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Tag Archives: Survival Needs

Seduction of the Mindless Life

The exact age at which we begin making intentional choices in life is up for debate, but there are good reasons for putting it somewhere between three and five. This is about the time when language acquisition has provided us with a lens for organizing the world around us, and with a mirror for reflecting back to us an image of ourselves. From that moment onward, life is no longer just happening to us but rather presents us with options, different doors and alternative paths that we must choose.

But to say that we must choose our life presents us with an apparent contradiction, since just as making a choice presupposes some degree of freedom, the necessity of making a choice seems to instantly cancel that freedom out.


The exact age at which we stop making intentional choices in life can also be debated, but I would put it somewhere in our early thirties. We’ve made a significant number of choices by that time, and through the years a good minority of them have settled into the habits and convictions that move us mindlessly along the cattle tracks of daily life. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that by the time we are young adults, many of us are living prescribed and automatic lives.

This would all amount to a very tragic and extraordinarily pessimistic view of life, if it weren’t for the fact that we allow it to happen. Not only do we allow it to happen, but we hasten the process which will eventually have us locked inside the cage of a mindless life.


You might like to know why we do this, and I shall give you an answer. But first I have some questions for you.

If you were to guess, what percentage of your everyday behavior conforms to routines that were set months, years, and even decades ago? These background routines got their start after you first chose to act or respond in a certain way. Then you repeated the sequence across numerous similar situations until you no longer had to think about it. They migrated to the back of your mind and took control of your behavior.

Now let’s be clear, habits are basic to human life. If you had to make a fresh choice every time and clarify the steps all over again, the skosh of random access memory in your conscious attention would be terminally preoccupied with those minutiae. You’d never be able to learn anything, at least nothing very involved or complex.

Over your lifetime you have practiced and repeated many behaviors that eventually became habits, which, by liberating your conscious attention from that more rudimentary level of control, made it possible for you to tackle and learn more sophisticated skills.

What tends to happen, though, is that even these more sophisticated skills soon become habits. And now you’re bored; or you’re restless. Maybe you are restless and bored. That, my friend, is the precondition for all kinds of interesting mental disorders, from anxiety to depression.

But let’s come back to my questions.

Here’s another one: If you were to guess, what percentage of what you think you know about anything conforms to beliefs that were fixed in place months, years, and even decades ago? By a dynamic similar to the formation of habits, you might hear a statement from someone else or in a media broadcast, and then the following week you hear it again. Randomly through the day you recall what you heard and you think about it, again. With each repetition, whether external (you hear it again) or internal (you recall it again), that sound byte gains credibility in your mind.

As it becomes more familiar and you give emotional support to its supposed truth, that bit of doctrine becomes your belief.

As before, we need to acknowledge the crucial function of beliefs in human life. They are the mental equivalent to those motor routines of habit, in this case constructing propositions that serve to arrange your thoughts on a topic and render a judgment. As prefabricated judgments, or prejudgments (aka prejudices), beliefs save you time from having to think and consider and work out what something means to you. If your mind originally constructed (or borrowed) your belief about something, the mere repetition and persistence of that belief gradually gave it control over your thoughts, at which point it became a conviction.

Just as habits serve as background routines for new skills, convictions can simply be taken as true and thence serve as foundational beliefs of your worldview.

And wouldn’t you know it, but having your mind locked in a box where you don’t really need to think anymore results, not in a more complete understanding of reality as you may have hoped, but instead in a kind of mental hall of mirrors where this belief is cross-referenced with that belief, but very little of it touches the reality of everyday life.

Now to the question of why we do it. What on Earth would motivate us as young adults to surrender our free will for the cage of a mindless (and correspondingly meaningless) life? I’ve already hinted at something else in play, beyond the gradual takeover of consciousness by the normal accumulation of habits and convictions. Is there something seductive about the cage that lures us inside?

The answer is, Yes; and what we find so alluring is the escape it affords from the freedom and responsibility of choosing our way through life, moment to moment.

Employing that same strategy of liberating energy for higher-order challenges, human consciousness has evolved over many millenniums through an ascending hierarchy of pressing needs. Our primitive survival needs for air, water, food, and shelter have about them an unmistakable urgency. Later these needs were superseded by the social needs for connection, belonging, membership, and identity.

Very much later, our shared life in society began to stretch open and transform by the energy of still higher needs, which can be named spiritual, including our need for serenity, presence, communion, and wellbeing.

This is admittedly a gross simplification of human history, but it does serve to clarify what I mean by the “pressing need” of urgency. All of those distinct registers of human need – survival, social, and spiritual – are pressing and urgent precisely because they are critical to our fulfillment as human beings. In our evolutionary ascent through those registers, the habits and convictions associated with our survival needs had to break open in order to release the creative energy that our social needs would require. We had to learn how to share our resources, how to care for others, and how to repair damaged relationships.

And now, here we are: The spiritual needs are pressing us to change, to transform yet again, this time to choose our higher selves. It is urgent that we take responsibility for our lives and start living them on purpose, with purpose, and for the purpose of becoming fully human.

The human spirit cannot live in a cage. It is time to take our leave.

 

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A New Hierarchy of Needs

Back when Abraham Maslow formulated his hierarchy of human needs, the science of psychology hadn’t yet clarified what I have come to name our subjective or “feeling-needs.” At that time the concept of need was still equated with a dependency on something external to the individual which is required for healthy development.

As we move up his hierarchy we advance across physiological, safety, relational and self-esteem needs, until we come to the threshold of self-actualization and realizing our highest potential.

My ‘new hierarchy of needs’ includes much of Maslow’s model but rearranges elements according to a stage theory of human development that I’ve been working to clarify in this blog. It also adds what I’m calling our spiritual needs, which isn’t suggesting that we have a need for heaven, immortality, or even god as most religions claim. Our spiritual needs are very real, but not at all metaphysical or supernatural in orientation.

I agree with Maslow that the entire scheme culminates in self-actualization, or what I name ‘fulfillment’ in the sense of realizing our full capacity as human beings.

To appreciate how my rearrangement and new category of needs matters to our self-understanding, as well as to an ethics of engagement with other human beings, let’s take a tour through my diagram. We’ll begin at the base of the hierarchy and work our way upward, taking a little more time on those elements that Maslow didn’t include but which determine to a great extent how high into what he called “the farther reaches of human nature” any of us are capable of going.

Our survival needs are what we require in our animal nature to stay alive: clean air to breathe, pure water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and protective refuge where we can rest in safety. Of course, we are more than a mere body and its organic urgencies, and there are some higher needs such as social connection, and I would even argue spiritual peace, deprived of which a human animal will suffer and prematurely die.

While Maslow’s model proceeds from our physical (physiological and safety) needs into needs of love and belonging, I have inserted between these the category of our subjective needs. I actually prefer to call them our “feeling-needs,” referring specifically to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To understand their place in the hierarchy of needs, just think about how your survival need for refuge, for example, translates subjectively into the felt sense of being safe (or not). Or consider how your social need for connection translates subjectively into the felt sense of being loved (or not). In each case, that felt sense is a crucial reference in your self-appraisal and of what’s going on.

Subjective needs are not survival needs, but they register the degree in which your material environment provides for your animal life. And neither are subjective needs the same as your social needs, but they register the internal impression of how supportive your social web is to your developing personality.

The subjective needs – your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – is where your experiences of reality as provident or otherwise are translated into deep impressions regarding your existential security.

In other words, it’s not enough that you are in fact safe, loved, capable, and/or worthy; if you don’t feel safe (etc.), then that unsatisfied need to feel safe will dominate your attention and drive your behavior. Anxiety is our name for the feeling of threat or danger, and if you are taken over by anxiety it doesn’t matter if your actual circumstances happen to be perfectly safe.

You are constantly checking in on this register of subjective needs and how secure you feel.

Calling the feeling-needs subjective rather than internal emphasizes the point that they are “thrown under” the center of personal identity known as ego. A construct of identity is the highest of your social needs, and regarding it as a construct – something that is not a fact of natural formation but instead a cultural fiction composed out of numerous “I am ______” storylines – is a breakthrough discovery of social psychology in the last 100 years.

Think of the social needs as correlated around your emerging identity as a member of your tribe. Outwardly you perform this identity across countless role plays, while inwardly – or better yet, subjectively – you carry a felt sense of how safe, loved, capable, and worthy you are. When your feeling-needs have been adequately met, the construct of personal identity is said to possess “ego strength.”

The virtues of ego strength are that personality is stably grounded in your animal nature (i.e., the body), is emotionally balanced, and is unified under the executive management of self-control.

My returning reader will anticipate what I say next, which is that ego strength in this ideal sense is vanishingly rare. Because we were born to imperfect parents, raised in uniquely dysfunctional families, and had to find our way in a chronically mess-up world, each of us carries some insecurity associated with our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To whatever degree we fall short of the ideal, just about everything in life will be caught up in our schemes to find what we feel we don’t have enough of. We have a compulsion to fill the emptiness within ourselves. And what do you know, there are all kinds of ideologies, agencies, products, and services out there that promise just what we crave.

So we bite, buy, and believe – but nothing can make our insecurity go away.

As you contemplate the Hierarchy of Needs, it should be easy to imagine how the frustration of subjective needs and the various compensations, substitutes, and distractions you employ to feel better (i.e., happier and more secure) end up interfering with your social needs as well.

Instead of healthy connection, you’re caught in attachment and codependency. Instead of belonging, you struggle desperately for acceptance and approval. Instead of enjoying the benefits of membership, you have to fight for what you feel is yours. And all of that together conspires to make you more confused than ever about who you are.

The resulting identity confusion, with its source in your subjective insecurity, presses you urgently into the chase, the quest, and the hope for salvation – for something, someone, somewhere else. 

Deepest down there is no peace, just this inner void and restless craving. Tangled up in the storylines of your confused identity, stuck in the past and striving for a way out, you can’t be fully present to the here and now. Instead of lifted into an awareness of your communion with all things, you feel isolated and lonely.

But the great evolutionary tragedy is that the priceless treasure of your true nature is locked behind a heavy door of fear and neurotic self-interest. Your spiritual wealth is left undiscovered and your unique contribution to the commonwealth of beings cannot be released.

As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 

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