Before I stumbled into Zen Buddhist practice, I studied Psychology at California State University at Long Beach. I entered into this study in a desperate attempt to understand my own dissatisfaction with my life and the direction it seemed to be taking. I felt most compelled by the writings of Carl Rodgers, Fritz Perls, Eric Berne and Abraham Maslow. One of the theories that intrigued me at the time was that of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Abraham Harold Maslow (April 1, 1908 – June 8, 1970) was an American psychologist, who developed the theory of "hierarchy of human needs,” and is considered one of the founders of humanistic psychology. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and was the eldest of seven children. His parents were uneducated Jewish immigrants from Russia. He was slow and tidy, and remembered his childhood as lonely and rather unhappy, because, as he said, "I was the little Jewish boy in the non-Jewish neighborhood; I felt a little like what I imagined it might be to the experience of a Black child enrolled in an all-white school. I felt isolated and unhappy; and consequently, I spent my time in libraries and among books, without friends."
Maslow posited that transcendent experiences in all humans occur universally, and could be characterized as being of a theistic, supernatural, or non-theistic content. At the core of Maslow’s theory was the inspiration that these experiences are as unique as the person experiencing it. Regardless of content, or how the experience may be interpreted or understood, Maslow pointed out that there were definite characteristics which were constant to what he termed “peak-experiences,” a term which encompassed the spectrum of mystical states of consciousness. Maslow prefers the term “peak-experience” because he wanted to secularize the experience, feeling it was necessary to define the experience as one that is natural and available outside of any organized religious context. However, he was not suggesting that the religious context was unimportant. He realized that a structure of metaphors with which to interpret and understand the experience was dependent upon the individuals history and education. Furthermore, Maslow believed that peak-experiences could also be triggered in non-religious settings and activities; consequently, the framework by which an individual may interpret his or her personal experience could encompass events within their everyday life so the definition could also be outside of the realm of “religious tranformation.” Maslow stated in his book, Religious Aspects and Peak-Experiences, “Religion becomes...a state of mind achievable in almost any activity of life, if this activity is raised to a suitable level of perfection.” (p.170)
In the early days of Psychology, the prevalent theory was that the inner mind was not a tangible and measurable entity, and therefore it could not be objectively studied. Maslow wished to discover a structure that could be utilized that was both personal and scientific that would explore peak-experiences. Through a common language of new terminology these peak-experiences could be considered and the variation of the experiences could be measured and examined. Later Psychologist’s use Maslow’s terms to relate their subjective experience and compare it to the subjective experiences of others. In this manner, Maslow felt that mystical experiences would become incorporated into everyday language, and become part of modern culture.
Maslow listed the characteristics – initially defined within religious experience – to include all varieties of peak-experiences, whatever the context. He also described how the experiences tended to become unifying, noumenal, and transcendent; this resulted in a sense of openness for the individual, as well as a sense of integration. He theorized that peak-experiences could be therapeutic, as they tend to increase the individuals free will, self-determination, creativity, and empathy. Maslow felt that studying and cultivating peak-experiences could be taught to others in our culture who “may never had one as well as to those who might repress or suppress them,” providing a methodology to achieve personal growth, integration, and fulfillment.
The mistake with trying to understand a peak-experience, as Maslow did, through definition and understanding relegates those experiences to the mundane. His theory, although having merit, by itself becomes self-limiting. This is the disease of our scientific quest for understanding. Understanding cannot help us understand something that is completely unknowable; yet I am glad that Maslow and others have attempted to enter into this realm of not knowing.
There is a problem if we try to merge Psychology with Buddhist practices by co-opting only selected parts of the teaching and I see this as a huge problem today. There is a real need for therapy in our society, however, Psychology is not Buddhism and there is no such thing as Buddhist Psychology. To say this is an oxymoron, it cancels itself out. Buddha taught liberation, he did not create some self-help program; it is only through relinquishing our opinion, our condition and our situation that we can discover the ineffable truth. We cannot posit a theory by which an individual will wake up if they are based upon a thinking mind.
I believe that Zen has much to offer as a practice, and I also see the value of the Therapist in our modern world. The major demarcation between Zen and Psychology is simply that Zen must remain outside of all ideas and understanding. Zen is not knowing, and if Psychology can embrace this not knowing there is a chance that it can evolve into a helpful practice.