Abraham Maslow

Religions, Values and Peak Experiences

Toward a Psychology of Being

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Maslow, Abraham H. Religions, Values and Peak Experiences. Ohio State University Press, 1964.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. Van Nostrand Reinshold, 1968.

Defined as “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment,” Abraham Maslow’s “peak experience” is veritably ubiquitous, as his protracted typology of peak experiences in Toward a Psychology of Being (TPB) reveals: Being-love experiences, parental experiences, mystic or oceanic or nature experiences, aesthetic perceptions, creative moments, therapeutic or intellectual insights, orgasmic experiences, and certain forms of athletic fulfillment, etc.  In fact the more Maslow investigated peak-experiences, the more he began to expect everyone of having peak-experiences, and to suspect those who could not report any peak-experiences whatsoever (Religions, Values and Peak Experiences (RVPE), 22).  As for Maslow’s characterization of peak-experiences, this list too is protracted (nineteen characteristics culled from personal interviews, personal reports and surveys of mystical, religious and artistic literature).  Unfortunately, however, almost half of these characteristics concern in some way the unified, non-dualistic or non-categorized nature of the peak-experience.  The other half of the characteristics include the following: the intrinsically valuable, good, desirable, real, and true nature of the peak-experience; the transcendence of ego, time and space that occurs during a peak-experience; the passive and receptive nature of a peak-experience; and the emotionally charged nature of a peak-experience (a presence of awe, reverence and surrender, and an absence of fear, anxiety and inhibition).  In psychoanalytic-speak Maslow describes peak-experiences as “a fusion of ego, id, super-ego and ego ideal, of conscious, preconscious and unconscious, of primary and secondary processes, a synthesizing of pleasure principle with reality principle, a healthy regression without fear in the service of the greatest maturity, a true integration of the person at all levels” (TPB, 106).  And, in Maslowian-speak, peak-experiences are identified as temporary moments of self-actualization; the peak-experiencer “becomes in these episodes most truly himself, more perfectly actualizes his potentials, closer to the core of his Being, more fully human” (TBP, 106).  It should also be noted that Maslow recognizes a new type of “peak” experience in RVPE – the plateau-experience.  Unlike peak-experiences, plateau-experiences are serene and clam, always possess a noetic and cognitive element and – as the name indicates – are temporally distended.

As for the relationship between peak-experiences and organized religion, Maslow believes that the origin, core and essence of every known “high religion” is “the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer” (RVPE, 19). “That is to say,” continues Maslow, “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” (RVPE, 20).  Nevertheless, world religions tend towards polarization, with the privately religious “peakers” on one side and the institutionally religious “non-peakers” on the other.  Maslow goes so far as to call peakers and non-peakers “the [two] religions of mankind” (RVPE, 28).  Moreover, public organized religion is not only secondary but also harmful to private peak-experiences (RVPE, 28). 

Finally, Maslow is of the opinion that all peak-experiences are essentially the same: “To the extent that all mystical or peak-experiences are the same in their essence and have always been the same, all religions are the same in their essence and have always been the same.  They [religious practitioners] should, therefore, come to agree in principle on teaching that which is common to all of them, i.e., whatever it is that peak-experiences teach in common (whatever is different about these illuminations can fairly be taken to be localisms both in time and space, and are, peripheral, expendable, not essential).  This something common, this something which is left over after we peel away all the localisms, all the accidents of particular languages or particular philosophies, all the ethno-centric phrasings, all those elements which are not common, we may call the ‘core-religious experience’ or the ‘transcendent experience’” (RVPE, 20).  Where descriptions of peak experiences differ, Maslow pays “no attention to these localisms since they cancel one another out,” “taking the generalized peak-experience to be that which is common to all places and times” (RVPE, 73).  Moreover, Maslow believes the data from peak-experiences may one day offer a solution to the problem of cultural relativity insofar as the “B-values [the values inherent in Being-itself] derived from peak-experiences, as well as from other sources, may supply us with a perfectly naturalistic variety of ‘certainty,’ of unity, of eternality, of universality” (RVPE, 95).  “B-values may well turn out to be defining characteristics of humanness in its essence, i.e., the sine qua non aspects of the concept ‘human’” (RVPE, 95).