May. 5, 2015

Musing on Maslow’s Hierarchy

You remember Abraham Maslow. He’s the guy who told us that human motivation was layered and that until we took care of things immediate to survival (air, for instance), food and shelter were unimportant. And once starvation and exposure was solved, relationships and achievement and “self-realization,” took our attention in that order.  Even if it feels a little oversimplified these days, it still makes huge sense.

I first learned of Maslow’s Hierarchy in the early 70’s in a military school. It was as though my eyes were pried open. Suddenly I understood my immigrant (step) grandfather and his intense commitment to family. A commitment and interest that never went further than that—relationships. Those kinds of aha’s can feel important, empowering. Cool.

Then—50 years later— along comes this:

“The ultimate source of happiness is within us,” said the Dalai Lama in an announcement about the [book] deal. “Not money, not power, not status, which fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside.”

Archbishop Tutu added: “Sometimes life can be challenging and we can feel lost. But the seeds of joy are born inside each of us. I invite you to join His Holiness and me in creating more joy in our world.”[1]

Not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts. I’ve studied Buddhist tenets at shifting levels of intensitity, for nigh on 30 years. But then sometimes old stuff can strike you a peculiar  way. I remembered the images of 0f the Buddhist monk burning himself to death on a street in Saigon. Didn’t he have air, water, food, shelter, friendships, etc., pretty well squared away? Either, it seems to me, Maslow was wrong in some fundamental way or the monk was psychotic.

Or something else is going on. Perhaps the monk had transcended the first four levels of the hierarchy and was now operating at a level of motivation that put the well-being of his fellow humans so far ahead of himself that his idea was to draw attention to their plight, dramatically. There is a recognizable element of of Western “courage” in that choice that most of us reflexively respect.

Or maybe he skipped the hierarchy altogether. While one usually goes through the Maslow’s stages to the point where growth stalls out, perhaps it isn’t necessary. Perhaps, when one senses,“the ultimate source of happiness is within us,” stages in the heirarchy aren’t as compelling as they once were.