When we were little, I’m sure we came across food pyramids and other pyramids before (like in math class). They all follow one basic concept: whatever is at the bottom is needed first before one can get to the top. When we got older, the idea of Maslow was introduced in life skills class, at least for me personally. Since then, he has had a profound impact on my life. So, who is Maslow and how does his pyramid help us in spiritual life?
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist, and he created the hierarchy of needs. Psychology plays a huge role in the bhakti yoga way of life, because a lot of power can come from controlling your mind. Psychology, being the study of the mind and its behavior, can help us a lot in understanding ourselves, and how to apply our nature to spiritual life. Spirituality is a lot about what happens within, and it often supports the material world that we interact with on the outside. However, before we can get to a state of internal stability, I believe we need to be stable externally first, and Maslow supports this.
Before I go on, this is a disclaimer that spiritual and material life cannot and will not ever be separate. They should run alongside each other as if they were wheels on two train tracks. The wheels need to be balanced if they want to work together, to keep the train of life moving forward. To some extent they are independent, but to some extent they are also dependent on each other.
So, to start off, the bottom of this pyramid includes the bare minimum, or the most basic necessities needed in life, such as water, food, shelter, and clothing. To go into further depth, the food not only needs to be sufficient, but also nutritious. The water needs to be safe for drinking, and the shelter needs to protect from both the heat and the cold. Practicing spiritual life can be very difficult without these.
The next part of the pyramid talks about safety needs. This includes personal security, health, employment and resources. In order to afford everything in the first part of the pyramid, employment is necessary in the world today. In order to be able to work for money, we need to be healthy, both physically and mentally, as this can hinder our abilities to work and focus on spiritual life. I mean, think about it. How would you feel if you’re buried under a pile of bills, work is stressful, you’re struggling to put food on the table, and someone tells you, ‘just pray about it’. They have no idea how difficult it could be.
Moving on to the middle of the pyramid, we have the topic of love and belonging. Friendship, intimacy, family, and a sense of connection all fall under this category. We all know what it can be like to fall out with a friend, a lover or even a family member. It can be heartbreaking. But if we have everything aforementioned, it definitely becomes easier to deal with. Here is where God, or the divine can start to play a part. It is said that there are 4 types of people who approach God: the distressed, one who desires wealth, the inquisitive, and one who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute. As we go forth in the pyramid, we see these 4 different people feeling the need to approach a divine, higher personality.
Self-esteem, respect, strength and confidence in oneself is the next category. This is something I personally struggled a lot with, from a young age. I was always insecure, and my sense of self was distorted. To give you some more insight, when a child is growing up, naturally they are self-centered. Not to speak badly of children, it’s just that their level of understanding is not developed at that stage. So, for example, if their parents are fighting, the child thinks, ‘it’s my fault’. If the mother or father neglects the child, they think they are the problem. This leads to a low self-esteem in adults, and also can turn into people-pleasing behavior. It affects us a lot spiritually because we often feel like we are incapable of doing something. Constantly being asked to be humble can also make us feel less confident in ourselves. Self-respect is also important because we need to be aware that within us, the divine, higher power in the universe also exists. We should respect this as well as ourselves. We should respect ourselves enough to want to take care of ourselves, in a holistic way.
Finally, the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. This is when one is self-aware and self-conscious. Following everything else on the pyramid, one can finally experience purpose, meaning and inner potential in their lives. We really struggle in the beginning stages to find our purpose, and most people come to spiritual life in search of exactly that. This is where one is genuinely searching for knowledge of the Divine. So that sums up the first part of this article. The second part looks at how we can apply these needs to bhakti yoga.
When it comes to nutritious and healthy food, the bhakti yogis are experts on this. We encourage a vegetarian diet, in which no meat, fish or eggs are consumed. More so, the food we eat is cooked in a certain consciousness, knowing that we are using vegetables and spices from the earth to sustain ourselves. We are aware that this food is an offering and becomes sanctified after it’s made. This food is not ordinary, as we take on the consciousness of the food we eat. So, when it is offered with love and devotion to the higher power, it leaves us feeling happy and satisfied.
In our employment, we are encouraged to do something for a good cause. This can be contributing to a bhakti yoga center near you, or buying books for your self-realization, knowing it will fund something meaningful. Health is also a part of this category. We need to be mentally, emotionally, and physically stable. Spiritual life helps us and can certainly give us comfort, but we must not negate help from doctors or even psychologists. Everyone has a lot of trauma, from this life as well as the lifetimes that passed. There should be no shame in getting help, because it will only assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Personally, I am seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist. I am taking medication for my medical health, in the same way that someone with a physical ailment (like diabetes) has to take medication. We are deserving of being healthy.
Friendship, family, and intimacy is next. Associating with the right crowd of people can have a world of an impact on us. We need to be aware of those who we keep in our inner circle, but also those far away. It is rare to find true friends who really look out for you, especially in a world filled with so much duplicity. I have been betrayed by people who I would never expect to betray me. Furthermore, we are so easily influenced by people, not only those close to us, but even celebrities or famous people in the news. We’re often expected to go with the flow and follow the masses, but how often do we stop to think whether or not it’s really good for us? In spiritual life, association is an important factor, because we want to be encouraged to follow to correct path, as well as the one that is most meaningful.
When we follow a spiritual path, such as bhakti yoga, we gain a sense of self-esteem and respect for ourselves. We realize that we are part and parcel of the universal divine power, and that special part of us means that we are a special part of something greater in this world. Although we may not love ourselves to the fullest extent, we start feeling loved slowly. I speak from experience, because when I started paying attention to the divine power in my life, I realized that something bigger than me is in effect, and wants what’s best for me and those around me.
Self-realization is at the top of the pyramid, and well, it’s taken us a lot to get here, hasn’t it? If this article has taught you anything, I hope it’s the fact that while we need a lot to get to self-actualization, we can still do small things at every step of the way, which contribute to thinking and behaving in a spiritual way. Spiritual life can be incorporated into every aspect of our material life, and it is actually advised that we do this. If we’re only living in the material world, our train is only balancing on one set of wheels, and we’re going to be living an unsteady and unstable life. Once we include spirituality in our daily lives, we become more content, and gain a sense of inner peace.