Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences
Abraham H. Maslow
Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences ©1964 by Kappa Delta Pi and
©1970 (preface) The Viking Press. Published by Penguin Books Limited
ISBN 0 14 00.4262 8
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The world has seen increased communication among political and
economic philosophies, among the social sciences, among religions,
among the physical sciences, and among people in general. Although
there are individual differences in the cultural and material
developments of the nations of the world, there has been a growing
movement toward the establishment of a world philosophy in the
social and physical sciences.
Concurrently with this growth of international communication and
the unity it has brought about in the sciences, and the lesser
amount of agreement it has engendered among political and social
theorists, there has been a rising sentiment in favor of increased
communication among, if not unity of, the religions of the world.
Protestant groups have abandoned, or are abandoning, their strict
sectarian views. The Ecumenical Council has brought changes that,
although so far largely procedural, give promise of increased
world co-operation between the Roman Catholic church and other
faiths. And efforts have been and are being made to reconcile
the views of the great religious leaders of all major religionsJewish,
Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindureligions that, in the
past, have been regarded by their followers as having been founded
upon the direct revelation of a supreme being to a chosen earthly
Traditionally, religion has been of the spirit; science, of the
body; and there has been a wide philosophic gulf between the knowledge
of body and the knowledge of spirit. The natural sciences and
religion have generally been considered as natural and eternal
William James, through his psychology, especially his Varieties
of Religious Experience, and John Dewey, in his A Common
Faith, have strongly influenced the views of Dr. Maslow in
this, the thirty-fifth volume in the "Kappa Delta Pi Lecture
Series." Dissenting from the followers of those prophets
who claimed direct revelation from God, and from the nineteenth-century
scientists who denied not only direct revelation but God himself,
the author declares that these revelations were, in his words,
"peak-experiences" which are characteristic not only
of specially ordained emissaries of God but of mankind in general.
Dr. Maslow considers these revelations valid psychological events
worthy of scientific, rather than metaphysical, studykeys to
a better understanding of a peculiarly "human" aspect
of man's existence.
This volume is presented as a contribution to philosophical and
scientific thinking, as one interpretation of a fundamental aspect
of life, as a step toward a better understanding among the religions
of the world, and as a possible program for the development of
a healthy relationship between modern science and modern theology.
|E. I. F. Williams, Editor |
Kappa Delta Pi Publications
Since this book was first written, there has been much turmoil
in the world and, therefore, much to learn. Several of the lessons
I have learned are relevant here, certainly in the sense that
they are helpful supplements to the main thesis of the book. Or
perhaps I should call them warnings about over-extreme, dangerous,
and one-sided uses of this thesis. Of course, this is a
standard hazard for thinkers who try to be holistic, integrative,
and inclusive. They learn inevitably that most people think atomistically,
in terms of either-or, black-white, all in or all out, of mutual
exclusiveness and separativeness. A good example of what I mean
is the mother who gave her son two ties for his birthday. As he
put on one of them to please her, she asked sadly, "And why
do you hate the other tie?"
I think I can best state my warning against polarization and dichotomizing
by a historical approach. I see in the history of many organized
religions a tendency to develop two extreme wings: the "mystical"
and individual on the one hand, and the legalistic and organizational
on the other. The profoundly and authentically religious person
integrates these trends easily and automatically. The forms, rituals,
ceremonials, and verbal formulae in which he was reared remain
for him experientially rooted, symbolically meaningful, archetypal,
unitive. Such a person may go through the same motions and behaviors
as his more numerous coreligionists, but he is never reduced
to the behavioral, as most of them are. Most people lose or
forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefine Religion
as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms,
which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic,
conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, anti-religious.
The mystic experience, the illumination, the great awakening,
along with the charismatic seer who started the whole thing, are
forgotten, lost, or transformed into their opposites. Organized
Religion, the churches, finally may become the major enemies of
the religious experience and the religious experiencer. This is
a main thesis of this book.
But on the other wing, the mystical (or experiential) also has
its traps which I have not stressed sufficiently. As the more
Apollonian type can veer toward the extreme of being reduced to
the merely behavioral, so does the mystical type run the risk
of being reduced to the merely experiential. Out of the joy and
wonder of his ecstasies and peak-experiences he may be tempted
to seek them, ad hoc, and to value them exclusively,
as the only or at least the highest goods of life, giving up other
criteria of right and wrong. Focused on these wonderful subjective
experiences, he may run the danger of turning away from the world
and from other people in his search for triggers to peak-experiences,
any triggers. In a word, instead of being temporarily self
absorbed and inwardly searching, he may become simply a sel1ish
person, seeking his own personal salvation, trying to get into
"heaven" even if other people can't, and finally even
perhaps using other people as triggers, as means
to his sole end of higher states of consciousness. In a word,
he may become not only selfish but also evil. My impression, from
the history of mysticism, is that this trend can sometimes wind
up in meanness, nastiness, loss of compassion, or even in the
extreme of sadism.
Another possible booby trap for the (polarizing) mystics throughout
history has been the danger of needing to escalate the triggers,
so to speak. That is, stronger and stronger stimuli are needed
to produce the same response. If the sole good in life
becomes the peak-experience, and if all means to this end become
good, and if more peak-experiences are better than fewer, then
one can force the issue, push actively, strive and hunt
and fight for them. So they have often moved over into magic,
into the secret and esoteric, into the exotic, the occult, the
dramatic and effortful, the dangerous, the cultish. Healthy openness
to the mysterious, the realistically humble recognition that we
don't know much, the modest and grateful acceptance of gratuitous
grace and of just plain good luckall these can shade over into
the anti rational, the anti-empirical, the antiscientific, the
anti-verbal, the anti-conceptual. The peak-experience may then
be exalted as the best or even the only path to knowledge, and
thereby all the tests and verifications of the validity of
the illumination may be tossed aside.
The possibility that the inner voices, the "revelations,"
may be mistaken, a lesson from history that should come through
loud and clear, is denied, and there is then no way of finding
out whether the voices within are the voices of good or evil.
(George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan confronts this problem.)
Spontaneity (the impulses from our best self) gets confused with
impulsivity and acting out (the impulses from our sick self),
and there is then no way to tell the difference.
Impatience (especially the built-in impatience of youth) dictates
shortcuts of all kinds. Drugs, which can be helpful when wisely
used, become dangerous when foolishly used. The sudden insight
becomes "all," and the patient and disciplined "working
through" is postponed or devalued. Instead of being "surprised
by joy," "turning on" is scheduled, promised, advertised,
sold, hustled into being, and can get to be regarded as a commodity.
Sex-love, certainly one possible path to the experience of the
sacred, can become mere "screwing," i.e., desacralized.
More and more exotic, artificial, striving "techniques"
may escalate further and further until they become necessary
and until jadedness and impotence ensue.
The search for the exotic, the strange, the unusual, the uncommon
has often taken the form of pilgrimages, of turning away from
the world, the "Journey to the East," to another country
or to a different Religion. The great lesson from the true mystics,
from the Zen monks, and now also from the-Humanistic and Transpersonal
psychologiststhat the sacred is in the ordinary, that
it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends,
and family, in one's back yard, and that travel may be a flight
from confronting the sacredthis lesson can be easily lost.
To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance
that everything is miraculous.
The rejection of a priestly caste who claimed to be exclusive
custodians of a private hot line to the sacred was, in my opinion,
a great step forward in the emancipation of mankind, and we have
the mysticsamong othersto thank for this achievement. But
this valid insight can also be used badly when dichotomized and
exaggerated by foolish people. They can distort it into a rejection
of the guide, the teacher, the sage, the therapist, the counselor,
the elder, the helper along the path to self-actualization and
the realm of Being. This is often a great danger and always an
To summarize, the healthily Apollonian (which means integrated
with the healthily Dionysian) can become pathologized into an
extreme, exaggerated, and dichotomized compulsive-obsessional
sickness. But also the healthily Dionysian (which means integrated
with the healthily Apollonian) can become pathologized at its
extreme into hysteria with all its symptoms.
Obviously, what I am suggesting here is a pervasively holistic
attitude and way of thinking. Not only must the experimental be
stressed and brought back into psychology and philosophy as an
opponent of the merely abstract and abstruse, of the a
priori, of what I have called "helium-filled words."
It must then also be integrated with the abstract and the
verbal, i.e., we must make a place for "experientially based
concepts," and for "experientially filled words,"
that is, for an experience-based rationality in contrast to the
a priori rationality that we have come almost to identify with
The same sort of thing is true for the relations between experientialism
and-social reform. Shortsighted people make them opposites, mutually
exclusive. Of course, historically this has often happened and
does today still happen in many. But it need not happen. It is
a mistake, an atomistic error, an example of the dichotomizing
and pathologizing that goes along with immaturity. The empirical
fact is that self-actualizing people, our best experiencers, are
also our most compassionate, our great improvers and reformers
of society, our most effective fighters against injustice,
inequality, slavery, cruelty, exploitation (and also our best
fighters for excellence, effectiveness, competence). And
it also becomes clearer and clearer that the best "helpers"
are the most fully human persons. What I may call the bodhisattvic
path is an integration of self-improvement and social zeal,
i.e., the best way to become a better "helper" is to
become a better person. But one necessary aspect of becoming a
better person is via helping other people. So one must
and can do both simultaneously. (The question "Which comes
first" is an atomistic question.)
In this context I would like to refer to my demonstration in the
Preface to the revised edition (1970) of my Motivation and
Personality (59)  that
normative zeal is not incompatible with scientific objectivity, but
can be integrated with it, eventuating in a higher form of objectivity,
i.e., the Taoistic.
What this all adds up to is this: small r religion is quite compatible,
at the higher levels of personal development, with rationality,
with science, with social passion. Not only this, but it can,
in principle, quite easily integrate the healthily animal, material,
and selfish with the naturalistically transcendent, spiritual,
and axiological. (See my "A Theory of Metamotivation: The
Biological Rooting of the Value-Life," Journal of Humanistic
Psychology, 1967, VII, 93-127).
For other reasons also, I now consider that the book was too imbalanced
toward the individualistic and too hard on groups, organizations,
and communities. Even within these last six or seven years we
have learned not to think of organizations as necessarily bureaucratic,
as we have learned more about humanistic, need-fulfilling kinds
of groups, from, e.g., the research in Organization Development
and Theory Y management, the rapidly accumulating experience with
T-groups, encounter groups, and personal-growth groups, the successes
of the Synanon community, of the Israeli kibbutzim, etc. (See
my listing of the Eupsychian Network, an appendix in the revised
edition  of my Toward a Psychology of Being
(70).) As a matter of fact, I can say much more firmly than
I ever did, for many empirical reasons, that basic human needs
can be fulfilled only by and through other human beings,
i.e., society. The need for community (belongingness, contact,
groupiness) is itself a basic need. Loneliness, isolation, ostracism,
rejection by the groupthese are not only painful but pathogenic
as well. And of course it has also been known for decades that
humanness and specieshood in the infant are only a potentiality
and must be actualized by the society.
My study of the failure of most Utopian efforts has taught me
to ask the basic questions themselves in a more practicable and
researchable way. "How good a society does human nature permit?"
and, "How good a human nature does society permit?"
(For the implications of this way of asking the questions, see
my Eupsychian Management: A Journal  (69) and
my paper "Some Fundamental Questions that Face the Normative
Social Psychologist," Journal of Humanistic Psychology,
Finally, I would now add to the peak experience material a greater
consideration, not only of nadir-experiences, the psycholytic
therapy of Grof, confrontations with and reprieves from death,
postsurgical visions, etc., but also of the "plateau-experience."
This is serene and calms rather than a poignantly emotional, climactic,
autonomic response to the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized,
the Unitive, the B-values. So far as I can now tell the high plateau-experience
always has a noetic and cognitive element, which is not
always true for peak experiences, which can be purely and exclusively
emotional. It is far more voluntary than peak experiences are.
One can learn to see in this Unitive way almost at will. It then
becomes a witnessing, an appreciating, what one might call a serene,
cognitive blissfulness which can, however, have a quality of casualness
and of lounging about.
There is more an element of surprise, and of disbelief, and of
esthetic shock in the peak-experience, more the quality of having
such an experience for the first time. I have pointed out
elsewhere that the aging body and nervous system is less capable
of tolerating a really shaking peak-experience. I would add here
that maturing and aging mean also some loss of first-timeness,
of novelty, of sheer unpreparedness and surprise.
Peak-and plateau-experience differ also in their relations to
death. The peak-experience itself can often meaningfully be called
a "little death," and a rebirth in various senses. The
less intense plateau experience is more often experienced as pure
enjoyment and happiness, as, let's say, in a mother sitting quietly
looking, by the hour, at her baby playing, and marveling, wondering,
philosophizing, not quite believing. She can experience this as
a very pleasant, continuing, contemplative experience rather than
as something akin to a climactic explosion which then ends.
Older people, making their peace with death, are more apt to be
profoundly touched with (sweet) sadness and tears at the contrast
between their own mortality and the eternal quality of what sets
off the experience. This contrast can make far more poignant and
precious what is being witnessed, e.g., "The surf will be
here forever and you will soon be gone. So hang on to it, appreciate
it, be fully conscious of it. Be grateful for it. You are lucky."
Very important today in a topical sense is the realization that
plateau experiencing can be achieved, learned, earned by long
hard work. It can be meaningfully aspired to. But I don't know
of any way of bypassing the necessary maturing, experiencing,
living, learning. All of this takes time. A transient glimpse
is certainly possible in the peak-experiences which may, after
all, come sometimes to anyone. But, so to speak, to take up residence
on the high plateau of Unitive consciousnessthat is another
matter altogether. That tends to be a lifelong effort. It should
not be confused with the Thursday evening turn-on that many youngsters
think of as the path to transcendence. For that matter,
it should not be confused with any single experience. The
"spiritual disciplines," both the classical ones and
the new ones that keep on being discovered these days, all take
time, work, discipline, study, commitment.
There is much more to say about these states which are clearly
relevant to the life of transcendence and the transpersonal and
to experiencing life at the level of Being. All I wish to do here
with this brief mention is to correct the tendency of some to
identify experiences of transcendence as only dramatic,
orgasmic, transient, "peaky," like a moment on the top
of Mount Everest. There is also the high plateau, where one can
stay "turned on."
If I were to summarize both the book and my remarks in this Preface
in a few words, I would say it this way: Man has a higher and
transcendent nature, and this is part of his essence, i.e., his
biological nature as a member of a species which has evolved.
This means to me something which I had better spell out clearly,
namely, that this is a flat rejection of the Sartre type of Existentialism,
i.e., its denial of specieshood, and of a biological human nature,
and its refusal to face the existence of the biological sciences.
It is true that the word Existentialism is by now used
in so many different ways by different people, even in contradictory
ways, that this indictment does not apply to all who use the label.
But just because of this diversity of usage, the word is
now almost useless, in my opinion, and had better be dropped.
The trouble is that I have no good alternative label to offer.
If only there were some way to say simultaneously: "Yes,
man is in a way his own project and he does make himself. But
also there are limits upon what he can make himself into. The
'project' is predetermined biologically for all men; it is to
become a man. He cannot adopt as his project for himself to become
a chimpanzee. Or even a female. Or a baby." The right label
would have to combine the humanistic, the transpersonal, and the
transhuman. Besides, it would have to be experiential (phenomenological),
at least in its basing. It would have to be holistic rather than
dissecting. And it would have to be empirical rather than a priori,
The reader who is especially interested in continuing developments
along the lines of this book may be referred to the recently established
(1969) Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (P. O. Box 4437,
Stanford, California 94305), and to the older weekly, Manas
(P. O. Box 32112, El Sereno Station, Los Angeles, California
|Dr. Abraham H. Maslow|
The W. P. Laughlin Charitable Foundation
1 Saga Lane
Menlo Park, California 94025
1. I have found it useful to differentiate
the subjective and naturalistic religious experience and attitude
from the institutionalized, conventional, organized Religions
by using lower case for the former (calling it "small r"
religion") and capitalizing the R in "big R Religion."
2. Colin Wilson's "Outsider" series
will furnish all the examples necessary. (back)
3. Numbers in parentheses refer to items in
the Bibliography. (back)