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What do you do with a peak experience?

by Bill Meacham on October 6th, 2010

Sometimes we have an insight that seems so awesomely complete and true that we cannot doubt it, and it changes our life. Perhaps it comes from reading a passage from a great philosopher, a passage that seems to speak to us exactly where we are, resolving a deeply-felt quandary. Perhaps it comes from being awestruck by grandeur in nature, or perhaps by something not so grand, something very tiny but infinitely beautiful in its perfection. Perhaps it comes during a deep spiritual practice, or after many years of diligent practice, after we have opened our heart and stilled our mind, and we receive some glimpse of a mystical vision, an insight into the hidden truth of all things that puts them all in context and links them all together into an incontrovertible and fiercely beautiful whole. Perhaps it comes in a dream. Perhaps it comes from listening to an inspiring teacher. Perhaps it comes unbidden, seemingly from nowhere, and we realize that it has come from everywhere at once.

Some philosophers – Plato comes to mind – seem to think that such a vision is the end and goal of philosophy. In the Symposium, Plato has Socrates speak of the progression of love from human to divine. Love, he says is the attraction to beauty and the desire to possess it. We start with physical love, by loving one beautiful body, and then progress to love of beautiful bodies in general. Then we move to spiritual love, love of a beautiful soul, and then to love of more and more abstract things like laws and institutions and sciences. Finally we progress to the most sublime beauty of all:

“[T]here bursts upon him that wondrous vision which is the very soul of beauty .. an everlasting loveliness … an eternal oneness…. And if … man’s life is ever worth the living, it is when he has attained the vision of the very soul of beauty.”(1)

This is certainly a peak experience, an epiphany, and something worth striving for.

The problem is, one person’s epiphany is another person’s delusion.

Suppose your epiphany tells you that your religion is the only true religion and all the others are evil abominations that must be exterminated. And suppose someone else, of a different religion, has the same insight, except that his (or hers) is the true one and yours is the abomination. The consequences, as we know, can be quite bloody and intractable.

Suppose your epiphany is so beautiful that you return to it again and again in memory, lingering over its exquisiteness, but ignore what is happening in your life. You become lifeless, passive, withdrawn, at the mercy of the winds of fate. Sometimes you feel a hint of sadness about what your life has become, but you remember how beautiful it once was, and that gives you consolation.

The point is, having a beautiful peak experience is one thing and what you do with it afterwards is quite another.

Sufi teachings distinguish between two kinds of experience:

* Hal, translated as “state”; a temporary state of intense feeling.
* Maqam, translated as “station”; a relatively permanent orientation to life and the world.

The peak experience is a hal, beautiful and transcendent and awesome, to be sure, but temporary, and ultimately worthwhile only if it has good effects. What is more important is the maqam, the way you exist in the world. Are you loving and compassionate, helpful to others? Or are you arrogant and conceited, sure that you know the truth about life? Or are you merely dazed and bewildered? What is the quality of the inwardness that is private and uniquely yours? Are you peaceful and content? Invigorated? Bored and disgruntled? Afraid and angry?

As philosophers, lovers of wisdom, we must not take our peak experiences uncritically. We can enjoy them, but then we must think about them, see whether their intellectual content makes sense, and observe and evaluate the effects they have on our lives. Only then will we know whether they contain truth or not, and whether they are good guides for living.

(1) Plato, Symposium, 210a – 211e, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961), pp. 561-563.

From → Philosophy

  1. bonnie rotenberg permalink

    If one has had a peak experience and
    If one subsequently finds oneself drawn to reading this blog
    I propose that could be a good example of maqam (sp?)

  2. To reiterate a couple recent tweets:

    After a direct encounter with God it is difficult to accept any one religion, but easy to start one. After encountering a demigod, not so.

    The words of sages and prophets enunciate many truths. it is not possible to encompass them all in one religion.

  3. Adam permalink

    I am reminded of what Huston Smith said of psychedelics: “What is clear is that these substances, under the right conditions can produce religious experience. What is not so clear is whether they produce religious people.” A peak experience(on any level of the spectrum) is an opportunity to heal and grow into a fuller, richer human being. But this depends on how it is integrated into the Self of the individual. The one whose hand it resides in controls whether it shall be a creative or destructive force.

    Good stuff Bill!

    (bows deeply)


  4. To be in a state of intellectual activity, is not to be in a state of “epiphany”, as you call it. If one is experiencing nirvana, rapture, or wonder, he exists as a “being without logic”, when one turns around to analyze his memory, he exists as a “being of logic”. To equate the one state with the other is to call both white and black, by the title of “grey”.
    A mind has never reached a true “peak” if it can reason such an existence away. “Perhaps my experience could be explained biologically, or it was some psychological reaction.”, So goes the spirit of incessant order, bound to every rule offered on this passive sphere. But ,in truth, one is bound by his own self made fears.
    These writings of yours are nice, but there are levels so much deeper, and possibilities only viewable once one has followed logic to it’s end, and at that point surpassed it by simply letting order go.
    I do hope that one day others may have access to what now is impossible to grasp, but until then, I may rest content with the knowledge that some minds, such as yours, are continuously striving for something that they know is there.


  5. Terence Collins permalink

    Very nice, Bill, I enjoyed your words here very much.

    I know we are approximate contemporaries (I’m 63). I don’t know your experience of the 60’s but mine contained many chemically-induced peak experiences. However, the chemical induction often rendered the memory quite foggy and difficult to incorporate into my life.

    Although, personally, I question the value of seeking such chemically-induced peaks on a long-term basis, I shall never regret having walked that path. In some ways, those experiences (or the fearless mindset that led me to undertake them) set my 50’s conservative mindset free.

    I experienced a peak experience dream in the Posada San Francisco in San Miguel de Allende in ’75. I was dreadfully sick. So sick in fact that when I crawled from my bed to the toilet, 20 feet away, I had to decide shall I sit on the toilet as I vomit on the floor; or shall I vomit into the toilet and shit on the floor. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced that kind of bathroom choice, thank the gods.

    At any rate, it was during that time that I had the following dream. In the dream, I find myself climbing up a ladder that is projecting straight up into the sky. It’s as if it’s anchored to the ground and goes up forever and ever.

    In fact, I am so high up this ladder that when I look down, I see not the ground, but a cloud cover through which I’ve already climbed.

    And, I’m tired, so tired, from the climb. In fact, I’m getting to the end of my strength. I’ve slowed to the point that I am hanging on not just by the rungs of the ladder, but with my arms wrapped around the ladder, trying to hold myself from falling.

    But, I must go on. As I unloose one hand to reach to the next higher rung, it simply falls away to my side, too weak to even grasp the rung.

    I’m scared to death. Surely, I will fall. Now, I’m even too weak to bring the fallen hand back to the ladder to hang on. My remaining hand too is reaching the point where it’s about to let loose.

    Surely, I shall fall to my death, hundreds of feet below….sheer terror and fear in my mind. I know I SHALL DIE in seconds when my second hand lets go.

    At last, I get to the point where the fear of dying is lesser than the strength to hang on…..and I LET GO.

    And, instantly, I find myself, not hurtling 200 mph to my death on the ground, but instead, floating on a cloud, happy, looking around at the vast celestial beauty of the clouds.

    That dream took place in January of 1975. And it’s stayed with me ever since. The message it gave me then and the one it continues to remind me of when I need it is this: I don’t need to struggle for success, acceptance, wealth, love, or whatever I am struggling for in the moment. Instead, if I LET GO, I will be supported.

    By whom, by what? I am not sure, and I don’t need to figure it out. For me, I just need to remember that I AM SUPPORTED.

    Thanks for your wonderful blog, Bill. I miss seeing you and the Dances. I am living in Saigon now but will be in Austin over Thanksgiving. All the best.

    Terence Collins

  6. Parmenides permalink

    Well, that was an intriguing thought, but I didn’t think you quite FINISHED the thought. OK, so we ought to evaluate our peak experiences in terms of how they affect our lives. But then, HOW exactly? So the Muslim terrorists think their lives are just perfect, for example. But you and I don’t agree. And it may be that NEITHER of us has actually had a peak experience. So evaluating lives is a process that doesn’t depend on peak experiences; that at least explains why you didn’t discuss it, it’s out of scope for that blog subject. But then, I also don’t think you actually proved that a peak experience NEEDS evaluating. If I go into samadhi some afternoon and then I go on living just as before does it invalidate the samadhi I experienced? How about if van Gogh has peak experiences and paints masterpieces and then cuts off his ear and attacks his lover? This business of the value of peak experiences is complicated, and I think you’ve only scratched the surface. Of course, your blog is a success if people read it and think about the issue, so in that sense you did well.

  7. Well, yes, exactly. I’m trying to keep the posts short enough to be easily readable.

    If you have samadhi some afternoon and then go about your life exactly as before, then no harm, no foul. It’s like you went to a movie to take some time off. I would not sneer at that. (But I doubt that it would have such little effect. At least you’d try for it again, I bet.)

    I will consider writing about how to evaluate one’s life. That’s really the fundamental question, I think.

  8. Noori Karima Harrris permalink

    Wow! Are you ever right on as far as my life-experience is concerned! In 1975 when I was 25 I had a spiritual breakthrough which was the beginning of my spiritual quest in this lifetime. I was high on chemical substances at the time, but it was a definite turning point in my life, non the less.

    This experience was spiritually exalting, but physically diasterous. In 1977 I met my spiritual teacher on the physical plane, but because my spiritual experiences at that point had mostly been chemically induced, the power of the true physical plane spiritual energy that eminated forth from my Murshida was so overwhelming that my physical body was unable to handle it.

    I am now 60 years old, and for the first time in my life I am grounded and growing spiritually at a comparitively lightening pace. My Murshida has now left her physical body, but her spiritual guidance of me is much more powerful for me now than it ever was while she was in her physical body.

    While she was physically present, her powerful energy would quite literally blow me right out of my physical body and into my spiritual body. It is such a life altering experience to finally be grounded and spiritually alive at the same time. Thanks so much for sharing your life experiences with us!

  9. Stephen permalink

    Another great blog!. Bill, what a gift you are, and have!

    But consider this: There are seven ways we think we may have found the truth: Trustworthy authority, inspiring art, evidential science, historical experience, pointed humor, intuitive peace, and peak experiences. Everything that is true is confirmed by at least two and usually three or four of these.

    That’s how we know.

  10. Barbara Ann Wilson permalink

    Bill – What a wonderful subject! And Stephen – there has been much approach to truth and knowledge and the nature there of. I have never heard of these seven ways in which one can think about the truth of our truth. And this description is like having a whole new portal to thought suddenly opened. And this, for me, is a sort of “peak experience” in itself. Just one of the reasons I think Bill’s leadership is great.

  11. Barbara Ann Wilson permalink

    I forgot to say Thank you! Thank you!

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