In the 1950s American Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory of human motivation which he presented through a pyramid of needs. You may remember learning about this in school—at the base of the pyramid are the most basic physiological needs, while at the top is self-actualization, the need to realize our fullest potential.
Maslow was part of a turning point in human psychology, which came to be known as Humanistic Psychology, where focus began to shift from the deficiencies of the human psyche, towards seeing the positive aspects of the human experience. This was born from the belief that people are inherently good.
In his exploration on motivation and growth, Maslow stepped outside of only looking at motivation as coming from a place of deficiency, or the belief that all of our behaviours are being motivated because of what we may be lacking. Maslow explored the concept of motivation as being connected to the human need for growth. Growth can be seen as a theme for all of humanity, whether on a macroscopic level manifesting in the progressive evolution of our species over time, or on a microscopic level in an individual’s will to grow and evolve to something greater through their lifetime.
His theory in the pyramid of needs encompassed both deficiency and growth needs. When our fundamental needs are met, we can grow to another stage of development. For instance, if a person is struggling to access food and shelter, it will be difficult for them to excel in other areas of life like self-esteem and social relationships. However, if that person’s needs are met at that base level, they then have access to an inner strength that supports growing in other areas.
It’s now widely accepted that it may be possible to be working on needs in various areas of the pyramid simultaneously, as multiple layers of needs can call on us at any given time in our lives. To many, the concept at the top of the Maslow’s pyramid, known as self-actualization, is particularly intriguing and appealing.
Self-actualization is closely related to looking at human motivation from a place of striving to grow into our fullest potential. The term describes the human desire to be all that we can be, and can apply to any given area of our lives. For instance, when it comes to family, this can be seen as an individual aiming to be the best parent they can be, or in the area of one's professional life, it can manifest as wanting to reach the fullest potential in one’s chosen career. Even when it comes to recreation and hobbies the concept of self-actualizing may be present, like a runner wanting to surpass their fastest mile.
If the idea of living your fullest potential and being all that you can be speaks to you, it may be interesting to consider another concept that Maslow defined as closely related to self-actualization—peak experiences. Maslow suggested that in the state of peak experiencing, human beings are as close as they can be to the truest expression of themselves. We could say that when in a peak experience, an individual is completely at one with themselves, or in other words, being all that they can be.
What are Peak Experiences?
Maslow described a peak experience as “a moment of awe, ecstasy, or sudden insight into life as a powerful unity transcending space, time and the self.” He also more simply put it as “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment” and “anything that comes close to perfection”.
Peak experiences are ones that have the potential to change us forever because during them, our perception of ourselves and the world can be quite different from what it is in an ordinary state. Peak experiences could be seen as altered states of consciousness. While in a peak experience, there is no doubt about who we are and what we are capable of. There is no feeling of awkwardness or fear. Even if it only lasts for a few moments, a peak experience is a state where we are completely present, and completely at one with ourselves and the environment we are in. It is a state of pure being-ness. It is a state where the ego falls away, and we are likely closest to our real selves.
As a result of this state of pure being-ness, some common occurrences that define a peak experiences are euphoria, effortlessness and ease, oneness with the environment, complete presence, timelessness, and a sense of completion. Things cease to exist independently, and all is unified, including our own psyche, the physical world and all that it entails.
When do Peak Experiences occur?
Although there are common themes to the peak experience, they can come to use in many different ways and in many different forms. Let’s take a look at some of the common areas that peak experiences seem to happen in.
Many people think of peak experiences as mystical experiences. Many spiritual paths involve the concept of transcending the self, and involve practices that are designed to move beyond attachment to our bodies and minds, into a state of true being-ness. Some known ways of accessing peak experiences are through these diligent spiritual practices such as meditation, fasting, prayer, or breathing practices. There are tales of yogis and monks transcending space, time and what we see as conventional human capabilities through following a devout and ascetic lifestyle. There’s also the non-monastic spiritual seekers who have been able to access sublime states through spiritual practices. In these transcendent moments, it's common to access the state of boundlessness, timelessness and profound peace, oneness and joy.
The Psychedelic Experience
When used in a specific set and setting, psychedelics have been known to provide access to profound experiences that could be classified as peak experiences. We are understanding that on a neurological level, what is known as the Default Mode Network in the brain can have much lower activity when an individual takes certain psychedelics. The Default Mode Network is the part of the brain that is responsible for memories and self-concept amongst other things. Some have described it as the network in the brain that constitutes the idea of “the ego”. With this shut down, we become much more open to experience ourselves and the world as unified, and to see ourselves beyond the restrictions and narratives about who we believe ourselves to be. As a result of this reduction in the conditioned way of experiencing ourselves and the world, commonalities in psychedelic states are experiencing euphoria, boundlessness and oneness with all.
Many people enter a peak experience state when in a majestic natural environment. Commonalities with this are feeling at one with the natural environment, and a deep feeling of awe and reverence for nature. Peak experiences in nature can often involve how we see and experience ourselves and what we are capable of. These experiences often occur when people are engaged in a relationship with nature that involves a challenge, for instance, climbing a mountain, or surfing a wave. The peak experience state could be attributed to these challenging activities calling us to be fully engaged with our physical, mental and emotional capabilities, and propelling us to be all that we can be in doing so.
Having insight into the cosmos has also been know to give access to peak experiences. This can be seen with those lucky enough to have experiences of being witness to what is beyond our planet. A great example of this is the Overview Effect, where astronauts have described having similar mystical experiences when witnessing the planet Earth from space, and feeling a sense of awe, reverence and unity. Many have described this as changing the way they see themselves and life forever, and could be a result from an undeniable and powerful change in perspective.
For the non-astronauts, there are other opportunities to be witness to the magnificence of the cosmos that could produce a similar change in perspective. I remember years ago when camping in a remote part of Kenya, we were able to see the Milky Way clearly in the night sky, a vision that blew me away. I was speechless and in awe of what I saw, and felt like something changed for me after that night. It’s still difficult for me to put into words, but I had a deep sense of understanding of something powerful and amazing beyond just me, while also feeling equally a part of this powerful and amazing thing.
If it seems that peak experiences are reserved for the mystics, mountaineers, psycho-nauts and astronauts, it’s worth knowing that Maslow observed that peak experiences are available to all, and sometimes come in feeling the extraordinary in everyday moments. Some examples of peak experiences in the everyday are:
Swinging the bat and meeting the ball at the perfect moment to hit a home-run.
Gazing up at the clearing sky after a storm and seeing a rainbow.
A moment of pure ecstasy when making love to another.
It’s not to say that all everyday experiences like this become peak experiences. What makes for the right moment for these everyday occurrences to become mystical and magical at times might be beyond our full understanding. Yet it could be interesting to note that when it comes to these everyday experiences becoming peak experiences, the concept of motivation may be relevant. There seems to be a connection to having peak experiences when engaging in an activity for its inherent value to us rather than from another type of motivation—such as a deficiency need, or a need connected to our ego identification.
In other words, when we are engaged in activities for the pure pleasure or meaningfulness of them, it’s possible that the peak experience state becomes more accessible.
How do these experiences translate into self-actualization?
When we have these experiences, we have a chance to understand our sense of connection, creativity, and ability to be a part of that which is awe-inspiring. In many ways, it reminds me of being a child again, when the world was a magical playground and anything was possible. Through life experiences, we can begin to develop beliefs about ourselves and the world that take us away from this magic and inspiration. Those self-limiting beliefs and negative beliefs about the world can continue to dictate our day to day and how we process events. A peak experience can give us access to a state that goes beyond this. As a result of these experiences, we may feel inspiration, boundlessness, connection, joy and reverence, all key factors in becoming all that we can be.
There are some key considerations that could be influential in the lasting impact of these experiences. Maslow noted, the more conscious and remembered that peak experiences are by the individual, the greater the lasting impact. This is where having the opportunity to reflect on the experience could make a difference between a fleeting moment of awe, and a life-changing experience. Because our beliefs and patterns of thoughts can be so ingrained, it’s easy to see how once the experience itself has passed, life might start feeling mundane and ordinary again, and we can start to identify with self-limiting beliefs once again. We might start feeling like that experience was imagined or just a fleeting one-off. If we are able to consciously remember the feeling, and even take the time to process the power of that experience—whether through sharing with a supportive loved-one, reflecting with a therapist, or writing about it, we can create a greater awareness of it in our minds, as well as a greater understanding of the power of it. This can help to orient the mind to appreciate the experience, and to remember that the feelings we experienced were real and possible.
Can we cultivate Peak Experiences?
Although we aren’t able to schedule peak experiences into our weekly calendars, with what we understand about them, it may be possible to cultivate a mindset and lifestyle that can allow us to be more open and receptive to entering this state.
First, let’s revisit the concept of motivation. If there is a link between motivation coming from a place of value to us, or doing things because we feel joy or meaning in them, this could be an indication that you are moving in the right direction. Of course, not all of us have the luxury of devoting all of our time to doing things we love or consider important, yet maybe we can start somewhere by scheduling in some time for this. It doesn’t have to include climbing a mountain or stargazing in the middle of nowhere, and could be as simple as going for a walk in nature, or spending quality time with loved ones. Allowing time to spend doing things that are enjoyable and meaningful to you can at the very least contribute to more time spent feeling good.
The concept of mindfulness may also be relevant in cultivating a mindset that leaves us more open and receptive to having these experiences. Mindfulness is a state of presence—similar to the state of presence and oneness that we enter when we are in a peak experience. There are many practices that can help us to orient the mind into the present moment, including using our senses to focus on what we are experiencing in the present moment. For instance, allow yourself to really soak up the sights, sounds and what you may feel the next time you are doing something you enjoy.
Finally, another concept to consider in cultivating a more open and receptive mindset is that of “beginner's mind”. Beginner's mind comes from Zen Buddhism, and involves consciously approaching objects, people and experiences as if it is our very first time encountering them. This takes effort, and involves becoming aware of preconceived notions and paradigms about an object, person or experience, and putting them aside to become curious and open to what we may find. When practiced regularly, beginners mind can help to reduce the bias and limitations of how we may regularly see and experience life. It is a conscious practice that can help us to see beyond those self-limiting and negative beliefs about ourselves and the world, and potentially create a space to have a new experience.
The more we choose to practice this, the more we may start seeing things and experiencing things beyond our conditioned way, in turn leaving us more open and receptive to what may be there, including magic, beauty and awe.
Perhaps you’d like to try this out the next time you see a flower. Consider the simplicity of taking a moment to be present to observing it—I mean really take the time to look at it, as if it was your very first time seeing such a thing. You might be surprised to learn how perfect and profound this flower actually is. And if you can experience perfection and magnificence in this flower, just imagine the possibilities and opportunities to experience this in other ways.