Self-transcendence as a key factor in human development and meaning making? This study says “Yes.”

by Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Sofia University alumni Albert Garcia-Romeu, Samuel P Himelstein and Jacob Kaminker

The following article shares excerpts from the full study. You may read the study in full at or Sage Publications.

What is Self-Transcendence?

awakening-675330_960_720The term self-transcendence has been used widely in philosophical and psychological literature to refer to a host of related concepts and phenomena (Garcia-Romeu, 2010). Early existential and humanistic psychologists Frankl (1966) and Maslow (1966, 1969) considered self transcendence a key factor in human development and meaning making.

Research among aged and ailing populations has informed a detailed nursing theory of self-transcendence as an important developmental resource in later life (Reed, 1991, 2003). Additionally, contemporary theorists in the psychology of consciousness have treated the topic of self-transcendence as a developmental milestone related to the upper echelons of psychospiritual growth and maturity (Wade, 1996; Wilber, 2000).

For the purposes of this study, STE was defined as any instance of feeling ‘connected to something larger than or outside of your everyday sense of self,’ or as one participant described it, ‘suddenly having an awareness of the wholeness of myself and how I fit into the bigger part of the Cosmos and the universe, and what is my purpose.’

The Study

This study focused on the self-reported narratives of STE in 15 healthy adults and was purposely confined to the examination of self-transcendence in healthy volunteers, with a focus on ramifications for personal growth and well-being. This is in keeping with the orientations of humanistic, transpersonal, and positive psychology, which primarily emphasize the development of well-adjusted, high functioning individuals, as opposed to clinical approaches that generally focus on the identification and treatment of mental disorders (Hartelius et al., 2007; Jourard and Landsman, 1980; Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

buddha-693858_960_720Furthermore, the authors’ own experiences in natural settings and during meditative practice provided an initial framework for exploring self-transcendence as a potentially beneficial and transformative phenomenon.

This study addressed three basic questions: (a) What are the contexts or situations that tend to elicit STE? (b) How do participants describe STE?, and (c) What are the perceived outcomes of STE?

The Methods

This exploratory research study employed grounded theory as the primary methodological framework (Corbin and Strauss, 2008). Qualitative data collection and analysis took place over the course of multiple iterations until the researchers deemed sufficient conceptual saturation (i.e., no novel thematic content was emerging from interview data).

Healthy, English-speaking adults (18–70 years), with some history of STE (defined as ‘any instance when you felt connected to something larger than or outside of your everyday sense of self’) were recruited locally in the San Francisco area using flyers advertising a study of self-transcendence. Exclusion criteria were substance dependence, violent criminal activity, or hospitalization for any severe physical or psychiatric illness within the past 6 months.

Accounts were collected in face-to-face interviews, transcribed, and thematically analyzed using grounded theory methodology. Qualitative results were recursively examined to construct a preliminary mid-range theory of STE in healthy adults.



tree-569586_960_720Three major themes emerged from interview data: context, phenomenology, and aftermath of STE. Each of these was further divided into distinct sub-themes. Contextual sub-themes included set, setting, and catalysts. Phenomenological subthemes were somatic manifestations, perceptual alterations, and cognitive-affective shifts. Aftermath sub-themes included short-term effects, long-term effects, and perceived meanings.

About the Authors

albertgarciaAlbert Garcia-Romeu, PhD
Research Associate at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

He has co-authored multiple articles such as “Clinical applications of hallucinogens: A review”, “Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation”, “Does Mindfulness Meditation Increase Effectiveness of Substance Abuse Treatment with Incarcerated Youth? A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial” and “The subjective experience of acute, experimentally-induced Salvia divinorum inebriation.”

sam-249x300Sam Himelstein, PhD: Psychotherapist, Parent Consultant, Author, Trainer

Dr. Himelstein is a licensed psychologist in the state of California (PSY25229), an author, trainer, parent coach, and researcher. His day job is as a Behavioral Health Clinician at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center (ACJJC), an institution he was once incarcerated in as a young teen. Dr. Himelstein is passionate about working with juvenile justice populations, addiction populations, and those suffering from trauma.

jkaminker-webJacob Kaminker,Ph.D  Assistant Professor College of Psychology Counseling Psychology/Holistic

Jacob is Core Faculty in the Holistic Counseling Psychology Program at John F. Kennedy University. He is also Founding Director of the Depth Psychotherapy Specialization and Director of the Expressive Arts Therapy and Holistic Studies Specializations at JFK University and Associate Managing Editor for the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Secretary of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology, International/Regional Co-Chair for the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association, and President of the San Francisco Psychological Association.

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