Sunday, September 16, 2007

Contemplative Activism

What is the relationship between the contemplative life and the ethical life? Is there a way to tie these two together? To what extent does the development of a greater sense of inner spaciousness and transformation result in more profoundly transformative practices in our efforts to make the world a better place? Many intuitively believe that the outer journey must be supported by a rich interior life and that an exclusive focus on interior practice is narcissistic and in the end, counter-productive to true spiritual development. Yet the connection between a rich interior life and a robust social engagement remains elusive. Precisely how these two are connected remains, for many, a mystery.

While pondering this question recently, the image of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs popped into my awareness and I began to play with it. As most will recall, Abraham Maslow attempted to create a model for psychological health. He posited that there is a hierarchy of needs that human beings have. These start with base survival needs (such as food, shelter and warmth), move into subtler needs (such as love, belongingness and self-esteem) and eventually end up in transformative needs, such as self-actualization and transcendence. He referred to the lower needs as “D-needs” or deficiency needs and “B-needs” or being needs. The D-needs are fulfilled out of a sense of basic drives and, if they are not met, the vacuum is felt acutely. B-needs are far less compelling and meeting them is largely optional. If they are not met, the individual may feel a sense of disquiet, but individuals need not pursue these for survival or even contentment.

As we ponder the higher levels of need – needs for self-actualization and transcendence – it seems that the pursuit of meeting these needs is what many people mean by leading a spiritual life. Those individuals who develop disciplines in these areas and consistently seek to explore these aspects of their lives are often said to have spiritual disciplines.

At the other end of the pyramid, something very interesting emerges as we ponder the question of ethics. It seems that creating situations which impair or potentially impair the ability of others to meet these basic needs is clearly immoral. For example, stealing is wrong because it threatens the individual’s ability to meet basic needs. Adultry is wrong because it alienates one from a fundamental source of love and affection. Denying health care seems wrong because it threatens physical survival and also a persons need to feel safe and secure. For those with some subtlety in their ethical analysis, we would say that stealing from a poor person is more reprehensible than stealing from someone who is wealthy because of the increased risk to that the poor person will be unable to meet basic needs.

Finally, we would say that the person who goes out of her way to provide for the basic needs of others is a highly ethical person. The person who gives their time or funds to feed the hungry, house the homeless or ensure basic liberties for those who have few legal or social protections, are held up as models of ethical behavior. Those who give self-sacrificially to meet these types of needs are seen not merely as ethical people, but as highly spiritual people, particularly where this type of self-sacrifice is seen not as motivated by pathology but out of a sense of psychological abundance.

The notion that spirituality and ethics is tied together by human need provides the possibility of bridging the gap between contemplative life and the life of the activist. Seeking to meet the basic needs of others is the heart of activism, seeking to meet the growth needs of self is spirituality. Thus, spirituality and ethics are flip sides of the same coin.

In looking more deeply at the higher order needs, Maslow noted that, at these stages, effort is required to keep B-needs alive and engaged. There is a point at which people who are seeking to reach their fuller potentials will become self-motivated and create a positive loop that will continually feed the need for further growth. One of the principal ways in which that that cycle can become self-perpetuating is through a concerted and sustained effort to meet the D-needs of others. This focus on others can become a prime driver in the process of self-actualization. Indeed, to do so in healthy ways requires that the B-needs be addressed. Those who become lost in meeting the D-needs of others, without boundaries or a healthy sense of ego protection, are quickly burned out and diminished. Conversely, those who simply seek to meet B-needs find it difficult to sustain motivation, particularly in early stages of B-need development.

While it is clearly possible to engage in meeting B-needs without affirmative ethical behavior (i.e. intentionally seeking to meet lower level needs in others), one could argue that a person seeking to fully self-actualize and do so as effectively as possible, will engage in deeply ethical behavior that stresses not merely doing no harm but actually seeking opportunities to do good for others. Thus, commitment to justice and compassion fosters spiritual growth.

© 2007. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.

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