Peak Experiences and Religion
by Mac and Susan Goekler
Susan: Twenty-five years ago, I originally presented a service about peak experiences at a Unitarian Universalist Church that I attended in Greensboro, North Carolina. A few months before that service, I had had an intense experience. I did not know what it was. I did not know that others had similar experiences. I had never heard anyone talk about such experiences. As I tried to understand what I had experienced, I was thrilled to find a book by the psychologist Abraham Maslow that provided a name: Peak Experience and helped me understand the phenomenon. I did the service then because I wanted to share what I had discovered.
Over the years, I have had additional peak or transformative experiences and have gained more insights into those experiences. They have also changed how I relate to the world and to others. They changed my life in another way because having had peak experiences was one of the commonalities that Mac and I discovered in each other when we first met that interested us in getting to know each other better.
Mac: Why do we want to share this here and now? There are many reasons. When we did the adult religious exploration class at a previous church on Our Chosen Faith, we explored the sources of the Unitarian Universalist faith. Those include the wisdom from the world’s religions, words and deeds of prophetic men and women, Jewish and Christian teachings, humanist teachings which counsel the use of reason and the results of science, spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions, and “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” During the class on direct experiences, everyone present shared a personal transformative experience. Many commented afterward that they could not imagine another place of worship where they would have felt accepted enough to share such an intense and personal experience. Thus, we sensed a readiness. We hope that by sharing our experiences this morning, others will recognize such experiences in their lives.
Susan: Maslow contended that most people are capable of peak experiences, but some block the experience because they find it frightening. A peak experience is intense and can feel like one is losing control. Thus another reason for sharing is that perhaps some people will be willing to open themselves to such experiences when the opportunity arises. Malidoma Patrice Some, in his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa says: “All of us carry within ourselves something that is waiting for the right moment when it can burst out and repair the particular separation that we are experiencing” (p. 53).
Mac: Another reason for this service is to provide a vehicle for connecting with others in the congregation, among our family and friends, and the common bond of humanity during times of pain and sorrow, as well as during times of joy. Many of my peak experiences occurred during times of trouble and transition.
Susan: Finally, we hope that the discussion will help us understand, on an intellectual level, the place of peak or religious or transformative experiences in organized religion. Such understanding might help us understand the faith of others, as well as give us ideas for what we do here at Davies Memorial Unitarian universalist Church.
Let’s return now to understanding the experience. Abraham Maslow, the author of the book I found so helpful, entitled Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences, studied factors that shape personality. His study of peak experiences was part of that work. He interviewed people who reported such experiences and identified commonalities of their experiences. Mac and I summarized his findings in the duet we read earlier. Because peak experiences are not verbal, no description truly captures one. Every experience is unique — no two of mine were the same and they are not the same as any you might have had. The guided meditation, which represented one of my peak experiences, was an attempt to give a taste of such an experience.
Mac: Willa Cather described a peak experience in her book My Antonia, as follows:
I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one it comes naturally as sleep.
Maslow found that after such experiences people tend to move more closely to a perfect identity, or uniqueness, to become more a real person. They become more selfless, more loving, more accepting, more spontaneous, honest, and innocent. During and after a peak experience, people characteristically feel lucky, fortunate, graced – they have a feeling of gratitude.
Susan: So, what does all of this have to do with religion? People often turn to religion to find connections and a sense of belonging to a human community and, for some, connections to the full range of life — in the natural world, the spiritual, and the past, present, and future. People also turn to religion to help them find meaning in their experiences and to answer the BIG questions such as the meaning of life and death. Because peak experiences can provide a glimpse into another way of being, connections with the broader universe — the whole — they can serve as a source of a religion. Maslow contends that much of organized religion represents an attempt to explain the peak experiences of that religion’s founder. When I lived in Colorado, I heard a sermon by Dan Shaw, a professor of religion at Colorado College, about symbols, rituals, and myths. He, like Maslow, claimed that religious symbols, rituals, and myths had two basic purposes. They were created following a person’s peak or religious experience either to recapture the feelings associated with the experience for that person or to communicate something about the experience to others. The purpose is generally not to induce a peak experience. Unfortunately in much of organized religion, those symbols, rituals, or myths (stories) often lose the original focus of pointing to a greater reality and become ends in themselves. Sometimes people are critical of Sunday worship because it is not a place where they experience the transcendence they do in nature or during a peak experience. But, that is not the intent — the intent is to share, celebrate together, and remember.
As Mac mentioned, each peak experience is different. However, I have found symbols or rituals that evoke for me the memory of each of my most intense experiences. The experience in North Carolina occurred in conjunction with the intense yellow-orange-brown color of the late afternoon autumn sun on a field of ripe wheat. I have found that the yellow-orange flame of a candle sometimes serves as a reminder of that experience and evokes some of the feelings I had many years ago. Another peak experience occurred while I was swimming. I became one with the water — I melted into it. Now, when I swim easily, rhythmically, and undisturbed, the ritual of movement and breathing can evoke that second experience.
Mac: There are three peak experiences that are all related that I want to present today. They demonstrate the transformation, peace, finding oneself, and finding meaning that can come from a peak experience. On a late April Saturday in 1978, I was beyond desperation trying to get my alcoholic wife, Tina to seek medical attention. She would say she would go then say no and keep me up all night. I left the house and drove to the park nearby and felt compelled to climb on to a boulder. I sat for some time, stating and restating to myself that I can’t deal with Tina’s abuse of herself and me any longer. After some time had lapsed, I felt a presence and then I KNEW I was no longer in control – I would help Tina if asked. Surrender was OK. To this day, when stressed by someone else’s behavior I perform a quiet ritual – reciting to myself the “Serenity Prayer”.
On July 15, 1990 (three days after Tina died from alcohol abuse) – I was wrapped up in my grief. The “presence” came to me again – “Be grateful for the three miracles: Your surrender twelve years ago, the seven years of Tina’s sobriety during the eighties, and Finally the quick and painless “good” death that ended her suffering. My healing had begun.
Lastly, on December 24th 1993, I was home in Phoenix for the holidays. I was doing my typical walk through the desert mountains near my parent’s home when I felt compelled to climb a certain peak. As I sat on top of this mountain – I started a conversation with my beloved Tina. I told her that I fulfilled her wish of finding someone else (Susan) and then the “Presence” came to me and I knew I had done well. The shell of my grief that kept me was finally broken.
Susan: Symbols, rituals, and myths can sometimes create a transformation. They can also be used to create a sense of community and belonging. Common symbols, rituals and stories are the glue that hold a culture together. In UUism, the flaming chalice is a common symbol that unites Unitarian Universalists throughout the U.S. Rites of passage such as marriages, bar/bat mitzvahs, and funerals can help people transform to a new state of reality, which can occur during a powerful ritual. One element many people find lacking in a UU worship service is ritual. We are wise not to institutionalize practices that do not have meaning for us personally. However, we should also not shy away from practices that do give meaning to our lives. Perhaps through discussions of experiences that make our lives whole (which is what the word sacred means), we UUs can find symbols, rituals, and stories (or myths) that will allow us to share and explore our whole selves, not just our intellectual selves – while not leaving reason behind.
Mac: A discussion about peak experiences must include cautions. A peak experience probably will change a person’s life, sometimes radically. Paul, Saul of Tarsus, is a historical example of that. His encounter and temporary blindness on the road to Damascus was probably a peak experience. That incident changed the direction of his life in a dramatic way and caused him to endure abuse, physical suffering, and imprisonment. Also, this experience sent a minor Jewish cult off in a new direction – Christianity.
Susan: Peak experiences can be upsetting. For instance, during my first intense experience, one thought I had was that I was going insane. I remember thinking that my schizoid tendencies had erupted and that I was another personality. The thought did not worry me; I did not mind living in a peak state forever. In fact, the thought amused me a bit. Maslow mentioned that people who fear going crazy could become upset by a peak experience. They might fight so hard to maintain sanity or control that they block the experience.
Mac: Peak experiences cannot be denied or forgotten. Because they are deeply felt, the experience often compels people to change how they relate to the world. The changes might not please one’s former self, family, or friends. The experience, however, is reality for the person involved. It becomes part of who that person is and of that person’s world view – or philosophy or theology.
Susan: Peak experiencers are often dissatisfied with organized religion as they find it. Most organized religion is based on some founder’s experience. Since each peak experience is different, that of a religious leader will not be the same as that of any other individual. Peak experiences, thus, can precipitate a crisis of faith. They can, however, often help a person find peace. They can eventually help make sense of the mysteries of life – not necessarily by providing the answers. Sometimes, their gift is a contentment with not having the answers.
Mac: Although striving to achieve peak experiences can be damaging, being open and receptive to such experiences can be healing, enlivening, energizing, and provide a sense of purpose or direction. Maslow recommended that people not seek to induce peak experiences, but that they learn to be more open and receptive to themselves and their surroundings – more attentive. In this way, people open themselves to the possibility of peak experiences.
Susan: Another direction for personal growth that Maslow introduced in his book is the “plateau experience.” Maslow found that peak experiences become less common as people get older. However, plateau experiences can be sustained and achieved at any age. Meditation and spiritual practice help achieve the plateau experience, which Maslow described as:
serene and calm, rather than the poignantly emotional, climactic, autonomic response to the miraculous, the sacred, the awesome, the Unitive…. It is far more voluntary than peak experiences are. One can learn to see in this Unitive way almost at will. It then becomes witnessing, appreciating, what one might call a serene cognition, blissfulness, which can, however, have a quality of casualness and lounging about…. Plateau experiencing can be achieved, learned, earned by long hard work. It can be meaningfully aspired to…. To take up residence on the high plateau of Unitive consciousness – this is another thing altogether. That tends to be a life-long effort.
MAC: Please share your thoughts about peak, transformative, or plateau experiences. Feel free to question us, share your own encounters with what ever you call such events, or consider ways we can share experiences in community.
CLOSING WORDS: “The master said, A gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias. The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side.”
Book II – 14, “The Analects of Confucius”