Are Peak Experiences the Same as Mystical Experiences?

Are Abraham Maslow Ph.D.’s “Peak Experiences” and the “Mystical Experiences” analyzed by Richard M. Bucke, M.D.; William James, M.D.; and others (e.g., W.T. Stace) one and the same?  According to Robert M. May, Ph.D., a mystical experiencer who authored the book Cosmic Consciousness Revisited (1991), the answer is no.

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) was an American psychologist who is best known for creating the “hierarchy of needs”, a theory of psychological health based on fulfilling innate human needs in priority.  At the bottom of the hierarchy are physiological needs such as the needs for food and shelter.  The culmination of the hierarchy is “self-actualization”, or development to one’s full potential.

Maslow believed that self-actualized people have many extraordinary, yet perfectly natural experiences.  These experiences involve profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which people feel more whole, alive, and self-sufficient, and yet a part of the world – more aware of truth, justice, harmony, goodness, etc.  In his 1964 book, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Maslow coined the term “Peak Experiences” to define these “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment”, and he believed that such experiences represent the height of personality development.

Maslow further contended that the mystics of the ages had similar types of experiences of a natural origin, writing the following:  “The very beginning, the intrinsic core, the essence of every known religion…has been the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer….But it has recently begun to appear that these ‘revelations’ or mystical illuminations can be subsumed under the head of the ‘peak experiences’ or ‘ecstasies’…That is to say, it is very likely, indeed almost certain, that these older reports, phrased in terms of supernatural revelation were, in fact, perfectly natural human peak experiences of the kind that can easily be examined today…”

But is this true?  In Cosmic Consciousness Revisited, Robert M. May offers an insightful analysis that discredits Maslow’s contention that the peak experiences Maslow studied and the experiences of the mystics are the same.  May points out that, to empirically research peak experiences, Maslow devised the following question, which he administered to hundreds of people:  “I would like you to think of the most wonderful experience or experiences of your life:  happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly ‘being hit’ by a book or painting, or from some great creative moment.  First list these.  And then try to tell me how you feel in such acute moments, how you feel differently from the way you feel at other times, how you are at the moment a different person in some ways.  [With other subjects the questioning asked rather about the ways in which the world looked different].”

According to May, “Maslow reported on the results of this questionnaire research in the most abstract way, omitting all references to actual experiences, in his book Toward a Psychology of Being (1968).  He gave not one single actual instance of a peak experience in concrete form….The book consists of many abstract lists…having to do with cognizing Being….Becoming rather frustrated and bored with Maslow’s lists of abstract terms in his books…and wishing to get at the original data of his research, I went back to his earliest published research paper on ‘peak experiences’ which is contained in the second issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology (1962) in an article entitled “Lessons From Peak Experiences”.”

May emphasizes that, “Maslow’s ‘peak experience’ bears little relation to the true religious or mystical experience or what Bucke called ‘Cosmic Consciousness.’  What Maslow investigated was relatively superficial by comparison.”  Maslow seemed very reluctant to report his actual research data, and he provided only three examples of responses to his peak experiences questionnaire – presumably the three most compelling accounts that he collected.  These are the responses:

“For instance, a young mother scurrying around her kitchen and getting breakfast for her husband and young children.  The sun was streaming in, the children, clean and nicely dressed, were chattering as they ate.  The husband was casually playing with the children; but as she looked at them she was suddenly so overwhelmed with their beauty and her great love for them, and her feelings of good fortune, that she went into a peak experience.

A young man working his way through medical school by drumming in a jazz band reported years later, that in all his drumming he had three peaks when he suddenly felt like a great drummer and his performance was perfect.

A hostess after a dinner party where everything had gone perfectly and it had been a fine evening, said good-bye to her last guest, sat down in a chair, looked around at the mess and went into a peak of great exhilaration and happiness.”

While the above experiences are perhaps indicative of the psychological well-being of the respondents, they are not mystical experiences as described by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience or by Richard M. Bucke in Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.  May emphasizes this fact as follows:  “Yes, [the three aforementioned accounts] are the peak experiences that Maslow reports, i.e., they were ‘happy moments,’ but I deny most emphatically that they are reports of true mystical experiences, in James’ terminology, or cosmic consciousness experiences, in Bucke’s language.”

Consider the following well-documented accounts of true mystical experiences, which are markedly different from Maslow’s accounts:

1) Richard M. Bucke, M.D.

Bucke (1837 – 1902), a prominent Canadian psychiatrist, had spent an evening reading poetry in London and was in a calm, peaceful mood, when he had the following mystical experience (which he described in the third person):  “All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud.  For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself.  Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe.  Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven.  Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.  He claims that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months or even years of study, and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught.  The illumination itself continued not more than a few moments, but its effects proved ineffaceable; it was impossible for him ever to forget what he at that time saw and knew; neither did he, or could he, ever doubt the truth of what was then presented to his mind.”

2) Claire Myers Owens

Myers Owens (1896 – 1983), an American novelist and lecturer, experienced the following while she was working at her writing desk on a quiet morning:  “Suddenly the entire room was filled with a great golden light, the whole world was filled with nothing but light.  There was nothing anywhere except this effulgent light and my own small kernel of the self.  The ordinary ‘I’ ceased to exist.  Nothing of me remained but a mere nugget of consciousness.  It felt as if some vast transcendent force was invading me without my volition, as if all the immanent good lying latent within me began to pour forth in a stream, to form a moving circle with the universal principle.  My self began to dissolve into the light that was like a great golden all-pervasive fog.  It was a mystical moment of union with the mysterious infinite, with all things, all people.”

3) Plotinus

Plotinus (204/5 – 270), a great philosopher of ancient Greece, wrote the following of his mystical experiences in his Enneads:  “Many times it has happened:  Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever within the Intellectual is less than the Supreme…If the initiate has seen, she knows that in the experience there were not two; seer was one with the Seen (it was not really a vision but a unity apprehended).  The person formed by this mingling with the Supreme must – if she only remember – carry its image impressed upon her.  She is become the Unity, with no distinction in her either in relation to herself or anything else, for there was no movement in her, and she had no emotion, no desire for anything else when she had achieved the ascent, no reason or thought, her own self was not there for her, if we dare say this.  She was as if carried away or possessed by God, in a quiet solitude, in the stillness of her being, altogether at rest and having become a kind of rest.”

The three accounts of true mystical experiences detailed above indicate that the people who had them became conscious of The Divine; the individuals did not experience purely natural “moments of [the] highest happiness and fulfillment”.  Sidney Spencer, author of Mysticism in World Religion, wrote that the core function of religion is the “intuitive apprehension” of a God who, in varied aspects, is at one and the same time transcendent and identified with the world in which He dwells.  Spencer wrote, “Beneath the forms of religious ceremony and observance…there lies the awareness of the Transcendent, which moves men’s hearts with awe,” and “it is when men pass from dim awareness to the certainty which comes from immediate contact that mysticism arises.”

In conclusion, peak experiences are natural, positive events, and they undoubtedly contribute to the overall well-being of those who have them. However, Robert May’s investigative research and the comparison of the accounts detailed above indicate that peak experiences (as defined and described by Maslow) are different from mystical experiences:  in a mystical experience, one comes in contact with Ultimate Reality or The Divine; in a peak experience, one need not.

To learn more about mystical experiences, please feel free to read through the Institute for Mystical Experience Research and Education’s Experience Stories, Frequently Asked Questions, or Resources sections.  And, if you believe that you have had, or may have had, a mystical experience, we warmly encourage you to share your experience with us through our safe and secure Online Mystical Experience Questionnaire (your submission will be kept anonymous unless you indicate otherwise).

Photo Credit:  Robert M. May from; other images are in the public domain.

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