Episodes of Unitive Consciousness (“Peak Experiences”)
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow studied many hundreds of people who had unitive mystical experiences and coined for them the term peak experiences (Maslow 1964). He expressed sharp criticism of Western psychiatry’s tendency to confuse such mystical states with mental disease. According to him, they should be considered supernormal rather than abnormal phenomena. If they are not interfered with and are allowed to run their natural course, these states typically lead to better functioning in the world and to “self-actualization” or “selfrealization” — the capacity to express more fully one’s creative potential and to live a more rewarding and satisfying life.
Psychiatrist and consciousness researcher Walter Pahnke developed a list of basic characteristics of a typical peak experience, based on the work of Abraham Maslow and W. T. Stace. He used the following criteria to describe this state of mind (Pahnke and Richards 1966):
Unity (inner and outer)
Strong positive emotion
Transcendence of time and space
Sense of sacredness (numinosity)
Objectivity and reality of the insights
As this list indicates, when we have a peak experience, we have a sense of overcoming the usual fragmentation of the mind and body and feel that we have reached a state of unit and wholeness. We also transcend the ordinary distinction between subject and object and experience an ecstatic union with humanity, nature, the cosmos, and God. This is associated with intense feelings of joy, bliss, serenity, and inner peace. In a mystical experience of this type, we have a sense of leaving ordinary reality, where space has three dimensions and time is linear. We enter a metaphysical, transcendent realm, where these categories no longer apply. In this state, infinity and eternity become experiential realities. The numinous quality of this state has nothing to d with previous religious beliefs; it reflects a direct apprehension of the divine nature of reality.
Descriptions of peak experiences are usually full of paradoxes. The experience can be described as “contentless, yet all-containing.” It has no specific content, but seems to contain everything in a potential form. We can have a sense of being simultaneously everything and nothing. While our personal identity and the limited ego have disappeared, we feel that we have expanded to such an extent that our being encompasses the entire universe. Similarly, it is possible to perceive all forms as empty, or emptiness as being pregnant with forms. We can even reach a state in which we see that the world exists and does not exist at the same time.
The peak experience can convey what seems to be ultimate wisdom and knowledge in matters of cosmic relevance, which the Upanishads describe as “knowing That, the knowledge of which gives the knowledge of everything.” What we have learned during this experience is ineffable; it cannot be described by words. The very nature and structur of our language seem to be inadequate for this purpose. Yet, the experience can profoundly influence our system of values and strategy of existence.
Because of the generally benign nature and positive potentia of the peak experience, this is a category of spiritual crisis that should be least problematic. These experiences are by their nature transient and selflimited. There is absolutely no reason why they should have adverse consequences. And yet, due to the misconceptions of the psychiatric profession concerning spiritual matters, many people who experience such states end up hospitalized, receive pathological labels, and their condition is suppressed by psychopharmacological medication