Getting Real with Peak Experience
In 1964, Abraham Maslow published a book called ‘Religions, values and peak-experiences’.
It was his attempt to take these “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality” out of the domain of the exclusively religious and into the realm of the universally human.
That was his focus in 1964 when religion held a far greater prominence in Western Society.
Now, almost 60 years later there is a different entanglement with peak experiences for us to consider.
We are in the grip of a mental health crisis. At the heart of the crisis is the feeling of being an isolated individual, lacking and incomplete in a world that confirms our deepest fear, shame and insecurity. This is a state that is reinforced everywhere we turn.
Our thoughts about ourselves, other people and the world are torturous because they do not look like thoughts - they look like reality. Our emotions are unbearable because they confirm the apparent accuracy of our thoughts.
At the same time we are continually told that there is something wrong with us for feeling like this. We should be happy, free, successful, in control like the people we see in the images all around us.
We struggle and exhaust ourselves and our only relief is the moments when the internal narrative is momentarily turned off and the emotional turmoil numbed.
In other words, when the belief and feeling of being lacking, separate and incomplete is temporarily suspended.
The contrast in these moments from the lived experience of abject suffering to a feeling of liberation, peace and union is literally mind (and emotion)- blowing.
The short-lived switching off of voice and emotion can be obtained in infinite ways which fall broadly into two categories
- Numbing - temporarily silencing, distracting from or over-riding the self narrative and emotions (eg with drugs, food, pills, alcohol, sex, shopping or shop-lifting, exercise, fighting, gaming, media, risk, danger, self harm…)
- Gratifying - temporarily creating a sense of being whole, complete and perfect along with the accompanying sought-after emotions (eg. through achievement, recognition, attention, reward, control, superiority, being loved, being right, winning, …).
These potentially euphoric events (in fact - a multi-trillion dollar industry of them) can have many of the hall-marks of a ‘Peak Experience’: the dissolution of separation, time and space, a feeling of inner rightness, of being free, elevated, fulfilled, capable, in flow, in tune, more than an individual self, present…
But if this brief silence of the yearning for wholeness is not understood for what it is, nothing changes.
In fact things can become much worse.
We come down from that numbed high or that moment of believed wholeness and our thoughts are harsher, our emotions more extreme, our sense of separation more desperate. We crave the experience again and again but each time the high is harder to attain and the crash is all the more desolate.
Let’s call this moment of a misunderstood ‘peak’ ‘an exacerbating experience’ because that brief respite makes the on-going reality even harder to live with.
In fact it is one that Maslow himself warned us of, “The sudden insight becomes ‘all’ and the patient and disciplined ‘working through’ is postponed or devalued. Instead of being ‘surprised by joy’, ‘turning on’ is scheduled, promised, advertised, sold, hustled and can get to be regarded as a commodity".
He warned us of this search for ‘seeking own personal salvation, trying to get into ‘heaven’ even if other people can’t, and finally even perhaps using other people as triggers as means to (the) sole end of higher states of consciousness’.
And he warned us of the end result, of becoming '...not only selfish but also evil.’
We see it in ourselves don’t we? I certainly see it in me. The anger, offence, withdrawal, blame, desire to harm that emerges when the temporary numbing and gratification is gone and I’m left with the desolation of being an isolated individual with a narrative of not enough and a body full of intolerable emotions.
So where do we go from here with Peak Experiences?
In my client groups, we take the focus off the ecstatic experience of bliss and oneness (because, as we have seen, this can be easily synthetically created and lead to all sorts of trouble) and instead place the emphasis on the fundamental shift within the individual.
We have been working with something we are calling ‘Real Peak Experiences’ defined as when the whole body-mind system (physical, psychological, emotional, conscious and subconscious) shifts from lived, projected separation to alignment with truth.
The emphasis now is not on bringing about the end of the inner narrative or the emotional suffering.
In fact it is the opposite of that.
It is on having the fullness of that experience of suffering. The full range of the emotion. The full intensity within the body.
It is on moving into apparent reality of self and other with curiosity and openness, exploring what is really true about what we are and about what the world is.
It is on healing the deep inner wounds and conditioning of lack and separation, the beliefs of wrongness, do-ership and blame.
It is on moving into ultimate accountability for the entirety of the experience - of self, other, all of it - as the perceiving source in which it everything is arising.
The experience might not be blissful. It might not be ecstatic. It might not even be remarkable. Almost certainly it will begin as confronting or uncomfortable.
But it is a shift into sanity.
It is the entire system aligning with truth.
It is ultimately the lived conscious experience settling into the oneness of life, consciousness, peace, presence and intelligence.
It is what we have spent our lives trying to do.
To return to what we always were.
This is the only purpose of our lives.
No experience is more peak than that.
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