The Problem with Maslow


In all of my studies of Maslow (which are limited to brief undergraduate and that for this article), nowhere does anybody speak of the fact that we can CONTROL our desires.  People throw around Maslow’s Hierarchy like humans are just animals, acting instinctively with little control over our minds.

Maslow's Hierarchy

Maslow’s Hierarchy

On the spectrum of things we can control, our desires are one of those things that we have quite a lever on.  This is where a Heroic Stoic can use the tools of philosophy to modify the hierarchy.  For example, if I must have caviar and filet every day, then certainly I have set a high bar for fulfilling my physiological need of food.  What about shelter?  Do I need a 5,000 square foot home or a tent?  These things are for us to decide.  Certainly they are not easy decisions, and they require some judgment.  Many human beings live in simple dwellings with no heat/cooling, while I cannot imagine not having a powered system that controls my indoor environment.

Live here?

Live here?

Or could I?  My awareness of this fact is half the battle, isn’t it?  Could I live without central heating?  Well, first of all I live in a mild climate so I am ahead of the game.   But seriously, could I?  At first, I think it would be difficult, but eventually I can imagine that I would adapt with less clothing in Summer and bundling up in Winter.  Imagining this is therapeutic.  It allows me to see that my life as I know it can change, and it also helps me appreciate the needs I have fulfilled.  In a sense, this awareness allows me to jump up the ladder of needs fulfillment.  It helps me realize that central heating is not physiological but maybe a safety need.  When I don’t need caviar and filet for my food, then I can move on to higher needs.

...or live here?

…or live here?

Then, I can control the higher needs as well using what I know about control, fate, and impermanence.

More on that, later.

On Survival and Happiness (Maslow’s Needs)


From “The Aviator”:  Mrs. Hepburn says, “We don’t care about money here.”   To which Howard Hughes replies, “That’s because you’ve always had it.  Some of us choose to earn our money.”

Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose"

Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose”

In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,”  Abraham Maslow released a motivational theory which is now commonly referred to as Maslow’s hierarchy.  In short, Maslow theorized that people fulfill their needs in the following way.


Maslow’s Hierarchy (diagram from Wikipedia)

Before a higher level need is fulfilled, the lower level needs must be met (the lowest needs are physiological, the highest self-actualization).  So, physiological needs are fulfilled before safety needs. which must be fulfilled before love/belonging needs, etc.  There are gray areas and exceptions of course (people can jump to fulfilling “higher” needs before fulfilling lower [maybe I’ll have more on that later]), but this is the general idea by which humans find happiness.  According to the Maslow’s Hierarchy then, it would be difficult to worry about your purpose or meaning in the world if you were plotting how to obtain your next meal.

One could argue then, that it was precisely Siddhartha’s (The Buddha) wealth, safety, and love around him that triggered his dissatisfaction (see his story here).  If he were busy surviving–hunting for food, building shelter, watching out for predators, strategizing when it would be a good time to safely sleep, etc.–he may not have felt the dissatisfaction (Dukkha) of not fulfilling the next level of needs.  Moreover, if he were safe, yet lonely (vis–à–vis love/belonging needs), he may have merely yearned for companionship.   As it turns out, many of his lower level needs were satisfied, so he was on to the next need, probably the self-esteem needs, then on to self-actualization…humans are always grasping, as he himself would later find out.

So looking at “The Aviator” quote above:  in essence, Howard Hughes’ reply to Katherine Hepburn’s mother represents the fact that they were working on different levels of needs.  Both, of course were pursuing happiness but each was pursuing in their own complex way.  In my opinion, Hughes was the wiser one because of his experience.  If Mrs. Hepburn were open to enlightenment, she would have realized that her wealth was not a given, and indeed a luxury that could be gone.  Undoubtedly, each person experienced Dukkha because that is what we do.  If you know how Hughes ended up, you know that he had his suffering, too.  He never did quite escape Samsara.

We are all human, after all.

Sid’s Journey from Riches to Rags to Richness


Siddhartha Gautama, let’s call him Sid, was disenchanted with his life.  More precisely, Sid was dismayed with the condition of life in general.  You see, Sid was a prince.  He was tended to by many servants whenever he needed them.  He was protected by his father (the king) from seeing the dreary world outside the palace.  Yet, Sid inherently longed to explore outside the walls.  He knew the world that had been manufactured for him was a lie.  Even with all the protection, and all the effort to make his life worry-free, he began to notice suffering.  He knew that truth started by looking at the world as it is, both good and bad.

Living in this palace might be nice, but would it bring happiness?

Living in this palace might be nice, but would it bring happiness?

When he began exploring outside the palace walls, he really started to see grief, suffering, and sickness.  If he had waited long enough he would have seen even more suffering within the palace walls.  Servants would have been missing. Why?  From death, sickness, unhappiness with their job?  His father would have eventually died or become sick.  Others he loved could have been cross for no apparent reason.  Sid might have taken a false step on a set of stairs, and he could have fallen and broken his back.  The fact that the story of Sid, who would become the Buddha, implies that he had to leave the palace to find real suffering makes me believe there is some amount of fairy tale to it.  The departure from the palace is required as an allegory or parable to symbolize that we have to “see” everything to understand.  Nonetheless, the story makes the point that no amount of veneer on life can cover up the fact that it is “nasty, brutish, and short” (Thanks to Hobbes).

I have gone through Sid’s story before.  You can read it here.  He went out to try and find the truth, to be enlightened.  At first, he came to the conclusion that since he was not happy with all his riches, he should renunciate luxuries to find true happiness.  He became an ascetic, and he lived on virtually nothing.  But I think he realized that living on barely anything is barely living.   Furthermore, because he was starving he lacked energy to see and think.  It wasn’t until he received nourishment of goat’s milk (see page 32 here), nearly dying, that he found the energy to realize the Four Noble Truths.

This young goat needs nourishment.  You do, too.

This young goat needs nourishment. You do, too.

By experiencing both extremes, Sid realized that neither was appropriate for a virtuous life.  For this reason, I think, his enlightenment (his discovery of the truth of virtuous life) necessarily was defined by The Middle Way.  In other words, Buddhist morality is one of moderation while realizing there are luxuries and deprivation in life.  When The Buddha realized this, he found true richness in life

This is not so different from the Stoic view that I previously addressed in my last post.  The Middle Way is the Stoic Way as well.

To me, it makes a lot of sense, and it has worked for many years in my journey.  As always…

““Do Not Seek To Follow In The Footsteps Of The Wise. Seek What They Sought.”–Basho


The Middle Way the Stoic Way


Here is the 4-step Stoic way to live the The Middle Way:

  1. Enjoy the finer things in life
  2. But not too much (Live in Moderation)
  3. Remember that these things are temporary
  4. Do not desire these things
You really want this, don't you?  Well, stop it!

You really want this, don’t you? Well, stop it!

As I have mentioned previously here, those who choose to live a completely deprived life, like the Ascetics can certainly obtain virtue.  However, this life of deprivation is inferior to the Stoic way (IMHO) because:

  1. You will miss out on some of the finer things in life.
  2. It is just a tough sell to the average person (and I am average) to reject all niceties simply to find virtue.
  3. A virtuous life is one that should be lived in harmony with my world…not one in which I reject it.

So that’s great, most of us are cool with that:  No deprivation, hooray!  Having a little luxury now and again is just fine with me.  In fact, I would say that most of us have more of a problem with THIS end of the spectrum; let’s call it the luxury side.  Most of us are just fine not living a life of deprivation; our real problem is that we desire a life of excess and luxury.


Luxury!  (Photo by Cheryl Empey)

Our antidote, I think is to return to the 4-step process of Stoic living I suggested above.   Above all, step 4 is the most critical.  When it comes to obtaining virtue, on a scale of 1 to 10, here is how these steps rate.

  • (1) Enjoy the finer things in life
  • (4) But not too much (Live in Moderation)
  • (7) Remember that these things are temporary
  • (10) Do not desire these things

Step 1 is basically neutral in the pursuit of virtue, and could be a hindrance to living the good life.  Then, as I proceed through the steps, I work my way in the direction of virtue.  So, all of the steps are permissible, but each becomes more and more critical.  There are no easy answers to virtue, you have to use your judgment about what is excessive and your discipline to avoid excess.  Judgment and Discipline.

In this discipline there is freedom.

The Middle Way (Sensible Living, Sensible Goals)


I’ve been wanting to return to the topic and write in-depth about how Stoicism and Buddhism essentially convey the same message, but in different ways.  I touched upon it previously, here.  An imperfect description is that Buddhism is more right-brained (creative/intuitive) and Stoicism is left-brained (logical/analytical)…it’s not a perfect description of these different approaches, and it doesn’t matter how we approach it, the message is basically the same.  As I begin this quest, I know that it will require several installments, so stay tuned.  I will dive deeper and deeper as we go.

I’ve been putting this one off for awhile.  There are some things, that when you discover them to be true, you sense they are right even though they are difficult to put into words.  So, now I will try to begin…

Both Buddhism and Stoicism stress living a sensible and peaceful life.  They de-emphasize passions and desire, and emphasize being content with your position in life while doing as much good and as little harm as possible.  Both philosophies focus on detached contemplation of your actions, instead of absolutes of “this is right” or “this is wrong.”  Both philosophies invite you to search for yourself, rather than preach at you.  For these reasons, I was attracted to both philosophies.  As I continue to study and practice both concurrently, I realize I have internalized my outlook on how to live a virtuous life.  In short, this outlook is best described as living The Middle Way (term borrowed from Buddhism).


Monks Practicing the Middle Way

The Middle Way.  Maybe I could replace the words a little:  The Sensible Way.  Possibly, The Pragmatic Way.  For sure, the extremes are a place to avoid.

“The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind.  Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort.”–Seneca Letter 8

A bust of Seneca...a Stoic.

A bust of Seneca…a Stoic.

The what he sought.

The Buddha…seek what he sought.

“There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.”–Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 12 February 2012, . Retrieved on 17 January 2013.