People, wasting away in paradise
Going backward, once in a while
Moving ahead, falling behind
What do you believe
What do you believe
What do you believe is true
Nothing they say makes a difference this way
‘Cos nothing they say will do
Take all the trouble that you can afford
At least you won’t have time to be bored
Midnight Oil, The Power and The Passion
A couple weeks ago, I described the ideas of Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs.
If you recall, the base of the hierarchy represents our physical needs: Water, Shelter Food. Next comes Safety Needs, then Social Needs, Self Esteem and at the top, Self Actualization and Self-Transcendence (Spirituality). I discussed these in context of our modern societies: how we perceptualize these needs and how our societies (attempt to) satisfy them. Today, I would like to look at an alternative view of those same human experiences and drives.
If you have been traveling this path with me for very long, you are aware of my interest in monism and intuitive thinking. The world is what it appears to be and as human animals, born of this world, we have more ways of knowing than the reductionism of modern science. When I look at these two ideas in context with Maslow’s work, the first thing that occurs to me is this: the description he gives of a self actualized person is almost exactly comparable to what I think of as monist intuition:
- They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
- They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions.
- They are creative.
- They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives.
- They feel a closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
- They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority.
- They judge others without prejudice, in a way that can be termed objective.
Let’s break it down.
The first component is realism. An individual in and of the world, who connects with their experiences on multiple levels simultaneously, who accepts their intuitive understanding of experience – not without question, but with a willingness to accept that it cannot be broken down into describable pieces – this is a person that cannot afford to lie to themselves. Any lie, however innocuous interferes with the lines of connection in our minds and in the world around us.
Second, they are spontaneous. Again, the same issues apply. One of the best ‘scientific’ descriptions of intuitive thinking comes from Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. He discusses thin slicing: the ability of our minds to break things down into perceptual components that we can understand on a subconscious level, more clearly and more quickly than our conscious mind can grasp. We all do it. Sometimes very effectively and sometimes less so. In most cases, the more deeply understood a topic is, the more accurate and effective the ‘thin slice’ decisions tend to me (He discusses a piece of forged art, that made it through all of the tests a museum curator could devise, that nonetheless, is ‘found out’ by a single specialist’s gut instinct) . So a person that truly understands a subject and has repeatedly experienced positive results of thin slicing can afford to be spontaneous.
Creativity: intuitive thinking deals with patterns. We don’t understand the mathematics of a fractal, but we understand the way that it evolves. Creativity, likewise, is often seen as extending the metaphor. Taking old ideas, images, structures and recombining them in new ways. The greater the complexity, the more intuitive those new combinations must be.
Solving problems, really, is just an extension of creativity. When you see a pattern that is not working for someone around you and you see a solution, how can you not offer that solution? After all, when it comes right down to it, this is the ultimate expression of the human love of games and puzzles.
Feeling close to other people and a general pleasure in life suggests, above all else, a comfort with oneself. Engaging in true communication, allowing oneself to trust in both other people and ‘the fates’, and once more, recognizing pattens of behavior such that you understand the people in your life.
Anyone that develops an intricate relationship with the world and their immediate circle of friends and family cannot then disregard their own feelings in favor of an outside authority. Developing a personal sense of morality and acceptable behavior is the only way for an individual steeped in intuitive thinking to relate to moral issues. Once this is the case, it becomes equally impossible to judge others by any different standard. After all, once one realizes that morality and behavior is interconnected, the assumed external, authoritarian moral basis of our society simply becomes unfathomable and ineffective.
Each of these points could be explored in greater depth, however, at this point I would like to explore why this connection between intuitive thinking and self actualization strikes me. I have a theory, that the reason self actualization is so uncommon, is not that it is difficult state for humans to reach, but rather that our culture raises us to believe in the hierarchal progression of self development. Before we consider other issues, we must acquire food, water shelter. Before we address our own self esteem issues, we must first be secure in our person and our moral standing. Before we can develop strong friendships and familial relationships, we must attend to our own sense of worth… and so on.
All of these issues, fundamentally, are about achieving control over our environment. Or at the very least, an illusion of control (because there is very little in the world that we actually have control over.) By comparison, I have found the first step toward embracing intuitive thinking is to relinquish our illusions of control. Food, water, shelter is a good place to start: every species on the planet is ‘provided’ with these things simply as a matter of existing : except civilized humans. We must work – 40 hours, 60 hours, 80 hours a week simply to provide for our needs today, while tomorrow is, for most – the first world has a little more leeway – a toss of the die. How is one to achieve self actualization when it is so difficult to simply survive?
Obviously, in our modern civilized world, this ‘locking up’ of the food supply really exists. We cannot simply disregard it. However, once we stop imagining that we have control over what happens to us tomorrow, we can get on with the matter of being, today. We can begin to look at the world in a more creative way: if working 60 hours a week at a dreary job is not appealing, then what alternatives can we create for ourselves that will achieve the results that we are after? This is why I have been exploring the critical components of a new way of living. Because I am seeking those results that elude me as an individual in a small nuclear family, in a semi-urban environment, with typical American responsibilities.
So back to the thesis once more: if we are enculturated to believe that we must pursue the hierarchy of needs, and that is not true, then where does that leave us? I believe that, perhaps, all wild humans were self actualized and self transcendent and that this was no big deal. It’s simply the natural expression of the human brain. Obviously, I cannot do a complete study on this – seeing as how most wild humans are extinct, and those few left are barely better off than animals in zoos. But even if it is more complex than this, I am absolutely certain that future human communities could be structured such that all humans would grow up as self actualized beings. That this is another potentially valuable component of a future culture.
Looking at the characteristics of a self actualized person, I think it is quite clear that with these traits, simple needs like food, family and status will never, could never be out of reach. It would simply require an act of reaching out and taking what you need – and leaving the rest.
(Originally Posted October 20, 2006)