There’s definitely something universally intriguing about transcendence.
Maslow revised his own hierarchy of needs late in his life to propose transcendence—or self-actualizing transcenders—above self-actualization as the highest height of humanity and full humanness.
Similarly, apparently Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development were supplemented by his wife, Joan Erikson, to add gerotranscendence as part of a ninth developmental stage.¹
There’s a growing body of research out there about “positive aging,” “successful aging,” “mindful sustainable aging,” and even “a contemplative dimension of aging.”
But, if humanity is currently a teenager, it seems like it would be beneficial if we could all “mature” at a collective younger age.
In this post we’ll specifically take a look at gerotranscendence and hypothesize about whether it’s possible to experience it at younger ages—similar to the idea that you can be young in age but have an old soul.
What is Gerotranscendence?
Much of the work done on this concept stems from Lars Tornstam, Ph.D—a Swedish gerontologist who literally wrote the book Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging (Amazon).
Here are some of the best descriptions and definitions of gerotranscendence:
- “Gerotranscendence is regarded as the final stage in a possible natural progression towards maturation and wisdom.”²
- “I chose the prefix Gero- as in gerontology and the suffix transcendence, because it seemed to me that much of what my informants described concerned transcending borders and barriers that had circumscribed them earlier in life.”³
- “The theory of gerotranscendence describes a development involving new understandings of the self, relationships to others, and fundamental existential questions.”4
Characteristics of Gerotranscendence
In short (paraphrased from Lars Tornstam; emphasis added in bold):
- “A redefinition of the Self and of relationships to others”
- “A new understanding of fundamental existential questions“
- “Less self occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities”
- “An increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction”
- “The individual might also experience a decreased interest in material things and a greater need for solitary ‘meditation'”
- “Positive solitude becomes more important“
- “A feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, and a redefinition of time, space, life and death”
The shift in the perspective occurs in three dimensions (paraphrased)3,4:
- Time and Childhood: “The definition of time is changed…The borderline between now and then is transcended.”
- Connection to Earlier Generations: “An increased feeling of being part of the flow of generations.” “A change from a link to a chain perspective on the generations ensues. What is important is no longer the individual link (life), but rather the chain (stream of life).”
- Life and Death: “Less afraid of death as they get closer to it…From the perspective of a young person, such a statement may signal that somebody is not mentally stable, but for the person who has transcended this duality, it may sound like wisdom.”
- Mystery of Life: “The mystery dimension of life is accepted. The intellectual restriction that everything in life must be explained within traditional scientific boundaries is transcended.”
- Rejoicing: “From grand events to subtle experiences. The joy of experiencing the macrocosm through the microcosm materializes, often related to experiences in nature, such as by experiencing a transcendence into the universe when looking at a flower.”
- Self-Confrontation: “Figuratively speaking, the individual looks back on himself at earlier phases in life and discovers hidden aspects of the self – both good and bad.”
- Decrease in Self-Centeredness: “The individual experiences a new awareness of the fact that he or she is not the center of the universe.”
- Body-Transcendence: “A new awareness develops of how to take good care of the body without being obsessed with it.”
- Self-Transcendence: “Looking back, the individual notices how the focus on one’s own needs has gradually been transcended and replaced with a focus on the needs of others…Egoism has been overshadowed by altruism.”
- Ego-Integrity: “What is described by gerotranscendent individuals is close but not identical to what Erikson called ego-integrity – when the individual achieves a fundamental acceptance of his/her own life, as a jigsaw puzzle finally coming together and forming a whole…In Erikson’s theory, ego-integration primarily refers to an integration of the elements in the life that has passed. The individual reaches a fundamental acceptance of the life lived. In this way, the ego-integrity described by Erikson is more of a reverse integration process within the same definition of the world as before, while the process of gerotranscendence implies more of a forward or outward direction, including a redefinition of reality.”
- Changed Meaning and Importance of Relations: “More selective in their choice of company. The interest in participating in superficial kinds of socializing fades away…Part of this changed meaning and importance of relations is also the increased need for positive contemplative solitude.”
- Dealing with Role Playing in Life: “The individual reaches an understanding of the difference between self and the roles played in life, sometimes feeling an urge to abandon and transcend roles in order to come closer to the genuine self.”
- Emancipated Innocence: “The individual develops a new skill to transcend needless conventions, norms and rules, which earlier in life had curtailed freedom to express the self.” “Emancipated innocence refers to a revived capacity to transcend needless social conventions and be impulsive and ‘childish’, where this spontaneity is added to the mature personality.”
- Modern Asceticism: “The emergence of a new understanding that the last part of the journey through life is easier and more joyful if one is carrying light luggage – if one has enough to meet the modern definition of the necessities of life, but no more.”
- Transcendent Everyday Wisdom: “A reluctance to superficially separate right from wrong, and thus withholding from judgments and giving advice, is discerned. The transcendence of the right-wrong duality is accompanied by an increased broadmindedness and tolerance.”
So, Can You Experience Gerotranscendence at a Younger Age?
The image above clearly shows that cosmic transcendence is more common as humans grow older in age. But, even in old age, gerotranscendence is no guarantee:
- “A rough estimate may be that only 20 percent of the population automatically reaches high degrees of gerotranscendence without trouble.”³
So, wanting to experience it at a younger age makes it even less common than that 20 percent.
But, the real question is whether or not it’s possible. I believe it is. Here’s why:
- “The theory of gerotranscendence is a developmental theory in which not only aging per se explains gerotranscendental changes, but also the particular nature of the individual life.”4
- “Gerotranscendence, as a ninth stage of development, occurs during the 80s and 90s for most older adults…The task of this ninth stage is to develop a new perspective of the world, which is often increasingly spiritual…Gerotranscendence, therefore, deals not only with human development, but with maturity, wisdom, identity, and coping patterns – all of which contribute to overall life satisfaction.”¹
- “Tornstam noted that gerotranscendence is a continuous process that is affected by culture, and accelerated by crisis.”¹
- “This revealed a pattern in which ‘younger’ respondents (up to around 55 years) who had experienced crises also scored higher on cosmic transcendence as compared to respondents who had not experienced any crises.”³
Whether you want to call it transcendence (Maslow, Frankl, etc) or gerotranscendence (Tornstam), I think the core elements are the same. And, I believe it can be experienced at any age. In fact, I believe we need to go a step further and actively “age down” transcendence.
In his book A New Earth, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says:
- “Why is old considered useless? Because in old age, the emphasis shifts from doing to Being, and our civilization, which is lost in doing, knows nothing of Being. It asks: Being? What do you do with it?”
- “On the new earth, old age will be universally recognized and highly valued as a time for the flowering of consciousness.”
Regardless of age, it seems we are all capable of shifting from doing to Being, increasing contemplation, developing spiritually, redefining our identities, continually gaining wisdom, and enhancing our cosmic perspectives.
The humans in the Blue Zones—like the Ikarians—have figured it out. We can all take some notes from them at any age.
- Recognizing Aspects of Oneself in the Theory of Gerotranscendence, Karin Hyse & Lars Tornstam, 2009
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