[A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June 2013 edition of Unity Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.]
Self-Actualization, Spiritual Enlightenment and Maslow’s
Hierarchy of Needs
Sixty years ago, Abraham Maslow broke ground in the field of psychology when his “Hierarchy of Needs” suggested that there was a stepwise approach to realizing well-being. But does it conflict with the spiritual perspective that the “kingdom of heaven” is already within us?
“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!
~ Anne Frank
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential – these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”
Psychologist Abraham Maslow wanted to know what happiness was. Why do some people have it and others don’t?
For Maslow, happiness is not a simple response to a favorable arrangement of external conditions. Instead, it is innate and emerges as a by-product of a fully realized life. Like Aristotle and Confucius before him, Maslow argued that our latent happiness occurs only when we cultivate and manifest our highest potential. He wrapped his findings into a pyramid-shaped package known as Maslow’s hierarchy.
Maslow’s central claim is that human beings have five fundamental sets of needs stacked into a hierarchy. We all begin at the bottom and work our way up – each tier of needs taking its turn in dominating our thoughts. Many spiritual traditions teach that we become what we think about – that our thoughts construct our lives. It’s only natural then that until each set of needs is satisfied, it’s difficult or impossible to think about anything else. The needs of our current tier eclipse all other concerns. Only when a set of needs is met does our attention turn to the next stage of development.
At the base of the pyramid are the physiological needs required for survival – air, water, food, sex and sleep. These needs form the foundation of the hierarchy.
When these needs are met, the second stage of needs arise. Here the focus shifts to security – keeping ourselves and our families safe.
With the first two sets of needs satisfied, a longing for deep and meaningful relationships emerges becoming the focus of our lives. Our thoughts turn to love and intimacy as we cultivate authentic relationships with our friends, life partners and families.
The fourth need is healthy self-esteem. Here we long to thrive in the world of achievement and accomplishment. Our self confidence expands as our skills increase. Proficiency blossoms into mastery. We enjoy the honor and recognition of our peers taking our rightful place in a mutually supportive community.
With the first four needs satisfied, the fifth and final need arises, the need for self-actualization. Despite the high quality of our lives there is unfinished business. Our deepest and most individually specific potentialities remain unrealized. Here we heed the call to give expression to our innate excellence, performing the work that is uniquely ours to do. We become self-authorizing, no longer beholden to the crowd for approval or praise. We freely pursue the good and become autonomous moral agents, guided by deeply held principles, not group norms or the dictates of traditional authority. We, in a word, become happy. For Maslow, self-actualization is our highest purpose, the culmination of all the earlier stages of our development.
Every human being carries within them this deep need for self-actualization. Until this need is met, we will always feel vaguely restless, dissatisfied and incomplete. As the Afghani saying goes, “What a shame, to die like a pomegranate with all of one’s seeds still locked up inside.”
By placing these needs in a hierarchy, Maslow makes physiological and social well-being a necessary precondition for self-actualization. But is that true? Might it be possible to achieve self-actualization while basic survival, security or love needs remain unsatisfied?
If, as many spiritual traditions claim, the kingdom of heaven is within us, what difference does it make if we’re rich or poor, loved or lonely, skillful or incompetent? Are we not to seek first the kingdom and all else will be given to us? Do we not find many examples of people in poverty or other hardships who nevertheless possess a remarkable measure of spiritual maturity? If we put self-realization first, would that not re-order and re-cast all of our other so-called needs?
Two competing portraits emerge. First, it seems reasonable to assert, with Maslow, that basic survival comes before the cultivation of our higher sensibilities. If you have no air to breath or water to drink, it’s doubtful that spiritual growth would be your first order of business. And until fundamental safety and security are assured, the pursuit of self-actualization seems a luxury we can ill afford.
Yet there are times when the indomitable human spirit shines brightest in times of crisis. In the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl noted that the prisoners who chose to find meaning did. Through sheer will power human beings can transcend the inhumanity of their conditions.
Still, it seems cavalier to claim from the safety and comfort of our middle class existence that anyone, anywhere, no matter the conditions of their lives, can realize self-actualization. Sold into a brothel at the age of nine, becoming a heroin addict at the age of twelve and contracting AIDS at fourteen – it’s absurdly cruel to suggest that none of this impedes the fulfillment of a young girl’s potential.
In the abstract we may argue that material things don’t matter – a position especially easy to take when we already possess them. But few would argue that the basic requirements of life are inconsequential to human happiness. Seeds may be storehouses of great potential, but without fertile soil and other external conditions conducive to cultivation, can fruition occur? And herein lays the confusion. By self-actualization Maslow did not mean spiritual enlightenment or awakening – he meant the realization of one’s own specific potential. One cannot become a masterful concert pianist without access to a piano. One cannot become a writer of profoundly important world literature if one has not had the privilege of an education. And neither of those things is possible in a war-torn ghetto where families are ripped apart and violent death dogs your every step.
So I guess it just depends on what you mean by happiness. For Maslow happiness is a by-product of self-actualization and self-actualization is not possible without certain specific environmental and psychological preconditions. For others happiness is defined as a spiritual condition unmoored from the external world.
As in the following Zen story, our spiritual traditions tend to emphasize this second perspective.
Master Ryokan lived alone in a tiny hut. One night while he was away a thief snuck into the hut only to discover that there was nothing in it worth stealing. Ryokan returned home and caught the thief warming his hands by the fire.
“You have come such a long way to visit me,” said Ryokan, “and you should not return empty handed. Here, please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief looked bewildered, took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon.
“Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
In this Buddhist portrait of enlightened consciousness we certainly recognize a highly evolved being. As in the teachings of Jesus, Ryokan’s residency in the kingdom of heaven is not dependent on the satiation of lower order needs. Still, at its core, Buddhist spirituality seeks sublimation into oneness, not the actualization of one’s individual uniqueness. We can imagine Ryokan enlightened, but we cannot imagine him fulfilled in the western sense. Self-actualization requires a self. With the eradication of the ego, there is no one left to fulfill.
It turns out that self-actualization and spiritual enlightenment are two different goals with distinct pathways and methodologies. Self-actualization requires the realization of our uniquely individual potentialities while spiritual enlightenment transcends individuality and draws us into a unitive state with the divine.
If by happiness we mean our own individual happiness, then Maslow offers a compelling path. If by happiness we mean transcendence of the separate self and immersion into the One, then the world and its woes offer little resistance – in fact our hardships might even be a catalyst hastening our spiritual ascendency.
Afterword: The Human Potential Movement
Maslow’s hierarchy is best understood in the context of the human potential movement, a label given to the work of a disparate group of twentieth century psychologists, writers and teachers like Aldous Huxley, Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl, Alan Watts, Michael Murphy, Werner Erhard, Jean Houston and Anthony Robbins, among others.
In the seventies Erhard was best known as the founder of EST, (Erhard Seminars Training), an influential educational platform with ideological links to Scientology that now goes by the name Landmark Education.
Murphy founded the Esalen Institute, a Big Sur bastion of the consciousness cognoscenti, hosting seminars by the likes of Joseph Campbell, Carlos Castaneda and Deepak Chopra. Another frequent presence at Esalen was Abraham Maslow.
Like other leaders of the human potential movement, Erhard and Murphy both worked hard to synthesize the insights of eastern spirituality and western psychology into a new understanding of humanity’s capacity to steer its own way out of ignorance and toward liberation. Given the very different portraits of human nature in eastern and western philosophy, such a synthesis may not be possible. In the west we are forever separate entities in relationship with a larger reality. In the east we are that larger reality and our perceived individuality is one of the many illusions to be overcome.Still, what aligns Maslow with these other luminaries is their assertion that human beings, both collectively and individually, possess a largely untapped ability to lift themselves out of ignorance and claim their birthright as fully realized beings. This portrait of conscious evolution – from the pursuit of basic needs to self-actualization – puts Maslow’s hierarchy front and center in the human potential movement.