in which the person somehow perceives the whole cosmos or at least the unity and integration of it and of everything in it, including his Self. He then feels as if he belongs by right in the cosmos. He becomes one of the family rather than an orphan. He comes inside rather than being outside looking in. He feels simultaneously small because of the vastness of the universe, but also an important being because he is there in it by absolute right. He is part of the universe rather than a stranger to it or an intruder in it. The sense of belongingness can be very strongly reported here, as contrasting with the sense of ostracism, isolation, aloneness, of rejection, of not having any roots, of belonging no place in particular. After such a perception, apparently one can feel permanently this sense of belonging, of having a place, of being there by right, etc. (I used this cosmic consciousness type of B-cognition in the peak experience to contrast with another type, namely, that which comes from narrowing down consciousness and zeroing in in an intense and total absorption and fascination with one person or one thing or one happening which somehow then stands for the whole world, the whole cosmos. I have called this the narrowing-down kind of peak experience and B-cognition.)”

32. “Perhaps a special and separate statement ought to be made of transcendence in the particular meaning of introjection of and identification with B-Values, with the state of being primarily motivated by them thereafter.”

33. “One can even transcend individual differences in a very specific sense. The highest attitude toward individual differences is to be aware of them, to accept them, but also to enjoy them and finally to be profoundly grateful for them as a beautiful instance of the ingenuity of the cosmos — the recognition of their value, and wonder at individual differences. This is certainly a higher attitude and I suppose therefore a kind of transcendence. But also, and quite different from this ultimate gratitude for individual differences, is the other attitude of rising above them in the recognition of the essential commonness and mutual belongingness and identification with all kinds of people in ultimate humanness or species-hood, in the sense that everyone is one’s brother or sister, then individual differences and even the differences between the sexes have been transcended in a very particular way. That is, at different times one can be very aware of the differences between individuals; but at another time one can wave aside these individual differences as relatively unimportant for the moment by contrast with the universal humanness and similarities between human beings.”

34. “A particular kind of transcendence useful for certain theoretical purposes is the transcendence of human limits, imperfections, shortcomings, and finiteness. This comes either in the acute end experiences of perfection or in the plateau experiences of perfection, in which one can be an end, a god, a perfection, an essence, a Being (rather than a Becoming), sacred, divine. This can be phrased as a transcendence of ordinary, everyday humanness or metahumanness or some such phrasing. This can be an actual phenomenological state; it can be a kind of cognizing; it can also be a conceived limit of philosophy or ideal — for instance, the platonic essences or ideas. In such acute moments, or to some extent in plateau cognition, one becomes perfect, or can see oneself as perfect, e.g., in that moment I can love all and accept all, forgive all, be reconciled even to the evil that hurts me. I can understand and enjoy the way things are. And I can then even feel some subjective equivalent of what has been attributed to the gods only, i.e., omniscience, omnipotence, ubiquity (i.e., in a certain sense one can become in such moments a god, a sage, a saint, a mystic). Perhaps the best word in order to stress that this part of human nature even though at its best, is the word metahumanness.”

35. “Transcendence of one’s own credo, or system of values, or systems of beliefs. This is worth discussing separately because of the special situation in psychology in which the first force, the second force, and the third force have been seen as mutually exclusive by many. Of course this is erroneous. Humanistic psychology is more inclusive rather than exclusive. It is epi-Freudian and epipositivistic science. These two points of view are not so much wrong or incorrect as they are limited and partial. Their essence fits very nicely into a larger and inclusive structure. Of course integrating them into this larger and more inclusive structure certainly changes them in some ways, corrects them, points to certain mistakes, but yet includes their most essential, though partial, characteristics. There can be the enmity-amity complex among intellectuals, in which loyalty to Freud or to Clark Hull, or for that matter to Galileo or Einstein or Darwin, can be a kind of local excluding-others type of patriotism in which one forms a club or fraternity as much to keep other people out as to include some in. This is a special case of inclusiveness or hierarchical integration or holism, but it is useful to make a special point of it for psychologists, as well as for philosophers, scientists, and intellectual areas where there is a tendency to divide into so-called ‘schools of thought.’ This is to say that one can take either the dichotomous or the integrative attitude toward a school of thought.”

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