This article is about self-realization: What is the general idea behind self-realization (compare self-actualization, self-fulfillment, etc)? What are some of the considerations related to this concept?
KEYWORDS: awareness, perfection, self-actualization, self-development, self-improvement, self-realization.
History of Self-Realization
The term “self-realization” is first introduced in the English language in 1876, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary [Little 1973, 1934c]. This date, however, has been pushed back since then, and now both the new (third) edition of the OED (2019) and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2019) report usage already before the 1820s.
General Idea of Self-Realization
The general meaning of self-realization, according to the SOED, is that it is about a person’s possibilities of developing the self, and the fulfillment of those possibilities, as a result of that person’s own efforts [Little 1973, 1934c].
Individuals or Collective?
But what does all of this mean? First of all, I wish to point out that when I read the phrase “one’s own”, as found in the original formulation in the SOED entry “self-realization” [Little 1973, 1934c; note 1], I take it to point to one individual, one single person. So, the general idea of self-realization is, as I read it, not about groups of people, or about organizations (or institutions or corporations), or about countries, or about society in general. It’s about a single human being [note 2].
This is more evident in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry for “self-realization” , in which the word “oneself” is used. This word seems to point to (living) human beings only, as opposed to impersonal entities such as groups or organizations, etc. This is because, if groups or organizations were meant, they most probably would be referred to using the pronoun “itself”, instead of “oneself”.
Self-Realization: Mental or Physical?
Now, because self-realization is described in terms of an “effort”, we might say that this is some kind of activity, work, or process. So there is some action on part of the person involved in self-realization. Whether this action is a “mental” activity or a “physical” one (or both) is not mentioned.
This then opens up for choosing a suitable combination for each aspiring person. Some persons may like to fully engage in physical explorations such as being a dancer, rock climber, or football player; others may choose a more “sedentary” style of life, such as being a cartoon artist or a Hollywood screenwriter, etc.
Self-Realization: For Whom?
Another thing closely related to the idea of “effort” is that the “efforting” is done by the person himself (or herself). So it’s his (or her) own efforts that lead, or might lead, to self-realization.
Thus, in the general meaning in English, no-one but the practitioner himself (or herself) is involved in this activity. One cannot “do” self-realization for someone else; it’s a personal thing [note 3].
What Means “Self”?
Yet another thing that is not defined is the underlying idea behind “the self”. For example, is “the self” equal to (or approximately equal to) “oneself”? In other words, is the “self” understood in a “transcendental” (non-physical, non-material, spiritual) fashion? Or is the “self” some version of “the conscious me” or “the unconscious me” (or perhaps both, combined in some particular way)”? Or is it maybe something else entirely?
Self-Realization: What Kind of “Development” or “Realization”?
Also, we might wonder about the idea of a development of the self. This, however, seems to depend largely on what the “self” is. So if, for example, the self is conceived of as “the conscious mind”, then the “effort” presumably would be about developing, in some way, the conscious mind.
And if the self is conceived of as the “unconscious mind”, then the “work” to be done would presumably be about the “enhancement” of the “unconscious mind”.
It is important to note here the direction of the development. For that seems to depend on our goal: if we postulate that “more brain power” is equal to “more self-realization”, then we would be engaged in a different process than if we were to say “less brain power” is equal to “more self-realization”.
For “less brain power” does not necessarily mean “less power” in general; strangely, it may actually translate to “more power”, in general. So we may want to ponder the idea that our true power may not ultimately come from our (fore-)brain, but from the universe. And if that is true, then self-realization would include some practices that “ignores” the brain, in order to bring forth our real, suppressed energetic potentialities.
Self-Realization: Which Possibilities?
But then there is also the idea of possibilities. So self-realization is not merely about “developing the self”, but about the possibilities of doing so. So then we might ask questions such as: “How do I know what possibilities I have?” and “How do I know what possibilities human beings in general have in this area?”, etc.
Such questions may thus mark the start of a part of the process, namely the part in which one is searching for knowledge about one’s self. So the search for the answer to a question like “How do I know what possibilities I have?” may be understood as some of the “efforting” that self-realization includes. In fact, the mere formulation of the question itself would probably also be considered a part of the self-realization “effort”.
Self-Realization and Fulfillment
And then, lastly, self-realization is about fulfillment. But of what? Well, it’s about the fulfillment of possibilities, namely those possibilities of developing the self.
The problem, and beauty, here then is that people in general do not really know what true possibilities they have. And if they do not know what possibilities they have, it seems unlikely that they would know when they are fulfilled (or not).
So this means then that self-realization seems be composed of at least two things: one is the search for what possibilities and potential fulfillment “levels” one might have; the other is the “execution” or “implementation” of the development itself, with the assumption that it is possible to have them fulfilled, or, at the very least, having some preliminary “faith” in that it might be possible.
Awareness of Self-Realization
A very important component not mentioned in many definitions of the word self-realization is that of awareness. The idea is thus that self-realization does not just “happen”. There are many people who just “live their lives” without thinking about improving themselves, or at least not putting it in practice, and especially not in an organized, ongoing, “serious” way.
So, as I see it, self-realization is not a one-time weekend course at a retreat, but an ongoing (daily) activity of indefinite duration. Thus, there is a degree of commitment, and, naturally, a conscious recognition of that “I am now committed to self-realization”, or something along those lines.
Therefore, the word “self-realization” only applies to those people who are consciously recognizing that they are engaged in an important “self-realization” process. In other words, people who are not recognizing that they are involved in a “self-realization” (self-improvement) process are simply those who “live their lives as usual”.
Such people, then, cannot really be thought of as being engaged in self-realization, even in the most general understanding of the word.
But one might claim, with Bradley for instance, that any action involves self-realization. However, such an idea will here be considered as a non-representative idea of what the term “self-realization” usually means in its more general, broad, non-specialized sense.
- My restatement (paraphrasing) of the “self-realization” entry in SOED does not include the exact phrase “one’s own”. The reason for my paraphrasing of the text is, however, not just to avoid quoting the whole sentence of that entry, but also because I want to try to add value to it, in terms of making the original statement clearer.
- The fact that I have used the SOED to try to come up with a general understanding of [the original meaning in the English language] self-realization, does not, of course, rule out the idea that self-realization, in a more “specialized” sense, might point to non-individual entities such as groups of people, organizations, and society. See for example Evans 1998, pp. 632-635.
- In a more “specialized” meaning of self-realization, where the word “self” does not point to an individual human being, but to a group of people (an organization, an institution, a nation, or society in general), the individual presumably is trying to participate in the realization of a “higher good”, which then may benefit others. In this reading of “self-realization”, the individual then participates in self-realization not just for his or her own sake, but also for others in that group.
Evans, Mark (1998), “Self-realization” in Edward Craig, ed., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Volume 8: Questions to Sociobiology. London and New York: Routledge. [Link to book]
Little, William, et al. (1973), “Self-realization” in William Little et al., The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Third Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Link to book]
Proffitt, Michael, et al. (2019), “Self-realization” in Michael Proffitt et al. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Link to site]
“Self-Realization” in The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc. [Link to site]
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris Bocay. All rights reserved.
First published: Fri 22 Nov 2019
Last revised: Mon 8 Aug 2022