American psychologist and philosopher Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970) coined this term to describe nonreligious quasi-mystical and mystical experiences. Peak experiences are sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, and possibly the awareness of “ultimate truth” and the unity of all things. Accompanying these experiences is a heightened sense of control over the body and emotions, and a wider sense of awareness, as though one was standing upon a mountaintop. The experience fills the individual with wonder and awe. He feels at one with the world and is pleased with it; he or she has seen the ultimate truth or the essence of all things.
Maslow’s work has been called groundbreaking because it concerned the spiritual yearnings of humankind and focused a scientific interest on mysticism. Such an endeavor had been absent since the work of psychologist and philosopher William James at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Maslow described peak experiences as self-validating, self-justifying moments with their own intrinsic value; never negative, unpleasant or evil; disoriented in time and space; and accompanied by a loss of fear, anxiety, doubts, and inhibitions.
The two types of peak experiences are relative and absolute. Relative characterize those peak experiences in which there remains an awareness of subject and object, and which are extensions of the individual’s own experiences. They are not true mystical experiences, but rather inspirations, ecstasies, and raptures. It is thought that probably the majority of peak experiences fall into this category. Absolute peak experiences are characteristic of mystical experiences, and are comparable to experiences of great mystics in history. They are timeless, spaceless, and characterized by unity, in which the subject and object becomes one.
Maslow said that all individuals are capable of peak experiences. Those who do not have them somehow depress or deny them. Individuals most likely to have peak experiences are self-actualized, mature, healthy, and self-fulfilled.
Peak experiences render therapeutic value as they foster a sense of being lucky or graced; release creative energies; reaffirm the worthiness of life; and change an individual’s view of himself or herself. Maslow cautioned against seeking such experiences for their own sake; echoing the advice of the mystics who have pointed out that the sacred exists in the ordinary. Maslow further believed that domestic and public violence, alcoholism, and drug abuse stem from spiritual emptiness, and that even one peak experience might be able to prevent, or at least abate, such ills.
Peak experiences also have been said to be comparable to myth: They fulfill on a personal level what myths historically have fulfilled for whole peoples. Both embody truths that are independent of factual knowledge, and bring about attitudinal changes. Symbolism, however, plays a more minimal role in peak experiences than in myths.
Not long before his death in 1970, Maslow defined the term “plateau experience” as a sort of continuing peak experience that is more voluntary, noetic, and cognitive. He described it as a witnessing or cognitive blissfulness. It achievement requires a lifetime of long and hard effort, he stated.
Critics of humanistic psychology view peak experiences as having a hedonistic philosophy – a morality of heightened pleasure. Psychologist James Hillman observes that peaks and highs say nothing of the worth of the person having them, for they can occur among psychopaths and criminals. Transcendence by means of a high, he says, is a psychopathological state in disguise.
To the objective observer this appears to be an overall, unjustified criticism of humanistic psychology. Even though everyone may be capable of having peak experiences, it does not mean everyone has them. That is, they can have them if they want to. People have peak experiences without the aid of psychotherapy. If a criminal has a peak experience it is really no reflection on humanistic psychology. Each experience has to be judged on its own merit; does it enhance the person’s life, or not? A.G.H.
Source: 29, 438-439.