Perspectives on Self-Realization

perspectives on self-realization

This article explores various perspectives on the word “self-realization”, from a conceptual standpoint, and covers material both from Western and Eastern schools of thought.

KEYWORDS: Eastern philosophy, Western philosophy, philosophy, religion, self-actualization, self-development, self-improvement, self-realization, spirituality.

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Self-Realization by Whom?

Self-Realization As Man’s Own Revelation: The word “self-realization” is most commonly used in the context of human achievements. In this usage, it is the individual human being who, in some way, tries to “perfect” himself, or otherwise tries to “realize” or “bring forth” some intrinsic “potential” that he (allegedly) has dormant.

Self-Realization As Nature’s Revelation: The word “self-realization” may sometimes point to various things in nature. One usage (as in the A. H. Hamer example in the OED) is to talk about flowers and their self-realization. Different individual flowers (of the same species) develop differently: so one sign of their self-realization is that their pedicels are arranged differently.

Self-Realization As God’s Revelation: Sometimes the word “self-realization” may be used not to refer to individual human beings, but to God. The idea here (as in the Biblical Repertory example in the OED) is that the Deity is gradually revealing himself into nature: into both matter and mind. On this view, then, it is God who is doing the “efforting” to achieve (his own) “perfection”.

Self-Realization As a Quest

Self-Realization As a Quest: The word “self-realization” sometimes may be understood as a process that involves the “perfection” or “fulfillment” of man — a process that is going to maximize one’s chances for one’s future next life (whether in a reincarnated body, or in some other realm or state). Such a process, whether “spiritual” or “religious”, is focused on self-realization as a tool to take one to a “higher” or “better” realm. Self-realization in this sense is not usually about “smelling the roses” during one’s earthly life, but many times about (severe) austerity and sacrifice.

Self-Realization As a Non-Quest: The word “self-realization” may sometimes be used in a way as to indicate its non-importance, or be thought of as a recipe for non-success or non-causality (as in the J. R. Illingworth example from the OED). The idea here is that there is no possibility (in some Christian frameworks) for the individual human being to achieve any “self-realization” of his own. The only realization, the only salvation, is provided as a gift by God. So on this view, there is no “quest for salvation” or “quest for self-realization” to be done, in terms of any “efforting” or “engagement” on the part of the individual human being; it’s all provided (for free) by the grace of God.

Self-Realization As a Personal or Collective Endeavor

Self-Realization As a Personal Endeavor (1): The word “self-realization” sometimes may be understood as a process that only, or mostly, has to do with the individual’s own person, and his degree of “perfection” in terms of controlling his senses and mind, as in the typical Indian “guru in the cave” archetype, or in some variety of the austere Buddhist monk going for nirvana, etc. This variety of self-realization requires solitude and dedication.

Self-Realization As a Personal Endeavor (2): Another way of personal self-realization is shared between the cave and public spaces. This is  where one’s self-realization is geared towards one’s own self-satisfaction, joy, and happiness. The goal here then is for the individual to practice being more and more happy and satisfied, regardless of whether or not everyone else is happy. Only if he himself has succeeded in recharging his own inner positive force, does he think that he has anything to offer anyone else.

Self-Realization As a Collective Enterprise: Another variety of “self-realization” is the idea that the “perfection” of human life is not about any “selfish” optimization of merely one’s own personal body, psyche, or spirit; rather, it’s about the optimization of a “worthwhile” collective goal. Such a goal may be carried out in various (politically, or economically motivated) groups, organizations, or institutions. In other words, on this view it’s about things like “saving the elephants” or “stopping climate change”; or, say, on a more academic level, participating (as a publisher, editor, referee, or author, etc.) in the collaborative “science” game with peer-reviewed articles being published, read, objected to, and responded to, in a never-ending stream.

Self-Realization As a Process Requiring Initiation

Self-Realization As a Process Requiring Initiation: Some varieties of “self-realization” seem to depend on being a “member in good standing” within some religious or spiritual organization. Some of these organizations use formal initiations, where the individual may choose, or be assigned to, a guru, and perform some kind of ritual “to be accepted”. Mostly, such initiations are considered mandatory, in order for the “disciple” to really advance in his self-realization process.

Self-Realization As a Process Not Requiring Initiation: Some individuals do not like the idea of “formal initiations”, or being a part of a religious or spiritual organization. Such individuals are more comfortable seeking their self-realizations on their own, finding their own preferences and limits along the way. Common to many of these practitioners is the idea that they are committed to some variety of “stillness meditation” as a path to self-discovery.  This normally helps them to increase their intuition and inspiration, and gradually builds an inner strength and an inner awareness that is otherwise hard to obtain.

Chris Bocay

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Proffitt, Michael et al. (2019) “self-realization” in Michael Proffitt et al. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Website: <>. Accessed Tue 3 Dec 2019.

Copyright © 2019 by Chris Bocay. All rights reserved.

First published: Sat 7 Dec 2019
Last revised: Mon 8 Aug 2022

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