Fewer Better Things No. 75

Musings on Self-Actualization

Almost every day looks like this: blue sky, sunshine, soft swells, slight breeze, and only locals on the beach that I call my backyard. Photo: Per Håkansson.

It’s fall equinox this week and I’m experiencing a shift both in the air and water temperatures. The warm, very often marine-layered summer mornings have been replaced by a fresh clear blue sky, early morning crispy air, and water about 10°F degrees cooler than the peak of 72°F in mid-August.

Californian coastal living, as it’s referred to here, is the best in the fall for all those reasons and many more. The days are only two hours shorter compared to summer solstice, the weather is consistently sunny and warm, the swells are bigger, beaches are almost empty, and soon the wind will shift from onshore to offshore thanks to the Santa Ana wind from the desert. Ideal circumstances for surfing and living well.

Many of the surfers around here use their spring neoprene wetsuit all year around but I’ve found that a vest during the summer and fall, and the full wetsuit during winter and spring is the most optimal. But water and air temperature is not the only criteria, the sun plays an important role too. A full suit protects the skin much better from the sun, something I need to compensate with plenty of daily suntan lotion.

This week I’ve been reflecting on the differences and similarities between spirituality and self-actualization. I find that they are often interchangeable in conversations I’m having with people on personal growth. The quest and embodiment of enlightenment seems to have become the new status symbol, like a Porsche was during the 80s.

And there is a whole new industry – wellness, I think it’s called – that is providing seekers with new material attributes, tools, and nutritional supplements to “guide” the journey. Evidently, spirituality is better enjoyed in a pair of yoga pants and a room reeking with aromatic essence than just being alive in nature.

“The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.”Oliver Sacks, from his last book “Everything in Its Place”

But I digress, so let me share a few thoughts on spirituality and self-actualization. Spirituality means to be interested in the human soul over material things. To many it’s our eternal being that might or might not keep living after our bodies have officially died. Many times spirituality is associated with the universe as opposite to organized religions. If there is a God, he/she exists within.

Self-actualization is, as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what’s available to us all once we have satisfied our needs for survival, safety, love, and self-esteem. Kurt Goldstein, who originally introduced the concept, viewed self-actualization as “the ultimate goal of every organism, and refers to man's desire for self-fulfillment, and the propensity of an individual to become actualized in his potential.

So I can see why people view spirituality and self-actualization as connected: one is the quest for one’s eternal meaning, the other is the quest for one’s earthly potential. Knowing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves makes us feel less lonely, and connecting with our true purpose and passions makes us feel more alive.

Both are personal journey’s that we experience alone but that we can share in words and behavior. The most spiritual among us also believe that when finding the right person, everything can be experienced together simultaneously as one but I doubt that, we are still irrational Neanderthal earthlings despite having the opportunity to reach the highest currently known level of the game called life.

“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.”Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Of course, to self-actualize can feel like a spiritual experience, or so we might think when we experience the warm feelings of flow and peak experiences. But it can also be being deeply engaged in a passion where we loose the sense of time and space. And once we become aware of our presence, that thought-feeling makes us feel good.

I think that self-actualization is about bringing out the best of ourselves for ourselves and for the world to experience. Unfortunately it has become an external contest in deciding who is successful (in the Western world money is the measurement), spiritual, and enlightened. But how can anyone know but oneself? Isn’t self-actualization only about actualization the self, the most precious part of our being?

When asking psychologists about what self-actualization is they often respond with defining the characteristics of a human being that is supposedly self-actualized, i.e. living in its full potential. This might sound that the goal is reached and there is nothing left to do but I don’t think that’s true; it’s more about having, for example, learned how to surf and being able to enjoy progressing in harmony with oneself.

Characteristics for self-actualization:

  1. Frequent peak experiences which are moments of transcendence when we feel changed and transformed. (Peak in the meaning of expanding further.)

  2. Acceptance of ourselves and others for who we truly are. (Not wanting to change oneself or anyone else away from their true essence.)

  3. A realistic and fearless view of life and events as the unfold in the present. (Confidently living through pandemics, earthquakes, breakups, and death.)

  4. Strong sense of personal ethics and responsibility to use problem-solving skills effectively for the greater good. (Doing the right thing even when no-one is watching.)

  5. Independent people who accept but don’t conform to other people’s ideas of meaning and happiness. (Open and understanding to alternative perspectives but firm in one’s own choices.)

  6. Enjoying privacy and solitude to focus on reaching full potential. (The more self-actualized, the less need for external approvals and accolades.)

  7. The ability to laugh at themselves and not making fun of anyone else. (Laughter leads to forgiveness and more laughter which is contagious.)

  8. Often being very open, unconventional, and spontaneous. (Living in the moment.)

  9. Perceiving the journey as important and interesting as the destination. (Living the dream is to keep journeying forever.)

This sounds like a human being who have found their place and calling in their universe, and enjoy doing what they are doing everyday. The wants are gone and the needs are being satisfied by daily habits and practices. The focus is more on the authentic self than the ego, the latter constantly wanting to prove worth and value to the rest of the world. It’s about inner wealth, not material wealth.

I’ve until now called self-actualization for betterment and I think it is but from a place of presence and inner peace. I’m aware of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life but I no longer feel any regrets. What’s done is done and I can only forgive myself for not knowing better at the time, move on, and keep enjoying this fabulous journey.

Living here in a small surf shack close the beach is my self-actualization project. All my basic needs are taken care of and I can focus on living the potential I see and feel in myself. I know that I still have a potential for being really successful in the tech industry but I’m not interested in pursuing external rewards just to fit into society.

I’m experiencing the above characteristics when I’m writing, making photos, reading, surfing, exercising, and having interesting conversations with like-minded people. Self-actualization to me is to have the courage to do what I love in the present without regretting the past or feeling anxiety over the future. It’s almost like being a kid again, playing outside, laughing, hanging with friends, and getting dirty in nature.

I feel all this now and yet I’m just a beginner of all the powers and passions I’m describing above. I’m capable of expressing myself pretty accurately in a second language, in many ways better than most natives, but I’m still far away from where I know I can and want to be. I just know that if I do the best I can muster today I’m living my full potential in this very moment and that’s very fulfilling.

And maybe that’s what self-actualization really is, and where it also feels spiritual: to live life in the present moment, love and laugh, enjoy doing and being, accept everything, expect nothing, and just feel happy and grateful for being alive. But most importantly, not taking anything so seriously that I cannot let my spirit laugh at how hard we humans make things when life in the end of the day can be very simple.

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Much love,

Per Håkansson

Encinitas, California

Per is a former techie and digital transformation lecturer turned writer and surfer, living by the beach in a small surf shack, spending the days in nature and outside, living life to the fullest, making an old, almost forgotten dream a reality. Living, learning, laughing, loving.