When we say “peak experience”, we know what that means. Many of us have had genuine peak experiences in the most commonplace events and surroundings—while riding on a train, during a moonlit night, or listening to beautiful music.
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We associate these peak experiences with what athletes have when they’re “in the zone” or “in the flow”. They are fully engaged, energized, focused, clear, and in a state of enjoyment beyond the norm.
This type of experience may also remind us of the theories of the 20th century American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, when he refers to spiritual experiences as “perfectly natural human peak-experiences” to be had by anyone. He talks about the fact that many of his students had an experience of bliss similar to those of famous spiritual teachers from major traditions; experiences he described as “the private, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer.”
The Collins English Dictionary defines this as a state of extreme euphoria or ecstasy, often attributed to religious or mystical causes.
Maslow felt sure that the more emotionally healthy we are, the more frequent the likelihood of peak-experiences in day-to-day life. He suggested that the most basic needs are physical, like air, water, and food. At a higher level are security and stability, followed by psychological or social needs, such as belonging and love. At the highest level, a person has energy, attention and time to devote to fulfilling oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming.
People who deal in managing the higher needs were what he called “self-actualizing” people. Self-actualization (a term originated by Kurt Goldstein) is the instinctual need of a human to make the most of their unique abilities. Maslow described it as follows: “Self-actualization is the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is” (Psychological Review, 1949).
Maslow suggests that as we continue on the path toward self actualization, the peak moments give way to “plateau-experiences”, a more sustained state of clarity, serenity and bliss.
Although he felt such plateaus can certainly be cultivated through conscious, diligent effort, Maslow lacked a means for systematically developing “higher human transcendence.” However, research today suggests that anyone in any walk or level of life can still routinely devote time and attention to achieving moments of higher transcendence.
Neuroscientists are now able to map specific brain patterns that relate to life experiences. A peak experience, also known as an “aha” moment, can include a flash of illumination or inspiration that seems to materialize out of thin air.
A Norwegian researcher published a study on these “aha” moments among world-class performers in management, sports, classical music, and a variety of other professions. The study by Dr. Harald Harung of the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences in Norway was published in the Journal of Human Values.
Dr. Harung found that world-class performers displayed unique brain wave characteristics. He also found that there are correlations between their subjective experiences during high performance, and the experience of others throughout history who have reported occasional peak experiences (inner calmness and happiness, maximum wakefulness, ease of functioning, and a sense of perfection).
Researchers have long explored whether meditation techniques can help to actively cultivate the brain. Studies by Dr. Fred Travis, director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management, have found that Transcendental Meditation (TM) practitioners have greater EEG coherence and greater presence of alpha waves which has been shown to promote a more efficiently functioning brain.
Dr. Travis says: “The experience of the transcendent is not unique to TM practitioners or peak performers; it’s unique to human beings. It’s what we experience when the activity of feeling and thinking and perception settle down, and the mind experiences its most expanded state of awareness. It’s the experience of pure unbounded consciousness, and it’s available to anyone.”
So we can predict that if you have an athlete or a musician or a school teacher or anyone who is practicing TM, they should be “in the zone” more often than before they started the TM technique.
Most of us have experienced being “in the zone” at some point in our lives. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation program, has always said that enlightenment (self-actualization or the peak level of experience) is the most natural state of life. As Maslow also concludes: “The great lesson from the true mystics [is that] the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.”
Vanessa Vidal is the National Director of Transcendental Meditation for Women in the U.S. (www.tm-women.org)