Maslow Peak-Experience

I’ll have to admit I haven’t found it easy to figure out exactly what Maslow means by a “peak-experience.” Until I do, it’s hard to say whether I agree or disagree with his argument, though I would like to agree with him. I think the chapter entitled “Religious Aspects of Peak Experiences” comes the closest to defining what a peak-experience is. Maslow prefaces this listing of characteristics by saying that “Practically everything that happens in the peak-experiences, naturalistic though they are, could be listed under the headings of religious happenings, or indeed have been in the past considered to be only religious experiences.”

The most important trait of these experiences seems to be that they provide a sense of “oneness:”

… the whole universe is perceived as an integrated and unified whole. This is not as simple a happening as one might imagine from the bare words themselves. To have a clear perception (rather than a purely abstract and verbal philosophical acceptance) that the universe is all of a piece and that one has his place in it-one is a part of it, one belongs in it-can be so profound and shaking an experience that it can change the person’s character and his Weltanschauung forever after.

Not surprisingly, such an experience rivets the participant’s attention:

In the cognition that comes in peak-experiences characteristically the percept is exclusively and fully attended to. That is, there is tremendous concentration of a kind which does not normally occur. There is the truest and most total kind of visual perceiving or listening or feeling. Part of what this involves is a peculiar change which can best be described as non-evaluating, non-comparing, or non-judging cognition.

Less expected, though, the participant becomes detached from the experience:

In the peak-experiences, we become more detached, more objective, and are more able to perceive the world as if it were independent not only of the perceiver but even of human beings in general. The perceiver can more readily look upon nature as if it were there in itself and for itself, not simply as if it were a human playground put there for human purposes.

which made better sense to me when stated this way:

To say this in a different way, perception in the peak-experiences can be relatively ego-transcending, self-forgetful, egoless, unselfish. It can come closer to being unmotivated, impersonal, desireless, detached, not needing or wishing. Which is to say, that it becomes more object-centered than ego-centered. The perceptual experience can be more organized around the object itself as a centering point rather than being based upon the selfish ego. This means in turn that objects and people are more readily perceived as having independent reality of their own.

If you see the universe as an “integrated and unified whole” that it would be hard to see yourself as the center of that universe rather than as a part of it.

It also doesn’t surprise me that people become lost in such experiences:

In the peak-experience there is a very characteristic disorientation in time and space, or even the lack of consciousness of time and space. Phrased positively, this is like experiencing universality and eternity. Certainly we have here, in a very operational sense, a real and scientific meaning of “under the aspect of eternity.” This kind of timelessness and spacelessness contrasts very sharply with normal experience. The person in the peak-experiences may feel a day passing as if it were minutes or also a minute so intensely lived that it might feel like a day or a year or an eternity even. He may also lose his consciousness of being located in a particular place.

I suspect most of us have experienced this when involved in activities we love or activities that seem extremely important. It’s certainly not an uncommon reaction for me.

Perhaps the most surprising of the characteristics of a peak-experience to me is this one:

The world seen in the peak-experiences is seen only as beautiful, good, desirable, worthwhile, etc. and is never experienced as evil or undesirable. The world is accepted. People will say that then they understand it. Most important of all for comparison with religious thinking is that somehow they become reconciled to evil. Evil itself is accepted and understood and seen in its proper place in the whole, as belonging there, as unavoidable, as necessary, and, therefore, as proper.

I can’t quite forget all those famous “dark night of the soul” moments, and wonder why they, too, wouldn’t be considered “peak-experiences,” since they are often part and parcel of greater revelations. Certainly they often qualify as religious moments. Is it just that Maslow is trying to limit peak-experiences to positive things as a means of promoting his concept?

One can also recognize a peak-experience by the emotions that accompany it:

In the peak experience, such emotions as wonder, awe, reverence, humility, surrender, and even worship before the greatness of the experience are often reported.

This description struck a particular chord with me for it reminds me of particular hiking/climbing trips when we finally emerged above the clouds and reached the top of the mountain. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could not be awed by the experience. A truly hard-earned peak experience.

My mountain climbing experiences would also fit another characteristic of peak-experiences:

Recognizing these experiences as end-experiences rather than as means-experiences makes another point. For one thing, it proves to the experiencer that there are ends in the world, that there are things or objects or experiences to yearn for which are worthwhile in themselves. This in itself is a refutation of the proposition that life and living is meaningless. In other words, peak-experiences are one part of the operational definition of the statement that “life is worthwhile” or “life is meaningful.”

You don’t just start out one day to climb a mountain, even a relatively low mountain. You train for months before climbing one — it is the end of a long process. Every time I’ve managed to climb a mountain it’s been a worthwhile experience, a meaningful experience.

The first thing I did after reading Maslow’s book was email my old hiking partner and ask him if Maslow’s description didn’t remind him of some of our more memorable hikes, and he agreed that they did and reminded me that sitting at the top of the mountain we would often talk about Thoreau, Whitman, or the sheer beauty and awe of nature at its most pristine. He often talks about having to get back to those hikes, though I have my doubts that I’ll ever be in good enough shape to repeat those experiences.

Of course, Maslow’s real argument is that these experiences are the top level of self actualization:

The statement: “The fully human person in certain moments perceives the unity of the cosmos, fuses with it, and rests in it, completely satisfied for the moment in his yearning for one-ness,” is very likely synonymous, at a “higher level of magnification” (59), with the statement, “This is a fully human person.”

4 thoughts on “Maslow Peak-Experience

  1. My impression is Maslow does an excellent job for the most part, but that he might have lumped together significantly different kinds of experiences and called them all, “peak experiences.”

    If so, perhaps the methods he employed to prompt people to talk about their experiences have something to do with his tendency to lump together different kinds of experiences?

  2. I think I got the same impression, Paul. I was reading an online article on “enlightenment” and thought that those experiences seemed an awful lot like “peak experiences.”

    I still wonder why he limits them to just positive experiences, since, as Rollo May points out in the book I’m currently reading, that moments of great despair often lead to remarkably good transformations.

  3. That’s a good question about Maslow’s preference for positive experiences. The only possible reason for it that I can think of is this: A peak experience that was for one reason or another incomplete would be perceived as a negative experience, while a peak experience that was complete — that ran its full course — would be perceived as a positive experience.

    The point reminds me that the ancient Greeks, during the generation or two of the great tragic play-writes, used to say that a tragedy was an incomplete comedy. That if you were seeing just half of the whole, then it was tragic. But if you saw the whole, then it was a comedy.

    Of course, I don’t know whether Maslow was thinking along those lines when he formed his preference for positive experiences.

    But, so far as I know, moments of despair can indeed lead to transformations.

  4. Teaching a class (35 years ago) in values clarification and goal-setting for college students I asked them to identify a peak experience in each 5-year segment of their lives. All were able to do it. We were not reading Maslow. Nobody mentioned ecstasy or anything mystical, out-of-body or even spiritual. One man spoke simply of his powerful memory of growing up in Kansas, watching the wheat fields from his porch, blowing like wavetops. Maslow had no way to limit his subjects to peak experiences that were ecstatic. And one man’s ecstasy may be another man’s knowing nod.
    So (leaving out bipolar episodes that are just as likely to lead to medication as to any transformative experience, I would say “peak experience” may stand as any moment in our lives when we feel charged with meaning, fully engaged by what we are doing…even if it’s merely sitting still in a meadow. If T.S. Eliot would allow it, maybe a peak experience is merely a moment when we become the still point of the turning world.

What do you think?