A common misconception about development beyond autonomy is that you must lose yourself or have no self.
Each transformation of mind involves a loss of a sense of self. You must after all dis-identify yourself from your autonomy if you are to go beyond autonomy. However, you never entirely lose yourself. At least not in healthy development. What I want you to know is that development always involves a discovery of a more true and sincere you. And, this truer more sincere you is a bigger self, not a smaller or non-existant self.
Peering intimately into the nature of development like I have reveals something quite different from loosing yourself. What I found is that we do not lose our autonomous selves. The opposite occurs. For the first time we can actually have our autonomous selves. No longer does autonomy's inner-sculpted identity, ideology and differentiated sense of self have you!
This is the classic developmental transformation Robert Kegan
has explored in depth over the past three decades at Harvard
. What was once subject (autonomoy in this case), becomes an object that can be held, managed and operated upon.
The loss of the identification with autonomous perspectives involves the gain of the autonomous self. And, in addition to possessing your autonomous self—much like how autonomy can possess and regulate the more socialized presentations of yourself—you gain a seat of identity that is more complex, more capable and, it feels more like home.
Not a bad deal, eh?
That said, many people have purchased the lie of selflessness. And it is likely betraying your ongoing development and maturation as an adult.
Many adults can be found efforting to shed their old selves. This is often energy well spent. However, without clarity of the path beyond autonomy many often mistakenly presume becoming a no-self is the way to further develop themselves. This is especially the case for individuals reading books on meditation, spiritual practices and the like emphasizing various forms of selflessness or egolessness.
Now, the idea of being selfless is a deep inquiry. We are wise to be nuanced in our distinctions here. At its superficial levels being selfless is an invitation to drop your imperial narcissism. It is an invitation to join into and take care of the people around you and the cultures you are immersed in. Sacrificing your personal needs, preferences and interests for the larger well-being of your relationships and community is a beautiful expression of selflessness. In my opinion there is no lie here. For many people these froms of selflessness qualitatively improve lives.
In deeper contours of human experience selflessness involves realizing states of consciousness where no-self is present for periods of time. Discovering a connectedness to an all pervading unity, the stabilization of a mindful state or the absorption into a variety of transcendent states are powerful and catalytic experiences. Realizing there is a part of you that has no preferences, possesses no agendas, inhabits no form, invests in no personality, and participates in no movement (what I call the self-without-form in my most recent book, The Elegant Self
) is profound and liberating beyond words. And, locating this texture of selflessness in your direct experience is a game changer for most people.
However, these meditative or contemplative achievements are nonetheless states of consciousness. Developing your mind and inducing states of consciousness are two different activities exercising two different domains of you. Perhaps the most cogent and lucid voice on this matter is my friend Ken Wilber
. To confuse these two is a common mistake even some of the brightest minds in human history have made. States are transient experiences, developmental stages are enduring integrative features of you.
So, while you may cultivate states where the self drops away, these are always temporary
. In time the state passes and "you" along with your personality, needs, preferences and ideology return. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. That said we must look closely here. There is a lie of selflessness at play here. It says, if you just keep entering into selfless transcendent states, everything else will take care of itself. Nothing further could be true. State training is an immense gift, it's needed. But, when it gets sold as a way of living, a way of being or an aim worthy of your withdrawal from the rest of your life be cautious. States cannot ultimately sell to us what our hearts truely desire and what our world really needs from us.
While these selfless states often captivate the spiritually inclined, most adults are not spending hours a day sitting on a meditation cushion. As such, many adults find themselves trapped in different versions of this lie. For these individuals having no-self and being selfless means asserting no preferences. It may mean efforting to appear especially mindful and aware. It often takes the form of being overly accommodating. A superficial and unexamined acceptance of relationships and our surroundings parade on display to others as if we have attained some footing in humanity's great liberation. Sadly, exiling preferences, being overly easy going, failing to assert boundaries and enabling the dismemberment of human integrity as a means of avoiding conflicts are not the fruitions of our larger capabilities as a species. Instead, they obscure what I call elegance. They entrench less capable expressions of humanity. These are all lies that betray your own ongoing development.
These substitutions of selflessness are often attempts to imitate the freedom from self-attachment that elegance demonstrates. Development beyond autonomy (not states beyond autonomy!) does bring with it a freedom from autonomy. You can pick up your self-authored, inner guided autonomy and use it. Then you can put these parts of yourself down. You no longer need to defend your autonomy in the same ways as when you were identified with your autonomy. The needs of the self participating with elegance are no longer confined inside what Abraham Maslow
called “deficiency needs.” “Being needs” begin to become central to the self. This means you getting your post-autonomous needs met looks very different from just about everyone else. All this is to say, elegance appears to be selfless to less developed vantage points.
And, in some ways, human elegance—our most mature stages of development—is selfless. But make no mistake my friend, the selfhood that moves with and as elegance is big. In fact, these identities are massive. They bring a whole new understanding of what it means to have a “big ego.” Elegance is not afraid of arrogance, nor does it resist deep expressions of humility. Both are free agents to the intelligences of elegance. Your elegance can and will use the full display of you to serve our world with every facet of your being. As such your larger maturity does set and maintain boundaries in powerful ways. Your larger self can accommodate, yet it can also cut through others to modify life in dramatic ways. You can assert preferences and you can let your preferences go. You do not get stuck in either strategy. A pervading acceptance of life as it is enables you to be focused entirely on you and your self-interests.
As such, do not yield to social expectations or intrapersonal manipulations to create greater cultural uniformity. Do not merely encase yourself in training states of consciousness and the excessive withdrawal from the complex demands of modern and postmodern life. And, be suspicious of agendas that attempt to negate your uniqueness, drive and aspirations. All of you, every facet of your being and what you are becoming, can participate with intelligences that transcend your autonomous self; you can and in some ways you likely must participate with elegance. In addition, we are likely to discover that we must devote absolutely all of ourselves to these larger possibilities of humanity.
Rob McNamara, Harvard University Teaching Fellow, author of The Elegant Self, is an expert on adult development and human performance. He coaches individuals world-wide to help resolve the painful and persistent limitations in their lives to become more elegant human beings.