The core human need, the ultimate standard of morality
I want you to imagine a big, magical glass sphere. It hovers in the air, shimmering and changing colors.
You’re magnetized to it. You can’t take your eyes off it. It’s the most beautiful, breathtaking, mesmerizing thing you’ve ever seen. As you stare at it, feelings of purity, innocence, and other-worldly joy pulsate through you.
Suddenly, it falls to the earth and shatters into billions of tiny pieces.
You can’t explain why, but when it breaks, your heart breaks with it. You’re devastated. You weep for the lost beauty.
Then, through your tears, you see each tiny piece start vibrating in place. Then the pieces start moving toward each other. They lift into the air. You watch in utter fascination as the ball tries to put itself back together.
Pieces are flying up, down, across, everywhere. It appears to be total chaos. You hear crashing sounds and see tiny explosions of light as pieces that don’t fit together collide, then careen away from each other.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pieces start coming together. It seems to take forever, but eventually everything fits into place. As the last piece clicks into place, all the tiny cracks disappear as the ball is magically made whole again, as if nothing had ever happened.
An indescribable feeling of wholeness, an eternal contentment fills you.
What defines morality?
Keep this image in the back of your mind as we discuss morality.
The concept of morality, without context, is simply an arbitrary abstraction.
Who or what determines what is “moral” and what is “immoral”? Why is any action moral or immoral? How do we know — I mean really know?
The most basic approach to these questions is to see them through the lens of obedience. God gives laws, and His laws determine what is moral and immoral. We may not understand why, but our task is to obey His laws, with the assumption that someday we will understand them.
The problem with this approach is that it often leads to a pharisaical fundamentalism. Strict adherence to the letter of the laws without understanding creates a judgmental, self-righteous attitude that utterly misses the spirit of the laws.
The people who crucified Christ were rigidly “obedient” to God’s laws.
Clearly, simple obedience has extreme limitations.
So what’s the deeper understanding? What’s the context, the spirit of any moral law?
(And if a person doesn’t buy into the idea of a God giving commandments, do they have no hope of finding any sense of morality? If not, how do we explain the many agnostics and atheists who abide by strict moral codes? What is their morality based upon?)
Morality is based on human needs
Ultimately, all moral codes, from whatever source (the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Satipatthana Sutta, religious and spiritual teachers, personal revelation, reason, et al) come down to one thing: human happiness.
They are all about giving us values and guidelines for getting our core needs met and living a life of peace and contentment.
God is no arbitrary ruler who demands obedience for no other reason than to prove His dominance. He gives laws to help us be happy.
The more we understand the reasons behind moral laws, the happier we become.
Strict obedience without understanding may work for children. But as we mature spiritually we graduate from mere obedience and consciously choose our behavior because we understand what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. We understand which behaviors meet our needs, and which ones leave us unsatisfied.
But there’s a level of understanding even deeper than this.
Happiness is a byproduct of “moral” living. So what is the core thing that makes us happy?
The core human need
For a long time I’ve been teaching that underneath our human nature lies a basic goodness, or divine nature. We behave unconsciously, not because we’re “evil sinners” to our core, but rather because we have unmet needs, including this list of basic human needs.
Our “sins” are not caused by conscious malevolence, but rather by ignorance and delusion. Becoming less “sinful” is not about conquering our evil nature through willpower, but rather raising our level of consciousness and learning to meet our core needs with self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-care.
For all the human needs we could list, there’s something at the heart of all of them — the foundational need upon which all other needs are based, the center point which all other needs revolve around.
The core human need is this: connection.
That’s what everything is all about. We all yearn to connect — with ourselves, with each other, with God.
The image of the magical glass sphere I gave above is one way I conceptualize the whole of human existence.
We all came from the same place, we are all made of the same material, we are all one. Our existence was connected, whole, beautiful, blissful.
Then, we came to this earth and we shattered into billions of little pieces, each a reflection of the God and Home we came from. We came to experience separation — from God, from ourselves, from each other — in order that we might fully understand what it means to be connected and whole.
In all of our choices and behavior, however delusional, unskillful, and harmful, is an underlying yearning to connect. Even our violent clashes with each other are evidence of a desperate desire to connect.
We want to become whole again. We simply don’t know how.
The big question that determines what is moral or immoral
Understanding this, we realize that the ultimate standard of morality is connection. As spiritual teacher Richard Rohr explains in What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self,
“The German word for sin, Sünde, contains the root word sund (English ‘sunder’), which means ‘cleft’ or ‘separation.’ The word ‘sin,’ therefore means our separation from God, but also from our fellow human beings and from ourselves.”
Therefore, there’s a fundamental question we can use to guide all our choices and behaviors: Will this create more connection within myself, with others, and with God, or will it increase separation?
This question works whether we are believers, atheists, or anything in between.
Think about it:
- Why are lying and stealing “wrong”? Because dishonesty creates disconnection between ourselves, each other, and God.
- Why is masturbating to pornography “wrong”? Because it’s done in isolation and distorts and prevents real human connection.
- Why is taking heroin “wrong”? Because it increases our separation.
- Why are envy, jealousy, pride, greed, gluttony, judgment, impatience, or anything else we would label as sinful “wrong”? It’s all about connection and disconnection.
“Sinning” doesn’t make us bad, unclean, dirty, or unworthy. It simply increases our separation, and therefore makes us unhappy. The path to wholeness and happiness is connection.
When this clicks for us, we stop being motivated by fear of punishment or desire for rewards. We mature from blind obedience to conscious choice. We stop thinking in terms of “good and evil,” and start thinking in terms of “connection and separation.”
It starts with connecting with ourselves through absolute self-honesty
We can’t connect with others or with God if we’re disconnected from ourselves. And we can’t connect with ourselves if we’re not honest with ourselves.
For example, if our behavior harms others and we rationalize and justify it, we’re lying to ourselves. We can’t connect with those whom we have harmed because we’re disconnected from ourselves.
All connection starts with self-honesty. And the more we connect with ourselves through self-honesty, the more we automatically connect with each other and with God.
Connecting with ourselves is connecting with God because, underneath all our delusion of separation, we are one with God. The path to God is not grasping for something outside ourselves, but rather connecting with something inside ourselves.
We are all trying to get back Home and be whole again. Home and wholeness are found in connection.
Enlightened morality isn’t about being “clean,” “righteous,” or “worthy.” It’s about being connected to ourselves, each other, and God.