What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.

— Abraham Maslow

In psychology, physiology, and medicine, wherever a debate between the mystics and the scientifics has been once for all decided, it is the mystics who have usually proved to be right about the facts, while the scientifics had the better of it in respect to the theories. — William James

In the 40 years since Abraham Maslow’s death, the impact of his thinking about human needs and potential is still resonating in business and academic circles. Maslow’s original writings first appeared in a 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, and helped frame what drives us. It was drawn from his careful review and observation of those known for their greatness, and others, students in particular, less well known who seemed to exemplify a host of very positive values.

While sometimes criticized as not “empirical” — that is, based in scientific principles and rigorous research data — the power of case study and careful observation cannot be underestimated. Freud wrote only about a handful of patients, Piaget commented on watching his three children, and Erik Erickson wrote, “Gandhi’s Truth,” which earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Case studies and observation, not just the more standard form of scientific method, have earned their value in understanding of the human condition.

Maslow’s thinking is at the core of humanistic psychology and has recently seen a resurgence of interest as the subfield of positive psychology gains popularity. Research findings are now confirming much of what Maslow noted. Evidence–based interventions and practices are now providing the foundation for scientists to promote activities related to human growth. For more information on extracting practical applications from this research you may want to check out our Proof Positive blog.

Case study and the rigors of more elaborate evidence-based scientific method have value. But what of individual phenomenological experience? Consider the fact that the 14th Dalai Lama, in a speech given to the Society for Neuroscience referred to the fact that both science and Buddhism rely on common principles of philosophical thought: Causality and empiricism. Here is an excerpt from his book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality that puts the issue squarely in front of us.

The Buddhist understanding of the mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation. Working models of the mind and its various aspects and functions are generated on this basis; they are then subjected to sustained critical and philosophical analysis and empirical testing through both meditation and mindful observation. This process offers a first-person empirical method with relation to the mind.

I am aware that there is a deep suspicion of first-person methods in modern science. I have been told that, given the problem inherent in developing objective criteria to adjudicate between competing first-person claims of different individuals, introspection as a method for the study of the mind in psychology has been abandoned in the West. Given the dominance of third-person scientific method as a paradigm for acquiring knowledge, this disquiet is entirely understandable.

Are the mystics and the scientifics (as William James put it) at odds with one another? Hardly. There simply seems to be an overlap between first-person and third-person methods as different means of exploring causality. Eastern and Western thought are converging on what the Dalai Lama has called his “suspicion of absolutes:” Scientists and the mystics are approaching the same truths, but from different directions. What we are all seeking to understand will be learned from the confluence of first-person self-reports, observations, case studies, and third-party research.

But were the scientists and mystics ever that far apart? What researchers are coming to know about Maslow, and what he may have elaborated on in his initial work, is something that has been in our experience for a long time — by some estimates maybe 10,000 years:


Deficiency motivation vs. growth motivation is at the essence of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You’ve seen the pyramid. It would be hard to find an introductory psychology book that doesn’t have this neatly layered and colored design. These color schemes follow a familiar pattern: Red, orange-yellow, green-blue; blue-purple; violet. Of course it is the color spectrum, but it is interesting to see the same down-up coloring of the 7 chakras. But the alignment between Maslow’s hierarchy and the correlation to the chakras may not be so farfetched. Consider the fact that William James, who straddled science and mysticism in the 1902 classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote about the common ground between mysticism and science. James was one of the select people Maslow studied to exemplify the term self-actualized. More than this, William James was professor to W.B. Cannon, author of Wisdom of the Body, cited by Maslow in the original paper.

It was also actually William James who first hypothesized levels of human needs: material (physiological, safety), social (belongingness, esteem), and spiritual. Here is a quote by R.W. Trine used by James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“The great central fact in human life is the coming into a conscious vital realization of our oneness with this Infinite Life. and the opening of ourselves fully to this divine inflow. In just the degree that we come into a conscious realization of our oneness with the Infinite Life, and open ourselves to this divine inflow, do we actualize in ourselves the qualities and powers of the Infinite Life, do we make ourselves channels through which the Infinite Intelligence and Power can work. In just the degree in which you realize your oneness with the Infinite Spirit, you will exchange dis-ease for ease, inharmony for harmony, suffering and pain for abounding health and strength. To recognize our own divinity, and our intimate relation to the Universal, is to attach the belts of our machinery to the powerhouse of the Universe. One need remain in hell no longer than one chooses to; we can rise to any heaven we ourselves choose; and when we choose so to rise, all the higher powers of the Universe combine to help us heavenward.”

James uses the term “actualize” only once in the entire book, and it is in this quote which refers to divine inflow, and channels of power. Elsewhere in the book is a discussion of yoga.

What emerged for Maslow could be boiled down to these few sentences:

“[The research] led ultimately to the discovery of a most profound difference between self-actualizing people and others, namely, that the motivational life of self-actualizing people is not only quantitatively different, but also qualitatively different from that of ordinary people. It seems probable that we must construct a profoundly different psychology of motivation for self-actualizing people, i.e., expression—or growth motivation—rather than deficiency-motivation. … Our subjects no longer “strive” in the ordinary sense but rather “develop.”

Decide for yourself if Maslow’s theory may have had earlier roots in the “powerhouse of the Universe.” Here is a direct comparison of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the 7 chakras.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Seven Chakras
Self-Actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts)7th Understanding, will, self-knowledge, higher consciousness

6th Imagination, awareness, self-reflection, intuition

5th Power, self-expression, deeper connection to others

Esteem (confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others)4th Love, self-acceptance, balanced perspective, compassion
Love & Belongingness (family, friendship and sexual intimacy)3rd Wisdom, esteem, power and position
Safety & Security (of body, resources, family, health, employment, property)2nd Order, love and belonging
Physiological Needs (Breathing, food , water, air, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion)1st Life, survival and safety

Whether knowing of the chakras influenced Maslow’s thinking or not, in the end both point to human beings striving for higher levels of creativity, health and self-fulfillment. Blocks at lower levels impede this growth, and the tendency toward this higher level is natural, even essential. Or, as Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and architect behind its science has said:

“I believe psychology has done very well in working out how to understand and treat disease. But I think that is literally half-baked. If all you do is work to fix problems, to alleviate suffering, then by definition you are working to get people to zero, to neutral.

“What I’m saying is, Why not try to get them to plus-two, or plus-three?”