I thought it might be interesting to explore how western psychological concepts fit into a graduated path inspired by the Buddha. The path I lay out uses the four refutations of Nagarjuna’s tetralemma or fourfold path. Nagarjuna is one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers who founded the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism. He refutes the various positions we hold about ourselves and the world. I plugged needs-based psychology into his refutations to inspire understanding of how emptiness can be applied in very practical ways in our daily lives.
Even though our growth and development are more complex and uneven than these kinds of graduated presentations suggest, I find it a useful tool for understanding. So as you read through these levels, it is useful not to take them as absolute levels through which we neatly progress from one level to the next in linear fashion, or to interpret them to mean that, once we reach a certain level, we are forever exempt from returning to the lower level. I think development is much more chaotic than these linear notions suggest. However, even with these limitations, there is much value in laying out a template for understanding our experience and relationship to western notions of psychological needs.
The meaning of the word emptiness in this article is to indicate the status of objects of our awareness. To say a table, a psychological need, or a self-sense is empty in nature or lacks inherent existence means that these objects don’t exist independent of causes and conditions. In other words, they exist as interdependent forms and not at all as independent forms as our language suggest. These objects have many other relationships with other things in order for them to appear to us in the form that they do. We typically use language to make object static or reify them. There is a certain convenience and functionality in using language this way. We can put a label “table” on the the assemblage of wood and tell people we will eat at the table, and people won’t eat off the assemblage of wood known as the floor.
There are pitfalls as well to labeling. When we use static language over and over again, we begin to forget about the interdependency and start to assume that objects of our awareness inherently exist. In other words, we believe objects of our awareness exist independently of causes and conditions. This may not be that problematic for objects like tables, but when it comes to objects of our awareness like psychological needs or a self-sense, such static language labels begin to constrict and limit our experience in life. We shall see how the actualization emptiness in daily life with regard to psychological needs and a self-sense they refer to can actually create more functionality and liberation than if we hold them as inherently existent.
Becoming Aware and Experiencing Psychological Needs/Desires
What do you want from life? What do you need? What do you long or hope for? What is it that you desire? What do you value? Can you point to any expectations you have? What is you level of attachment to what is referred to in these questions. All of these questions can be put under the banner of psychological needs and desires. Many of these needs/desires are in conscious awareness, many are not. The ones that are not may be repressed or denied for one reason or another. Others may be outside awareness because they are embedded in our assumptions of reality and are therefore hard to see.
One Western psychological approach that focuses on human needs/desires is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg. NVC using language to support people in connecting to their own and others needs and desires as a way to resolve conflict and enrich life. One aspect of learning NVC is building up one’s need/desire literacy. NVC gives people a language to describe and relate to their needs and desires. Many people who learn NVC quickly discover that they are not aware of or connected to their needs/desires. The basic task in learning NVC is becoming conscious of and connecting to our unconscious needs, hopes, desires, wants, values, expectations, and longings, as well as the feelings they evoke when fufilled or not.
Within the NVC understanding, needs/desire are associated with feelings bidirectionally. If you are connected with one of your feelings within a particular context in which it arose, this gives you information about the associated need/desire that is at stake. For example, if I feel lonely when my family is away and I’m all by myself in the house, the need/desire that can be inferred is that I’m wanting companionship or connection with my family. When my family returns, my need/desire is being fulfilled and therefore my feeling of loneliness gives way to feeling satisfied or excited to have the connection with family. So whether a needs/desire is fulfilled or not determines the associated feeling.
Same is true when you know what you know the need but do not know the feeling. If I was hoping for more supportive feedback (support is the need/desire) from my boss in my evaluation, my feeling might have been disappointment or perhaps discouragement. If I did receive that kind of support I was wanting, then I might be feeling calm and confident because I’m getting the kind of support I want.
For one reason or another, we repressed, denied, and otherwise lost touch with many of our needs as we grew up. We actively disowned some of them in order to meet others’ needs. For example, we might have abandoned our desire to be heard in order to meet the needs of our parents. Or we suppressed one of our needs in order to meet one of our other important needs. For example, my need for creative expression might be suppressed after suffering a humiliating event with peers. So my need to protect myself from shame is more important than my need for creative expression. The net result of these dynamics is that many of our needs are unacknowledged and reside in us as unconscious knowings, which is explained below.
So these needs/desires with their associated feelings are constantly in play throughout our daily life. We all vary in how much awareness we have of our needs/desires and the associated feelings. The exploration at this level is about connecting to unconscious needs and bringing them into awareness. Our needs fall into a category I call unconscious knowings. This is something we know, but it remains out of our conscious awareness. For example, suppose a wife is watching two small children, the phone rings and there is someone knocking at the door as her husband sit in a lounge chair in the back yard. After this experience, if I asked this woman whether she was feeling frustrated and overwhelmed and was wanting support or help, I imagine she would get a sense that I understood what she was experiencing. Not only that, but she could have been disconnected from her need for support (unconscious knowing) and when I offered that need as a guess, in that moment, she experienced a deep sense of self-connection and clarity.
I’ve seen this countless times with people whom I empathetically guess what they were wanting. They felt a sense of relief, and there was a noticeable shift in their body and energy. Part of that experience, I would suggest, is a previously unconscious need (unconscious knowing) being made consciously known to them. When we bring into awareness a need/desire that is being held as an unconscious knowing, we empower ourselves to act upon it by devising strategies to fulfilled the need/desire, or we can assess our level of attachment to the need/desire.
On a deeper level, many of our needs are outside awareness because they are disowned. We actively disown some of our needs/desires in order to meet other needs/desires we have. For example, a person might have disowned our desire to be heard in order to meet our need of acceptance or to be loved by our parents. Our child-mind equates speaking up with fear of not being accepted or loved. Bringing this need/desire into adult awareness can be the basis to begin to Another example, my need/desire for creative expression might be suppressed after suffering a humiliating event with peers. So my need to protect myself from shame is more important than my need for creative expression so I relegate that need/desire to disowned status. The net result of these dynamics is that many of our needs are unacknowledged and reside in us as unconscious knowings, which is explained below.
At this level, the general movement is to bring needs into conscious awareness, which moves needs from being “real but unconscious” to the next level of needs being “real and conscious and trying to get them met.” Even though I am positioning this level as the basic level, this can be a very powerful and necessary level that many nondual aspirants bypass.
Many people who embark upon a spiritual path that includes transcending the “I,” ego or self-sense often are not aware that the most powerful aspects of their self-sense exist outside of their conscious awareness in the form of these unconscious knowings or disowned needs. It is difficult to change the relationship we have with an “I” or see it as false when it is out the range of our awareness. Besides needs, these unconscious knowings take the form of unconscious beliefs and judgments about ourselves that really solidify our sense of “I” in the form of unconscious memories. Therefore, the act of experientially becoming aware of our unconscious knowings (needs/beliefs) is tremendously supportive for those interested in nondual wisdom paths that value inquiry of seeing the sense of self as false or fabricated. So this level of uncovering unconscious needs is important and becomes the foundation for the more refined work on this graduated path.
A more abstract philosophical way to express this is that Inner Empathy work is using NVC and psychological “parts work” to become aware of deep unconscious psychological “I” structures (beliefs, assumptions, unmet needs, trapped feelings), which are already held as subtle unconscious reifications. Such awareness tends to have a de-reify effect and happens naturally when we have a certain quality of connection and experience such reifications as empty of inherent existence.
Let’s simplify our complex inner dynamics to illustrate this point: An adult holds deep inside an unconscious part that suffered some traumatic event or a series of developmental events that inspire him/her to form the belief that “you can’t trust people.” This adult can experientially and empathetically connect (not intellectually) with this part by listening and being unconditionally present to its deep unmet needs and pain. Such quality of connection inspires self-correction mechanisms to take over. The parts construction of mistrust is naturally seen as false or not useful in the adults current life. A life-long unconsciously held position influencing how this person relates to others is de-reified. Since these unconscious reifications affect our lives in many ways and keep us attach to a solid sense of “I,” experiencing them and their beliefs as empty has a certain liberating effect in the way experience flows through. Below is a detailed application of Nagarjuna’s fourfold path on how people can typically experience needs.
1) Needs Are Real And Inherently Exist (There Is A Self)
At this level of exploration, there is a concerted effort to practice identifying, connecting, and expressing needs that emerge within us. We slowly shake off our conditioning, which does not value the language of needs, and eagerly explore our needs. We learn the new language of needs and begin to relate to our experience in that way. We begin to feel more comfortable with the position that needs are real and exist and start holding them in conscious awareness. We connect with previously unconscious needs and begin to savor the self-connection as well as our connection to others, that this awareness brings.
Part of this learning that “needs are real” is that we consciously or unconsciously assume needs are grounded in and representative of some intrinsic reality. We give them absolute status and begin to speak about them in that way. Our sense of self or “I” begins to be embedded in the new needs language. Whereas our sense of self might have been partially formed by unfulfilled unconscious needs in the past, now our sense of self is more conscious, yet remains a sense of self or an identity.
As we gain practice, we begin to notice that some needs we express seem to have extra energy or deeper feelings associated with the need than the situation of context warrants. In other words, the emotional intensity is disproportionate to the situation. There might be a backlog of desires and wants, and these are expressed sometimes in desperate or intense ways. For example, a spouse wanting to be heard about something might be unconsciously superimposing old hurt and frustrations from childhood around being heard onto the present-time situation. This can be a challenge for people using the model because they may perfectly use the suggested NVC form, but their intense feelings cause them to abandon the important “intention of mutual connection” inherent in the NVC paradigm. Their requests end up having heavy demand energy behind them despite the inviting language.
So part of the learning process is coming to the experiential realization that “needs being real” can be experienced in both an attached and a nonattached way. We can experience, relate to our needs, and ask for them to be met in a way that is demanding or in a way that is holding them lightly. We quickly learn whether our self-requests or requests made to others to meet our needs are made with the heavy energy of demand or the lighter, non-attached “would like to have” when these requests are denied.
Some of this demanding energy I attribute to having wounds associated with unmet needs and/or having a backlog of unfulfilled core needs. If we make requests from our wounds, we are asking the other person to be responsible and resolve our wounds and the pain associate with them. This is also true for our backlog of unfulfilled needs. As we open up to our unconscious needs and make them conscious, many fall into the category of what I call empty bowls. We take these empty bowls and go around begging others to fill them, either in a covertly subtle or overtly demanding way. In other words, we automatically equate awareness of needs to external fulfillment, never realizing that we ourselves can fill our empty bowls.
At this level, we realize that in order to make requests that are truly requests, deeper work needs to be done. This is the what we do in the Basic Inner Empathy work. Accessing and holding compassion for our disowned needs and parts that emerge in present-time contexts is one way to learn to hold needs lightly. Until we do this deeper work, the associated need most certainly will carry heavy demanding energy when it emerges.
Another pitfall to this level is the tendency to identify with our needs. For me, being strongly identified with the fulfillment of needs means that I define who I am by what I need. In other words, I think I am my needs. I form an identity around my needs. Demanding energy can arise from identifying with and linking our needs to unconscious core needs. A simple example of this is when someone doesn’t meet our need for support, and we silently conclude that they don’t value us. Our sense of worth, being loved, and accepted is subtly attached to and dependent upon many of the surface needs being met. Such identifications can be limiting and confound our understanding and relationship with needs. If we base a sense of self or “I” in a new language that is embedded in an assumed absolutistic context that needs are real, then we have simply created a better language trap for ourselves.
Even though NVC language is a relative process language, our internal psychological structures are formed and reside in our being in the absolutist dualistic language we were enculturated with in modern life. Our absolute deep psychological structures reveal themselves as we try to use process language in everyday life. There is bound to be a philosophic clash. People negotiate this clash in different ways. Some dismiss NVC as irrelevant because it does not support their comfort level and certitude of being identified with absolutist perspectives. Others stay on and struggle to learn, often experiencing confusion and tension. There is a certain awkwardness in trying to learn NVC from their absolutist perspective. In the beginning, we try to reduce the relative process language to the absolute.
Because we might have wounds or disowned needs undergirding our current expression of a particular need, which promotes strong identification, and because we might still be using an absolutist assumed ground to express our relative process language needs, a correction for this heavy identification is suggested in the exploration of the position that needs are unreal or don’t really exist in any ultimate sense. This supports moving to learn to dis-identify with needs or to experience them as empty. This can be a scary and uncomfortable process for many people, so few take this journey. For some, to give up absolute status of needs means they create the conditions to experience the vulnerability of many deep core wounds or unmet needs.
2) Needs Are Unreal And, Don’t Inherently Exist In Any Ultimate Sense (There Is No Self): At this level of exploration, we begin to entertain needs being relative “things we tell ourselves we need.” Rather than mentally associating needs with biological or psychological imperatives, we experience their empty nature. In other words, they are seen as socio-linguistic and psycho-linguistic constructions. This is a correction for the absolutist position of “needs are real and inherently exist.” Needs are viewed as concepts that ultimately have no inherent existence and are empty. There is the exploration that needs don’t really exist in any absolute sense, but are relative expressions of things we want in this world as we live here. This treatment or regard for needs will support people in holding them lightly and expressing them in a more functional way.
This is a more difficult level of exploration for people who are attached to understanding life in terms of human needs. Why? Because many people enjoy the relief and freedom that comes from connecting with needs and having them fulfilled through requests. Also, a lot of psychological work is about persuading people to get in touch with their needs and actively promotes treating their needs as real and existent to bring into conscious awareness. It seems like a reversal to entertain the notion that needs are unreal or don’t exist in any ultimate sense. To suggest that exploring the concept that needs are unreal or don’t exist I would imagine is heresy in some psychological circles.
I’m guessing some people will confuse the position of “pretending like we don’t have needs” with this liberating “needs are unreal, don’t exist in any ultimate sense” position. So let me be clear that I don’t want you to go back to pretending that needs/desires/preferences/values don’t exist or to repress or disown them. Rather, I want you to consider changing your relationship with your needs! This exploration of the concept that “needs are unreal” is a correction to a relationship that seems to naturally form around the fulfillment of our needs: When we move from unconscious un fulfillment of needs to bringing them into to consciousness awareness and fulfillment, many of our needs take on a “have-to-have” energy and fulfillment is externally focused for reasons outlined above. When we don’t do the deeper work at the core level and learn to ids-identify with core needs, we disembowel ourselves and can become slaves to the fulfillment of our needs.
Often people are reluctant to explore this needs-are-unreal position because they are afraid of falling into nihilism. In other words, they believe they will loose their meaning and purpose in life if they don’t have their needs inherently exist or give them absolute status. The exploration of “needs are unreal, don’t exist” is about changing our linguistic relationship with our needs to be able to hold them lightly. We still can use the language of needs/feelings to make sense of our experience and to let others know what we want and value, but the attachment that comes with the position “needs are inherently real” naturally falls away. In my experience, the needs-based consciousness that holds needs lightly is a more efficient tool for navigating this world than the needs-based consciousness that is supported by a absolutist dualistic good/bad self-system that uses demanding energy of the “this is the way things are!” Holding needs lightly means the sense of self “I” is not so heavily burdened with self-worth/acceptance/love energy. The “have-to-have” energy is no longer dominating our expression of needs. There is a general nonattachment to getting needs exclusively met externally. In other words, the model begins to be used without the influence of the dualistic self-system. Experiencing needs as empty and using the NVC model this way honors its inherent non dualistic relative nature.
3) Needs Are Both Real and Unreal (There Is A Self and No Self): At this level, needs are seen as both real and unreal or exist and don’t exist. Let me explain: As our relationship with our needs changes from “consciously real/exist” to “consciously unreal/don’t exist,” there is a tendency and potential to unwittingly get caught up in an extreme position. We can begin to misuse the “needs are unreal or don’t exist” position by forming an ideal about needs being unreal that we try to live up to in daily life. We can easily begin to devalue our needs and speak about them as though they were insignificant or an illusion. Many people who study non dual wisdom find themselves in this predicament when they pronounce all the stuff of daily life as a dream and renounce this world as illusion in a derogatory way. They also will pronounce that the “I” is an illusion. Instead of the “I” being a coalescence of needs, they become identified with something other than the mundane reality of need fulfillment. They might announce frequently the mantra that there is no self, cherish and identify with that construction! They construct an ultimate reality outside of needs-based life and disassociate and deny the stuff of daily life in favor of this ideal, no-self state, (which ironically is can be seen as just another form of a self expressed in through negation).
In order to correct this tendency, the exploration of needs being both real and unreal is useful. Needs are real in the sense that they emerge in us in any given moment and are a part of our functional daily life (in Buddhism, this is called conventional reality). They are unreal in the sense that they can be “seen through” as something we tell ourselves we want, or they can be empty of inherent nature; they lack inherent existence (in Buddhism, this is called the ultimate reality). Just knowing that needs are both real and unreal seems to cause a shift toward experiencing a more functional relationship with them. Even though we know and accept that our sets of needs are constructed material, we can still enjoy them and use them as a real way to navigate daily life. Knowing that a flower is empty of inherent nature does not detract from experiencing its beauty.
This is the basis for the two-truth doctrine in Tibetan Buddhism. The ultimate reality exists conventionally. Translating this into psychological language: The ultimate reality exists when we see needs (conventional reality) as empty of inherent nature. Nirvana is samsara. So the ultimate reality is not some idealized state outside of whatever feelings, needs, values, and wants emerge in us in daily life. Instead, it is a shift in the relationship we have with our needs in daily life.
4) Needs Are Neither Real/Exist Nor Are They Unreal Or Nonexistent (There Is Neither A Self nor a Non-Self ): As we begin to experience life with needs being both real and unreal, we can be seduced into making that a fixed position or an ideal to follow. In other words, we take the ultimate position that “the emptiness of needs and using needs as robust tools in daily life” and turn it into an ideal to be attained. To correct for that tendency, we can move to the forth level, that the ultimate reality of experiencing daily needs as empty is also empty or devoid of inherent nature. This is the emptiness of emptiness. Our minds are conditioned to make emptiness into something that can be gained or lost. So it is useful to remind ourselves that the emptiness we are seeking does not inherently exist. At this level, non dual awareness is “seen through” as empty. There is no witness awareness that observes needs and feelings arising; there is experience flowing through a mind/body system. This is best described in a verse in Longchenpa’s “Treasury of Natural Perfection”:
In total presence, the nature of mind is like the sky,
where there is no duality, no distinctions, no gradations,
there is no view nor meditation nor commitment to observe,
no diligent ideal conduct, no pristine awareness to unveil
no training in the stages and no path to tread,
no subtle realization, and no final union.
In the absence of judgment, nothing is ‘sacred’ or ‘profane,’
only a one-taste matrix, like the Golden Isle;
the self-sprung nature of mind is like the clear sky,
its nature an absence beyond all expression.