Monday, September 21, 2009

Peak Experiences & Abraham Maslow

Some quotes for instigating thought, from a branch of psychology still under-recognized and under-utilized: namely, the psychology of healthy and effective people. Most psychology today remains focused on pathology, on what has gone wrong, on dis-ease, on unhealthy problems. I find myself immersed by life in example after example of dementia and neurosis, mostly not my own, so I turn to the possibilities for a positive psychology with a sigh of relief and release. I turn away from pathology towards ecstasy, with my own health at stake.

Peak experiences are those highlights of our lives that give us awareness and insight into a deeper level of existence.

The peak experience is the event that changes our way of viewing reality. Peak experiences are similar to the transcendent awareness described by mystics and others who have undergone religious experiences. What makes the peak experience unique and different from the mystic and/or religious experience is its secular naturalistic nature.

Peak experiences do not require the presence of the supernatural. They are characterized by the spontaneous awareness of some or all of the following points:

nonjudgmental perception
detachment and objectivity
ends rather than means
time/space disorientation
transcendence of dichotomies
strong self-identity
strong sense of "free will"
humility and surrender

I would add a few things to this list, and rephrase a few other things. Following in the footsteps of contemporary spiritual writers such as Frederick Franck, Matthew Fox, and others, I would include:

non-dual consciousness
awareness that everything is choice
awareness that everything is change
trust of the higher self, or what we perceive as something greater than ourselves

Peak experiences often occur during such diverse activities as making love, climbing mountains, experiencing or creating works of art, sailing, giving birth, reading, looking at a landscape, and listening.

For some people peak experiences can remain in the memory as a reference point, making further peak experiences more accessible.

This is an important point I want to underline:

Once you have had a visionary or peak experience, you are susceptible to having more, or to having repeats or flashbacks. Once those doors and windows have been opened, they tend to stay open. The more crap you shovel out of the communications room, the more genuinely honest and sincere you tend to become. It's not that you become incapable of dissembling; it's that you see no good reason to.

And you will encounter many more who still cling to their cynicism and denial of even the possibility of having a peak experience that they will do everything they can to discredit you, tear you down, make you doubt yourself, and try to get you to see your peak experience as a hallucination. Not least among this tribe are the materialist-oriented brain-chemistry logical-positivist neurophysiology crowd, among whom it has become fashionable to try to explain, or explain away, every human experience as a mere function of brain chemistry or neurological pathology. In other words, those who would deny ecstasy for pathology, whenever you try to exchange pathology for ecstasy.

But once you've had a peak experience, you can see how all these attempts to explain it away fall short of even describing the experience. Every mystic knows, just as every athlete who finds herself in the "zone" knows, that there is something more going on than just brain chemistry. There remains an unexplainable Mystery.

Abraham Maslow

The psychology of the peak experience is the major contribution to contemporary psychology of Abraham Maslow,

. . . who was basically a theoretical psychologist in that he did not develop a specific course of treatment for neurosis or psychosis. In fact, his most important contribution to the psychological sciences was his recognition that psychology was lacking a most important perspective, a perspective that had made most previous psychological contributions one-sided.

Maslow noted that all psychology was based on psycho-pathology, or the behavior and processes of sick people.

To this one might add the insights of Gail & Snell Putney in their book Normal Neuroses. This book is a remarkable deconstruction of what we as a culture view as normative, demonstrating how more often than not, what we think of as normative is suppressed, restrictive, neurotic.

As the existentialist aphorism goes: "In an insane world, the sane person is viewed as insane."

Maslow decided that a new psychology was necessary, a psychology based on healthy people. He called these people self-actualizers (a term first used by the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Goldstein, with whom Maslow studied and worked).

A major aspect of the lives of these healthy people was the propensity to have what Maslow called peak experiences. Peak experiences are experiences of wonder, awe, ecstasy, altered consciousness, universal oneness, revelation, or transcendental states of being. With his studies of self-actualizers and their peak experiences, Maslow was able to help direct the attention of the psychological world toward developing methods of becoming healthy. This led to the development of Third Force or Humanistic Psychology (as opposed to the behavioristic or psychoanalytic modes).

At the time of his death in 1970, Maslow was helping bring to birth the creation of a new psychology, ". . . a still higher Fourth Psychology, transpersonal, transhuman, centered in the cosmos rather than in human needs and interests. . . ."

—quotes are from Edward Rosenfeld, The Book of Highs: 250 methods for altering your consciousness without drugs, published by Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company, 1973.

As a note on Maslow's books that are the sources of these ideas, I just want to mention that Maslow's work in this field begins with Motivation and Personality (1954; second edition 1971), finds its full flowering in Toward a Psychology of Being, and develops further in Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. I read the last book mentioned simultaneously with Rollo May's The Courage to Create, and the synergy between the ideas of these two humanistic and existentialist psychologists left a lasting impression on me, strongly shifting my worldview of psychology towards healthy functioning, as opposed to the usual post-Freudian psycho-pathology. Some other notable philosophers and psychologists whose writings also are connected to Maslow's work include existential psychologist Viktor Frankl, whose book Man's Search for Meaning is fundamental reading; Stanislav Grof, who went from working with LSD as a tool for psychological transformation to non-drug based transpersonal therapies such as Holotropic Breathwork, which Grof co-founded; the subpersonality work of Roberto Assagioli and his mentor Piero Ferrucci; and of course Freud's original breakaway pupil of the transpersonal, Carl G. Jung.

Maslow's books are clear and straightforward in their prose style, not at all mired in jargon or technical minutiae. His mission was to present his research and data as clearly as possible. The result is some of the more readable books of modern psychology you will encounter.

I leave us with a few selected quotes from Abraham Maslow, some more aphoristic than others, all full of his typically insightful use of metaphor:

A first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting.

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you'll be unhappy for the rest of your life.

One's only rival is one's own potentialities. One's only failure is failing to live up to one's own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king, and must therefore be treated like a king.

The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.

We fear to know the fearsome and unsavory aspects of ourselves, but we fear even more to know the godlike in ourselves.

We may define therapy as a search for value.

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Blogger John Ettorre said...

This poor fellow apparently has no idea how far off he is in his description of you, Art. You're many things, but "typical white, middle-class straight guy" sure ain't among them. But I guess some folks just need to vent.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No, he's a well-known asshole with too much time on his hands and absolutely no sense. Not the first time I've deleted his comments, probably won't be the last.

But have you noticed how people who make accusations that someone is narcissistic usually need to look at themselves in the mirror? ROFL It's one of the funniest examples of mirror-projection imaginable.

Then again, too, Maslow's positive attitude remains under attack by those who want to stay with the pathology rather than the ecstasy, as I already mentioned above.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I forgot to mention one other thing, of course. He's obviously never actually read the blog, because he seems unaware that the last thing I am is either "middle-class" or "straight." Which anyone actually reading the blog would already know.

It is to laugh. So: LOL.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hey, sorry for being three years late. :) I enjoyed this post and borrowed the Maslow photo for my own post on him -- here it is if you are curious.

My own route to Maslow-appreciation is via Glenn Morris, another modern spiritual teacher, of a somewhat different nature to Matthew Fox -- he was a Hall-of-Fame martial artist whose nickname was "Dr Death" ^_^, but who was also trained in Humanistic Psych. When he had a full kundalini awakening he interpreted it quite in the Maslow framework, and I've come to see how useful Maslow is in bridging the gap between ordinary life and the transpersonal.

I did enjoy your writing here, and I'll look over your more recent posts. Thanks. :)

6:08 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I went over and read your post. It's interesting material, although I think you place too much emphasis on empirical data per se. There's no substitute for personal experience, I agree, it trumps theory every time. But for that very reason, anecdotal evidence should not be discarded so readily, as the whole point of the study of peak experience is that it is both universal AND subjective.

Two books for your reading list, that you might learn something from:

George Leonard: The Silent Pulse

Caroline Myss: Anatomy of the Spirit

You see, others HAVE been doing this work all along.

10:12 AM  

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