When Maslow’s Pyramid Tips Over…

You know how when you’re sitting on your back deck, drinking coffee before the hot of the day, listening to your favorite podcasts and audiobooks, and all of a sudden…BAM!!!!…..an idea suddenly hits you….a convergence of the many different voices and ideas that speak to you on a daily basis…and it feels kind of mystical?

I had one of these moments today – when I was jumping back and forth between Richard Rohr’s The Univeral Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Beleive the latest Robcast episode, and reflecting on my job as a med/surg nurse.  This is a regular “spiritual practice” of mine; my ADHD daily races along the rails of words and ideas, trying to make obscure connections between the most seemingly unrelated things…all the while trying to balance my left-brain scientific side with my sometimes “woo woo” right-brain spirituality. I’ll try to explain in the next little bit the “aha” moment I experienced this morning while enjoying the cicadas, a cup of coffee, my beloved shade trees, and a comfy Adirondack chair.

Two of the things that are constantly on my mind are what it means to be human, and the underlying connectedness of all things. Taking these concepts further, what is our responsibility to others while remaining true to ourselves?  How do we live out our true selves in a temporary space-time construct, while at the same time loving and serving all creation and all sentient beings?  (This is a rhetorical question: there are no tidy answers to neatly wrap this one up. I’m skeptical of those who try).

While I’ve always been a bit eccentric, with a bent toward spiritual and theological things,  I started out life like most people…trying to build a safe, secure world with comforts, toys, options, and defined goals to pursue. As Richard Rohr has so often said, the purpose of the beginning of our lives is to build up a “container”, to learn who we are and create an “external self”.   Rules, defined limits, and boundaries help create security and a sense of identity in life, according to Rohr, and are a necessary foundation to lay for the successful transition to the “second half of life”. (Side note: Rohr derived many of his ideas about the halves of life from Carl Jung).  As Rohr describes it, our first half of life, this building up all the things I just mentioned,  is a strengthening of the ego.  It is a way of grounding ourselves to this material world, which is a good and necessary step.  But, this ego and the first half of life can only take us so far. In the end, it offers only disillusionment because it is encouraging us to constantly chase what is really just vapor, simply the ghost of a non-existent reality, Only when we can begin to transcend our ego containers can we learn to taste what being a spirit-human is really all about.

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Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is pretty well known, I think. It was discussed in almost every introductory psychology or health class I’ve sat in, ranging from undergrad liberal arts to counseling courses to nursing school.  You’re probably pretty familiar with it yourself, but just in case you’re not, here’s a graphic:

Image result for maslow pyramid of needs

Basically, Maslow is making the point that we as humans have fundamental needs in order to thrive, and those needs must be met in a sequential order to be able to move on to more and more abstract ideas….or to become our highest, most actualized, most creative selves.

There are certainly exceptions to this hierarchy, but in general, it really rings true with what I’ve seen and experienced in life. One particular area that I’ve thought alot about is back when I was in high school and college and I would go with my churches or other groups on mission trips to third world countries.  There were basically two camps of thought among the various leaders of these groups:  1) preach Jesus and salvation as paramount importance, because being “saved” is better than physical or emotional security in this life, or 2) meet people’s felt needs, because a hungry belly isn’t capable of listening to talk about the sweet by and by or admonishments to radically change ways of doing life in the here and now.

I’m no longer trying to proselytize or get anyone “saved”, but I do believe this:  it’s disrespectful and unfeeling to preach to people about anything if we aren’t willing to step into the grime and horrors of their lives and try to help them with their immediate hurts.

So all this to say, I’m totally on board with Maslow’s hierarchy…..except for maybe the idea that sex is a physiological need. I’ve still never yet met anyone who died from not having sex, although there have been plenty among us who insist it is true. (Tongue in cheek here).  Sexual intimacy, on the other hand, does seem in my mind to be a legitimate need in the love and belonging category.  OK, away from that rabbit trail and back to building my primary thesis…

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…..which is:  Maslow’s Hierarchy as we traditionally view it is only the FIRST half of the story.

Having now reached my 39th year of life and having done a bit of shadow work, I believe that Maslow’s upward rising pyramid of needs is absolutely necessary to build the first half of life container, per Rohr and Jung.  But, it fails to explain the second, and maybe most important half of life that not everyone reaches…..where the pyramid flips over. The needs that were so fundamental suddenly become the least concern. When we were once so worried about and centered on our environment and relationships, we now learn that true meaning, wellbeing, and joy spring forth from within us; we don’t ultimately achieve them from what is on the outside.

maslow

Ann Voskamp, author of one of my all-time favorite books (One Thousand Gifts), uses the phrase “the upside-down Kingdom of God”. I love this; I think it describes succinctly how the divine works in the world – directly opposite of much of the conventional wisdom that we hold so tightly to.  This alternative way of looking at life says that the most important thing is for us to know who we truly are at our core, and to move, act, and live out of that inherent knowing.  However, the wisdom that most of us live by tells us that we must first build an external life and hinge who we are on it. We judge the quality of our lives by what we own, what we’ve done, and who we do it with.

What is so interesting to me, and what most of the great spiritual teachers I have read say, is that to get to this upside-down kingdom, you first have to live in reality as we currently experience it,  where things, success, goals, and safety are the most important.  Then, as if by moving through a worm hole into an alternate universe, something causes our perspectives and paradigms to change….we suddenly see that what we once thought was so damned important for our happiness really isn’t so necessary after all.   Sometimes this happens to people by methodically moving up Maslow’s hierarchy through socioeconomic and emotional development.  Others shoot through the worm hole rather quickly because of some intense suffering they have experienced that brought them to the end of themselves.  A few, like Rohr admits about himself, have somehow made this transition for no explainable reason other than a great insatiable thirst to know the truth of Life.  Still, many others never reach this transformation, never know it even exists. As a side note, this is the salvation that I firmly believe Jesus was offering: to tell those who were desperate, hopeless, and willing to hear…..that this upside-down Kingdom exists and is accessible to all who will learn to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.

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As a nurse, formerly on an orthopedic floor, and now on a general medical unit, I love to watch and talk to patients.  I actually think I could never work on an ICU floor….patients on ventilators don’t tend to talk back to you. My interest in gabbing with patients and learning their life stories is my biggest time management issue: by the end of a shift I may be rushing to check off all of my tasks, but I can definitely offer a good commentary on my patients and their lives outside the hospital.

It seems to me that Maslow’s hierarchy is very tangibly experienced when people are in the hospital.  Here they are usually stressed, afraid, in pain, and overwhelmed.  As such, the level they are on seems to stand out.  If I pay close enough attention, I can tell which patients are most concerned with their physical environments and making sure their physical needs are met in just such a way. I can tell which patients are most craving solid relationships or struggling with how to do relationships well.  I can often tell which patients have deep-seated insecurities that are holding them back in life.  And then, there are the patients (usually elderly, but not always) whose pyramids have tipped over.  They know what is important in life and how to do life well.  They know what ultimately matters, and what is temporal and superficial.  These are the people I have the hardest time pulling myself away from; I may be nursing their physical bodies, but they are nursing my soul.

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I personally live a very wobbly existence.  What I believe to be true on my good days doesn’t always translate to my bad.  Some days I feel very in tune with the upside-down Kingdom, and other days I’m the most ego-driven, selfish person I know.  My pyramid will start to get a little top-heavy and tippy, and then some fear or insecurity of mine will cause it to come crashing back down with a resounding clunk, reminding me that there is much shadow work left to be done and that I have not yet fully escaped my first half of life container.

But I suppose this is the spiritual path.  Maybe instead of a one time all or nothing flip,  our pyramid of needs will turn back and forth like a magnet searching for true north. Rohr even discusses something along these lines: the stages of spiritual development, in his book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.  Or as Ken Wilber, Don Beck, and others have described, spirituality and increasing consciousness is a spiral dynamic. Ultimately, I think the path is never a linear one, due to the extreme complexity of life.

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As a final thought here regarding all my pontificating in this post….

I am SO glad that my pyramid is tipping and threatening to permanently topple one day.  It is so freaking liberating to not be quite so tied up in all the things that I used to believe made life meaningful.  It is SO good to have experienced that being married, or having alot of money, or owning a nice house aren’t things that automatically bring happiness.  It is SO good to have learned, even if only to an extent, that having strong relationships is more important to me than my own safety, or looks, or possessions, or physical comforts.

However, I am equally grateful that I had people in my life that helped me build a strong first half of life container.  I am grateful that I’m learning to transcend and leave behind the things that haven’t served me well, and yet include those things from the past that are still serving me.

And most of all, I’m grateful that I have the freedom and time to sit on my deck under a canopy of shade trees to drink coffee, listen to some great teachers, and ponder life.

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