Question your Needs to Set New Direction this Year

Seth Godin’s blog grabbed my attention again:

Once our needs our met, our instinct is to invent new ones, to find a fuel to continually move things forward, to bring that propulsive energy back.

I couldn’t help myself - one mention of ‘needs’ and I went way off from what Seth’s post was about. I thought about this compulsion humans have, to continually move things forward, and how our needs affect the direction we move.

This is why it’s important to break down your needs sometimes. Do you need everything you think you need? Have you tried fasting once in a while - you’ll find it hard, but I bet you’ll also find that you don’t need all that food all the time. You’ll find that it’s alright to be a little hungry sometimes and maybe you’ll enjoy your food more.

Further to this, what if you could get that propulsive energy back in your life that easily? What if you could question and strip back some of the things you need to find fuel in the things you already have access to?

Human Needs aren't Dependent on Human Biology

All human needs, including sexuality, lie beyond the animal world. They are historically determined and historically mutable.

I circled this quote on the reading because I had no idea what it meant.

I have started going to a weekly reading group where we bring interesting articles, lectures, or any media to discuss. This quote is from what I’m told is a famous lecture by Herbert Marcuse, first delivered in 1967, called “The End of Utopia”. I know I ostensibly write about philosophy on this blog, but I would say that the breadth of my knowledge is woeful - attending this reading group is part of how I am educating myself.

Luckily for me, the person who brings the reading to the group leads the discussion. So I confessed my ignorance of Marxist philosophy and asked for an explanation of the quote.

What followed was incredibly though provoking for me.

Marcuse is saying that human needs are determined by culture. What we refer to as needs are all a level above the “animal world” needs like water or breathing. He argues that our needs are not defined by our biology and are infinitely open to change.

If your needs are not defined by your biology, then how are they defined? The world around you is the primary driver. Above any beyond the most basic needs, what you know and can perceive defines what you need. Aristotle has a useful model (check out this summary if you’re interested: Aristotle on the soul) for this idea in his degrees of soul hierarchy.

Aristotle's model on the soul. 

Aristotle's model on the soul. 

  1. The nutritive soul (plants): Growth, nutrition (reproduction)
  2. The sensitive soul (all animals): Movement and perception
  3. Rational soul (humans): Intellect and thought.

This model is a useful way to think about how you navigate the world as a human. There is an immediate connection between sensing something and action. How can you act if you don’t sense something? You need to be able to see it, smell it, feel it, touch it, or perceive it in some way before you can do anything about it. So, your sensitive soul defines your needs. How you move through the world defines your needs. You can change what you need by changing what you perceive.

Changing how you move and going outside to see new things is a really good way to change your perceptions and reset your needs a little. 

Changing how you move and going outside to see new things is a really good way to change your perceptions and reset your needs a little. 

Humans have the capacity for intellect and thought too. Needs derived from thinking are just as real as needs derived from the lower levels of the soul hierarchy. And yet, the basis of the needs derived from thought are affected by the lower levels.

I don’t know where I’m going with this yet. I have questions: to what extent is this theory is based on a Western perspective? Is there a way to figure out our biological needs apart from what would be torture? Do the Levels of the Soul really matter when the individual experiences needs as real regardless of what level the need derives from? This is weird to think about. How do you think about your needs? Let me know in the comments!

Photo by Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash

Rest and Need

A friend of mine had just told me that he was an insomniac. We were eating burgers on a Wednesday night. He’d come straight from work where he’d had shit day. Just before he had to leave for the day, he had discovered a mistake in an important presentation he had prepared for his boss. The mistake was easy to fix, but this was the second time this had happened and both times he had been the one responsible for the mistake.

He was kept awake at night by mistakes like this one. He told me he needed to get more rest than he did, but thoughts danced around his mind making so much noise he couldn’t sleep. To drown out the noise of his thoughts, he watches movies he knows very well or listens to his favourite album.

As soon as I turn on the movie, the thoughts quieten down and I fall asleep in five minutes.

Problem solved. He just needs to distract himself a little.

And yet, he started this conversation by describing himself as an insomniac. He told me he needs to have the distraction because it helps all the while being sure that it wasn’t really helping him. He’d tried a few other things, but the only thing that helped in the moment was the movies or music.

I was drawn to his description of the cacophony of thoughts keeping him awake. As he described it, he brought his hands up either side of his head as if he were trying to decide between swatting them away and putting his hands over his ears to block out their noise. The image of a man tormented. He laughed as he told me, but this was clearly bothering him.

We talked about the benefits of mediation and learning to be okay with being alone with your mind. Pushing so hard against these thoughts only seems to make them heavier. But if you’re where my friend is, you can’t start mediating today and ‘solve’ the issue right away. Amongst many other things, meditation is a process of learning to observe your thoughts, emotions, or sensations. You’re distracted by them constantly, but over time you can learn to observe them a little longer. You learn to be okay with them, even be curious about them and what they have to tell you. Maybe you can learn not be so tormented by them that they keep you awake at night.

You still need what you need right now.

If you’re anything like my friend, people tell you that you should immediately stop watching tv before bed and try something like mediation instead. It’s shit advice. As your thoughts taunt you, how can you suddenly change your relationship with them without knowing anything about how you might do that? Sure, you could start a mediation practice and slowly learn to need something different to get to sleep. It would probably be great for you - why not get started today? But in the meantime, you’ll continue to need what you need until you don’t need it anymore.

This month I’ll be exploring the concept of need. If you want to follow along, sign up below to get my monthly journal and a sneak peak of the idea I’ll be exploring next month.