Teachers: (Part 7) - Neo-Pagans and Self Actualization
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College students and business managers are familiar with the works of Abraham Harold Maslow. Psychology professors often include Maslow in their classroom course of study for the same reason that corporate trainers may implant some of his material buried within their orientation or management skills workshops. Maslow had an interesting theory.
Abe Maslow earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin in 1934. Early in his career, he conducted extensive research into the behavior of monkeys-more specifically into the needs of monkeys and which of those needs was fulfilled in what order. From this research came his now famous "hierarchy of needs" theory. This "need scale' is often shown as a visual graph in the shape of a pyramid. From the bottom to the top, the basic needs are:
The physiological needs. These are the basics of maintaining life and good health: Water, food, certain vitamins and minerals, temperature, oxygen, etc. Also included in this category are the needs to be active, to rest, to reproduce, to avoid pain and to sleep. (If you have ever had that 'need' for chocolate, then you know how REALLY important these needs can be!) Obviously, this is a very simplistic version of the first four hierarchies. But even in this short description, we can see where some of these needs would overlap and shift depending on our circumstances. If we get fired from our jobs or get a failing grade in a class (level 4 needs), then our needs move back a bit and we may compensate by seeking more love and acceptance (level 3 needs) from our family and friends until we regain our emotional footing. We may even go to our rooms, shut the door and not come out for a while (level 2). Please slip the chocolate bar under the door.
The safety and security needs. After people have satisfied the needs in the first set -and devoured that chocolate bar-the next need that they turn to is the establishment of a safe and secure environment. Shelter, structure, order and some limitations to the influence of outside forces manifest in the search for that "safe neighborhood", a good job, a little nest egg for emergencies and some good hiding places for those chocolate bars. A system of law and justice becomes an important factor for consideration on this level. If someone steals your candy bar, dammit, you want to know that they are either going to buy you a new one or pay the consequences...
The love and belonging needs. After people are fed and secure, a third factor begins to emerge: the need to establish relationships through friends, lovers and family. In time, this need to be with others of our own kind will extend outward into a community setting. We date, marry, have families, go on trips, join clubs, and celebrate all the highs and lows of life within these circles. We want our friends and families to share our joys and be with us in our sorrows. Some of our favorite folks become our favorite folks when they offer to share their chocolate bar with us.
The esteem needs. Maslow splits the esteem needs into two groups-the higher and the lower. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status and glory, recognition, fame, attention and even dominance. Lower esteem needs may come and go with the outside forces and people who are providing them.
The higher esteem needs are met within ourselves and so, while they are harder to establish perhaps, they also harder to lose once attained. You don't have to please "mommy' in order to get that chocolate bar anymore. You've earned your own money and now you can buy your own candy whenever you want to. Maybe even start your own candy bar company...
Your life experiences may also color how you view these basic needs. If you were always hungry as a child, food may be important to you throughout your life. If you were rejected or abused, you'll focus on love and acceptance needs. If your parents were "overachievers", then you may always feel that you have to measure up to the same standard or be considered a failure.
O.K. Wren , this is all very interesting stuff, but what does it have to do with Neo-paganism?
Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. Maybe a look at the top of the pyramid is in order.
The Top Of The Pyramid
5. The growth -or self actualization -needs. These needs are what drives people-motivates people-to keep seeking, keep trying, keep looking for something more. If all the needs of humanity could be truly satisfied with simply meeting the needs in the first four categories, the world would have long since fallen into decay and stagnation. Something else drives some people to look for...well, something else. Maslow, as he formulated his theory, expressed his opinion that only 2% of people were what he called, 'self-actualizing' personalities. That is a very small number indeed. But when you consider that most of the world's populations are still struggling with famines, droughts, wars, poverty, economic unease and ethnic unrest, this is not really that surprising. The first four needs have not been met there.
Who are the self actualizers? Maslow took a group of people that he considered to be self actualizing personalities and studied their lives, their writings and their achievements. From this study, he came up with certain traits that may identify such personalities. In this group, he included people like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, William James, Eleanor Roosevelt and others. To Maslow, these self actualizing people had much in common.
Self actualizers are reality centered. They can tell what is fake and what is real, what is dishonest from what is genuine. They are problem-solvers-which means that they approach life's difficulties as problems demanding solutions, not as personal disasters to be avoided or blamed on someone or something else. They also do not believe the ends justify the means, but rather that the means could actually be ends in themselves. In other words, they held the maxim that "the journey is its own reward".
Here is where you may begin to recognize yourself or some other pagans that you may know. Here is where many of the tenets-or even goals- of Neo-paganism can be seen. Perhaps here too is where you will find a description of who you -without even knowing anything about Maslow or his theories-may be striving to become.
Neo-Paganism May Be A Good Breeding Place For Self Actualizers
Self actualizers relate to others in ways that other personality types do not. They are very private people and are quite comfortable being alone. Talking to a few people that I consider to be self actualizers, they all stress that they have a very strong NEED (emphasis theirs) to be alone sometimes. They simply have to have this private interlude in order to be happy.
Self actualizers are fairly independent of current cultural trends. They pick what they want to adopt -only for those reasons important to themselves- and disregard the rest. They tend to rely on their own experiences and make their own judgments. They do not bow to public pressure or change their core beliefs and values when the rest of society decides that this or that is the latest cool fad. They are non-conformists, but in a totally positive way. They don't try to change other people's views, but are simply comfortable with their own and don't really care if other people are not.
Self actualizers believe in democracy. (Thomas Jefferson, you could say, would be the prime example of this type of belief.) They are open to the diversity and variety of independent thinkers to the point of celebration. They find different points of view to be challenging rather than threatening, stimulating rather than crushing, to be encouraged rather than to be avoided.
They also tend to develop very close friendships with only a few select people-often other self actualizers-who may hold different views on subjects, but similarly embrace the love of diversity. They find relationships with many other people outside this group to be both shallow and somewhat exhausting.
Other traits of self actualizers include:
A sense of humor that is most often directed at themselves and at the foibles of society rather than used as a weapon against others.
A readiness to accept people as they find them rather than try to change them. (They themselves change only to suit themselves, so in fact here they are just returning the favor.) Self actualizers tend to have some traits that they consider "quirks" and accept that same "quirkiness" in others as a unique and interesting twist. Yet for all this, they are often very conventional in speech and appearance as they have no "need' to draw attention to themselves. (as in level 4).
Self actualizers can look at old things in the same way that a child looks at a kitten for the first time. Every day is new and fresh and exciting. This also explains their ability to come up with innovative ideas seemingly from "out of the blue."
They have their faults, of course. They can suffer anxiety over the state of the world, over evil, over those who just don't seem to "get it." They can be absent-minded as they muse away. lost in their own thoughts. And if their need for privacy is not met, they can become cold, withdrawn, humorless and be quite scathing and cynical.
Sure sounds like a lot of pagans that I know...
The Road To Self Actualization Is Not A Free Ride!
Looking back at the traits of self actualizers, we also can see many of these traits reflected in the basic beliefs of many Neo-pagan practitioners. Maybe even in ourselves.
Neo-paganism is, if nothing else, a spiritual journey, a search as it were both for self and for...that something else.
Let's take a look at some of things that self actualizers and many Neo-pagan belief systems and their practitioners have in common. While your mileage may vary, and not all groups or individuals may believe or strive toward all of these traits, at least to me, some of these traits look an awful lot like what we believe in-or profess to believe in- and strive to emulate.
These are the "must haves" for self actualizers. These are the things that they say that they need in order to be happy.
Truth. Neo-paganism is not a fantasy world of made-up characters. It is not a role-playing game. It is a real and growing group of diverse individuals on a spiritual search to both recapture and rekindle lost earth-based religious practices and beliefs and to develop new theological paradigms. Where this will ultimately take us, we are not sure. There may never be an ultimate truth. But for us, the "journey is the reward." Neo-paganism is not escapism from the "real world", but a desire to return to earth-based religions in order to understand, embrace and appreciate real life at it fullest. In order to do that, Neo-pagans realize-as do self actualizers-that they are comfortable only when they are truly being themselves. Each person-led on by the need to attain self actualization-finds his or her own way there. It cannot be transferred by a touch or learned from books. In fact, if you ask self actualizers how they got there, they have a difficult time trying to explain it. Words cannot convey anything more than hints as to where to look and what may be helpful.
Anyone who feels the need to put on a false face is not yet self actualized. Such can be found within the Neo-pagan community, of course, as in all walks of life and society. These people are probably still working on level 3 or 4 needs. In time, tiring of the energy expended in maintaining such a facade, they may find ways to meet these lower needs in more constructive ways and eventually come to self actualization.
Beauty. The glory of the sunset, the gentle glow of the moon, the softness of a child's cheek and the crashing of coming thunder-all these things have meaning and beauty to us. This is not a denial that life has its ugly moments, that people can act in selfish ways (What needs have not been met there?) or that vulgarity is often a part of mainstream humor. It is simply that when we meditate, we tend to choose those symbols that radiate beauty of some kind. Why? Because beauty raises us up to a higher level. We'll examine this experience of the 'higher level" a bit later.
Goodness. Yes, I know that we "all have our dark side." But self actualizers have already met this part of themselves. struggled with it, embraced it, integrated it and still believe that not only are they themselves basically "good", but that almost everyone else is as well. That "humans are sinful creatures by nature" thing is a concept that most Neo-pagans reject.
Another trait of self actualized personalities is that they have developed their own sense of morality. This would be scary in a less developed personality-and we have seen the effects of such certainly within the pagan community-yet because of the spiritual balance and equilibrium that has been achieved, self actualizers rarely do anything that hurts another--not because of fear of punishment or the breaking of an outside moral code (to some, their mores may actually seem amoral), but because they feel it would be an affront to beauty, to vitality, to truth.
Unity. Not as in "we must all believe exactly the same thing in the same way". In fact, as we have seen, the love of diversity and variety is one of the strongest traits in self actualized people. (This trait which runs so very strongly throughout Neo-pagan thought was actually what got me interested in writing this article.) No, what is meant here by unity is "wholeness". Self actualizers need to feel whole within themselves and integrated within their spirit. While some Neo-pagans have done this-and many others are striving to do so-it is also already very much part of what we both believe in and embrace. One of the basics of pagan belief systems has always been a desire to reconnect- reintegrate- with the earth and the Old Ways. We are seeking wholeness.
Vitality. Repeating lessons or rituals by rote is not enough for self actualizers. They were probably bored to the verge of tears and doodling pentacles in their notebooks. The history lesson must be more than names and dates. The ritual must be more than atmosphere and gestures. Dead religious forms, non-viable religious tenets, have no appeal to self actualizers. They don't appeal to most pagans either. The religion-by-rote model is what many discarded on the road to Neo-paganism and they won't settle for it here either.
Self-sufficiency. Self actualizers find meaningfulness in their own way and realize that each person must do the same. The work is personal. It can never be anything else. You have to want it and you have to want it bad. So badly, that nothing will deter you from the quest for very long. You keep coming back to it. You can't explain what it is that you are looking for any better than self actualizers can tell you how they themselves found it. (note 1)
Which in fact brings us now to that trait that I believe to be the most compelling evidence that, within the scope of Neo-paganism, self actualization may be taking place on a large scale.
I talk with a lot of pagans every day. I have probably talked with thousands over the last three years. There is no doubt in my mind that many, many of these people have experienced what Maslow called "peak experiences." Self actualizers, he found, tend to have more peak experiences than the average person.
A peak experience is one that takes you out of yourself, beyond yourself. It can make you feel very large or very small. It gives you the feeling of being a part of the eternal, the whole, the infinite. During these episodes, things become very clear. Mystics call this a state of "illumination" for that reason. A large pattern or plan becomes evident and your part in it comes into focus.
This is where you walk with the Gods as an equal. Where every separate thing finds its place in the whole. This is the place from whence you leave as having been changed forever.
"Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placement in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject was to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences."--Abraham Maslow.
These states can come at any time and at any stage of life. In fact, many people who still have a long way to go toward self actualization have peak experiences too. The artist, the musician, the poet, the writer, the diver, the skier, the engineer, the saint, the prisoner, the inventor and many other types have experienced this as a fleeting moment which occurs while they are pursuing their work or in deep thought. The difference with actual self actualizers is that they tend to have these peak experiences more often and that the experiences may last for a longer time when they do.
This would indicate that self actualization itself is more a matter of degree, or familiarity of the process if you will, than an ultimate one time, one-shot goal. It is not something that is sought out for the experience itself. Some Buddhist masters teach that psychic gifts and certain powers are not to be sought as gifts and powers in themselves. They will develop as the individual develops. At that point, they are accepted without egotism. When they no longer are sought in an attempt to fulfill a level 3 or 4 need, they simply are there.
Self actualized people have more peak experiences- and they have more peak experiences because they are self actualized. Like in the Buddhist philosophy, a peak experience can not be achieved as the result of a wish fulfillment for a lower hierarchy need. There are no shortcuts and, as a general rule, none of the other need levels can be circumvented to reach this one. (note 2)
Are Neo-Pagans REALLY More Self Actualized?
Some days, I really wonder. There are the flame wars, the Witch wars and the backstabbing. There are self appointed gurus, power seekers, money grabbers and abusers of all kinds.
But then, there are also all those people that I have talked with. They have told me their stories in the halting and uncertain words that leads me to believe that they truly are attempting to describe a very real experience that goes beyond what words have the capacity to contain. They know that they have been changed by this experience.
Is there something-some formula- within paganism that may offer a springboard toward self actualization? (note 3)
I doubt that we shall ever find a set formula-in fact, we cannot because as we have seen, peak experiences are not achieved through the practice of a mere technique. It may actually be dangerous to do so because unless the other lower needs have been met and those experiences integrated into the personality, mental or emotional unbalance or even illness may occur.
But there are some practices that regularly take place within paganism that may help to meet the lower needs, integrate personality imbalances and bring about the changes that allow for self actualization to occur. They are:
Connection to the divine within and the divine-by whatever name-without. With this comes the realization of integration of the parts into a whole. This is exceptionally good therapy for fragmented personalities. It also builds self esteem. (level 4). Many of us may have already met pagans who have had peak experiences or who are self actualizers. You may be one yourself. There seems to be a large number of them throughout the Neo-pagan community. They tend to be rather private about personal matters-a trait of self actualizers, as we know- but since other self actualizers are probably the only ones who can understand what this experience is all about, they do tend to find one another. A few words and a nod usually says it all. They understand. They've been there. They may not have a tangible t-shirt, but they do have "something." And yet as they will quite freely admit, they too have only just begun the journey.
Acceptance. Many pagans have that "coming home" feeling when they first begin their journey on a pagan path (level three) and because they may have fears of being discriminated against because of their beliefs, they also find safety and security in interacting with other pagans, (level 2).
Respect. Most pagans are quite tolerant of alternative viewpoints. (level 3 and 4) Of course, this depends on the other individual's higher needs at level 4 being met. If a person is still working out his/her own esteem needs by utilizing the lower level 4 version- through seeking glory, attention, fame or status-it is less likely that they will be able to give to anyone else what they themselves feel that they do not have yet. Happily, the pagan community seems to have sufficient numbers of pagans who are confident in who they are and are free to engage in debates and discussions without the need (lower level 4) to win at another's expense or at any cost. That's respect.(higher level 4)
Shamanic journeying. meditations, guided imagery, altered states of consciousness. Many pagan paths embrace some or all of these practices. While caution is advised when undertaking any of these practices under the guidance of someone that you may not know well enough to have formed an opinion of his/her motivations, these techniques offer many therapeutic benefits. Under the loving care of a truly gifted, knowledgeable and sincere guide, these practices can heal broken emotions and offer insights into deep-seated problems that the conscious mind often blocks out to the detriment of further growth. Many therapists use some form of imagery work in their practice.(level 2,3, 4)
"This ability of healthier people to dip into the unconscious and preconscious, to use and value their primary processes instead of fearing them, to accept their impulses instead of always controlling them, to be able to regress voluntarily without fear, turns out to be one of the main conditions of creativity." --Maslow.
Neo-pagans tend to embrace and value the same traits that self actualized people possess: truth and personal authenticity, beauty, goodness, unity or wholeness, self-sufficiency and vitality. These 'values' provide support and encouragement for those who are seeking to develop these traits within themselves. This may eventually lead to meeting those lower level needs and to providing a background from which peak experiences are more likely to occur.
Neo-paganism has been on its own journey to rediscover its past. What needs have already been met along the way?
Then comes the even bigger question: What needs still have to be met in order to move Neo-paganism on up to the next level? Will the need for self actualization continue to be- if not actually promised-at least very possible within the perimeters of Neo-paganism? Or will we remain at some lower level-struggling with self esteem needs and with safety needs- for a long time to come yet?
Maslow listed some of what he considered to be the effects that self actualizing personalities report from peak experiences:
The removal of neurotic symptoms A tendency to view oneself in a more healthy way Change in one's view of other people and of one's relations with them Change in one's view of the world The release of creativity, spontaneity and expressiveness A tendency to remember the experience and to try to duplicate it A tendency to view life in general as more worthwhile. Our society suffers from disengagement, disillusionment and disassociation disorders. Contrary to what some religious doomsayers would have us believe, society is not so much 'un-holy' as it is "un-whole-ly." Paganism addresses this fragmented sense of self in unique and innovative ways.
In my more cynical moments, I have sometimes been heard to say that the Neo-pagan community needs therapy. As I write this article, it occurred to me that perhaps the Neo-pagan community IS the therapy. Perhaps that is one reason why Neo-paganism is on the rise and that so many self actualizers can be found within its ranks. (note 4) The world needs to experience wholeness and, at least here in the Neo-pagan community, people seem to be finding it at some level.
In the decades ahead, this formation of a new pathway into wholeness may be written into the annals of psychology journals and religious history as our ultimate gift to humanity.
Walk in Light and Love,
February 21st, 1999
The Witches' Voice
Note 1: I have selected only a few of the traits that Maslow attributed to self actualizers. A full list may be found in the references listed below. Main References:
Note 2: I mention that this is usually the case because there are reported instances of peak experiences from people who seem not to have had level one needs met. Rembrandt was poor most of his life, vanGogh was probably psychotic and imprisoned men and women-some suffering under extremely cruel conditions-have written soaring poetry, painted masterpieces or developed inventions. Perhaps the development of personal ingenuity in meeting the other need levels in some way compensated for lack in the basics.
Note 3: Maslow himself realized that this theory was not a final answer, but perhaps could be viewed as just the first step in a new way of thinking about motivation. Critics have pointed out that communication seems to be lacking from the list. I would also point out that while communication may indeed be important on the lower levels of the pyramid, words fail when it comes to the self actualization experience itself. Transpersonal psychology is an outgrowth of Maslow's work.
Others accuse Maslow of being "too good"-of having too much faith in the inherent goodness of mankind. Some days, I tend to agree with them.
Note 4: The old 'wise ones' were the original therapists. They realized that hostile feelings could not-should not for mental health reasons- be repressed, but that the murdering of an 'enemy' was not really good for the community. Sticking pins in a image could offer a place to release these negative feelings without the shedding of blood. I can think of many other examples of how the old 'wise ones' used what have become modern day psychological therapies. Therapists still use similar 'acting out' techniques with their clients. As far as I know, they don't call it witchcraft.
Toward A Psychology of Being-A. H. Malsow, 1968 On The Web:
Motivation and Personality-A. H. Maslow, sec.ed. 1970
The Further Reaches of Human Nature-A. H. Maslow, 1971
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