Peak Experiences

Swami Ishwarananda Saraswati (Maj. G.K. Jackson, Retd.), Australia

Long before I was introduced to the concept of the peak experience, I had worked out that this constituted the search for the Holy Grail of Parsival, the Golden Fleece of Ullyses and the legendary end point of the 'search' by mythological heroes since man became man.

It is my belief that such an end point occurs when we merge with God. As man, such an end point cannot therefore occur. For me there is, however, an endless series of peak experiences, any one of which has the ability to radically alter concepts, feelings, values and the whole range of human action. Each peak experience adds value and magic to life.

What then is a peak experience? Abraham Maslow in his book, 'Religions, Values and Peak Experiences', lists the characteristics reported to him. Since they are in tune with my own experience I think it is worthwhile listing some I consider to be key experiences, before I attempt to discuss their function and some of the means of obtaining a peak experience. A definition is worthless. Listing the characteristics helps in some understanding. A peak experience is phenomenological. In the phenomenological realm words can be a barrier, but they are all we have, so here goes...

  1. The whole universe is perceived as an integrated and unified whole (swara).
  2. The perception is exclusively and fully attended to (iswara).
  3. External objects, the world and individual people are perceived as being detached from human concerns (detachment).
  4. Peak experiences are ego transcending (egoless).
  5. Peak experiences make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence. They give meaning to life itself.
  6. There is a lack of consciousness of time and space. Sometimes this may even mean disorientation in time and space.
  7. The concepts- good/bad, become blurred and may even cease to exist. Pain, disease and death are perceived to be in the rightful scheme of life. This particular peak experience is difficult to explain to non-experiencers.
  8. The peak experience leaves one with feelings of awe, reverence, humility, compassion and an inner tuning towards truth, integrity and the discriminatory faculties.
  9. There tends to be a loss of anxiety, guilt, fear, inhibition, confusion, conflict and other negative human features. Instead these are replaced by profound experiences so great that often they are interpreted in the form of religious conversion or spiritual uplifting.
  10. The real Self is experienced, in which a person is:
    • - more real
    • - more creative/spontaneous
    • - more self-determined
    • - a free agent of own destiny
    • - selfless and relatively egoless
    • - more innocent and honest
    • - more subject to 'higher laws'
    • - unambitious in the normal (sic.) sense.
    Dichotomies are resolved, for example, humility vs. pride or ambition vs. "the relaxed life".
  11. A feeling of being the recipient of 'Divine Grace'. Maslow goes into more detail than this but the preceding is sufficient to give some understanding of the characteristics of the peak experience. It is normally a random experience.

Meditation and relaxation are two methods of consciously endeavouring to maximise the frequency of the random event. In other words, these techniques can be methodological approaches to increase chance or random effects.

I am convinced that the peak experience should not be left to chance alone. It is too important a phenomena. I am also convinced from my own experiences, that the conscious seeking out of this otherwise random event, heightens my awareness of its presence in the daily phenomena (maya) of the world. It changes and enhances the world around me until I see the constant dance of life.

It is unnecessary to demonstrate that the transcendent experience is not a phenomenon related to only one culture, to one time, to any one religion or to any one person. It is also fallacious to state that the peak experience only occurs with the practice of meditation. Listen to an astronaut talking about his first glimpse of planet earth in the vastness of the heavens. Hear Wagner's Parsival, or listen to Ravi Shankar. Let a mountaineer explain the ecstasy of the summit or the lone adventurer his experience of the desert or sea, or the mystic his excursions into eternity.

The characteristics outlined so explicitly by Maslow, are the common denominator binding all. What we do know is that meditation provides a methodology to explore the whole domain of inner space. Also that a peak experience has an integrative function of immense importance.

Whatever we are, there seems to be five domains of experience that are easily recognisable and capable of subjectivization, even by the most childlike mind. In the Hindu scriptures they are the five koshas. Western psychology has always accepted three domains; body, emotions and mind. In modern times, the influence of Maslow's 'third psychology' has forced acceptance by most of the spiritual domain.

Whether we accept four or live or more (like the Buddhist for example) one aspect is clear. The peak experience has an integrative function. That is, it has the ability to harmonise our total being in such a way that anxiety, confusion, conflict, fear of death, insanity, and other disintegrating tendencies are replaced by profound feelings of reintegration of the whole Self.

The mystic is a person who has and is consciously evoking this experience. Unfortunately, in some respects, the language available to describe these experiences is local, usually culture-bound. Often the mystic will act as a candle (guru) for moths (chelas), who assumes the secret is locked into the charisma.

Tantra tells us the secret is locked in the practices, which are the methods of spiritual transcendence. Guru is essential because he alone, at first, has traversed the realms of inner space. The practices are many, and we have only to take a brief glimpse of the many culturally-based varieties of religious experience to see the paths the mystics have identified for us.

Whichever path we choose to tread, the peak experience is the prerequisite to inner peace. There is a serenity and a joy in the person who has so experienced. It is this element which I have found to be most integrative. There is a peace so profound that it is beyond mind, beyond the ability to understand.

A person who has a peak experience knows that life is meaningful, worthwhile, beautiful, magical and knows the Self behind the deception. With such intuition and insight, pain, disease and other disruptions to this inner harmony are accorded their rightful place. A choice is made. Whether to be in a state of dis-ease or at permanence with ease. Of course for most who have experienced such inner peace only one course is open. The constant peak experience.

For this one must train and be constantly vigilant. One tried and confirmed path is the path of meditation, but a meditation not of withdrawal. This is another choice- life is full of such choices. To withdraw from the world, to be in the world, or to take both. The end is but the beginning...

Western medicine and psychology tend to use dis-ease as an end point in itself. That is, it seeks the cause. This has been a useful contribution of science, the search for cause. The East has made an important contribution in its emphasis on causeless phenomenology. The peak experience integrates both. The recognition of right place for both science and mysticism is, I believe, the beginning of a new and exciting era.