A Sense of Awe, and ‘Peak Experiences’
Have you ever been transfixed by wonderment and awe during an overwhelmingly inspiring experience?
In 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, especially helpful in difficult times. They also renew our faith in the creativity, resilience and benevolence of humanity.
In addition to enjoying these relatively common pleasures, I ask again whether you have 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’.
Many people 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 these peak events, people experience pleasure which is beyond ‘mere’ satisfaction and happiness. They report a heightened sense of awareness of themselves and their surroundings, and of personal enlightenment. Many relate shedding tears of joy, feelings of ecstasy and elation, even exaltation or reverence.
They might describe being “at one with the universe,” and finding some new “meaning” in their lives, sometimes with out-of-body sensations and altered states of consciousness.
Pretty heavy stuff, right?
Are any readers dubious about personal reports of peak experiences?
Well, peak experiences (feelings, thoughts, perceptions) are indeed real, and while they are not extremely common events, 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 personally had a few such awe-inspiring experiences, which occurred in different decades and situations, in Jerusalem, Mumbai, Nepal and California, and which are 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 such as Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Maslow himself and many others.
They vary in specific circumstances and manifestations, but they 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 they 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. Much more commonly of course are the common sensations of pleasure, but the very same settings and circumstances can also engender intense transformative sensations in some people who are particularly susceptible at the time.
Examples of favorable stimuli for these occurrences are, beautiful expanses of nature; telescopic views of the colorful and infinite cosmos; infinitesimal revelations under electron microscopy; under the influences 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 other circumstances.
All of these situations can provide joy and pleasure in the 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, the word “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 intended to transmit a unified core of meaning and profundity. The terms other-worldly, out-of-body, transcendent, inspiring, exalted, high, intuitive, bliss, ecstasy and reverence, 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, perhaps even feel that these are products of scammers or disturbed minds. You might think 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 which 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. That is, 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 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.