“I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”
― W.B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems
In the above poem Yeats recounts what might be understood as a ‘peak experience’. Gayle Privette says that a “Peak experience is intense joy or ecstasy that stands out perceptually and cognitively among other experiences.” “Peak experiences”, she says, “involve a heightened sense of wonder, awe, or ecstasy over an experience.” Dorothy Leach writes that a peak experience is “… characterised by such intensity of perception, depth of feeling, or sense of profound significance as to cause it to stand out, in the subject’s mind, in more or less permanent contrast to the experiences that surround it in time and space”.
These ‘non-ordinary’ experiences are a fundamental part of being human that can have a potentially transformative effect on the mind. We have all probably had moments that circuit in this orbit: moments of great beauty, awe, or joy, like the birth of a child, accomplishing something meaningful, deeply connecting with another human being or with nature.
Yet these experiences tend to be fleeting, rare and random. How can we consciously cultivate these moments in our lives so as to more regularly court these ‘farther reaches of human nature’ as Maslow referred to them?
Firstly, the enemy of the peak experience is busyness, stress and rush. The mind needs time to breathe. We cannot force peak experiences to happen but we can create the conditions under which they can emerge. If our minds are full all the time there is little space for something new to emerge. Therefore, we must learn how to create space in the mind by letting go of repetitive thought patterns and dropping into a deeper level of awareness and stillness which is the goal of most meditative practices.
The most important factor in facilitating this state of consciousness is in how we pay attention. Being fully present to our experience is the main prerequisite for the peak experience. By slowing down, perhaps seeking solitude, and beginning to look at the world with fresh eyes, as if for the first time, we allow feelings of awe, wonder and connection to emerge. Spending time in nature, engaging in a creative activity, a deep conversation with a friend, or listening to music are all good avenues in. But rather than straining and striving after these experiences it is more about relaxing and allowing them to happen. When we bring a deep sense of curiosity and openness to our experience in the moment then we are inviting the world to move us and carry us into the heights of human experience.