In the classic Guide to Rational Living (1997, 1st edn. 1961), Albert Ellis recommends realism and flexibility in what one expects of oneself. Very good advice, trying to counter those rigidly over-demanding images people carry of what they and the world should be like. Those demands can get far worse in spiritual training because stories of achievement abound along with overly-rosy pictures of the achievers as not much more than virtues in a superficial fleshly packaging. Expectations of saving the world, surviving the apocalypse, purifying the race etc. etc. are freely loaded on top by guru-itis sufferers (of whom more in another post), so the perfectionist mind can go crazier than a pubescent girl confronted with a fashion monthly.
I have never trusted ‘brute storybook perfection’, because I was too humanly aware too young and enjoyed cheap B-movies too much. This is one of the reasons I did trust Glenn, who said: “When people become too goody-goody they begin to falsify their stories and behaviour.” (Shadow Strategies, p. 31). That’s a polite way to say that perfection is usually bunk and the enemy of excellence. To be drunk on goodness is as bad for your sober assessment skills as to be drunk any other way. (To be rigidly fixated on that goodness is to get angry-drunk, fast.)
I’ve found Maslow’s descriptions of the capacities of self-actualised people very, very helpful in this regard. They are admiring observations of the real traits of real people, the results of careful studying and conceptualising, erring neither to the side of perfection nor to that of imperfection. They form a genuinely useful and beautifully observed snapshot of what psychological health is like.
The following is the smallest condensation I could make of Maslow’s famous paper in Chapter 11 of Motivation and Personality, (1987, 1st edn. 1954). I got it down to 10 paragraphs. Not that I don’t recommend the more detailed, soulful, and in-depth prose of the original but somehow seeing it gathered in concentrated form gives a helpful atmosphere when discovering one’s own way forward. I don’t use this as literal goal-setting, certainly not rigidly! I simply have it in mind as a set of flavourful omega-pointy seeds, and as I work with the techniques that interest me, I try to find myself coalescing around it. (There are also various ways to instruct the subconscious to enact it, which I’ll talk on another time.)
So, the tendencies and capacities of the actualised according to Maslow’s initial study:
1. Accept their own nature and animal level without guilt or anxiety. Relative lack of disgusts and aversions, defensiveness or desire to impress — none of these lacks absolute but they are not neurotically exaggerated. (Are quietly uncomfortable in areas where they know they can improve and with shortcomings in culture etc.)
2. Relatively spontaneous esp. in inner life and impulse. Ziran. Creative, playful in a humble and childlike way. Fresh, uninhibited and instinctive. Appreciate the basic goods of life with awe and wonder. The hundredth sunset is as great as the 1st. The ordinary can be exciting. Able to transform hackneyed routine by creativity.
3. Live more in territory than in map, see confused or concealed realities more swiftly. Able to detect the spurious/fake/dishonest, to judge people cogently and efficiently. Thus predictions of the future tend to be more correct.
4. Tolerant of ordinary ways but don’t identify with them and can cast them off when unnecessary. Unconventional at heart in a non-showy manner. Accept conventionality as a light cloak to keep the peace, which drops when at serious work on interests or in company of those who don’t care. Not “adolescent-rebellious”, changing the culture by their presence from within rather than destroying it from without — probably could switch to outsider if necessary without hatefulness.
5. Focused on a particular non-egotistical human good, chosen or obligated, and on issues arising. Motivational life is non-ordinary, aimed at character goals. Broad and non-petty. Concerned with ethics in widest possible vision. Not chronically unsure about right and wrong in their lives. May not be able to verbalise ethical basis but do not show the usual human chaos and have definite moral standards, often not conventional. Autonomous and individual in terms of ethical code. Fixed on ends not means — yet more likely than average to appreciate the doing itself.
6. Above the battle, unruffled by that which ruffles others. Serene, including with misfortune. Dignified even in undignified surroundings, partly from sticking by their own interpretation and judgment of any situation. Detached and undisturbed. More objective than average. Non-needy. Responsible for themselves, self-starters, have more free will and are less determined than average. Autonomous. Never passively yield to cultural shaping. Comfortable with being solitary and enjoy it.
7. Sympathy with and affection for human beings, despite awareness of shortcomings. Deep relationships but pick the actualised to have them with. Deep ties with few people. Demophilic: friendly with anyone no matter class race etc. If ever hostile it is both deserved and good for the person attacked. Can attract worshipers which is one-sided and embarrassing. Aware there is always more to know and that some do know it, thus humble. But more likely to counter-attack vs. definite evil, because less ambivalent, confused or weak-willed about own anger.
8. Humorous but not at the expense of others nor at shock/smut. Prefer humour that puts to flight pretension. If they poke fun at themselves it is not masochistic or clownlike. They use humour with depth and try to induce a smile rather than a belly laugh.
9. Definitely imperfect. Not “stuffed shirts or marionettes”. Can be silly, wasteful, thoughtless, vain, or angered. Usually know how to be very ruthless when there is no other option. Can also be over-kind. Could still sometimes be subject to non-neurotic guilt, anxiety, sadness, conflictedness. (No “magic perfection bullets”.)
10. Place high value on an ‘atmosphere of pagan acceptance’, comfortable relationship with life as it actually is, people as they actually are. Conflict and ambivalence lessen markedly or vanish altogether. Antagonisms are resolved in a spirit of playfulness combined with breadth of vision.
As a side note on actually doing this, Milton Erickson had it down too, instinctively, and embodied the description to a high degree. Where Ellis intellectually recommended more flexibility, I find changing self-image a far more instinctive process best approached with trance visualisations rather than discussion, and one of the coolest ways to unhook the culture from your being. I like the Ericksonian methods for this that the Lanktons discuss in The Answer Within (2008, 1st edn. 1983). (I should review that book as its underratedness is pretty criminal.) The point is to trigger one’s own creativity since these items can’t manifest without being distinctively and personally flavoured.
I find more to say here because I always wonder why it took so long in psychology before anyone wrote something like that list. Since “righteousness is a biological imperative,” as Glenn says, and people would rather be healthy and happy and fulfill their potential, you’d think they’d want to carry around a reasonably realistic image of what that was like. Certainly psychology should be interested, but no-one was doing it. I connect that with a lot of confusion, and worse, in this bizarrely self-imaged society.
Our Western disconnection from what we can be when at our best turns out to have progressively worsened for centuries, so what Maslow was finally bringing here was solid, fresh cultural influences and angles on that problem — particularly when he gets into the last item on the list, acceptance, calling it ‘dichotomy resolution’, the ability to transform conflicts into harmonious systems. “Head-heart” oppositions, battles between “ego id and superego”, polarisations of subpersonalities etc., are resolved into collaborations that bridge differences within. Acts become both selfish and unselfish. The soul is both spiritual and sensual. Etc.
He gives a list of polarities which he has seen resolved in the self-actualised, such as:
detachment from others-identification with others
Anyone who’s noticed Maslow’s constant references to a “Taoistic” therapy and has read Lao-tzu will guess the seed-ideas here.
Existence and nonexistence produce each other.
Difficult and easy complete each other.
Long and short contrast each other.
High and low attract each other.
Pitch and tone harmonise each other.
Future and past follow each other.
— Tao Te Ching, ch.2, tr. R. L. Wing
Thoughts like that are at the root of Taoism but not of Western ideas on excellence. It’s not that they’re absent from the West. Heraclitus often has such thoughts and the Hermetic alchemists are full of the harmonising of opposites, often in the revealing form of the two sexes coalescing to an androgyne. But these ideas never got as mainstream as in Taoism, where polarity resolution — Heaven and Earth, Yin and Yang — is fundamental to the process of world-autocreation. We’ve moved from personal to transpersonal which indicates how deep this goes.
The mainstream Western approach to excellence was Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, which differs from the Maslow stuff and always had issues in practice — it only works for some people and seems to misfire badly with others. But either way we actually gradually lost it. Not just the Western profile of excellence, but even the fact that such a profile could exist, became obscured over the centuries behind smogs of religious dogma, political skew, philosophical wrangle, and neurotic focus.
(Alasdair MacIntyre recounts the history in his After Virtue (2007, 1st edn. 1981). Thanks to Kant and Hume, early modern theories of goodness war to define a virtue whose necessity and then existence are steadily forgotten. Each side can make a good case so the whole thing is one neverending jawstrain. And even these toys are then unceremoniously chucked out of Nietzsche’s pram, leaving ever more numerous competing descriptions of what might be said to be correct, and on what basis, but very little usable understanding of how to be a worthwhile human being, how to develop, how to flower. There is some China-v.-West comparison of these issues in Katchmer’s overlooked Tao of Bioenergetics (1996), which Glenn read and enjoyed, see Martial Arts Madness, pp. 17 and 170.)
What we get in Maslow is a new version of the Aristotelian telos, or human purpose — but in Maslow’s careful way, loose enough to be practical. Meaning in life is inseparable from purpose. There would have been a lot fewer 20th-century whinges about “the meaninglessness of existence” if only some form of personal telos had been recognised, but we argued our way out of that. Maslow filled that lack (quite consciously by the way) — but with something a little new, without pure-verbal definitions.
We used to think about good people having “courage” or “moderation”. Then we defined “courage” and “moderation” in a verbal and idealised manner and tried to embody the results in specific situations or people. Not every human body enjoys being the servant of language patterns, which can get rigid quite fast, and the modern psychological approach is much more about finding the effective ways of transformation than being able to describe linguistically what you’re transforming to. For me what Glenn did there is wonderful. It’s about human change through the actual processes of being human. Psychological and bioenergetic aspects of virtue are the crucial determinants of its presence. The Taoists have always insisted on the damage caused by thinking too much and too anxiously, and some modern Western philosophers tend to demonstrate what they mean.Glenn’s way takes Maslow’s ideas to a new level. The psychology of each chakra has both mundane and transpersonal applications. By contacting the energy of the chakra itself one masters not only its step on the road to enlightenment, but the energy at its root as well, which can then be turned towards actualising behaviours in this world. More description of this ingenious idea next week. Glenn’s old friend Susan Carlson has been heard to say that the continuation of the spiritual process past initial kundalini awakening is about being a consciously evolving bridge between heaven and earth, a continuous and dynamic resolution of cosmic opposites. Just like Taoists’ cosmic yin and yang, Kundalini takes the lovemaking of opposites to the universal level as our personality becomes an embodiment of the superconscious self. The meaning of many symbols thereby becomes clearer…
Afterword for Philosophy fans: On Aristotle
Some might think Aristotle also has a bridging-of-opposites approach to virtue, which he sees as a mean between two extremes (eg. courage between rashness and cowardice), but it’s actually a very different philosophy indeed. To make that clear, look at the kind of opposites being bridged and how.
The Aristotelian pair is two negative terms. Rashness and cowardice are two ‘ways to be bad’, two directions in which the good ‘courage’ can overbalance into evil. It’s a good-evil split. The resolution is by a central term, a word — “courage”.
But the Maslow pairing is two necessities of life, each of which can be positive. Seriousness and humour are both important human traits — which sometimes conflict. Neither is necessarily a way to be good or bad and there is no simplistic good-evil split. There is no implication that a verbal definition can get to “the answer” nor is there a central linguistic term. There is just a central process-presence which resolves the “conflict” into an all-inclusive unity, dynamically engaged with life, able to use both seriousness and humorousness when necessary and somehow even simultaneously. But this is a process-presence for which there is a noticeable and deliberate absence of a linguistic definition (see Lao-tzu ch. 1.)