The Age of Awareness

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  • Mindfulness
  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

Coaching. Psychotherapy. Meditation. Spirituality. Self-improvement. Self-love. What do these seemingly different collective trends have in common?

There are over 10 different forms of coaching, each with countless associated techniques Funny self-awareness imageand exercises. There are over 500 different forms of psychotherapy, most with similar degrees of efficacy. There are over 20 forms of meditation and paths to the spiritual. Available self-improvement and self-love techniques are too numerous to list here. The supply of these services in the market has skyrocketed, which is a likely indicator that high demand from us, consumers, is also present. But what is driving the high demand for these services? What are we collectively seeking as a society, as individuals? What do we long for or hunger for? I may be able to provide a tentative answer to this question only because the longing is also present in me. And, at this level of depth, you and I are not so different.

The answer to the question, I believe, is self-awareness. We long to know ourselves more deeply. But why? Well, there is reason to believe that we are beginning to recognize our deep need for it.

Longing to Actualize

While human beings (or perhaps, human brains) are stupendously complex, our basic needs can be boiled down to a small number. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gives a good idea of what these might be. Here’s a 4-sentence introduction to Maslow’s pyramid (shown below): Basic needs are the building blocks of human motivation. Whatever we end up doing with our lives, our motivation for it can be distilled down to these basic needs. Lower needs must be fulfilled before higher needs are (e.g., professional success – part of the need for esteem – will not be on one’s radar if his or her personal security – part of the need for safety – is at severe risk). As we fulfil lower needs, the higher needs become relevant and we begin to long for them. From lower to higher, Maslow’s basic needs:

  • Physiological needs (e.g., food, sex, warmth)
  • Safety needs (e.g., order, stability, security)
  • Belonging needs (e.g., friendship, family)
  • Esteem needs (e.g., confidence, respect, achievement)
  • Self-Actualization needs (e.g., creativity, morality, spontaneity, autonomy)
  • Self-Transcendence needs (this last one may come as a surprise to some, but see here).

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Ironically, self-awareness is not on Maslow’s list, but it does seem to be a critical ingredient along the way – particularly in the transition from Esteem to Self-Actualization. And the need for self-actualization seems to have remained “dormant” or viewed as unnecessary at the societal level – until quite recently.

So I have 2 aims with this blog. The first is to suggest that we, adults in Western societies, are beginning to push against the ceiling of Abraham’s pyramid (self-actualization and, less saliently, self-transcendence). And our “pushing” is manifesting in a variety of wacky, unexpected, and seemingly incongruent ways. The second aim is to suggest that these ways are not so incongruent, after all.


The Right Ingredients

There are many flavours of ice cream, but whether you opt for chocolate or strawberry, all flavours work partly in service of our need for hunger. And while there are many forms of enhancing self-awareness (e.g., coaching, meditation, etc.), they are all in service of our need to self-actualize. Even the RSA’s recent call to arms, The Power to Create, seems to be in service of this emerging need for actualization. There is a very strong connection between actualization and self-awareness, as Maslow observed:

[Prior to self-actualization, people] “often have not the slightest idea of what they are, of what they want, of what their own opinions are,” [but] self-actualizing individuals have “superior awareness of their own impulses, desires, opinions, and subjective reactions in general[1]”.

Self-aware of bad qualities?

In other words, self-actualizing people seem to have explored their inner lives to a remarkable extent. This is not easy, and it has little to do with the external wilderness of politics, social norms, geography, current affairs, Ebola, etc. Self-awareness begins, well… here, right here, within. Indeed, coaches, mindfulness instructors, therapists, self-improvement gurus all direct a person’s attention inwards, to the self, to varying degrees and in a way that has rarely, if ever, been attempted by most of us. Slowly, however, more and more people seem to be noticing a personal longing for self-awareness. If pursuing personal coaching, therapy, or meditation seems like a selfish act to outside observers, it’s probably because it is a selfish act, but not in any conventional sense of the word. It is not about prioritizing one’s pleasures and interests over those of others, as is commonly understood by the term selfish, but rather it is about exploring the multiple sides of the self, both good and bad, light and dark, pleasant and unpleasant. Both forms require an inward turn, but of very different flavours. In sum, bringing a curious and investigative attitude to the self and its functioning seems a necessary step on the road to actualizing it.

While some claim that we are living in an age of loneliness, if perceived via a slightly different lens, loneliness may partly be fueling our inward turn toward the self. It’s true that globalization and the internet have led to the hyper-exposure of different people, cultures, and ideologies. The differences between us, humans, are now amplified like never before in our history. We are stranger to each other than we ever have been. Under these conditions of decreased physical isolation and increased psychological isolation, the longing for integration and connectedness seems like a natural response.

There is little solace to be found for such loneliness in a society that is increasingly diverse, unfamiliar, and virtual. But the sages, those spiritual and philosophical, hinted that greater self-awareness may paradoxically lead to a greater sense of connection. By discovering and connecting with deeper aspects of ourselves, we may find that the connection we seek has been there all along, including now. As the Buddha observed, “Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” Self-awareness may be the ticket to realizing this.

There is reason to believe that we, collectively, are beginning to perceive our need to self-actualize.

Reaching Further

So why might all of this be happening now? Why are we collectively seeking these “higher” level needs now, at this point in history? While that topic lies beyond the scope of this brief blog, the simple answer is, well… simple: People may increasingly be recognizing their higher-level needs because we, as a society, are becoming more proficient in fulfilling the lower level needs of the populace: Physiological needs are met via access to food, property, and sex. Safety needs are met via sufficient employment and law enforcement. Belonging needs via pluralism, diversity tolerance, and social networking. Esteem via access to careers, study, professional preparation, etc. In this context, we seem to be doing a pretty good job (though in other contexts we’re clearly not). I am not implying that every individual in society is capable of addressing most of these basic needs even most of the time, sadly, but many individuals are, to varying degrees, able to do so. I am certainly not alone in suggesting that we, collectively, are at least getting something right (not perfect).

Einstein's letter to a desolate father Click to enlarge - Courtesy of

While this development sounds very promising to cheerleaders of growth like me, our human need to self-actualize is still far from being “the talk of the town.” It is not yet recognized, acknowledged, nor considered at any considerable degree in the public sphere. Nevertheless, it seems to be inching in that direction.

There is even more to this developmental story however. According to Maslow and a range of wise folk throughout history, the purpose of life is not just to actualize and perfect oneself, but to ultimately transcend oneself and connect deeply with all others. Interestingly, public consciousness is slowly beginning to flicker with signs of what seems like Maslow’s final and highest need – self-transcendence. The many books and texts being published on transcendence and spirituality in the modern age, such as Frederic Laloux’ Reinventing Organizations, neuroscientist Sam Harris’ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, Einstein’s letter to a desolate father who had lost his son to polio (see image, or click here), and even the RSA’s upcoming spirituality report, all hint at the human capacity to somehow see past or move beyond the personality and self-concept. Indeed, Jonathan Rowson, director of the RSA's Social Brain Centre writes, "The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible... [and to] recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself."

In closing, I’d like to highlight that a juicy, more controversial, but still highly valuable proposition in this blog is that self-actualization may not be an endpoint, but rather a prelude to something else. Framed differently, fulfilling our human potential in its entirety may culminate, naturally and inevitably, in something that may be captured by the term “spiritual” (and I do not mean religion). I am not implying that one needs to be self-actualized before he or she can walk a “spiritual path,” but perhaps it is necessary in order to reach the path’s end. Perhaps this one spiritual teacher nailed it, “You cannot transcend what you do not know. To go beyond yourself, you must know yourself.” The ancient Greeks would likely smile in agreement.

And collectively we seem to be doing just that, taking small steps toward knowing ourselves. Bravo, I’d say.

Andres Fossas is a Senior Researcher at the RSA Social Brain Centre. He tweets @afossas0


[1] Maslow, A. H. (1954). Personality and motivation. Harlow, England: Longman, 1, 987.


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  • Hi Rob, good question. I think the diminishing role of religion is both a by-product and cause in this picture. Organized religion is, by its very nature, divisive. This aspect clashes directly with globalization. It is a byproduct, therefore, of an expanding world. The decline of religious values may also contribute to our loneliness and sense of disconnection. Self-awareness and spirituality can fill the void... but they're a bit weak and poorly understood in their current form. It's like we let go of one branch, reach for another, but we're temporarily hovering in mid-air. The next branch is in view though.

  • Hi Hayley,

    Far from brusque - rather I found your thoughts full of insight and compassion.

    I think it is the "contending with jobs, families and daily demands" that prompts - forces? - many of us to move away from reliance on external formulas and towards building our own self-authored 'inner compass' in our 20s and 30s.

    Read Marcia Baxter Magolda's wonderful book 'Authoring Your Life' if you're interested in hearing the personal stories of various individuals' gradual, winding shifts.

    But, yes, Prof Kegan's notion that only around 20% of people reach beyond external formulas to self-authorship is, I don't know..., disheartening. Or maybe just a dose of realism?

    And my call for the many older, wiser RSA Fellows - who've learned to reflect on the inner compass they once fought so hard to build - to take a key role in seeking solutions to 'wicked' issues, seems even more optimistic. How many can there be if it's such a struggle for 20% to grow self-authorship?

    Though Kegan told the RSA audience last year that 4 or 5 million people in the UK might be beyond self-authorship (presumably including those beginning the transition beyond, though I can't remember?).

    Sounds like a good start - if only someone was trying to pull them together in any way. Is anyone trying to?

    That said, if we began to use Baxter Magolda's 'Learning partnerships' approach to designing curricula, to use Drago-Severson's approach to supporting development of staff within educational institutions, then I'm sure we could make a dent in all these figures.

    It's not like everyone is already trying to do this, and we just can't make progress.

    I'm hopeful... ;-)

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  • Would also like to apologize for the sloppy formatting. The edit feature seems to crash when I'm trying to use it. Please look past the formatting issues

  • Matthew Taylor's “vision of the need for self-authoring,
    autonomous individuals,” is a commendable ideal to pursue but is somewhat difficult to attain within certain sectors of society, except for those for whom it becomes an all-consuming personal goal. So many people are contending with jobs, families and daily demands. In their time of, they seek less taxing forms of entertainment, rather than confront the spectre of the self and its relational context within the rest of society.

    Whilst I agree that we do need, more self-authored and autonomous individuals, many sectors of society struggle to facilitate an environment in which such work can flourish. In fact sometimes, certain instruments of society impede such commendable ideals, thus interrupting the achievement of such goals.

    I cannot comment on Kegan as I have not yet familiarized
    myself with his work. I shall do so shortly. Now, if the ‘independent’ way of thinking is considered to be only ‘middle range’ then it is clear that we certainly have a long way to go! For many have not even turned their minds to the process of self-actualization. Indeed how can they be expected to do so when lives are saturated daily with Stress, demands, alienation and junk culture, all of which distract and stupefy the mind.

    Collaboration and the sharing of values via the medium of
    inter-dependence are indeed crucial in shaping a more equal, wholesome and socially cohesive society. However, in seeking such collaboration it is essential to not allow forms of elitism or educational discrimination to discourage citizens from the wider community in taking part in such collaborations.

    I fear there is a very strong ‘us versus them’ mentality
    that is rife in the lower echelons of society. And herein lies the problem that you must contend with. For alienating and disregarding the views of those in less amenable positions both in the educational and professional fields, will surely undo any good you seek to create. For here, is the birthplace of apathy and disengagement.

    It is important, to give all an opportunity to discuss what
    matters to them in their daily lives, no matter how paltry or insignificant it may seem in the wider scheme of things. It is best to deal with grievances when they are small, rather than allowing them to balloon into 'statistical strifes' before they merit attention. Collaboration cannot be affective in an isolated and dis-engaged society.

    And so for the sake of humanity’s collective spiritual progression, the forums must thrust their doors wide open and invite all of those who are on the first rung (self-authoring) to participate in collaboration with more seasoned social entrepreneurs. Well those that are interested in doing so anyway. Apologies if this comment seems a little brusque, but this is a matter that is also very close to my heart.

  • Hi Andres,

    As we've talked about before, Maslow and others found so much evidence for a transcendent/spiritual realm - beyond what his fellow Humanistic psychologists were talking about - that they founded the academic field of Transpersonal Psychology, in 1969:

    I find it fascinating that the RSA's new drive is to support 'the Power to Create' for all - built on Matthew Taylor's vision of the need for self-authoring, autonomous individuals.

    This rather 'independent' way of thinking is very much the middle range of adult development, according to the research findings of Prof Robert Kegan, who you, me, Jonathan Rowson and Matthew Taylor admire.

    Yet Matthew Taylor is also very interested in the post-independent, post-autonomous, post-self-authoring vision of Laloux's Integral/Teal organisations (and of the 'Clumsy'/'Messy' organisations seen in Cultural Theory), which are both predicated on Kegan's Self-transforming stage of adult growth (ie the one after self-authoring).

    It feels like we need to be extending 'the Power to Create' so that we're more strongly validating the inter-independent, self-transforming characteristics that are in my view more creative - and more crucial to solving the world's 'wicked' issues - than the more limited tramlines of the 'self-authored' mindset.

    This was very much the message Prof Kegan shared when I invited him over give a lecture at the RSA last year.

    We don't seem yet to have taken to heart Kegan's message about the key role of the 4 or 5 million older people in the UK with 'Self-transforming' minds, who are uniquely crucial to solving the world's 'wicked' issues.

    All the more important as it's a demographic particularly close to the RSA Fellowship's own.

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

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