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Human Needs, Buddhist Psychology and Mindfulness

Targeting mindfulness

Buddhist psychology—and the Shankya yoga science from which it issues – describes seven psychological characteristics that inform our four life meta-categories (work, relationship, self and spirit) and also map directly to the various needs spectrums found in Western motivational psychology.

We can think of the life meta-categories of work, relationship, self and spirit as occurring in four quadrants. Within these quadrants are smaller categories, like job, love, sex, health, religion, etc., respectively. The way that each of us balances the four quadrants and their sub-categories creates a framework for our lives. To understand how and why we create that balance, we need to consider our underlying motivation.

Theories of human motivation abound. Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as well as Freud’s less rigidly presented spectrum of human needs. William McDougall, William James and Henry Murray have all contributed to this conversation, as has, more recently, Steven Reiss. In addition, Martin Seligman’s positive psychology would appear to be informed by Jung’s focus on spiritual fulfillment and Frankl’s will to meaning.

Whichever school of thought we subscribe to—whether the implied collection of needs suggested by Freud, the rigorous research of Reiss or the historically derived and empirically demonstrated strengths and virtues cited by Seligman—it is clear that human needs can be identified and that identification, allowing for some difference in perspective and labeling, is fairly consistent over time.

Buddhist psychology identifies seven psychological characteristics: life, order, wisdom, love, power, imagination, understanding and will. These were initially described in the Abhidharma, as well as the Rig Veda, and are remarkably similar to those found in the Western narrative compiled centuries later. Some map directly to the various Western systems and some more indirectly, but the relationship is consistently clear and reasonable.

If one were intent on drawing a direct line between the human needs spectrum described by Buddhist psychology and a Western counterpart, Seligman’s positive psychology would likely be the best choice. This is not so much because of any coincidence in the labeling scheme, but more because of the coincident perspective. Western psychology tends to issue from a place of damage and illness. Seligman’s work in positive psychology has been a relatively antithetical response to that position. Buddhist psychology would similarly have us start from a place of wholeness and perfection.

So, now we get to the question of mindfulness. What makes mindfulness a challenge is that there is no real starting point for witness consciousness, or the objective observation of the 'Self' by the 'self'. That's mainly because the self, or ego, interferes with that process by way of our assumptions, expectations and ideas about the way the world works. Applied mindfulness can be even more of a challenge because, once we get the meta-awareness of witness consciousness going, we need somewhere to point it and very often we don’t know where that is, exactly. So, we may be all “aware” and stuff, but often nothing really changes.

Now, getting back to needs, if we can gain an understanding of our needs and then unravel the dissonance around those needs we then have somewhere to point our mindfulness. The Reiss Motivational Profile, the Meyers-Briggs and the Enneagram are examples of tools that can help us to do this because they force us into a state of pseudo-witness consciousness by asking us to be objective observers of ourselves without (too much) interference from the ego.

For example—and we’ll use the Reiss Profile here because it is fairly clear and easy to follow—let’s say you’re experiencing feelings of an ongoing, non-clinical, free-floating, generalized anxiety. In layman’s terms, you’re freaking out a bit for no discernible reason.

You take the Reiss profile and discover (these are simplistic interpretations) you are Low Order (not much for structure), High Tranquility (don’t like chaos) and Low Vengeance (non-confrontational). Your anxiety may well be, in part, derived from the fact that people who operate with little structure—don’t pick up after themselves, don’t pay bills on time, are tardy for work or social events--naturally invite both chaos and confrontation—messy house, late fees, irate bosses, coworkers, clients and friends.

An unaddressed dissonance around disparate needs creates psychic tension, which here we have labeled anxiety. If we want to backtrack into the Buddhist perspective, we could also say this dissonance is creating a disturbance in the muladhara and atala chakras and the manamaya kosha. This works because Western needs spectrums map quite easily to both the chakra and kosha systems found in the yoga Vedanta. But, I digress…

Without a direct perspective on your needs bias, you would likely point your mindfulness at the symptom (the anxiety)—and that can get a bit murky on both sides of the equation. With a more concrete notion of the source of the symptom, mindfulness techniques can be targeted. And that’s how we can loop back to witness consciousness.

Witness consciousness examines the state of the ‘self’ from the perspective of the ‘Self’. If we consider an understanding of our basic needs as a snapshot of the state of the ‘self’, then we have in hand the objective distance we need to effectively apply mindfulness where it is needed, rather than simply being generally—and likely less effectively—mindful.

© 2013 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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