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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the psychology of health

I continue to read Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow. I find it fascinating, provocative.

One of his points is that he believes that Western psychology has missed a huge dimension of human nature in focusing on "motivated" behavior. He says that psychology takes it for granted that all behavior is motivated, in the sense of being done in order to attain some aim--to fulfill some need. But Maslow disagrees.

He says that motivated behavior (in this sense) occurs only to fulfill what he calls deficiency needs (or "D-needs"). This behavior is driven by a sense of lack: we lack physiological necessities, or safety, or love, or esteem, and do things to achieve these ends. But when all these needs are met (and for many of us, they seldom are), we don't stop doing things. We don't just like back on a couch waiting for another D-need to surface. Rather, at that point, we shift into the spontaneous expression of our nature. We follow our interests and curiosity, and our experience becomes deeper, more aesthetic, and less instrumental, less "means-to-an-end".

These self-expressive behaviors arise from what Maslow called our Being needs (or "B-needs"). When we're not driven by lack, our life becomes joyful and more fully human. We tend to do things for their own sake, and relate with others in a more total way--appreciating the individuality and totality of other people, rather than trying to use them as means to secure our own needs.

This is what Maslow means by a "psychology of Being": a psychology that looks at and comprehends this vast field of normal, healthy, fulfilled functioning. It's natural that psychology has focused on psychopathology: how to recognize and treat mental illness. But this focus has subtly enshrined the notion of "normal" (that is, not ill) as a mere lack of symptoms. And, to be sure, when you're ill, a lack of symptoms sounds great: you'll take it.

But the psychology of health is a field in its own right. And this was the field that interested Maslow, at least toward the end of his career (he died in 1970). What are the features of mental health? What are its aspects and behaviors?

As I read, I find many things that remind me of what I've learned from Buddhism and Shambhala Training. For example, when Maslow talks about how the experience of a person living according to his or her B-needs becomes more aesthetic--they appreciate experiences for their own sake--I remember reading in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa that the "warrior" (that is, one practicing the path of spiritual fearlessness) experiences the world as an artist does: in his sensitivity to his world, he finds the sound of raindrops hitting his coat to be almost unbearably loud.

When we're engaged with our B-needs, we hear the raindrops hitting our coat. When we're engaged with our D-needs, we're too busy worrying about making it to the presentation on time and making a good impression on the client. The rain is a threatening nuisance, wrecking our hair and damaging our chances of "success". We do hear the raindrops, for they trigger our worries and preoccupation with what we lack. But we don't tune in to them as an aesthetic experience. Instead, they're mere signals or alarm-bells alerting us to problems in our quest to fulfill our needs.

All of this is good news. First, Maslow is saying (and for that matter so is Chogyam Trungpa) that the "normal", fully human estate is one of joy and presence to life. And second, that you don't have to be completely fulfilled deficiency-wise in order to experience your Being nature.

I know this. For I myself have neurotic traits and behaviors, no doubt brought on by problems in dealing with my D-needs. And yet, nonetheless, I feel I have enjoyed a great deal of Being in life: in important ways I have done what I wanted, and enjoyed the ride.

But I'm eager to learn more about the psychology of health. Among other things, I suspect that this will be one direction in which East and West can fruitfully merge their outlooks.

It's raining out there. I must remember to listen to those raindrops hitting my coat.

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