According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, human motivation begins with fundamental concerns.
These fundamental motivations are concerned with meeting our base needs such as food, shelter, water, sleep and procreation. After these motivations have been met our concerns become more refined and we begin to seek out both physical and financial (resources) security.
There is a certain amount of happiness to be found in satisfying these first two levels of motivation. The body requires food and shelter and when we meet these needs stress levels are lowered. However we all know that meeting these needs does not end personal dissatisfaction.
We can be in a room full of people and still feel lonely or have a sexual partner but still crave intimacy. So the next stage of human motivation is love and belonging. Often times this next level of motivation uncovers many of our personal hang-ups. These hang-ups are the obstacles that prevent intimacy and genuine friendship. Our fears keep others at a safe distance and our expectations smother them, leading to one disappointment after the other.
We do not know how to be in relationship. Why?
Because we are insecure which brings us to Maslow’s fourth level of human motivation—esteem.
We all want to be comfortable in our own skin but do not know how. We do not know how because we do not know who we actually are. We are identified with the ego or our false-self. It is this false-self system that thwarts our attempts to connect with others and establish confidence within ourselves.
Insecurity or the absence of esteem is the primary symptom of being identified with a false and transient sense of self because we are all too aware of the fact that the life we are building is a house of cards. However, this cannot be overcome until we know our self in the deepest possible sense, necessitating the need for Maslow’s fifth stage of motivation—self-actualization.
“What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.” ~ Abraham Maslow
It is important to understand that self-actualization is not a recreational motivation. It is a drive or an instinct pushing us towards the embodiment of our true self and we will not be truly happy until we meet this need.
While there may be a certain amount of comfort found in meeting our basic needs there is no lasting peace to be found. We can bring in six figure pay checks and still be unhappy because so much of who we are remains below the surface.
However there are those who have achieved self-actualization—a realization of who they actually are—and as a result are content, though they may have little material wealth to speak of.
So which is more important—meeting our base physical needs or love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization?
Well, the truth is one is not more important than the other. If someone has achieved self-actualization but fails to meet their physical needs they will not enjoy the fruits of actualization for very long because they will starve to death! In point of fact no one who has achieved self-actualization would find themselves in this position because they would have realized themselves to be a spectrum of motivation which includes the base physical needs.
Spiritual growth and physical security are of equal importance.
It is almost cliché to say money can’t buy happiness. So why say it? Because, though we may understand it intellectually we as modern people simply do not get it on a practical level.
As a society we hover around the first two levels of motivation. When plagued by the pains of loneliness we try to substitute sex. When starved for esteem we reach for cosmetic sedatives like a new outfit, the tanning bed or the gym. When the journey of self-actualization comes calling we deny our inner adventure and go on an exciting vacation instead.
The spectrum of motivation is drawing our awareness inward and we do not know how to answer the call. This leaves us frustrated. This inability to answer the call is the seed of immaturity that blossoms into full blown frustration or the feeling that we are a helpless child trapped in an adult body.
The three unmet levels of motivation—love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization—begin to be felt as anxiety, the contents of a life unlived.
The contents of our unlived life constitute what is commonly referred to as discontentment—the absence of content or substance. Life begins to feel meaningless. It is as if we are eating to live and as a result we begin to ask what’s the point?
In Buddhism, when we talk about suffering at its most basic level we are talking about this sense of meaningless. It is a pervasive dissatisfaction that leaves us feeling empty. It transforms life into the search for an answer—something to medicate our suffering.
Unfortunately our society is stuck on the first two levels of motivation. The West has made incredible advancements in developing a methodology that enables us to meet the first two levels of motivation but we remain anemic when it comes to meeting the demands of our inner life. So most of us are never taught how to overcome these obstacles and achieve intimacy and confidence through a process of self-actualization.
As a result, our mind continues to generate the same old solutions—food, sex, money—every time we are confronted by discontentment. This creates an addiction or what in Buddhism is referred to as the suffering of change.
These self-defeating patterns of consciousness suck us into unhealthy behaviors that circle the wagons around the first two levels of motivations by creating the illusion of love/belonging, confidence and self-actualization, the next stages of development anticipated by our being.
Sex masquerades as intimacy, partying pretends to be belonging, an obsession with our appearance is substituted for esteem and exoteric adventures, accomplishments and intellectual knowledge takes the place of realization.
In the beginning a false sense of comfort arises and we think that we have found the answer to all of our problems. We think we have found our soul mate or now that we have graduated from college life will really take off but before long we find ourselves right back where we started.
This is the third level of suffering in Buddhism—traditionally referred to as the suffering of suffering. We thought we had overcome this problem and moved on but here we are yet again, right back at square one. This is the blunt edge of suffering—the sense of frustration that makes us want to throw up our hands and cry. It is the heartache or disappointment that arises when we realize that our soul mate—the answer to all of our prayers—is now the reason we are praying!
This cycle of suffering—discontentment, addiction and frustration—is what is referred to in Buddhism as samsara. Confronted with the truth of suffering the Buddha asked,
“Is this cycle of suffering an intrinsic feature of life? Arising without causes? Or is this cycle a conditioned phenomena, arising due to causes?”
If, in the midst of our frustration we look deeply we will see that there is a strong sense of I present. And if we hold this sense of I in our gaze we will see that it wants to run away from the discomfort. It wants to reach out and cling to a pleasurable distraction often one similar in nature to the object of attachment that triggered our frustration in the first place.
Rather than moving into the obstacles that prevent love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization the ego wants to grab a hold of an anesthetic. Why? Because it does not know how to work through these obstacles and process the unfolding content of our inner-being.
Suffering is cyclic because the ego is a pattern.
Our inability to embody the fullness of who we actually are creates the pressure or discomfort that the ego seeks to avoid. So, the ego can be seen as a personified pattern of resistance towards our true life. In order to follow the spectrum of human motivation towards self-actualization we have to move through the discomfort but our false-self will always choose pleasure over discomfort as evidenced by the mounting pressure of our unlived life. Therefore the belief in our false-self is the cause of our suffering.
So, what are we to do?
Notice that I said the belief in our false-self is the cause of our suffering. The ego itself is not the problem. It is our misidentification with the ego that causes all of our problems. Since the problem is based, as it is, on a misunderstanding—insight is the solution.
So, we must bring our awareness within and watch as the ego develops. The ego is a conceptual self held over our experience like a transparent overlay.
First we separate ourselves from our experience.
In view of the fact that our experience is revealed through the body—that is through the sense gates—we are separating ourselves from the body. So, stage one in the development of ego is the division between mind and body. The sense of I is situated at the level of thought, and it begins to develop itself through a co-dependent relationship with other, which may be a feeling in the body or an external person or object revealed through the body of experience.
Next, the ego establishes contact.
It just feels out the other. The ego being situated at the level of thought is conditioned by the memory. So if something resonates with a painful or uncomfortable memory it will give rise to fear and we will avoid it. If it makes us feel good we will cling to it. Based on our inbred and self-centered metric system we reduce the world of people and objects down to those that are good, bad or indifferent and treat them accordingly.
If the other is good then we will call them boyfriend, girlfriend or friend. On the other hand if they are bad we will call them enemy or asshole. The ego acquires definition through this phase of its development known as conceptualization. By labeling the other boyfriend the ego becomes girlfriend and we feel identified with this role.
Identification takes place as one thought interacts with another thought gaining speed or obsession with each interaction, creating the illusion of continuity and solidity, much like an airplane propeller appears to be a solid disk as the individual blades gain speed. Since the ego is the cause of our suffering and the ego itself is aggregated or constructed, it follows that suffering arises due to causes and is therefore a workable state of mind.
We are not stuck.
Knowing that every mind state is workable is the source of true hope.
We can exercise this plasticity by entering into the gap between thoughts and resting there. This is the practice of meditation. Meditation enables our thought processes to slow down and permits us to move beyond the illusion of continuity by enabling us to see each thought as a single blade rather than a solid disk. As a result, insight will be born in our mind-stream and we will begin to dis-identify with ego.
The ego is not a boogey man.
It is a mechanism that at one time in our past was intended to protect us. It clings to those bad memories in order to avoid relapsing into pain, heartache and disappointment. But now we are adults and we must put away the security blanket of ego so that we may grow into the fullness of our true-self, lest we live a life haunted by repressed aspects of our true-self.
Many people make the mistake of waging war on the ego.
This is spiritual materialism. Simply put, the ego begins to feel awkward about having an ego. It is almost as if the ego starts trying to protect you from itself once it realizes that it is the cause of your suffering—a type of evolutionary glitch. In the newfound spiritual economy the ego realizes that it is bad and labels itself enemy and begins to suppress itself but in the process only perpetuates the illusion of continuity.
Silence is the only way to work with ego. Just sit and watch.
There is an immense amount of intelligence in the body. Human beings are mobile bi-peds. Therefore we do not need to be taught how to walk. The body knows how to walk. It is simply a matter of exercising this capacity by being willing to get up, fall down and try again.
Likewise, we are social creatures. The body knows how to establish intimacy.
We need only to trust this inborn wisdom. We are who we are and the body obviously knows how to be that. So as trust deepens we feel esteem beginning to develop. This is a type of self love that recognizes and respects our individuality.
But trust does not cling to this individuality.
The trust continues to deepen or open up to the transcendent realm or the trans-personal dimension of being. The body is like a seed. When nourished by courage and openness it begins to unfold through the spectrum of motivation that is working towards self-actualization. Just as the seed of an oak tree is growing into the fullness of an oak tree our true-self is growing into the fullness of humanity—the individuated experience of mind and body as one—spirit. The whole path is an act of consent or trust.
The practical application of trust is silence.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
photo: media library