Living a Full Life

Sharon Salzberg
Living a full life

This week we’re celebrating the launch of Sharon Salzberg’s new book, Real Life: The Journey from Isolation to Openness and Freedom. Here’s an excerpt from the book about what it means to live a full life….

There are many models of journeying to live a full and free life, a real life. Some are faith-based; others are completely secular. They all provide a vision of a life that is not just lived mechanically, driven by habit—unfulfilled or disconnected. They all say, in effect, that we don’t have to be so perpetually lonely, feel so boxed in, so circumscribed. In one way or another, these depictions of a journey to freedom evoke an ability to look at one’s circumstances and not be bound by them, to begin to imagine a life other than the one dictated to us by the world. I’ve often said that I think we live in a time of commonly blunted aspiration, where we don’t dare dream of much, but here greater aspiration awakens. We don’t just receive the story of our lives, we discover a new sense of agency in the writing or rewriting of it—a telling that reflects both the universality of that story and its own unique distinctiveness.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “It would seem that every human being comes at birth into society not as a lump of clay to be molded by society, but rather as a structure which society may warp or suppress or build upon. We’re here to make a rose into a good rose, not turn a rose into a lily.”

So how do we live more fully as ourselves, with growing purpose and interest and joy? While Maslow’s work is well known and has been widely shared, I find it helpful to revisit his model of growth viewed through a progressive fulfilling of a hierarchy of needs*, as we consider contraction and expansion:

1. Physiological—These are biological requirements for human survival, such as air, food, drink, shelter, clothing, warmth, sleep.

2. Safety—Emotional security, financial security (for example, employment, social welfare), freedom from fear, social stability, health and well-being. The need for safety is the basis of all other needs. Safety means stability, a sense of having trust in our environment. This secure foundation allows us to take risks and go out and explore the world.

3. Love and belonging—Examples of belonging needs include friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance, receiving and giving affection, and love. Feeling connection to others is a fundamental need. The quality of connection hinges on what psychologist Carl Rogers refers to as “unconditional positive regard,” which occurs when a person feels seen, cared for, and safe expressing a whole range of feelings and experiences.

4. Esteem—Includes self-worth, accomplishment, and respect. This includes first esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and, second, the desire for reputation or respect from others (status and prestige, for example). It comes down to liking yourself!

5. Self-actualization—Refers to the realization of a person’s potential for self-fulfillment, bringing personal growth and peak experiences, referring to experiences that bring an increase in wonder, joy, serenity, and a heightened sense of beauty while also creating a deeper connection with the world around us. We have these potentialities within us that we can feel deep inside and that could offer so much benefit to ourselves and to the world. Self-actualization is living with openness and curiosity, bringing those potential realities to as full expression as possible.

To journey well, instead of being driven by perpetual discontent, anxieties, and battling with reality because of a sense of deficiency, we are increasingly accepting and loving of ourselves and others. The journey becomes more about, “What choices will lead me to greater integration and wholeness?,” than about anything else.

*In speaking about the hierarchy of needs later in his life, Maslow emphasized that order in the hierarchy “is not nearly as rigid” as he may have implied in his earlier work, that we needn’t first completely fulfill one level of need to move on to the next.

Sharon Salzberg is a renowned meditation teacher who played a crucial role in bringing mindfulness to the West. Sharon is a New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including Lovingkindness, Real Happiness and Real Love.

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