Maslow's theory of needs is a simple one. Depicted often in pyramid form, it illustrates the needs of a human as a hierarchy. Starting the bottom of the hierarchy are the most base of needs, for example the need to be fed, clothed and housed. Next is the need for security, the need to be in a safe environment, to enjoy the security of regular income. This is followed by the need for social interaction, including sexual relationships and friendships. Above social interaction is the need for self esteem, to be validated in the eyes of others, to be respected and to have self respect. At the top of Maslow's pyramid is the need for self actualisation. Self actualisation is a more complex construct and covers a range of definitions, including but not limited to an understanding of self, the ability to view others and situations objectively, being comfortable in your own company, being true to yourself and developing individual ideas and thoughts.
I'm not really breaking new ground by suggesting that this way of viewing the growth of the needs of a human is a limited viewpoint. Maslow revised his own work with the suggestion that self actualisation be split into two separate sections - the first dealing with the focus on developing the potential as an individual and the second dealing with the ability to help others to achieve their potential. My fundamental interest in all of this is how we do we define and quantify that elusive second part of self actualisation. What is it, how do we get there and is it necessary for us to achieve our full potential as a human?
I want to make three observations about the theory of needs first. Here, I am speaking with relation to Maslow's initial hypothesis, with self actualisation as a single tier dealing specifically with potential of the self. The first observation must be that all levels of the pyramid are concerned with self to some degree. Be it the basic need to be fed or the need for personal growth, the focus is on the individual.
The second observation is that humans are not static. We change our needs fluidly as our environment and our circumstances change. I could be meditating on the ethereal nature of spirit today but if I lost my job tomorrow - I'd be back to focusing on my basic needs pretty quickly. So it isn't as simple as saying I'm a stage 4 person and you're a stage 3 person. We're all on the move up and down the levels on that pyramid. I'd also argue that it would be pretty difficult to find somebody who has never achieved any level of self actualisation. Speaking personally, anybody I have ever got to know moderately well has displayed at least some indication that they have been at the top of the pyramid a few times.
As a third observation - having established that needs are a changeable thing, it is also necessary to examine which needs are a necessary thing. If we believe Maslow, to become a fully integrated human being capable of self actualisation, a person must have worked through all the stages of the pyramid. I'm happy to go along with his thinking on this. If a person hasn't learned how to interact successfully with others and hasn't learned how to understand and respect themselves then it is unlikely they are able to actualise themselves into achieving their own potential. (As a side note, I'm not sure if this means they cannot be happy. That's a different question.)
I feel confident in drawing 3 key conclusions. 1. Nobody has the same needs all the time. 2. Everyone experiences all the needs at some time in their life. 3. Each and every level of needs must be mastered in order to reach the heights of self actualisation. So the original theory of needs can be taken to explain the nature of a human, but only the nature that deals with individual self. This is where the limitations kick in. The original theory of needs doesn't deal with any needs that are not related to the self as an individual.
There's a key question in itself. Is there more to an individual than their own needs? It depends on how you look at it. A person who lives their life solely based on achieving their own needs can certainly be said to be surviving. But surviving on what level? To what degree of self? Can a person ever be truly actualised if they live with no concept of philosophy? We need to examine how we define those experiences and characteristics that go beyond the needs of the self. A chap called Viktor Frankl defined these further needs as “the longing for ultimate meaning.” The big questions, the meaning that lies beyond our own lives. These could be termed as spiritual needs.
Its hard to get a single meaning of spirituality as an Atheist, a Christian and a Pagan will all give very different definitions. Some say spirituality is a relationship with the divine, others an awareness of life, of nature beyond the self. (Actually the dictionary isn't too sure either, it defines spirituality as the quality and nature of something spiritual. Hmm, helpful!). I'm going to take a very broad definition and say that the spiritual is something outside the traditional experience of the five senses. So how do we move beyond the five senses? Essentially how do we move beyond our own perceptions and our own self?
Self transcendence can be achieved in different ways. Philosophical thought, meditation, communication with the divine. Maslow talks of peak experiences – those moments when you just stop and have that perfect awareness of being still and complete while the world moves around you. Transcending the self is a sense of perspective, an understanding of yourself as a tiny speck of life in the midst of all this infinity and eternity. Its realising your own insignificance in the biggest picture.
And can a person be complete without the ability to do this? Well that is the crux of the matter. What has a person to gain from transcendence? I would argue that fundamentally a person's moral nature is linked to their ability to transcend. Whether a person believes in a deity or not is irrelevant. The ability to perceive good and bad as absolutes beyond the nature of the individual is crucial to the ability to act morally. When we think – “I would like to do this because it feels good to me, but I won't do it because I know it is wrong,” we are making a moral judgement that transcends ourselves.
When we address our spiritual needs, we also gain perspective on our own lives. We start to understand what matters and what doesn't. The person who lives in the moment of their own self at this particular crossing of time and space is incapable of that kind of perspective. To borrow a phrase: “they cannot rise above it.” I've heard people argue that they can't concentrate on spiritual matters because they've got too many problems, life is too stressful etc. This turns the rationale upside down - the point is that you can only gain perspective when you have transcended yourself, not that you can't transcend yourself until you've gained perspective. This is a criticism of Maslow. The pyramid of needs suggests a linear progress between the satisfaction of needs. As each stage is conquered, the next becomes relevant. Self transcendence isn't just the top of the pyramid, it is beyond the linear structure. We can't say that we'll work through all our needs and then we can start to make some spiritual progress. (That would be a bit like a Christian saying, I'll just make sure I've got a good job and I'm highly regarded as a person and then I'll start worshipping God.) It doesn't work.
There's also too many examples of transcendence without basic needs fulfilled to support the idea that self transcendence only happens when other needs have been met. Take the victims of Auschwitz for example. Poorly fed, poorly housed, no basic security yet many were capable of the most powerful spiritual experiences. To quote Viktor Frankl again, himself a survivor of the death camps: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” Even in the worst human circumstances imaginable, people found the ability to transcend their own reality and to move beyond their basic existence.
Morality and perspective aside, there is also the question of personal growth. How do we grow as people without an understanding beyond ourselves? If I cannot move beyond myself, I cannot understand somebody else. Without that understanding, I am unable to empathise. So effectively, I am cut off from my ability to communicate with others. Only by standing in your shoes can I understand who you are and how to relate to you. Only by stepping out of my shoes can I step into yours.
I'd also be concerned with the element of personal peace and serenity. As somebody who meditates regularly, I need that time to step out of the world, to forget myself, my problems and my life - albeit for a short time. A person who is unable to transcend themselves is unable to forget themselves, however briefly. How can serenity be achieved if you can never forget your problems?
The big difference between animals and humans is sentience. We see humans as more advanced because they have the ability of conscious thought. Animals do not have the choice to become sentient, to move toward a higher level of consciousness. Do humans have the choice to transcend? Can you aspire to something you can't understand without experiencing it? Do some people just choose not to?
And if people do choose not to transcend? I'd be fascinated as to why. Why would anybody ever want to live their life and never ask the big questions? How can a person go about their daily business every day and never look up at the sky and wonder if there is a God? Or question if there really is a grand all encompassing meaning to life? How can anybody live and not think? Is it possible to make the choice not to ask the questions? Or are people too mired in their own lives to even see the questions?
To reach some tentative conclusions about the questions I started with. The elusive second part of self actualisation is the ability to transcend the self. This is achieved by developing an awareness beyond the world that we perceive with our senses and an understanding of the importance of the world and the events that lie beyond us. Transcendence is necessary for our ability to make moral judgement, to fully understand other people, to reach an inner sense of serenity and to appreciate the perspective on our own lives. From a religious point of view, self transcendence is a necessary element in forging a relationship with the Gods.
And is self transcendence necessary for us to achieve our full potential as a human? I'm going to conclude that it is. You can go a long way as a human in your own skin but to become the person you could be, the one beyond the mundane, to achieve what, potentially, you were born with the potential to achieve, you need to travel further, you need to travel beyond yourself.
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