Have you heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
Perhaps you’ve seen a famous pyramid diagram that shows how universal motivations drive our actions.
(Psychologist Abraham Maslow didn’t illustrate his ideas that way—Charles McDermid did. But that’s besides the point.)
The main idea is we all have 5 different kinds of needs. First, we need food, water and shelter. Then comes physical safety and financial security.
Once those needs are met, we need friends, family, intimate partners and community, as well as respect and esteem.
Finally, we need to reach our full potential, which includes achieving goals and creative activities.
Later on, Maslow added what he believed was the true pinnacle of human development: self-transcendence. That’s when we focus on altruism and our spiritual connection to the universe.
We don’t necessarily progress through the stages in a linear fashion. It’s possible to experience several stages at once. But we tend to attain self-actualization and self-transcendence more easily when we fulfill the other needs first.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs receives much criticism. Yet we can use its basic tenet to deepen our spiritual practice, cultivate compassion and embrace who we are.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Humans are animals too
“Humanity is poised midway between gods and beasts, and inclines now to the one order, now to the other; some men grow like to the divine, others to the brute, the greatest number stand neutral.” —Plotinus
Some spiritual teachings encourage us to disidentify from the body to raise our consciousness.
We get the impression the physical world is inferior.
Yet every living thing shares our basic genetic code. Flies, worms and bonobos have the same nervous system structure as us.
Of course, humans possess special traits, especially the ability to use language in many forms.
But we still have a survival mechanism, like any other animal.
The ego, a human extension of that survival mechanism, keeps us safe— physically and emotionally. As small children, we learned we’re our personality, emotions, beliefs and story.
Because we see ourselves as separate individuals, we live through a powerful filter that disconnects us from reality: good/bad, right/wrong, love/hate.
Rejecting parts of ourselves causes us to suffer. So we judge and control others who clash with our ideas.
As a result, our shadow—everything we’ve repressed about ourselves—wreaks havoc in our relationships and the world.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reminds me there will always be a part of me that seeks survival. Physical and emotional survival (hence, the bottom 4 levels of the pyramid).
Certain spiritual teachers tell us to destroy the ego. I understand, since my own ego’s overprotectiveness crippled me. But compassionately listening to fears that animated my ego freed me.
I didn’t have to force myself to disidentify from my body. On the contrary, embracing my body and “lower” needs helped me to trust the universe, explore new opportunities and reach my full potential.
Our body and soul, our ego and presence, all have their place.
We need to be whole
If you’re like me, you prioritize your spiritual practice…
Maybe to the detriment of your other needs. Oops.
For a while, I managed to get by with the bare necessities (physiological and safety needs).
Building a career, gaining approval and achieving worldly goals (esteem and self-actualization needs) didn’t matter as much as my romantic relationship and spirituality (love/belongingness and self-transcendence needs).
I even had a tête gonflée, as they say in French—I became big-headed and mocked others who didn’t connect regularly with spirit. (Ironic, isn’t it?)
Now I know better.
Meeting my “lower” needs to the best of my ability deepens my spiritual practice. Because all of life serves our higher good.
For example, acknowledging physical sensations during meditation helped me release trauma (safety needs). Since I felt safer in my own body, it became easier to let go of control and awaken more fully (self-transcendence needs).
“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies…. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” —Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
On a similar note, the Chinese character for “king” inspires me.
What does it have to do with all this?
The 3 horizontal lines represent, starting from the top, sky, human and earth. And the vertical line unites the 3 elements.
A king is someone who connects heaven and earth.
As spiritual seekers, we’re like the Chinese concept of “kings”. We’re leaders showing others how to live in harmony with their whole selves.
Are you up to the challenge?
Between heaven and earth
Current global issues can leave us all feeling hopeless.
Sometimes, we might even struggle to face another day.
We long for others to experience the same rapturous moments we’ve had—divine revelations that would bring world peace.
Maslow aptly called this plight a “cosmic sadness” over the shortcomings of humanity.
With time, I’ve come to understand that perhaps our mission isn’t to eradicate the bad and ugly.
It’s to learn how to walk gracefully between heaven and earth, within and without.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a spiritual coach offering practical wisdom to awakening souls. The world needs your inner peace. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading related to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: