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A Sense of Awe, and "Peak Experiences"

People can be so awed by an event that they have an intense "peak experience."

Key points

  • "Peak experiences" were described by psychologist Abraham Maslow, referring to profound personal and meaningful events.
  • These might involve intense feelings, hyper-awareness of self and others, heightened emotions, "out-of-body" sensations, and profound insights..
  • Peak experiences have been reported by individuals of all cultures, ethnic backgrounds, races, religions and social strata.

Have you ever been transfixed by wonderment and awe during an overwhelmingly inspiring experience?

Over the course of our lifetimes, we have all been moved by many positive personal and cultural events. Heart-warming or wondrous experiences enhance and enrich our lives by bringing us joy and fulfillment—and are especially helpful in difficult times. They also renew our faith in the creativity, resilience, and benevolence of humanity.

Aside from enjoying these relatively common pleasures, have you ever felt “beyond pleasure”? People sometimes report feeling so deeply emotionally moved and joyful that they feel swept away into a veritable state of awe. And many have described being so moved and awed by evocative circumstances that they had a “peak experience”—a term introduced decades ago by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his book, Epiphanies, Values and Peak Experiences.

During such peak events, people experience pleasure beyond "mere" satisfaction or happiness. They report a heightened sense of awareness of themselves and their surroundings, and of personal enlightenment. Many relate shedding tears of joy, and having feelings of ecstasy and elation, even exaltation or reverence.

They might describe being “at one with the universe,” or finding some new “meaning” in their lives, sometimes with out-of-body sensations and altered states of consciousness.

Pretty heavy stuff, right?

For any readers dubious about personal reports of peak experiences, rest assured: These feelings, thoughts, perceptions are indeed real, and while they are not extremely common, they are also not rare. Most people have had at least one such singular experience in their lifetimes which they remember vividly. If you have experienced this type of event, do you recall the specific circumstances, when and where it occurred, and if you were alone or with others?

Over my lifetime, I have had a few such awe-inspiring experiences, which occurred in different decades and locations, including Jerusalem, Mumbai, Nepal, and California. They have become indelible memories.

When I was studying religions and cults years ago, I witnessed individuals going through deeply personal ecstatic events, sometimes shared with others in the same state. I’ve also spoken to many people who have had peak experiences in a variety of settings and circumstances. These have been vividly described in books and articles by such luminaries as Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, and many others, including Maslow himself.

These experiences vary in their specific circumstances and manifestations, but share common descriptive features, such as being “other-worldly,” awe-inspiring and intense, energizing and exciting, yet strangely calming and serene. They can last a few precious moments, hours, or even a few days, and feel profoundly moving and meaningful during the experience and shortly thereafter.

People all over the world, encompassing all races, religions, ethnicities, and cultures, have reported these events in different situations or contexts. These settings and circumstances can engender intense transformative sensations in some people who are particularly susceptible at the time.

Examples of favorable stimuli for these occurrences include beautiful expanses of nature; telescopic views of the colorful and infinite cosmos; infinitesimal revelations under electron microscopy; being under the influence of psychedelic substances; thrilling works or performances of artistic or musical genius; dancing; intense religious rituals and ceremonies; holding one’s newborn child; being smitten in romantic love, or making love; and many others.

All of these situations can provide joy and pleasure in active participants or beholders, but only occasionally do full-blown peak-experiences occur. In these situations, there is a magical/mystical interaction between the activity or scene witnessed and the mood-state and susceptibility of the beholder.

These intense feelings have ushered in new or repurposed words to try to capture the other-worldly nature of the personal sensations: For example, “ineffable” refers to qualities of intense feelings that are “too profound” to explain or describe in mere words. They are by definition, “not definable” (an interesting paradox). Similarly, the word “noetic” refers to intellectual pursuits used in relation to mysticism and spirituality. Other commonly invoked words transmit a unified core of meaning and profundity: Terms such as other-worldly, out-of-body, transcendent, inspiring, exalted, high, intuitive, bliss, ecstasy, and reverence, help to paint a thematic word-picture of spirituality. Together with empathy, love, and benevolence, they convey a sense of meaning and communality.

Some among you may harbor doubts that these “peak” experiences are authentic, or may even feel that these are the products of scammers or disturbed minds. You might believe that these cognitive, sensory, and visceral events are related to auditory or visual hallucinations or delusional beliefs which occur in some psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.

I assure you, I am not referring to individuals who have serious psychiatric disorders. Rather, I am discussing the propensity we all have to be swept away by awe-inspiring circumstances and transported into pleasurable altered states of consciousness for transitory periods of time.

For this to occur, however, there have to be serendipitous simultaneous combinations of profoundly moving events in our sensory awareness—and our cognitive and emotional states must be open and receptive to “letting go” of constraints and “going with the flow” of thoughts, perceptions and stimulated moods.

Peak experiences are not simply planned on demand. One cannot simply “order up” an afternoon or evening of indulging in a profound peak experience. One can certainly try, for example, by immersing oneself in magical settings or vistas like a mountaintop or lake, or participating in intense group rituals, or by using psychedelic agents. But without the magical (mystical, spiritual, ineffable, noetic) interactions between the specific setting/activity and the personal open mood and sensory status of the individual, no such experience will occur, or it might be disappointingly weak or even unpleasant, like a bad chemical trip.

We do not choose when and where we have peak experiences; they are not preprogrammed. Rather, they descend (ascend?) upon us unpredictably and serendipitously—some would say synchronistic and spiritually—which adds to the wonderment, awe, and exaltation.

I wish you good fortune in having a benevolent, meaningful Peak Experience in some unexpected future time or place.

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