As a continuation of my Ups and Downs series of posts I’ll be diving into the pyramid known as “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” In this hierarchy we see that our physiological requirements, like food, water, and shelter are at the bottom of the pyramid. As we rise up the hierarchy we begin to move away from the physical realities of our existence and into the more mental, spiritual, and abstract aspects of our being. As a reminder, we should note that in a hierarchy such as this up is not just seen as less important than down, it also has some very negative stigma attached to it.
As we can see from the diagram, needs are really just the base of the triangle. When Maslow created the hierarchy he studied only the most brilliant, highest class of people, since he claimed:
“the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.”
Ironically, his study of ‘ideal’ human beings led him to create a theory full of one-directional zoom. He was quite close to the actual shape of things, and this is evidenced by his description of the hierarchy as a theory of motivation which brings you fulfillment when you reach the top. Late in his life he even amended the theory to contain three additional steps, making it a total of… wouldn’t ya know it: eight steps.
You may have guessed that I like this pyramid more. But it is still technically lacking. The eighth step, transcendence, isn’t a step at all — it’s an interface. The 7 levels ending with self-actualization shown above are just like the 7 chakras in that they represent points of possible energy blockage. Much like the chakras, the hierarchy is a sort of map of pressure points, which provide steps to take if energy gets blocked at that site. When these steps are achieved (or the chakras are unblocked) energy flows freely; from the outside world to the inside through our biological and physiological needs, then from our inner world to other inner worlds, through self-actualization and transcendence.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is essentially a series of boundaries that need to be crossed before self-actualization can be realized. At some point you reach the top to cross the final boundary: transcendence. But Maslow knew that this wasn’t actually the final boundary. He saw that self-actualized people tended to move onto a new stage which he called “metamotivation,” in which they strove beyond their limits to achieve a purpose greater than themselves. This theory comes close to being universal, but as we know from zoom, spiraling on one side of the infinity loop can feel just like eightstep.
In order to completely explain the phenomenon he was examining, Maslow needed to realize that he was studying a hierarchy embedded within a heterarchy. A heterarchy is a group of concepts that are functionally related, but unlike a hierarchy, the concepts in a heterarchy have no particular order of ranking. Although it is possible to rank the ideas contained within a heterarchy, the ordering is generally more flexible and ambiguous than a hierarchical organization. For example, the conceptual group “fruits” is a heterarchy that is composed of parts like ‘apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries’ etc. There is no particular order to this grouping.
Our left-brain, which naturally dominates our cognition through language, tends to organize information in hierarchies, rather than heterarchies. For instance, if we re-title the group “fruits by length” it becomes a hierarchy with a specific order, i.e. “bananas > apples > strawberries > blueberries.”
Following this line of reasoning we can see that “fruits and vegetables” is a heterarchy (you may consider fruits to be superior to vegetables, but there is no reason to do so out of a context like ‘sweetness’ or ‘nutritional value’).
However, it is possible to embed hierarchies within this heterarchy by calling it something like “fruits by length, vegetables by length.” Then we get this:
Notice the interface between the brussel sprout and the blueberry that separates ‘fruits’ from ‘vegetables.’ Perhaps he didn’t know it, but Maslow was staring down an interface just like the one above, except it separates motivation from what he called “metamotivation.” We can easily complete Maslow’s theory by reflecting his amended pyramid and arranging the whole into an infinity sign to break out of the cycle of zoom. When we do this it becomes clear that ‘transcendence’ is not a step of it’s own, rather, it is a placeholder for an entirely new space that arises when you traverse the interface from motivational self-actualization to “metamotivational” (what I would call fulfillment) self-actualization.
I wish I could say that the diagram above was an idea I personally discovered, but this vision has existed for thousands of years. So far we’ve been looking at a 2-dimensional representation of the hierarchy, but Maslow intended it to be a pyramid. This connects perfectly with an ancient school of Jewish mysticism which revered the 3-dimensional version of the diagram above. They called the shape made by these two intersecting pyramids a Merkabah (shown below).
The Merkabah is the same visual construction as the infinity symbol and yin/yang: they are all ways to show the unification and interaction of a duality. The two individual pyramids are representations of the extreme ends of any duality: man and woman, logic and emotion, the parts and the whole. The Merkabah itself was also intended to depict the shape through which the human aura radiates, otherwise known as “the chariot of God,” which is essentially a vehicle for travelling between dimensions. This may sound crazy, but passing through the interface between two diametrically opposed halves is in many ways synonymous with inter-dimensional travel (or what I would call ‘consciousness’ or ‘vision‘). This idea has been extended into modern times and overlayed with the 7 chakras to show how energy flows in both directions, not just down through the body. In this beautiful rendition we see how masculine and feminine combine to create a unified Merkabah:
It is easy to remember that energy flows in both directions when the halves are arrayed as an infinity, side-by-side. However, we become forgetful as soon as the perspective is tilted up>down. We almost always see liquid flowing downhill while structure is built upwards. This is why the Merkabah (as well as chakras and other ancient maps of energy flow) place masculinity at the top of the towering, phallic construction and femininity at the bottom. But these are not absolute rules, they are simply generalized observations that logic is currently the dominant force (for better or worse).
The bi-directional nature of energy flow through the human system becomes important when we are attempting to achieve balance. When we forget that the hierarchies we traverse are embedded within a heterarchy we inevitably end up zooming. This is because we reach the interface and simply turn around instead of using our momentum to break through the ‘final’ boundary and into a new dimension. Again, it feels quite similar to continuous forward motion, because we end up climbing down the same hierarchy we just ascended, which is a near-identical reflection of the space on the other side of the interface.
The ‘downward climb,’ or the dissolution of previously constructed boundaries, is a vital part of eightstep me. But a thing cannot fully deconstruct itself; zooming up and down the same side of the pyramid gets you nowhere. This behavior, in Maslow’s words, is self-actualization without purpose.
Crossing boundaries may be a necessity, but there are no strict requirements about how many and which boundaries any individual will cross. Furthermore, this is a difficult task, since, as I’ve written about before, boundaries are one of the ultimate sources of discomfort. In a sense Maslow’s theory is really more about comfort than needs, as each step takes you further and further into higher zones of comfort. But vision and balance require frequent trips across the interface between up and down just as they require harmony between left and right. So stay tuned for the next post in this series of Ups and Downs when I’ll be focusing on the importance of balancing comfort with discomfort.