The Poetic Peak-Experience

It goes without saying that poetry is a foci of my life. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that I wondered how Maslow’s peak-experiences might relate to poetry. As such, I was particularly intrigued when the author of What are the Peak Experiences of Self-Actualization? suggests

Peak experiences have been given many different names by many different people, including ecstatic experiences, peak experiences, spiritual experiences, and in Buddhism it is called Santorin. In Psychiatry, they are sometimes called bipolar manic episodes.

This passage immediately brought to mind William Witherup who I just finished reading and, of course, Theodore Roethke. A quick glance on the internet produced a much longer lists of poets who are often thought to be bipolar: Bipolar poets. Why is that so many of the poets I love were bipolar? Surely not because I’m bipolar. If anything, I tend to be rather even keeled. (I like to say that’s ’cause I’m just deeper than most people 🙂 I wonder if these poets help me to better see moments in my life that I’ve actually shared with them. Or, is it simply a desire on my part to be more emotionally involved than I really am?

I think it’s also significant that Maslow found himself resorting to “poetic,” rather than more traditional objective, scientific language as he pursued his research.

In trying to elicit reports of peak-experiences from reluctant subjects or from non-peakers, I evolved a different kind of interview procedure without being consciously aware that I had done so. The “rhapsodic communication,” as I have called it, consists of a kind of emotional contagion in isomorphic parallel. It may have considerable implications for both the theory of science and the philosophy of education.

Direct verbal description of peak-experiences in a sober, cool, analytic, “scientific” way succeeds only with those who already know what you mean, i.e., people who have vivid peaks and who can, therefore, feel or intuit what you are trying to point to even when your words are quite inadequate in themselves.

As I went on interviewing, I “learned,” without realizing that I was learning, to shift over more and more to figures of speech, metaphors, similes, etc., and, in general, to use more and more poetic speech. It turns out that these are often more apt to “click,” to touch off an echoing experience, a parallel, isomorphic vibration than are sober, cool, carefully descriptive phrases.

Not surprisingly, figures of speech, metaphors, and similes are also used to describe religious experiences (unless you believe that all such descriptions have to be taken literally) because they cannot be described “directly.”

Maslow goes on to describe how he even became a “teacher” in his research:

We are taught here that the word “ineffable” means “not communicable by words that are analytic, abstract, linear, rational, exact, etc.” Poetic and metaphorical language, physiognomic and synesthetic language, primary process language of the kind found in dreams, reveries, free associations and fantasies, not to mention pre-words and non-words such as gestures, tone of voice, style of speaking, body tonus, facial expressions-all these are more efficacious in communicating certain aspects of the ineffable.

This procedure can wind up being a kind of continuing rhapsodic, emotional, eager throwing out of one example after another of peaks, described or rather reported, expressed, shared, “celebrated,” sung vividly with participation and with obvious approval and even joy. This kind of procedure can more often kindle into flame the latent or weak peak-experiences within the other person.

The problem here was not the usual one in teaching. It was not a labelling of something public that both could simultaneously see while the teacher pointed to it and named it. Rather it was trying to get the person to focus attention, to notice, to name an experience inside himself, which only he could feel, an experience, furthermore, which was not happening at the time. No pointing is possible here, no naming of something visible, no controlled and purposeful creation of the experience like turning on an electric current at will or probing at a painful spot


Despite what Maslow says, I think that this is precisely the kind of teaching that English teachers, and art teachers, and ?, do. Perhaps that’s why it’s so tough and why so many kids resist it. What other way is there to teach poetry or art? The attempt to use rational, analytic, linear language to “explain a poem” destroys the poetry for many readers – including myself.

Naturally, I also found this statement

The ethologists have learned that if you want to study ducks and to learn all that is possible to know about ducks, then you had better love ducks. And so also, I believe, for stars, or numbers, or chemicals. This kind of love or interest or fascination is not contradictory of objectivity or truthfulness but is rather a precondition of certain kinds of objectivity, perspicuity, and receptivity. encourages B-cognition, i.e., unselfish, understanding love for the Being or intrinsic nature of the other, makes it possible to perceive and to enjoy the other as an end in himself (not as a selfish means or as an instrument), and, therefore, makes more possible the perception of the nature of the other in its own right.

by Maslow particularly intriguing. We don’t think of “love” when we think of “scientist,” but once we start to think about it we realize that the great scientists are those who love their subject, though it’s often restated as “having a passion” for their work.

I’m sure that my increasing understanding of birds and my ability to get better and better shots has flowed from my love for them. I no longer bother claiming that a particular bird is a a “favorite.” I love them all; they’re all favorites. I’m not sure if they know that or not, but without a doubt it has improved the quality of my photographs.

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.”

Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences

Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences is a heavy read, one that doesn’t lend itself very well to short blog entries. I’m certainly no authority on Malsow’ work, but the book has inspired me to explore these ideas further in books I’ll be reading soon.

Luckily, the book includes both a preface, written several years after the book was written, and an Introduction which help to clarify his ideas. The Preface provides the clearest statement of the book’s purpose I found:

If I were to summarize both the book and my remarks in this Preface in a few words, I would say it this way: Man has a higher and transcendent nature, and this is part of his essence, i.e., his biological nature as a member of a species which has evolved. This means to me something which I had better spell out clearly, namely, that this is a flat rejection of the Sartre type of Existentialism, i.e., its denial of species-hood and of a biological human nature, and its refusal to face the existence of the biological sciences. It is true that the word Existentialism is by now used in so many different ways by different people, even in contradictory ways, that this indictment does not apply to all who use the label. But just because of this diversity of usage, the word is now almost useless, in my opinion, and had better be dropped. The trouble is that I have no good alternative label to offer. If only there were some way to say simultaneously: “Yes, man is in a way his own project and he does make himself. But also there are limits upon what he can make himself into. The ‘project’ is predetermined biologically for all men; it is to become a man. He cannot adopt as his project for himself to become a chimpanzee. Or even a female. Or a baby.” The right label would have to combine the humanistic, the transpersonal, and the transhuman. Besides, it would have to be experiential (phenomenological), at least in its basing. It would have to be holistic rather than dissecting. And it would have to be empirical rather than a priori, etc., etc.

It seems strange to me to have to argue that man has a “higher and transcendent nature” because I don’t think I’ve ever felt otherwise, despite rejecting traditional religions, perhaps because of my father’s Christian Science background. I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to live up to my ideal self, even though it never seemed quite possible to do so. My family expected nothing less of me. On the other hand, I’m not sure I ever thought of it as part of my “biologic nature.”

I also agree with Maslow that religion’s rejection of scientific truths did play a big part in my turning away from establish religion:

When all that could be called “religious” (naturalistically as well as supernaturalistically) was cut away from science, from knowledge, from further discovery, from the possibility of skeptical investigation, from confirming and disconfirming, and, therefore, from the possibility of purifying and improving, such a dichotomized religion was doomed. It tended to claim that the founding revelation was complete, perfect, final, and eternal. It had the truth, the whole truth, and had nothing more to learn, thereby being pushed into the position that has destroyed so many churches, of resisting change, of being only conservative, of being anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, of making piety and obedience exclusive of skeptical intellectuality— in effect, of contradicting naturalistic truth.

I cannot understand how anyone can accept a literal translation of the Bible. Faced with the choice of accepting “religious truths” or scientific truths, the choice was obvious, at least to me.

I’ve always had a scientific bent. I was creating chemical compounds and launching rockets by the time I entered high school. Though I chose not to pursue science as a career, it’s always been a vital part of my life. That said, I’ve often been critical of the effects that science has had on our world.

Let me try to say it in still another way. One could say that the nineteenth-century atheist [i.e. scientist] had burnt down the house instead of remodeling it. He had thrown out the religious questions with the religious answers, because he had to reject the religious answers. That is, he turned his back on the whole religious enterprise because organized religion presented him with a set of answers which he could not intellectually accept-which rested on no evidence which a self-respecting scientist could swallow. But what the more sophisticated scientist is now in the process of learning is that though he must disagree with most of the answers to the religious questions which have been given by organized religion, it is increasingly clear that the religious questions themselves-and religious quests, the religious yearnings, the religious needs themselves-are perfectly respectable scientifically, that they are rooted deep in human nature, that they can be studied, described, examined in a scientific way, and that the churches were trying to answer perfectly sound human questions. Though the answers were not acceptable, the questions themselves were and are perfectly acceptable, and perfectly legitimate.

As a matter of fact, contemporary existential and humanistic psychologists would probably consider a person sick or abnormal in an existential way if he were not concerned with these “religious” questions.

I remember thinking that Pirsig got it right in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, probably not too surprising since he became dissatisfied with science and became an English Professor because he was looking for a truth that he thought he could not find through science. As much as I trust logic, and the scientific method, I don’t trust science unless it’s accompanied by values. In fact, I would even go so far as to argue that the environmental disaster we find ourselves in the middle of is largely due to scientific hubris.

Of course, if I’d read, and believed, this argument by Maslow,

Neither are the humanistic scholars and artists of any great help these days. They used to be, and were supposed to be, as a group, carriers of and teachers of the eternal verities and the higher life. The goal of humanistic studies was defined as the perception and knowledge of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Such studies were expected to refine the discrimination between what is ex- cellent and what is not (excellence generally being under- stood to be the true, the good, and the beautiful). They were supposed to inspire the student to the better life, to the higher life, to goodness and virtue. What was truly valuable, Matthew Arnold said, was “the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world.” And no one disagreed with him. Nor did it need to be spelled out that he meant knowledge of the classics; these were the universally accepted models.

But in recent years and to this day, most humanistic scholars and most artists have shared in the general collapse of all traditional values. And when these values collapsed, there were no others readily available as replacements. And so today, a very large proportion of our artists, novelists, dramatists, critics, literary and historical scholars are disheartened or pessimistic or despairing, and a fair proportion are nihilistic or cynical (in the sense of believing that no “good life” is possible and that the so-called higher values are all a fake and a swindle).

Certainly the young student coming to the study of the arts and the humanities will find therein no inspiring certainties. What criterion of selection does he have between, let us say, Tolstoy and Kafka, between Renoir and De Kooning, or between Brahms and Cage? And which well-known artists or writers today are trying to teach, to inspire, to conduce to virtue? Which of them could even use this word “virtue” without gagging? Upon which of them can an “idealistic” young man model himself?

I might have been less eager to become an English major, for I’m afraid he’s largely correct. Modern literature, at least post-Hemingway, post Steinbeck, seems much better at exposing what’s wrong with society than it does at inspiring the reader to affirm new values.

Faced with such choices, no wonder so many people cling desperately to old values, even if they only half believe them.