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Sport and Competition

Peak Experiences, Disillusionment, and the Joy of Simplicity

Peak experience is often followed by a blasé feeling of "is that all there is?"

Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock
Source: Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

Having a once-in-a-lifetime peak experience can lead to an unexpected blasé feeling of dissatisfaction. Peggy Lee sums up the malaise you can feel in the aftermath of a peak experience in her song, "Is that All There Is?" The song was inspired by the existential story Disillusionment by Thomas Mann.

Abraham Maslow defined peak experiences as, "exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter." I call this a state of superfluidity.

The quest for peak experiences can become like searching for the Holy Grail and inadvertently create a vortex of malcontent. Oftentimes, the pursuit of peak experiences creates isolation and a disconnection from your friends and family. Standing alone on a mountaintop with a trophy can fill you with a sense of rapture for a few minutes, but it also creates a lonely vacuum.

Have you ever experienced a sense of disillusionment following a peak experience? I've felt this many times as an athlete. My disillusionment after peak experiences pushed me to continually raise the bar as an ultra-endurance athlete by running, biking and swimming ever-farther, faster, and harder. Nothing was ever enough to fulfill me.

Instead of feeling like "king of the hill" or "top of the heap" after an athletic triumph, I usually felt an existential sense of disillusionment. I'm happy to say that I've finally gotten off that merry-go-round and am able to appreciate the simple joys in life these days.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most dramatic peak experiences of my life. On this day in 2004, I ran 153.76 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours and broke a Guinness World Record. The biggest paradox of breaking a world record for me was that I've never felt so happy and depressed at the same time.

As an ultraendurance athlete, I had a serious case of "summit fever." I risked everything for the rush of standing on a new mountaintop of achievement. Once I achieved a goal, I would set my sights on something more challenging. I was never satisfied. Extreme sports was a labor of love that I don't regret—but it was also a compulsion beyond the locus of my control.

In the epilogue of The Athlete's Way titled, "Solo Crossings: Telescopes and Islands," I sum up this feeling of disillusionment with a quotation by Charles Lindbergh that always resonated with me as an athlete:

Within the hour I'll land, and strangely enough I'm in no hurry to have it pass. I haven't the slightest desire to sleep. There's not an ache in my body. The night is cool and safe. I want to sit quietly in this cockpit and let the realization of my completed flight sink in. . . . It's like struggling up a mountain after a rare flower, and then, when you have it within arm's reach, realizing that the satisfaction and happiness lie more in the finding than in the having. Plucking the flower and having it wither are inseperable. . . . I almost wish Paris were a few more hours away. It seems a shame to land with the night so clear and so much fuel in my tanks.

In the epilogue, I also talk about how the constant pursuit of extraordinary experiences can be very isolating. I describe this social disconnection by saying, "The pure bliss of those times, when your cells connect you to your biology and bring you to a place of pure peace, are sublime and very seductive. But superfluidity is short-lived and episodic. It is a vacuous state ultimately. Being "in the world but not of it" is not an ideal state of existence. The city on the hill can be a lonely place."

Aleksey Sagitov/Shutterstock
Source: Aleksey Sagitov/Shutterstock

It took me almost a decade to depressurize and come back down-to-earth after all the peak experiences I had in the stratosphere as an athlete. Fortunately, I've mellowed with age and am content with the little things in life that bring me joy. My life is simple now and I like it that way.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "Let us not underestimate the privileges of the mediocre. As one climbs higher, life becomes harder, the coldness increases, responsibility increases." I identify with this concept and am perfectly content being "mediocre" by conventional norms of success based on the acquisition of money and power.

I still strive to optimize my human potential, but I'm no longer on a relentless quest for otherworldly peak experiences. The older I get, the more often I have commonplace peak experiences throughout the day. Simple things like hearing my daughter laugh, watching the sunset, or taking a few deep breaths can make me ecstatic. I feel so blessed to have these simple joys in my daily life. Alleluia!

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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