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Peak Experiences

The ultimate in uplifting moments is the peak experience: the moment of ecstasy, spiritual fulfillment, and bliss. To illustrate this type of experience, Maslow once asked 190 college students for written responses to the following instructions:

I would like you to think of the most wonderful experience or experi­ences of your life; happiest mo­ments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly "being hit" by a book or a painting, or from some great crea­tive moment. First list these. And then try to tell from the way you feel at other times, how you are at that moment a different person in some ways.

From the responses, Maslow put together a composite syndrome of the peak experience:

1. The experience or object is seen as a whole, detached from possible usefulness, expedience, and purpose.

2. The experience is fully attended to, given "total attention."

3. The experience seems ego-tran­scending, self-forgetful, and egoless.

4. The experience is felt as self-validating and self-justifying, carrying its own intrinsic value.

5. The experience is accompanied by a characteristic disorientation in time and space (e.g. the creative artist oblivious to surroundings, lovers to whom a day seems like a year or a second).

6. Particularly in musical or religious experiences, the world is seen as a unity, a single rich live entity, or a part is perceived as if it were for the mo­ment all of the world (Maslow, 1968).

What were some characteristics of peak experiences, according to Maslow?

Maslow concluded:

These moments were of pure, posi­tive happiness when all doubts, all fears, all inhibitions, all tensions, all weaknesses were left behind. (Maslow, 1962, p.9)

Peak experiences are often accom­panied by a peculiar and distinctive feeling of "oneness with the universe." The feeling of separateness, distance, or alienation from the world disappears.

During a peak experience, people feel loving and accepting of all creation. Maslow told of a subject who said that during a peak experience "I felt like a member of a family, not like an orphan." (Maslow, 1962, p.9)

The "Mystical Experience" in Religion

William James described something very similar to Maslow's peak experience in his 1901-1902 lectures at Edinburgh published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He called it the mystical experience. James noted that mystical experiences often produced physical sensations such as heat or "fire" inside, and they were often accompanied by mental healing.

What phenomenon very similar to peak experiences did William James describe?

James offered the example of woman who felt she was coming down with flu-like symptoms during an epidemic. She had attended lectures on "mind cure" that summer, so she decided it would be a good opportunity to test the principles.

I went to bed immediately, and my husband wished to send for the doctor. But I told him that I would rather wait until morning and see how I felt. Then followed one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

I cannot express it in any other way than to say that I did "lie down in the stream of life and let it flow over me." I gave up all fear of any impending disease; I was perfectly willing and obedient.

There was no intellectual effort, no train of thought. My dominant idea was: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me even as thou wilt," and a perfect confidence that all would be well, that all was well.

The creative life was flowing into me every instant, and I felt myself allied with the Infinite, in harmony, and full of the peace that passeth under­standing...

I do not know how long this state lasted, nor when I fell asleep; but when I woke up in the morning, I was well.' (James, 1902/1958, p.106)

Maslow agreed with William James that mystical experiences were often asso­ciated with religion. Indeed, as Biblical scholar Marcus Borg pointed out, every religion starts with a mystical experience.

To Maslow, religion was not a required part of the definition. By collecting examples, he determined that peak experiences could also occur in ordinary life. He wrote:

They came from the great moments of love and sex, from the great esthetic moments (particularly of music), from the bursts of creative­ness and the creative furor (the great inspiration), from great moments of insight and of discovery, from women giving natural birth to babies–or just from loving them, from moments of fusion with nature (in a forest, on a seashore, mountains, etc.), from certain athletic exper­iences, e.g. skin-diving, from dancing, etc. (Maslow, 1962)

What did Maslow say could trigger peak experiences? How common are they?

Maslow also said he found "peak experiences are far more common than I ever expected." In his original theory, peak experiences were supposed to be rare, limited to unusually healthy people.

However, as it turned out, "These peak experiences occurred also in average and even in psychologically sick people." In fact, "Practically everybody reports peak exper­iences if approached and questioned and encouraged in the right way" (Maslow, 1962).

How did Maslow tie peak experiences to "psychological health"?

Maslow came to regard peak exper­iences as temporary periods of extreme mental health. He noted "considerable overlap between the characteristics of peak-experiences and the character­istics of psycho­logical health (more integrated, more alive, more individual, less inhibited, less anxious, etc.)" (Maslow, 1962).

What are some other characteristics of peak experiences?

Maslow also said peak-experiences must be spontaneous, not hampered by self-consciousness. He wrote:

Can you bring about these experi­ences at will? No! Or almost entirely no! In general we are "Surprised by Joy," to use the title of C. S. Lewis's book on just this question. Peaks come unexpectedly, suddenly they happen to us. You can't count on them. And hunting them is a little like hunting happiness. It's best not done directly. It comes as a by-product...for instance, of doing a fine job at a worthy task with which you identify (Maslow, 1962).

Maslow did believe people could make peak experiences more likely. They could beautify their environ­ments, listen to music that uplifted them, or open their minds to the sacredness of ordinary things. We discuss more about that on the next page.

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References:

James, W. (1902/1985) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maslow, A. (1962) Lessons from the peak experiences. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1, 9-18.

Maslow, A. (1962) Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.


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