Articles, Psychology

Abraham Maslow, Peak Experiences, and the Spirituality of the Solitary Individual

“Religion is what a man does with his solitariness.” (Alfred North Whitehead)

“Man has a higher and transcendent nature, and this is part of his essence, i.e., his biological nature as a member of a species which has evolved.” (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

The solitary individual has long been an enemy of organized religion, which attempts to exert ultimate control over all religious and spiritual matters.

Yet as Abraham Maslow pointed out, all major organized religions were constructed upon the personal spiritual experience of a single individual.  The spiritual, or peak, experience of great individuals throughout the ages have given rise to organized religions, which have proceeded to transform these genuine experiences into dead dogmas, stale rituals, and methods of control.

Most people lose or forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefine Religion as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms, which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic, conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, anti-religious. The mystic experience, the illumination, the great awakening, along with the charismatic seer who started the whole thing, are forgotten, lost, or transformed into their opposites. Organized Religion, the churches, finally may become the major enemies of the religious experience and the religious experiencer.” (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

The Validity of Religious (Spiritual) Questions

Why are we here? What is the meaning of the individual in relation to the universal? What is the true nature of being? Are the forms of the universe the result of a random collision of particles, or is there some intelligence, or teleology, guiding life and matter?

These questions are ones that most individuals ponder from time to time, some more than others. In our day where a materialistic worldview reigns supreme, many consider these questions to be useless because no answers to them can be arrived at with any modicum of certainty.

The 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow took an opposite stance. According to him, not only are human beings naturally oriented to such questions, but it is by contemplating them that one can open themselves up to the mystery of existence – enabling one to lift their head, once in a while, from thereligions values peak-experiences monotony of daily life.

“One could say that the nineteenth-century atheist had burnt down the house instead of remodeling it. He had thrown out the religious questions with the religious answers, because he had to reject the religious answers. That is, he turned his back on the whole religious enterprise because organized religion presented him with a set of answers which he could not intellectually accept—which rested on no evidence which a self-respecting scientist could swallow. But what the more sophisticated scientist is now in the process of learning is that though he must disagree with most of the answers to the religious questions which have been given by organized religion, it is increasingly clear that the religious questions themselves—and religious quests, the religious yearnings, the religious needs themselves—are perfectly respectable scientifically, that they are rooted deep in human nature, that they can be studied, described, examined in a scientific way, and that the churches were trying to answer perfectly sound human questions. Though the answers were not acceptable, the questions themselves were and are perfectly acceptable, and perfectly legitimate.” (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

The Nature of Peak Experiences

One who maintains the legitimacy of religious questions, but does not regress and accept a dogmatic system of “religious answers”, confronts the world with a sense wonder which Martin Heidegger nicely described as:

“…the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.” (Martin Heidegger)

Such wonder can stimulate peak (spiritual) experiences, described by Maslow in his book Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences:

“Normally we perceive everything as relevant to human concerns and more particularly to our own private selfish concerns. In the peak-experiences, we become more detached, more objective, and are more able to perceive the world as if it were independent not only of the perceiver but even of human beings in general. The perceiver can more readily look upon nature as if it were there in itself and for itself, not simply as if it were a human playground put there for human purposes….He can more easily refrain from projecting human purposes upon it. In a word, he can see it in its own Being (as an end in itself) rather than as something to be used or something to be afraid of or something to wish for or to be reacted to in some other personal, human, self-centered way…This is a little like talking about god like perception, superhuman perception. The peak-experience seems to lift us to greater than normal heights so that we can see and perceive in a higher than usual way. We become larger, greater, stronger, bigger, taller people and tend to perceive accordingly.” (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

The Fear of Peak Experiences

While peak experiences are transformative and highly meaningful, many suppress them out of fear of “losing control”.

A peak experience widens one’s horizons, and thus forces one to question one’s deepest convictions and beliefs about the self and universe – an experience which, for the more compulsive and rigid-minded individual, can be mistaken for a descent into insanity.

Maslow conceptualized human beings into two kinds: peakers and non-peakers. There are those that welcome peak experiences, making use of them “for their personal therapy, personal growth, or personal fulfillment”, and those that repress and deny them.

“I finally began to use the word “non-peaker” to describe, not the person who is unable to have peak-experiences, but rather the person who is afraid of them, who suppresses them, who denies them, who turns away from them, or who “forgets” them…The person who is afraid of going insane and who is, therefore, desperately hanging on to stability, control, reality, etc., seems to be frightened by peak-experiences and tends to fight them off. For the compulsive-obsessive person, who organizes his life around the denying and the controlling of emotion, the fear of being overwhelmed by an emotion (which is interpreted as a loss of control) is enough for him to mobilize all his stamping-out and defensive activities against the peak experience.” (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

The Danger of Becoming ‘Addicted’ to Peak Experiences

For individuals who have had peak experiences it is recognized as a

“highly valuable…experience, so great an experience sometimes that even to attempt to justify it takes away from its dignity and worth. As a matter of fact, so many people find this so great and high an experience that it justifies not only itself but even living itself. Peak-experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence.” (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

Because of the intensity and meaningfulness of peak experiences, there is a danger of disregarding the necessities and responsibilities of daily life, and attempting to stimulate the peak experience at the expense of one’s well-being.

Our constitution is such that life cannot be a constant peak experience. We need to be rooted in the concrete world and perform our duties: monotonous and tedious as they may sometimes be.

“Out of the joy and wonder of his ecstasies and peak-experiences he may be tempted to seek them, ad hoc, and to value them exclusively, as the only or at least the highest goods of life, giving up other criteria of right and wrong. Focused on these wonderful subjective experiences, he may run the danger of turning away from the world and from other people in his search for triggers to peak-experiences, any triggers.” (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

Peak Experiencers as the Explorers of the Depths and Heights

While there is the risk that peak experiences can be valued as the only good in life – and therefore sought after through the overuse of alcohol, drugs, or other methods which lead to the long-term destruction of one’s well-being – peak experiences are the main way in which our “higher and transcendent nature” attains fulfillment in this life.

As the fulfillment of this higher and transcendent nature results in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual development of the individual and therefore society at large, Maslow proposed that the difference between “peakers” and “non-peakers” – those who welcome transformative experiences and those who cower from them – is the dividing line separating two groups of human beings: the explorers of the depths and heights, and those who forever remain in a state of being “tranquilized by the trivial”.

Indeed, these “serious” people are coming so close together as to suggest that they are becoming a single party of mankind, the earnest ones, the seeking, questioning, probing ones, the ones who are not sure, the ones with a “tragic sense of life,” the explorers of the depths and of the heights, the “saving remnant.” The other party then is made up of all the superficial, the moment-bound, the here bound ones, those who are totally absorbed with the trivial…those who are reduced to the concrete, to the momentary, and to the immediately selfish. Almost, we could say, we wind up with adults, on the one hand, and children, on the other. (Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Abraham Maslow)

For ideas on how to use “philosophical exercises” to stimulate peak experiences, check out our article/video Philosophy as a Way of Life.