The term "peak-experience" was used by psychologist Abraham H. Maslow (1908–1970) to refer to states of unitive consciousness, or "moments of highest happiness and fulfillment," in people's lives. At such times, individuals feel detached from the mundane particulars of their individual lives and sense that they are at one with a fully integrated universe. They perceive things in a nonjudgmental or nonevaluative way, and they transcend their particular ego needs, becoming selfless or indeed "egoless." Moreover, their sense of time and location is often greatly distorted. Maslow further argues that during peak experiences people become more truly themselves. A common effect of the peak experience is to make life feel meaningful, or to reveal the "meaning of life." However, the peak experience itself has no further purpose. It is itself inherently valuable; it is not a means to any external end, but rather is important for its own sake.
In religious contexts peak experiences are often understood as mystical experiences. Maslow agreed with William James, John Dewey, and Erich Fromm that religion is not a single "social institution" or set of specific practices; rather, it is a "state of mind" that may be manifest in any aspect of everyday life. Indeed, Maslow explicitly divides religion into two types: the mystical, phenomenological "peakers," and the doctrinal, ritualized "non-peakers." For Maslow, the peak experience is the model of the religious revelation and the conversion experience, which in many religious narratives take place under the most ordinary, everyday conditions.
Complementary to the peak experience is the "plateau-experience," a notion Maslow developed at the end of his career. Whereas the peak experience is often an ecstatic overflow of the senses, the plateau experience is a calm, reflective moment of serenity during which the individual is able both to feel and to think about his or her situation. Unlike peak experiences, moreover, plateau experiences may be cultivated.
According to Maslow, the people most likely to have peak experiences, and to have them more often than others, are "self-actualizers." Self-actualizers are people who, for a variety of reasons, go farther than most toward fulfilling their individual potential, or as Maslow understood it, to finding their true selves. Maslow painted a strongly idealistic picture of self-actualizers: They are highly ethical, democratic, and selfless; they are not bound by culture or social ties; they are open to new ideas and appreciative of diversity; and they are capable of deeply meaningful interpersonal relationships.
Related to the notion of the peak experience is the notion of the "optimal experience," better known as "flow," developed by Mihaly and Isabella Csikszentmihalyi. An important difference between Maslow's theory and that of the Csikszentmihalyis is that whereas Maslow focuses on the peak experience itself, and the people who are most likely to have them, the Csikszentmihalyis are more interested in the activities that tend to generate flow experiences. Moreover, whereas peak experiences are understood as phenomenological—they are states of being and ends in and of themselves—flow experiences may occur during purposeful action, such as running, playing a musical instrument, or performing a religious ritual. Unlike Maslow, therefore—because the "paraphernalia" of religion are secondary, and possibly detrimental, to peak experiences—the Csikszentmihalyis show how religions actually can provide the "goals and rules for intense flow experiences."
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J. Shawn Landres