Needs, wants & a sense of balance


I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty:

You do not see that the Real is in your home, and you wander from forest to forest listlessly!

Here is the truth! Go where you will, to Benares or to Mathura; if you do not find your soul, the world is unreal to you.

Songs of Kabir XLIII

LISTENING to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ programme on Wednesday was a welcome diversion in what has been a grim week – Bellaboo came down with a nasty stomach virus and ended up in hospital on Thursday (fortunately, it’s all over & she’s recovering now). The final guest on the programme was Michael Wood, who was talking about a journey he made into Tibet in search of Shangri-La, and it struck me that in a sense we are all searching for Shangri-La in our own lives, for that little piece of heaven-on-earth where there is peace, harmony and contentment both internally and externally.


THAT sense, coupled with a comment Libby Purves made about our tendency to romanticise these remote, under-developed areas, set me thinking about how we address our wants and needs, and that naturally led me back to Maslow.

HE proposed a hierarchy of needs, suggesting that at the base level, we need to satisfy basic physiological and security needs for food, water, shelter and safety, and with those satisfied, we would then fulfil emotional needs – social & belonging needs, needs relating to recognition and self-esteem. And only when all those needs were satisfied, could we achieve everyone’s ultimate goal – self-actualisation.

maslow_hierarchySELF-ACTUALISATION is, for the individual, the realisation of one’s potential, the point where one becomes all that one wants to be. To me, sceptic agnostic that I am, there is a strong spiritual element to this, a sense that one is not only all that one can be in terms of realising one’s own potential and talents (to paraphrase Thoreau: “living the life you have imagined”), but also implies a high degree of connectivity with the world around oneself – in relationships and in a wider context of understanding and accepting one’s place in the world. It seems to me to be a profoundly peaceful place, and reminiscent of what have been described variously as ‘peak experiences’ or ‘epiphanies’, or, I suppose, the perfect peace of the buddha or sufi master.

SO far, so good. The framework holds, it makes sense, and I can relate it to my own sets of wants and needs. Until I look at the world around me, and then I start to question it. Whilst I know that subsequent researchers have either built upon Maslow’s work, or else posited that there is no such thing as a universal theory of needs, or that there is no ranking to those needs, I think his groupings are fundamentally correct, and I also think that all humans, with their smart, questioning brains, are driven to a greater or lesser extent by the need for self-actualisation, to understand and accept their place in the world whilst existing in the fullest, most real sense, that they are able to.

HOWEVER, what I see is that instead of a hierarchy of needs, with higher level needs fulfilled in sequence when lower level needs are satisfied, is that the need to self-actualise can drive over-compensation in areas where needs *can* be satisfied, to make up for a lack of satisfaction in areas where needs *cannot* be satisfied. For example, a lack of satisfaction of the need for social interaction and a feeling of belonging can lead to over-satisfaction in, say physiological needs, in the consumption of food, drink or material possessions, in an attempt to fulfil the missing need by available means in the hope that it will lead one to self-actualisation. The obverse could be true as well: a lack of satisfaction of physiological needs resulting in a strong dependence of social and cultural identity to compensate for physical poverties.

THIS I can observe in the world around me: in the culture of the developed world, over-concentration and over-consumption of material things – food, drink, possessions – are commonplace, and the satisfaction of the physical self is the established view as the best way to realise one’s potential, and increasingly the higher-level needs of belonging, of community, of love, compassion, empathy and esteem are dismissed as unprofitable and therefore worthless indulgences in an increasingly secular society.

BY contrast, in the developing world, where physical needs cannot be met, where there is hunger, thirst, poverty and insecurity, we see groups of people with fierce, all-consuming loyalties to family, tribe, religion and region that spill into conflict and disharmony even in the few areas where there are sufficient physical resources to satisfy basic needs. And we see in the developed world an increasing tendency to romanticise these communities, a wistful envy for a way of life, a sense of belonging and place, that is lost to us, and we do not see the physical hardship of life in such places, and we do not understand that to exchange the physical luxuries of our lives for this sense of belonging is to exchange our security for a life of punishing physical toil for uncertain return, a life where there are few rights and fewer protections, where medical aid is a hope and prayer rather than a quick visit to the GP or hospital.

IN neither instance can self-actualisation be achieved. And in both circumstances, the clash of the different positions – of lack/need in physical elements and need/lack of emotional (belonging) elements gives rise to disharmony and conflict where the different priorities and outlooks come into opposition. We see this in undeveloped regions resisting the evils of the material, developed world, the denunciation on the one hand of modern technologies and attitudes as destructive evils, and the insistence on the other that to resist such advances is a clear sign of wrong-thinking backwardness. Such cultural arrogance can only lead to dissonance and conflict.

HOW then, can the trick be managed? If we look to history, to the people who could be said to have achieved self-actualisation – Aristotle, Socrates, Mohamed, Jesus, the Buddha, the Gurus and Sufi masters and a handful of other saints, prophets and philosophers – or more recently at people like Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, what can we observe? That their needs are met and satisfied and held in balance, allowing the person at the centre the space to realise their full potential. That there is a recognition that neither physical needs nor emotional needs can alone represent the whole reality of a person, but rather that both are aspects of that same whole that must be acknowledged and addressed. In some instances, self-actualisation is made possible by the complete lack of both physical and emotional support – Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness spring to mind – but in all cases what is apparent is that an inner balance is acheived, when needs are met in full and the individual is freed from concerning themself with fulfilling those needs and is able to concentrate on the inner self.

Thus the needs could be represented more as a set of balanced weights: self-actualisation only possible when both physical and emotional needs are in equilibrium, thus:


UNDERSTANDING the need for balance in those terms has broad application for me. Not only does it give a powerful insight into my own thinking about my life and how well I balance the different elements, but it also allows me to see where I am out of balance and changes my thinking about how I can address that imbalance. It allows me to recognise that I am in a place where all my physical needs are met: I have enough to eat and drink, I have shelter of the finest sort and enough possessions to make that shelter comfortable and aesthetically pleasant, I have security (although I perceive there are threats to that security). In that regard, I am lucky. Possibly, I have a surfeit: certainly, a surfeit is available to me, should I want it. I perceive too, that although I go some way to satisfying my emotional needs: my relationships with my immediate family and my sense of my self-worth and my engagement with the activities and occupations that satisfy my esteem-needs. However I can see a lack of a sense of social-belonging, a lack of community. That will always be hard for me: social interaction is never going to be easy for someone with Aspergers, no matter how much I want to bridge the gap. But, and this chimes in with my recurring house-dream, it becomes apparent that it is a need I must address, in one form or another.

IN parenting, too, this model gives me an insight into my children’s development and their ability and *desire* to both *recognise* and fulfil their own potential. It is too easy to focus on the easy-to-satisfy physical needs, particularly because I find others’ emotions so hard to identify and understand, and I have done so to the exclusion of some important emotional needs. I recognise now the dangerous pattern-setting behaviour in distracting a distressed child with a food-treat, how that can set up the transference of an emotional lack into a physical need, and send the individual out of balance. It is something I can change, and I need to do so.

I THINK this is a particularly powerful and timely insight in Honey’s case. She stands on the cusp of some enormous changes, at that pre-teen transition phase, and already some of those changes are starting to kick in – she’s moody, mouthy, emotional. What I need to do is support her, feed her emotional needs for acceptance and love so that she has the courage and confidence to find her feet in the tricky rapids ahead. We made our first tentative steps today: a grey overcast didn’t stop us sharing a lovely time in the garden, and athough I had to force myself to abandon my preferred mode of solo-working, the time spent working together and achieving something wonderful and a mutual appreciation of a job well done transformed a cantankerous madam into a sweet, thoughtful, helpful delight. It’s a good, timely lesson, and one I need to learn and apply for her sake, for her siblings’ sake, and for my own sake.

HOW I do that, and make all the other changes, is something I have yet to work out.


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