Maslow on Peak Experiences



1.    Human beings have a higher and transcendent nature, a part of their essence, their biological nature. One important characteristic of the Third Psychology is its demonstration of man’s higher nature.

2.    Spiritual values and experiences have naturalistic meaning – within jurisdiction of an expanded science.

a.    Rejects public organizational definitions of spirituality

b.    Rejects narrow psychoanalytic self-definition -

c.    Critical of humanistic scholars and contemp artists who believe that no “good life” is possible.

3.    Needed is an overhauled, redefined science that serves our value purposes

a.    We need a science to study values and teach mankind about them.

                                         i.         Need a psychology of the higher life or “spiritual life,” of what human beings should grow toward. 

                                       ii.         This is now made possible by developments in psychology.


The Problem: Dichotomized science and dichotomized religion

1.    Dichotomizing produces pathology.  Isolates each other into parts that need each other.  Sickens, contaminates.  Sets science and religion against each other.

a.    Both religion and science too narrowly conceived.

2.    Dichotomized science:

a.    19th century science: mechanistic, positivistic, attempts to be value-free.  Sees itself as having nothing to say about ends, ultimate values, spiritual values. 

b.    Knowledge-value dichotomy = the fact/value distinction

                                         i.         “What is” and “what ought to be.”  What is true and what is right.

                                       ii.         Inarguable truths of the physical world: empirically and logically verified facts constitute knowledge

                                     iii.         Value is subjective and cannot be accessed via the senses. Cannot be proven false or true by any scientific method.

1.    Something is considered to be “of value” only in reference to one’s religious or ethical worldview

                                      iv.         This distinction leads many to conclude that there are important limits to what science can tell us. 

1.    If we believe that matter is all there is

c.    Renders science amoral, anitmoral, even antihuman.  Dangerous to human ends.  Excludes subjective experience from realm of existent or explorable.

3.    Dichotomized religion:

a.    Blind belief, claim that founding revelation is complete, perfect;

b.    This view excludes skepticism, fosters blind belief, unquestioning obedience [cf. winnicott & pruyser]


The Core of Religions: All “high” religions emerge from a core religious or transcendent experience -- A peak experience


1.    All religions are the same in their essence: A core religious experience – “transcendent experience.” 

a.    The intrinsic core, essence, universal nucleus of every known high religion.

b.    The private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer.

                                         i.         Original mystical experience, understood differently depending on cultural and linguistic context

2.    Peak experience defined: The original mystic experience

a.    Evidence from personal exprience shows that the essence of religion is highly personal, but shared by all religions

                                         i.         A meeting ground of all religions

b.    “Peak experience” refers to:

                                         i.         Ecstatic states, mystical and  “transcendent” experiences, and to stress the natural, rather than supernatural, origin of these. 

                                       ii.         Defined broadly and with respect to many contexts, religious and otherwise. 

                                     iii.         Entails perceptions of the universe as an integrated whole, selflessness, and detachment. The world perceived as fundamentally good and beautiful, as well acceptence of evil. 

                                      iv.         The greatness of the experience commonly generates awe, humility, surrender, and worship.

                                        v.         They occur as self-validating moments, of unique value and ends in themselves

c.    Cf. Otto’s Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans

                                         i.         Also Tracy on Limit Experiences


d.    Peakers and non-peakers

                                         i.         To have such experiences is to be fully human, fully functioning.  Not having them may be a lesser state.

e.    The two types of religion in human history: left and right wing religions

f.     The experience can be embedded in theistic or non-theistic context


Organizational dangers to transcendent experiences


Orthodox religion can lead to desacralizing of much of life.

Conventional religion can be used as a defense against the shaking experiences of the transcendent


Cf. Dewey, A Common Faith (fn. 2, p. 35)


Hope, skepticism and man’s higher nature


Natural sanctions for highest spiritual values, supernatural sanctions not necessary.


How do we situate peak experiences within the life cycle?  What are the implications for the nature and trajectory of the life cycle?


Third psychology seeks to demonstrate man’s “higher nature”

         Doctrines of man’s innate depravity, that malign animal nature, can lead to extra human interpretations of goodness, virtue, self-sacrifice.  Cannot be explained from within human nature.


“The worse man is, the poorer a thing he is conceived to be, the more necessary becomes a god” (p. 37)

     Thus when supernatural sanctions for spiritual values undermined, all higher values are undermined.

     But, positivistic science proved to be an inadequate source of ethics and values – the faith that advances in knowledge of the natural world and technical advances issue in ethical progress died with WWII, Freud, the great depression, and the A-bomb


Science and the religious liberals and non-theists – rely on the impersonal, uneasy with irrational, anti-rational, non-rational, subrational unconscious.

The illogical, metaphorical, mythic, symbolic, contradictory or conflicted, ambiguous, ambivalent – all considered to be lower or not god, something to be improved toward pure rationality and logic.  Yet these are characteristic of the human being at his highest levels or development as well as lowest, they can be valued used, loved, built upon, rather than swept under the rug.

Experiences of surrender, reverence, devotion, self-dedication, humility and oblation, awe, feeling of smallness

Mystery, ambiguity, illogic, contradiction, mystic and transcendent experiences lie within the realm of nature – fullest actualization of humanness include these (we know this based on study of self-actualizing people).


                           Science must not exclude such data if it is to be comprehensive.