Why do we do what we do? Why do we behave the way we behave? Some physiologists have identified 6 main human needs. People find ways to meet these needs in positive, negative, or neutral ways, but every person finds a way to meet them in some way. We have some genetic propensities, but we all learned different ways of meeting our needs as we grew up. With the raw absorbent eyes of a child, we soaked up the different techniques available to use to feel the way we desire to feel. We all had different life experiences that have added up to the ways that we each meet our basic needs, but you have some go-to responses, some highly predictable ways of interacting with difficulty or success. I was fascinated by the ways we can positively and negatively meet our needs. Because the way we react to things also tells us a lot about what we believe about life. So today I hope you’ll leave with a clearer vision for why you do what you do. And armed with that awareness, you can change or encourage those tendencies. Below we will look at positive and negative ways that we often use to meet these fundamental needs, and how we can shift the way we think about fulfilling our desires.
The first need we will talk about and the one I believe drives most of our behavior is the need for significance. We can feel significant by encouraging another person or by putting them down; both can give us a sense of being alive, important, validated. Even the person that tells you they don’t care about being significant is finding significance in their defiance. Almost everything we do can be traced back to a desire to feel significant. This is a good desire, it can be what drives you and can be what inspires you to be more generous. But depending on what ways you have decided are the most effective ways for gaining significance it can also be what causes you to need to be bigger or better than others, or the need for the fancy title or fast car. In what ways do you find significance in your life? What are the positive ways you find significance – glance at your life right now and see the ways you positively find your sense of worth in this world. Now glance at your life and ask yourself honestly what ways do you seek significance that are not positive? Just like in meditation your job today is to answer yourself honestly but not to judge the answers, this is not a chance to feel bad about yourself, this is an opportunity to gain some priceless insight. If you knew why you do what you do, imagine the power you would gain over your perception of the world.
The next need is the need for certainty. This one can be particularly tricky because our brains are able to find certainty in things that create uncertainty. For instance, one of the main psychological reasons people over eat is because they love the predictability of how it will taste and feel to be overly-satisfied. If we are in a destructive relationship, we often stay because even though we expect pain … we like knowing what to expect. This love for certainty is why we fear change. Where in your life are you not stepping outside the box, thinking outside the box, loving outside the box because you prefer the safety of certainty? We love predictable outcomes, which is ironic because no matter how hard you planned and worked you could not orchestrate your life into turning out exactly as you want. The only thing you can know for sure is that you don’t know anything for sure. And even though we know that to be the true intellectually, we still allow this need for certainty to creep its way into our decisions. We mistakenly associate certainty with safety, it is a primal desire to be safe, and one we need to protect us. But for those looking for an above average experience of life, forcing certainty is an unsafe way to live. Demanding certainty is often the quickest way to turn something spectacular into something mediocre.
The third need is variety. The human psyche needs variety, we were just built this way. You know how you meet someone and think they are the greatest thing, but a year later they still have all those great qualities but you’re over it and find yourself bored. What about your favorite meal in the whole world? If you ate it everyday you would eventually not like it because your brain would demand something new. All our needs are healthy and this one makes a lot of sense – we want to be stimulated, it makes us want to learn something new. What are the ways you seek variety in your life? And remember you’re often fulfilling other needs at the same time. Take a club for instance; say you join a club based on something that you love. This club has different events and lectures that give you a sense of variety, you get to meet others with a common interest, provide you connections as they meet every week and always focus on this thing that you love, providing you certainty and being a part of something gives you a sense of significance. This is a great example of how something can positively fulfill many of our needs. On the other hand, being in a relationship with a violent person can also provide variety, connection, and significance, even certainty. The human mind and emotional landscape is so complex and yet, so predictable. Know that you need variety, and take control of how you get it. How do you create variety in your life, and which of the other needs are you also fulfilling in those things?
One of the reasons you love yoga, or I hope even one of the reasons why you come to this class, is that it meets the final need of growth. We need to feel like our souls are expanding, not stagnant. We need to know that this process of living is developing us. One thing I learned a while ago in ministry and have seen proven time and time again is that everyone, and I mean everyone, is thirsty for greater meaning, thirsty for conversation about the big questions of life, thirsty for those moments where for an instant the universe looks small and manageable. All people want to share, all people want to feel as big as they suspect they are, and we all want to grow. I’ve seen this in many ways, and it’s a big part of why I think I was brave enough to start talking about heavy things in the middle of a yoga class. Because I know in my bones that we all want to roll around in the mysteries of this thing called life. I spent 45 days in the wilderness a few years ago with some tough characters, former drug addicts, victims of abuse – people who had every reason to act tough, and did.
But during this time in the wilderness I was continually astonished by their behavior. “What do you mean you won’t clean up after our meal? That’s your job today.” Was that even a thing, can we say that, no isn’t an option. Insulting each other, cursing, screaming, even violent …. and all out in the middle of nowhere. I had just come from ministry so this felt like deliverance. We didn’t even have tents, just a tarp that we strung up in the trees. I couldn’t believe it, and I just kept getting upset and asking them questions about why they were being that way and telling them that they are so much more than that. Day after day. Then one day at the top of a mountain they were being ridiculous and I was hungry and thirsty and tired and finally lost it. I remember throwing my backpack down on the ground and proceeding to scream at them about how horrible they are being, and went to each one and gave them each a piece of my mind at the top of my lungs. I’ll never forget how they just sat there frozen, staring at me, not interrupting, just listening until I finally finished my rant. Out of breath, I finally stopped yelling and there we stood in silence, I remember my heart racing. Then one at a time they start clapping. Until they were all smiling and clapping and hollering. They came and pat me on the back and hugged me and said “Finally!” I was teaching them to respect each other more, and they were teaching me to stop trying to be perfect. By the end of those 45 days, and I had watched them act too good for things, too tough to talk, too victimized to feel …. but one by one they all broke down, opened up, and began to grow. Their need for growth finally outweighed their pain.
How beautiful it is that we are all wired with the innate desire to contribute. We need to know that the world is a better place because we’re in it, whether it be through a simple note encouraging someone or as big as starting a nonprofit or business. The real beautiful thing about the need for contribution is that it is separate from our need for significance. It’s easy to see how contributing can give you a sense of significance, but it has its own category because this desire is not self serving, it is a purely instinctual desire to give. On the other hand, I’ve seen caretakers, teachers, people pleasers, or people who need to feel needed end up losing themselves in the service of others, forgetting to contribute to themselves. Since we all know that giving financially is an option let’s take that one off the table and ask instead what ways can you contribute more that have nothing to do with money? How can you fulfill this desire through your gifts and personality? I believe the most powerful work is done in intangible ways.
The next need is the need for connection. The older we get the more we realize that we’d rather live in a tent with people we love than a mansion with people we don’t. Most of us learn pretty quickly that relationships are the most valuable thing in our lives. This is a beautiful desire, and is the basis for any functional society. The interesting thing about this desire for connection is that we seek it in ways we don’t even realize. We don’t just seek connection externally but internally as well. When we throw a pity party we get to connect with ourselves, telling ourselves how we’re really alone in this world and have to stick together. We all know the myriad of ways to seek a romantic connection that can be beautiful or destructive. But begin to expand your definition of connection. We can feel connected to our work, and end up neglecting our families or friends. We can feel connected to our injury, or our illness, or our history. In meditation coaching, when someone has struggled with cancer or another major illness, even if they are completely cured, one of the things we have to work through is their desire to personally associate themselves as “the person who had cancer.” That was their definition for so long, and they get a sense of connection from it. This applies to anything; you most likely have a story from your past you are connected to, and return to beat yourself up about, from time to time. And here’s the interesting thing, you don’t have to just be fulfilling one need at a time. In the case of beating yourself up for a situation in your past you get a sense of connection to your familiar story, and you may get significance by labeling yourself a victim. We need connection, but have to be conscious enough to recognize when we are seeking it in empty places. Where do you seek connection in your life good and bad? Where should you be seeking connection?
In the movie Lincoln, there was a scene where Abraham Lincoln was talking with a man that was completely focused on his end goal, wanting to achieve it no matter what. His end goal was noble and he talked about our moral compass. Then Lincoln said, “I learned in school that the magnetic compass will point you due north … every time. But it doesn’t take into account the swamps, and caverns and oceans between you and your destination.” If you are unprepared for the challenges between here and there, if you are just to drown somewhere in the middle, then what’s the point in knowing true north. I was reminded of this story, because we may be very sure of where we want to go, of who we want to be, where we want to end up. But understanding ourselves, our needs, why we do what we do, how we interact with our own minds is what prepares us for the terrain in between today and your destination.
~ Roni Sloman