Non-linear thinking is a huge asset that is often ignored by linear thinkers, to their own detriment.
When human beings in every culture have a common behavior, that behavior is considered a part of basic human nature, rather than the product of cultural conditioning. For instance, marriage occurs in all cultures. Thus, marriage is part of human nature, and has what anthropologists call “cross-cultural verification.” This brief essay is an introduction to a special kind of universal human experience that remains a Mystery for most people. It is important to note that this mysterious phenomenon has cross-cultural verification. This Ordinary and Marvelous event is something that comes from our fundamental human nature. Our challenge is to define this Mystery that occurs in every century and every culture, and to understand its effects.
What does this experience feel like? Here are some quotations:
“I suddenly became vividly aware that every blade of grass had its own life.”
“Time seemed to stand still.”
“I lost awareness of my separate existence. I realized I was part of everything.”
“Everything — the flowers, birds, and trees — seemed alive with a buzzing or glowing energy. It was like someone had sprinkled ‘pixie dust’ everywhere.”
“It was so beautiful! It was still the Ordinary world, but now I realized its perfection. Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I wasn’t sad! I have never been so happy in my life; true rapture! It was as if an absolutely perfect reality had been there all along, and suddenly I could see lt.”
“Somebody turned reality up a notch. Everything was brighter. Somehow everything was more real.”
“Every detail was perfect. Nor could it possibly have been any other way!”
“Even while I watched it happen, I knew … as though I had known all along. There was a feeling that of course this was how things really are.”
None of these statements would sound strange to an ancient mystic. Mystics have always been aware of these special states of consciousness. Mystical literature is full of such references. What is surprising is the dawning awareness that we all have mystical experiences. Very ordinary people who don’t write poems, burn incense, meditate, see visions, use hallucinogenic drugs, or experience miracles, often report “Peak Experiences.” Remember, this is a common phenomenon in all cultures.
In our discussion of this subject we use the phrase “Peak Experiences” which is borrowed from the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow. Maslow and other psychologists have extensively researched this phenomenon, and they have applied the label “Peak Experiences” to what has been called “inspiration,” “the Divine ecstasy,” “enlightenment,” “satori,” “being born again,” or “seeing the Glory of God,” etc.
The psychological exploration of Peak Experiences has revealed some astounding facts, and spawned fascinating speculations. Below are some of the types of Peak Experiences:
Insight Experiences — Newton, when the apple hit him on the head — Einstein, when the general and special theories of relativity were “revealed” to him — Bohr’s discovery of quantum theory — the “gift” of the perfect solution to a complicated problem, without any conscious problem solving on your part. Knowledge through revelation is a common Peak Experience for many people.
Spiritual Rapture — St. Paul, on the road to Damascus — Buddha, under the Bo tree — Jesus, in the desert — the rapture of the prophets — feeling God’s presence around a camp fire – religious literature abounds with examples — For a good discussion on this subject see William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”
Creative Experiences — An entire symphony with full instrumentation playing in the mind of a great composer for the first time — the rush of ideas pressing the mind of the novelist, so that his typing cannot keep up with the flow of ideas and words — the states of consciousness associated with Peak Experiences are resident in the poet, artist, composer, musician, writer, actor, orator, dancer, the theoretical physicist, the sub-atomic physicist, and the astrophysicist.
Nature Experiences — Stars that take your breath away one special night, even though the same stars are there every night — things seeming more real, more alive, brighter, perfect, beautiful — a fraternal connection with an animal (i.e. Martin Buber’s description of his experience with a horse) — Nature is the setting for the most common kind of Peak Experience.
Impossible Events — Football’s “Immaculate Reception” — the “hole-in-one” you knew was a hole-in-one before you hit the ball — that sense of perfect action which you “know” will turn out perfectly as you do it — feeling “in sync” with things and action — sports, ballet, martial arts, and many other things that happen in “perfect synchronicity.”
Trauma Experiences — Near death experiences, like men in combat — people near death from sickness — people who belong to the “zipper club” — near fatal accidents, are commonly reported as changing peoples’ lives forever. Also included are trance states induced by tribal dancing, prolonged fasting or other deprivations. Groups who experience trauma (like earthquakes) are often bonded by the shared Peak Experience associated with many kinds of extreme stress.
There are other kinds of Peak Experiences. These examples are offered to stimulate memories of your own Peak Experiences.
After the Peak
For many people, the aftereffects of Peak Experiences are every bit as real as the experience itself. The aftereffects are profound and long lasting. They seem to establish the validity of Peak Experiences in peoples’ lives. Below are some of the reported aftereffects of Peak Experiences:
Peak Experiences have a therapeutic effect, in the sense that they remove problems from peoples’ lives. Long-standing neurotic symptoms sometimes disappear. Occasionally, addictions are instantly overcome. Physical healings are reported in the aftermath of Peak Experiences. Such therapeutic effects are plentifully recorded in human history.
Peak Experiences can change a person’s view of himself in a healthy direction.
Peak Experiences can change a person’s view of other people, and one’s relationship to them, in many ways.
Peak Experiences can permanently change a person’s world view, or one’s understanding of the meaning of life.
Peak Experiences often release greater creativity, unique traits of personality, spontaneity, expressiveness, and joy.
People often have exceptionally vivid recollections of their Peak Experiences, see them as desirable, enjoy reliving them in memory, and eagerly anticipate the occurrence of similar experiences.
The person is more apt to feel that life in general is worthwhile. In the midst of the Ordinary, the person knows at his core that beauty, wholeness, goodness, truth, and meaningfulness, really do exist. Faith no longer means believing without evidence. He has personal experience of the Divine nature. He has known his perfect self, and experienced a perfect universe. Life itself is validated!
Maslow summarizes aftereffects this way. “I think that these aftereffects can all be generalized, and a feeling for them communicated, if the Peak Experience could be likened to a visit to a personally defined paradise, from which the person then returns to Ordinary life.” Maslow goes on to quote the mystic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge; “If a man could pass through paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Ay! And what then?” Peak Experiences give us a glimpse of a Reality that is stripped of our personal and cultural perspectives. It is nothing less than the direct experience of a Reality that is unsullied by human limitations.