What Maslow Surely Missed


A Favela drummer, image via http://www.veezzle.com/photo/1141733/favela-drummer

I was reminded today of the opening scene of The Lord of the Rings. In it, Galadrielle says, ‘The world is changing. I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth and I smell it in the air.’ I could sense it today. What inspired me was a poor man, in rags, whom I saw at my local railway station in Zurich, Switzerland. There are hardly any beggars in this country because they are neatly weeded out by the efficient, Virgoan law enforcers. But this man was not begging. The elegant crowd of commuters, each tapping away at their latest model of a smart phone, looked at this man, who was holding an old-fashioned tape recorder, blasting some rock and roll and moving his body rhythmically. He was happy and he did not need anybody’s spare change.

‘Maslow was so wrong,’ I thought to myself. The basic needs of a human being are not food and shelter. Our basic needs are much more soulful and our soul needs must and do always come first.

In a book Poor Economics. A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee write about a poor Moroccan peasant who can hardly afford to feed his family. He says that a TV set, however, is an indispensable item in his household, more important than food. A TV may not be the most soulful object I could think of but it nevertheless ensures a deprived individual some kind of connection with the collective psyche. Maslow’s pyramid of needs suddenly appears irrelevant. Even the hungry or the destitute will seek to nourish their souls and transcend their existence. You cannot reduce an individual to his biological needs.

I was born in Poland, where there are still people who survived the second world war and its ordeals. The Angel of Hunger (this is the title if a magnificent novel about Soviet labour camps) lived in my land. I was particularly uplifted when I read about Otto Dov Kulka, a Holocaust survivor, who says that what kept him alive in the concentration camp was a children’s choir that he was engaged with. They were learning to perform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in secret. This shows that pure biology, the naked instinct was not enough to survive the ordeal of labour camps. Human needs do not form a hierarchy but a complicated organic system where the instinctual and the symbolic are intertwined and equally important.

The change I hinted at in the introduction has to do with a growing global understanding that  the Bible quote ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ describes a pressing, basic and urgent human need of higher meaning.

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18 Responses to What Maslow Surely Missed

  1. This gives me plenty to mull over. I am a fan of Maslow since high school and his ideas have kept me company ever since in my work as a therapist. I do see your point that it is much more than biology. Perhaps a more fluid model is in order here. Thanks for your insights.


    • Perhaps I wanted to spark a bit of controversy today. Nevertheless, I believe very strongly that spiritual needs do not come second or third. But I am always open to different views and always ready to change my mind.


      • This is not a perfect analogy, but the foundation of a building is no more or less necessary than it’s roof to make it a fully realized structure. The foundation must be addressed first. Moving past the analogy I think Maslow taught that B-love, nurturing, etc move the psychic focus from essential infrastructural needs to pursuits available to the liberated man– his interests, meaning and so on. I’ve met many people who lived idiosyncratic lifestyles that still seemed psychologically healthy and gave me pause. In the end I think my understanding of the Hierarchy of Needs had become mechanistic. I wont suggest to anyone they begin a spiritual quest by re-enforcing their shelter or eating 3 meals instead of 2 meals a day, but a persons fears and concerns, if they cluster around essential *physical* needs, will suggest that their functional spiritual development is among the lower levels known. Is this person still a child of God, with absolute potential and a perfect and unique essence? I dont know that the drummerboy was drumming for deficiency-like escapism or from alpha-waves and psycho-spiritual freedom, but Maslow’s HoN model is more likely misunderstood and misapplied than disproven. Great post, great discussion.


      • Thank you very much for this valuable contribution. I also thought about the possible escapism of the deprived individuals. I think, however, that the system of chakras is a better model of human needs than Maslow’s hierarchy, but I am always humble and open to opposing views.


      • I admit that when it comes to understanding the Chakras as developmental or as a process, I’m ignorant. I’ve been resistant honestly, but sometimes the universe says “it’s time to understand”.


  2. controversy and debate are welcome always! Viktor Frankl and his theory of logotherapy have also influenced my work. I don’t have the answers, but respect the questions. Perhaps what we need is ever-changing, like a kaleidoscope.

    in light, linda


  3. Girl, you are right on! (said the crazy American) I watched the Fellowship again just the other day and found myself listening very carefully to Galadrielle’s words. Secondly, humanity will be greatly served as more women write of the human condition. My statement is not intended as sexist in any way, though it is difficult to speak of the rounder, sentient assessment that the female mind brings to most situations. Thankfully, there are examples of this sentient understanding in men such as Jung or, modernly, Jimmy Carter. Thank you for your post.


  4. an amazing statement relative to on going and wide spread changes around the planet on many levels


  5. An inspired insight into the psyche of humanity! Human beings do, indeed, need soul nourishment. I wonder what the life of humans in the times when there was no real nourishment in the forms that we know and love. Perhaps, folk songs, drumming at dusk, drinking in taverns, festivals, storytelling around a fire when the fields were growing …
    Yes, humans do NOT live by bread alone. We need song, art, dance, stories.
    However, bread helps us to live.


    • Thank you for your comment. I just feel that western psychology needs to be transformed radically, there is often little psyche and too much science in it. Perhaps Maslow does not deserve to be bashed because he was not decisively reductionist. I would like to see one day the unification of eastern and western thinking.


  6. This post must have been timely because I’ve chewed on the question of the H.o.N. for a week now. I dont think Maslows pyramid is meant to be prescriptive at all, only a static model to help organize ideas. And that’s OK. You suggested the Chakras as a better model, and I agree. I dont understand them well, but I already see a more fluid system with which a practitioner can triangulate her spiritual position, understand her surroundings, and find her trajectury, if you follow my meaning. Zen has it’s ox-hearding pictures, the Tibetans the Elephant stages…. The west has J. Cambell’s Heros Journey model, of course the Process Enneagram… all superior models for dynamic soul-work. And btw I understand more than ever why many people dont resonate with spiritual ideas explained in technical western language an categories. It’s frustrating because there’s no universal meta-language yet, but I respect the fact of it. -Jim


    • This post on Maslow was not carefully thought over, I wrote it in 15 minutes during a train journey. It just came to me when I saw this man with the boom box. I appreciate your comment and all your efforts to bring the East and the West paradigms together. I also agree that Maslow’s style may be too dry or academic for some. I think great writers are able to activate the fourth chakra in their readers by speaking the language of love if you will. Perhaps this is the forgotten language in the West, one that we are rediscovering only now.
      Another model of development that I personally find very appealing is astrology, but the deeper astrology that I associate with Dane Rudhyar and others like him.
      Thank you for coming back here!


  7. Pingback: From Southern Baptist to Tantric Yoga? Never! | | The Running Father Blog

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