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Beyond the Pyramid. Being-Psychology: Maslow’s Real Contribution

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IT’S unfortunate — and perhaps ironic — that pioneer humanistic psychologist and the founder of positive psychology Abraham Maslow is today best known for his hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy will be familiar to most readers as the pyramid diagram found in all introductory psychology texts which places lower human needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) above higher needs like those for social affiliation and self-actualization.

It’s unfortunate because many people understandably balk at the suggestion that we have to have all material needs met before we can concern ourselves with being moral.  Ironic, because such a notion is far indeed from Maslow’s own beliefs and message.

To begin, then, let’s clear this up.  First, Maslow never used the pyramid diagram in any of his writings; this is an addition of later textbook writers.

Second, he didn’t intend the ‘hierarchy’ as an excuse for selfishness or delaying pursuit of higher needs; rather, he noted with considerable interest that there are people, like great reformers and saints, who are remarkable precisely because they subordinated material to altruism — and he implied that we all ought to emulate their example.  In other words, to the extent this hierarchy does exist, it is the condition of the fallen human race, and not how we should like it to remain.

Third, that people have basic drives for material needs is hardly a surprising or original suggestion;  the innovation of Maslow’s system is precisely that it includes higher needs at all — something surprisingly few psychologists were willing to admit when Maslow wrote.

Finally, Maslow proposed the hierarchy of needs relatively early in his career; over time he moved decisively towards a focus on higher needs; it is this emphasis which is clearly his greatest legacy.

Yet today, decades later, his legacy remains dimly understood and barely appreciated.  There are several reasons for this, including the emergence of a kind of  pseudo-positive psychology that in the 1990’s, using Maslow’s term yet ignoring him and his work.  But another reason is perhaps the regrettable tendency of human beings to latch onto a simplistic idea like a pyramid diagram and then rest there in the pretension of knowing something real and solid.

Rather than berate human folly (they very problem we’re trying to fix), let’s fight fire with fire.  That is, if we need a diagram to get a concept across, let’s supply a better one that expresses Maslow’s thought.  I propose on below.

mandala hires

The point is to give visual expression to Maslow’s real contribution, which is what he called Being psychology.  We can define Being-psychology in a number of ways.  At one level, it’s the psychology behind all the great religions and philosophies of the world — the perennial psychology.  It involves a transcendence of egoism and the inauthentic world of ‘seeming,’ and stepping into the reality of here and now fully alive: being fully in the world whilst simultaneously connected with the great Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Harmony, Love and Goodness. It is the psychology peak experiences, flow states, aesthetics, fulfillment, love and harmony.

Defined negatively, it is concerned with life free from anxieties, doubts, fears, anger and the other forms of negative cognition that oppose happy and fulfilling existence.  In short, Being-psychology is the psychology of life as we wish it to be; it is the aim of our life, what we strive for.

In future articles I’ll explain more about Being-psychology.  Here I simply wish to comment on its significance for the modern world and relevance to contemporary research.  One of the great merits of Maslow’s psychology — how it goes beyond traditional formulations of the perennial psychology like religion, Platonic Idealism and Transcendentalism — is that it is completely naturalistic.  Maslow, in fact, was more less an atheist. Yet he was convinced that all the great psychological and ethical teachings of the world’s religions are grounded in absolute truths of human nature.  He believed we are biologically designed and intended (perhaps by an intelligent universe) to be Idealists.  And unless we express this side of our nature we cannot be true to ourselves or attain to any great measure of happiness.

While not especially systematic in this thinking, Maslow was nonetheless extremely rationalistic, scientific and empirical.  His humanistic theories originated from analysis of answers to surveys and interviews he conducted.  Throughout his works he proposes practical testable hypotheses.  This empirical orientation means that Being-psychology supplies a bridge between science and religion. Maslow also considered the practical applications of Being-psychology and was especially concerned with applying it in industrial settings to improve worker satisfaction, morale and productivity.

Here then is a new way to look at Maslow’s theory: at the center of Philosophy, Religion, Science, and Culture, connecting them, and enabling ideas and discoveries to flow from one area to the others.  Let this much, then, serve as food for though and as an introduction to further posts.

References

Maslow, Abraham H. (1965). Eupsychian management. Homewood, IL: Irwin (reprinted Wiley, 1998).

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand. Ch. 6. Cognition of being in the peak experiences. (pp. 71−102)

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993). Ch. 9. Notes on Being-Psychology. pp. 121−142.

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Myofascial Release and Psychology

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I ANTICIPATE in the near future a favorable change in publishing circumstances, one result of which will be that my articles on society and culture will appear in a different venue. A side effect is that here I will be able to devote more attention to a subject that has always interested me, but which I’ve somewhat neglected, namely mind-body integration.

So let me begin with a very specific topic, namely myofascial trigger points (MTPs). Basically these are bundles of tense skeletal muscle fibers — such as in the neck, arms, or legs. They correspond to what in colloquial language have for a long time been called muscle knots, but that term is misleading. Instead of ‘knot’, the word ‘cord’ is a better metaphor. What happens is that bands of adjacent muscle fibers, for various reasons, can all tense up together, producing bands or cords of tense fibers within the larger muscle. If you probe with your fingers into a muscle around an area of such tension, you can actually detect these bands. They’re often associated with pain, and sensitive to the touch. By pressing the area of maximum pain (or applying certain other, gentler massage techniques), it is possible to make the cord relax, so that it is as flaccid as the adjacent muscle tissue.

TriggerPointComplex

Sometimes this release is associated with muscle spasms, or even vocalizations (i.e., you want to scream); but as soon as the tension is released you feel a great deal better.

Most recent attention has been on how MTPs cause chronic pain. I’d like to contribute to thinking in this area by mentioning two points I’ve not seen previously mentioned.

The first is that it appears to me that, quite apart from any chronic pain they may involve, MTPs sometimes seem to consume a considerable amount of metabolic energy. They can drain the body of energy and leave one feeling chronically tired. From a kinetic standpoint, the size and location of the MTP would be a relevant factor, so the effect is variable. But to maintain, say, a 1-inch wide band of muscle fibers, several inches long, in a constant state of tension would, it seems, require a considerable amount of ones available energy.

Second, I’ve noticed that trigger point tensions and their release seem to have effects on vision. Specifically, I’ve found that when I release an MTP via self-massage or applied pressure, there is a simultaneous positive change in the quality of my vision. As soon as the muscle tension is released, some area of my peripheral vision which was formerly indistinct, suddenly becomes clear. It’s a quite remarkable phenomenon, but it happens so consistently that I do not doubt its reality, or that other people, upon experimentation, will observe the same thing.

I suspect that associated with the muscle tension is some kind of mental agitation, which disturbs the integrity of visual perception. As to why that may be so, I have two conjectures. One is simply that the chronic tension of a muscle causes agitation in the brain’s electrical activity — producing beta waves, basically. By this view, the muscle tension is causally prior to the mental agitation.

The second possibility is that the mental agitation is causally prior. That is, suppose that for example, due to some psychological trauma, one adopts a posture corresponding to chronic anticipation of being attacked. For instance, one may keep certain leg muscles tight, ready to spring up and flee; to keep the muscles chronically stimulated, one maintains some kind of chronic ‘mentation’ — for example, holding onto some fear, albeit unconsciously. So in this case, the mental movement or agitation (which also produces a decrement in visual clarity) comes first. It is, then, by first letting go of the mental attachment or conflict that the muscle tension is released.

From my own experience it’s not obvious which of these two possibilities (if either) are the case, but I consider the second somewhat more plausible.

Let me add that the improvement in visual quality associated with release of an MTP is no minor thing. It can be very dramatic, almost like a mist suddenly being removed from ones eyes, or a depressed, dismal scene becoming instantly more vibrant. A room that seemed dreary and shadowy suddenly seems sunny.   I would assume that a similar improvement also takes place relative to inner perceptions — improved clarity of ones thoughts, feelings, and intuitions — though, of course, that’s somewhat harder to objectively assess.

I should mention that there are some theoretical and practical connections between MTPs and the concept of character-armoring developed by Wilhelm Reich. There are some differences, however. For one thing, Reich talked about muscle tensions generally, but not the specific kind of banding phenomenon seen with MTPs. Another is that Reich, a pupil of Freud, was too narrowly interested in muscle tension as a symptom of sexual repression. The phenomenon is much more complex than that.

In short, I’d encourage everyone to do some reading on MTPs, and to experiment with self-massage and the like. I would just add that, while yoga poses are of course very helpful in keeping skeletal muscles relaxed, self-massage and applied pressure seems to relax MTPs in different ways than yoga asanas, so that the two are complementary.

Written by John Uebersax

June 11, 2015 at 11:24 pm