Peak experiences, perfect moments and the extra-ordinary

Story highlights

  • A psychologist defined peak-experiences as accompanied by wonder, awe and reverence
  • Peakers tend more often than nonpeakers to say their lives are very meaningful

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)The closest I've come to a profound religious experience happened at a Zen Buddhist monastery in the mountains. I was a sophomore in college, and my mom invited me to join her for a long weekend group retreat at the Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a collection of Japanese-style buildings surrounded by woods in the Catskills of New York state.

The retreat was rigorous and invigorating. The teaching was formal. We meditated for long stretches at a time, longer than I ever had. We enjoyed meals in collective silence while following an ancient three-bowl ritual taught to us in advance. And we performed ordinary chores that were opportunities for more meditative focus. I treasured the nature, quiet, rules and pushing myself, though at one point, I nearly passed out at the conclusion of an extended pre-dawn sitting.
On our last morning, I joined a walking meditation that required an increasingly quick pace around a walkway that circumnavigated the main temple. The sun had just risen, hitting the trees that flanked our path. I noticed a fawn feeding close by and -- in that moment -- felt overwhelmed by the animal's beauty and my connection to that beauty.
    Then, as we rounded a corner and the deer left my sight, I looked at the head of the man in front of me. He was short and losing his hair. And as I lovingly peered down at his male pattern baldness, I had this profound revelation: Everything is equally beautiful. This man. The deer. The mountain. Me. All of it. We are all the same, and it's all beautiful and good.
    This numinous feeling stayed with me for a long time afterward, and more than 25 years later, I can still easily connect to that moment, conjure it up as a truth I discovered and continue to value.
    I had what the psychologist Abraham Maslow defined as a "peak-experience": an ego-transcending moment more extraordinary than most others. "The world seen in the peak-experiences is seen only as beautiful, good, desirable, worthwhile," Maslow wrote in his compact 1964 volume, "Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences." They are usual accompanied by epiphanies, he explains, and emotions such as wonder, awe and reverence.
    Maslow argues that what I thought of as my "religious experience" at the Buddhist monastery, he would prefer to call a human experience. It can be defined, measured, even induced by intense mental or physical exertion or psychedelic drugs. He wanted these moments to be less mystical and more accessible because, he argues, our lives are more meaningful with them. Like a modern-day Prometheus, Maslow stole epiphany from the gods and gave it to mortals.
    The value of peak-experiences may not seem obvious to some. They "earn no money, bake no bread, and chop no wood," as Maslow points out. But their value is actually greater than those tasks because they are internal, psychological. One moment can have a profound impact on our lives and the way we perceive the world, if you recognize it as such. "A single glimpse of heaven is enough to confirm its existence even if it is never experienced again," Maslow wrote.
    "The value of things is not the time they last, but the intensity with which they occur" is how poet Fernando Pessos put it. And these intense "peak-experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence," Maslow wrote. "They give meaning to life itself."

    Perfect moments

    Maslow is best known for defining a human's Hierarchy of Needs, which starts with the basic building blocks of life (food, water, warmth) and culminates with self-actualization, the highest plane, where peak-experiences live.
    But I think there's also a hierarchy of experiences. Maslow's peak, as he defines it, is very high indeed.
    We should also put value against a slightly lower level of unique experiences that we still recognize as deeper, happier. Let's aim for the moon but be content with the discovery of new stars.
    Master storyteller and actor Spalding Gray spoke of his search for "perfect moments" in his monologue "Swimming to Cambodia." The story is about his experience in Thailand working on the film "The Killing Fields," by Ivan Reitman. The monologue itself was made into a film directed by Jonathan Demme.
    Gray seeks a moment in which he can find no fault. He'll only know it when he has it, and he doesn't want to go back home until it's come to pass. The writer will eventually find it on a beautiful Thai beach, after nearly drowning in the waves.
    We can all think of moments when everything is just right and we are deeply content. They are fleeting and difficult to pin down, like a cloud. But if you can capture them, you can make them last and even learn something important about yourself.
    A study published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1978 found that most people have had some kind of peak-experience, "but some people seem clearly to be more oriented toward 'peaking' than others." That difference is attainable, it seems. "Peakers tend more often than nonpeakers to say their lives are very meaningful, that they think about the meaning and purpose of life," the researchers wrote.
    There's been more research since, including around the creation of a peak assessment questionnaire, or Peak Scale. Maslow blazed a new trail of academic inquiry with his scientific assessment of the experiences formerly known as religious.

    How do you measure a year?

    Two years ago, as I wrote a letter to myself one year in the future (an experiment I detailed in an earlier column), I thought about the nature of a single year and how to measure its cumulative effect on our lives. The song "Seasons of Love" (aka "Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes") from the musical "Rent" played in my head as I considered the notion of tracking a year's worth of sunsets, cups of coffee or laughter (as suggested in the song).
    I settled on the notion of perfect moments instead. These, I felt, were worth being more aware of. I wanted to better understand what moments I found more special than others.
    Each night before bed, I began jotting down a note about any perfect moment I had that day. Many days, I had none. Some days, I had two or even three. At the end of the year, I totaled them up (125 moments) and bundled them into categories. The most prevalent were "Family," "Nature" and "Music."
    I did it a second year, and there were 150. The more I recognized perfect moments, it seemed, the more likely I was to recognize them. I didn't specifically seek them out or try to manufacture them beyond my average pursuit of activities I enjoy.
    Year two categories were similar to the first year. The majority were with family, followed by nature and then music, biking, travel and running. The single greatest source of perfect moments in my life, I counted, are my daughters: 70 different perfect moments between them. I was surprised that a family trip to Disney World had led to seven perfect moments alone.
    This is consistent with research on peak-experiences. Peakers report that they tend to occur during artistic, athletic or religious pursuits as well as in nature or during intimate moments with family or friends. Some have compared it to an experience known as flow, in which you lose yourself in an activity.
    The broader commonality among my own perfect moments was connection: connection to people, nature, music, etc. None of them was virtual; I don't have perfect moments watching TV or even a great movie. And none involved the purchase of some object of desire. I also noticed that many perfect moments were a combination of categories (family + nature as I held my daughter's hand in an ocean's wave; running + nature + music as I ran under a canopy of trees listening to classical music; family + travel as we all went to bed on an overnight train).
    Tracking perfect moments helps me recognize what matters most in my life and what truly makes me happy, which is rarely superficial. The frequency and quality of these experiences is also one way of evaluating life. The more perfect moments, the better off you are.

    Extra ordinary

    To seek out these perfect moments, you don't need to go to Thailand or make a religious pilgrimage. The lesson of mystics, Zen monks and psychologists is that "the sacred is in the ordinary," Maslow wrote. "That it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends, and family, in one's back yard. ... To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous."
    Perfect moments are hidden plain sight, in the connection to a loved one, in the weather, in a tree, singing a favorite song while driving a pretty stretch of road. Perfect moments are not difficult or costly to attain, but they require awareness to notice when they occur. We are having them all the time but not marking them.
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    Maslow would add that these profound moments are not just the stuff on which religions are founded. They are secular, psychological, measurable. Experiencing them is the openness to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
    At the climax of one of my favorite plays, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," the main character, Emily, has died but gets a chance to go back and watch one day from her life. She chooses her 12th birthday and can't even make it through breakfast, too overwhelmed by the emotion of seeing her family and the intense beauty of it all.
    "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it," she asks, "every, every minute?"
    "No," replies the Stage Manager (a role performed on Broadway by Spalding Gray). "Saints and poets, maybe -- they do some."
    That moment in the play is the ordinary made extraordinary. That's what I found as I looked at the balding head meditating in front of me. It's what I found yesterday as I biked past a classical quartet performing under a bridge. And it's what I hope you will uncover more often, starting now.