Existential Psychology

Peak Experience

By  | 

Our culture does not place much value on the transcendent aspects of life. Science tends to explain away experiences of rapture, harmony, and interconnectedness and replaces these concepts with raw, observable data from the natural world. However, subjective experience is usually more truthful for a person than the results of an experiment could ever be.

People across every historical period and culture have spoken of and written about their transcendent spiritual experiences. They have been called mystics, sages, seers, or prophets. They talk about a higher reality and cosmic union with something bigger than themselves.

No matter how you feel about religion or the spiritual realm, chances are you have felt the wonder of peak-experience in your own life. It might have been the feeling of contentment with a group of close friends or family members, or awe at the beauty and power of nature, or triumph and exaltation at accomplishing a long desired goal like getting married, attaining a position of prominence in your company, or finally having the resources to buy the house of your dreams.

One commonality in all these events is that they happen infrequently. The westerner who does not analyze his or her cultural situation has few opportunities to feel the sense of completion that peak-experience entails. Our society runs on extroversion and places value on external, quantifiable goals. Most people are future oriented without even knowing it. We spend our lives working towards a socially sanctioned objective like graduating from a respected university, creating a family, or retiring.

By placing so much emphasis on the external, we often lose sight of the internal. By placing so much emphasis on the future, we lose sight of all the opportunities for a sense of joy and completion in the present. Although we have all had moments of peak-experience in our lives, we brush them off as passing occurrences or wait in anticipation to accomplish some distant goal in order to bring these moments about again.

Abraham Maslow, who pioneered work on the psychology of peak-experiences, writes that “All peak-experiences may be fruitfully understood as completions-of-the-act in David M. Levy’s sense (90), or as the Gestalt psychologists’ closure, or on the paradigm of the Reichian type of complete orgasm, or as total discharge, catharsis, culmination, climax, consummation, emptying or finishing.” (Maslow, Toward A Psychology Of Being, 90)

As you can probably see, what connects all types of peak-experiences is the element of completion. Like we said earlier, our culture places the most value on the completion of objective, verifiable, momentous acts that by their very nature only occur once in a while.

In order to allow peak-experiences into your life, all that is really necessary is a slight shift in perception. Gestalt psychology is famous for helping people to live in the moment. After all, whether we consciously recognize the fact or not, everything we do is from the present. Whether you are obsessively focused on achieving some future goal, or stuck ruminating about some past event, this process occurs for you in the present moment.

One effective way to move towards peak-experience on a more consistent basis is to reevaluate what you consider to be completion in your life. Let’s use an example of two students who decide they want to take lessons in Kung Fu. The first student will not be satisfied until he becomes a Kung Fu master, and his focus is on reaching this goal. The second student is more concerned with mastering individual moves and techniques as the weeks and months progress.

The difference in attitudes between the two students makes their subjective realities completely different. The second student will have many more chances for peak-experiences. He or she will have a sense of completion and harmony on a daily basis as new moves are mastered. Meanwhile, the first student learns all of these techniques at the same pace, but robs himself of the chance to feel the joy of completion until far into the future when he considers himself a master.

Next time you have your morning coffee, try an experiment. It has a meditative quality to it. As you are brewing your cup, concentrate on all the small steps that go into making it. Focus on each one, like grinding the coffee beans, adding water, and placing the filter in the machine. Perform each step purposefully and with care. Let yourself experience the aromas of the coffee as it is brewing and concentrate on the quality of the smell. When your cup is prepared sit down, and when you are ready take a small sip. Let the liquid sit in your mouth for a moment before it slides down your throat. Tell yourself “this is the most delicious cup of coffee I have ever had” and focus on the flavor. Let yourself stay in the moment, sipping your coffee slowly and contentedly. Notice the miracle that you are a conscious being capable of enjoyment. When you are finished give yourself a few minutes to sit back and take in the experience without trying to judge it or affect it in any way.

If you try this experiment several times and expand it to include other activities, you will be well on your way towards peak-experiences on a consistent basis. You will start to notice changes in how you relate to yourself and others.