Peak Experiences

GlassesIt’s almost twenty years ago.   I’ve lost a brand new pair of expensive glasses and I’m feeling pretty dumb.  After several days of searching, I’m walking the Santa Ana River trail where it runs beside Yorba Regional Park, convinced I dropped them during a run there.  I’ve walked the length of the park twice and I’m about to give up.  I do  something I haven’t done since I was a kid.  I say, God, please help me find my glasses and when I look up, they are on top a a fence post.  I have absolutely no doubt God led me to my glasses, at least until my Rational Scientist takes over.

It’s roughly fifteen years ago and I’m sitting on the bank of the Santa River where it heads out toward Corona and Featherly Park.  Here, there is no bike path and the trail is a rough dirt road.  Tall eucalyptus trees, cat tails and marsh grass grow along the banks and the water runs faster, its sound drowning out the drone of the nearby 91 Freeway.  It’s spring.  The sky ismilkweed bright blue and the milkweed plants fill the air with thousands of tiny parachutes that carry their seeds downwind.   I look up and the entire sky is dotted with the feathery white seeds glistening in the sun.  They seem to go on forever.  The sense that I’ve been given a glimpse of the infinite is unmistakable.

reed baby tooIt is February 18, 2005, and I am sitting in the living room of my daughter and her husband holding a four day old baby.   He is my first grandson, Reed, and because our children were both adopted at ten weeks, he is the youngest baby I’ve ever held.  Even though I had told friends I was born without the Grandfather Gene, I look into his eyes and I am overwhelmed.  Within several hours, I will be in the emergency room for a panic attack masquerading as a heart attack, but for a few brief moments, everything is right in the universe.

An article on About.com Psychology discusses psychologist Abraham Maslov’s concept of a Peak Experience.  Peak Experiences, it says, are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience.  According to Wikipedia, Maslov said the peaks tend to be uplifting and ego-transcending, releasing creative energies and affirming the meaning and value of existence.  Peak experiences can be therapeutic in that they tend to increase the individual’s free will, self-determination, creativity, and empathy causing the sense of self to dissolve into an awareness of a greater unity.    He believed that Peak Experiences led to greater self-actualization, that is, to achieving one’s potential, something he saw as the highest human need.  And, in turn, that self-actualization leads to more Peak Experiences.  Maslov did not believe we can seek Peak ExperiencesWe are surprised by joy, he said.

Maslov sought to naturalize Peak Experiences, that is, make them part of psychology rather than supernatural events, perhaps making them available as a tool for self-improvement outside of spiritual movements.   I tend to see them as small but powerful spiritual awakenings that I carry with me for those times when the world doesn’t seem so bright.  But whether you see them as spirituality or psychology, you can only enjoy the benefits of Peak Experiences if you have them.  Although Maslov believed we all have such experiences, only a small percentage of the population reports having them … probably because they are taken for granted, resisted or suppressed.  I had Peak Experiences as a child and I’ve had them in the last 20 years, since I’ve been working the 12-Steps.  In between, when my Rational Scientist ruled the roost, nothing.  I didn’t have to believe anything to be admitted to the Peak Experience Club … I just needed to be open.

Are you open to Peak Experiences?

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4 Comments on “Peak Experiences”

  1. territerri Says:

    I know I’ve had peak experiences in my lifetime, but for the life of me, can’t seem to conjure up the details of any at this moment. I think I’m less open to them in the past 5 – 10 years than I used to be, and I feel like that’s something I want to change. I must be getting cynical.

    • oldereyes Says:

      That seems to be how it works. For some reason, we resist joy that we can’t explain rationally, as if it somehow diminishes us intellectually when (I believe) exactly the opposite is true.


  2. Oh yes…I try to make space for them everyday, just in case ne is hovering waiting to get into my mind :-) What a lovely post.


  3. Definitely can agree with you on the “peak” experience pertaining to holding the newborn grandson! Been there, done that -three times now for my three grandkids and just about 2 weeks ago, got to relive that experience when I held my now almost 5 week-old great-granddaughter (actually, step-great-granddaughter but I’m laying claim to her!) And that experience has to be the absolute best feeling ever, doesn’t it?


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