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Peak Experiences - What are they, and are they important?

 
sojourner
 
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sojourner
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16 March 2018 13:52
 

From early on in his writings, Harris has talked about spirituality being responsible for some of the most profound ‘peak experience’ subjective states in his life. To the point that it reframed the entire topic of religion for him, wherein once he had experienced these things he could begin to understand why some people are religious (it didn’t cause him to agree, but he thought these states were so mind blowing that he could, if I remember correctly, then empathize with how people would see them as proof of God.)


After about six years of meditating, including “not particularly vigorous but fairly consistent” daily home practice, and about 25 days total spent on retreat (not consecutively, over a few different retreats,) I am irritated to find I still have no idea what he’s talking about.


That’s not to say I haven’t noticed, as Richard Davidson would say, “altered traits”. I feel I’ve added a deeper level of relatively more unconditional, openhearted love to my emotional repertoire, for example. And it’s not to say I haven’t had plain old “weird experiences”, because there have been those too, from strange hypnagogic dreams on retreat to one retreat where I would get so hot at random intervals that I would have to go sit outside in the below-freezing wind and snow in pajama pants and a tee shirt to get comfortable. (I read that’s from the vasodilation effects of meditation, but my point is that clearly I had meditated enough for it to ‘do something’.) But I still don’t really get what Harris is talking about when he describes meditative states as being, if I remember correctly, something like “the most important experiences of people’s lives.” I have had experiences that I thought were wonderful, but people tend to describe spiritual experiences as being sort of ‘realer than real’, and seared vividly into their memory even long after the experience has passed. This doesn’t really apply to my happiest moments, which, while wonderful, seemed very much a part of ‘normal life’ and I don’t remember more or less vividly than I remember other things.


I’m curious what other people here think on the topic. I know EN has mentioned something that sounds similar to what Harris describes and others have alluded to them. So I guess my question is - have you ever had an experience - either via meditation or walking in nature or playing sports or whatever - that you feel qualifies as ‘mystic’ in that there seems to be no real frame of reference for it in ordinary, day-to-day life? And do you feel such experiences signify anything (not necessarily anything mystical, it might be a state such as ‘total concentration’) or that they’re just quirky, individual reactions that a few people happen to have, similar to my sitting outside sweating in the freezing snow?

 
 
brazen4
 
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brazen4
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16 March 2018 18:34
 

In my mid 20’s I practiced meditation intermittently (focus on breath) and had what for me was a meaningful experience and benefited me many times throughout my life. At a certain point during the practice a sort of definite switch happened where I could “watch”  my internal dialogue steam past and I could observe this without “engaging” it. This lasted no more than 10 seconds and maybe less. I was never able to achieve this again but my commitment to meditation has been spotty at best. What this very brief experience did for me however was to give me the “assurance” that “I” was more than the thoughts going through my mind. This has had the over-all effect of reducing the degree of emotional disturbance I am willing to “tolerate”. Believe me, I experience my fair share of emotional disturbance from time to time but some of the teeth has gone out of it and I trace this back to that very brief but profoundly reassuring experience.

 
hannahtoo
 
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hannahtoo
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16 March 2018 19:26
 

In a way, this reminds me of Saralynn’s pursuit of a sign from God.  She prayed and prayed, but said she never got it, and complained in her wry way that it wasn’t very fair.  Maybe the fruits of meditation are like any other experience, that is, not universal, despite claims from the wise to the contrary.  We’re not all wired the same, and we certainly have different histories. 

I’ve had a few peak moments.  Some on drugs, others in periods of stress or joy.  I am too hyper to sit and meditate.  My go-to for a healthy buzz and stimulus for insight is a long walk in nature.  Music sometimes too.

 
sojourner
 
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16 March 2018 21:59
 

brazen - That’s interesting. I feel like people often talk about overwhelming peace and oneness and so on, so it’s kinda unique that your experience was simply watching the breath, and yet seeing a shift within that moment that had a lasting impact.


hannah - Yes, I remember saralynn talking about a similar concept (using a more theistic framing) as well. I know people always say not to ‘strive for’ or ‘seek’ such experiences, but I think the difficult thing about spirituality is that it can be a rather feedback-free path. For any effect I see, I can always second guess it. “I think I’m overall calmer and more focused… buuuuuut, that could easily be because I’ve gotten older; am in a different environment than I was in my youth on many fronts, and that has probably shaped my brain over the years; I eat a much healthier diet than I used to….” Or I can say “You know sometimes I really feel like my intuition has changed a lot, I feel so much more attuned to certain things…. buuuuut, maybe that’s just the expectation effect, I mean how can you really verify or quantify something ethereal like that? Could all be mental selection bias or just wishful thinking…” It seems like people who have the “Wow!” experiences have a benchmark that’s a little more tangible, but then, I can’t really complain about calmer and more focused in the long run, even if I can’t say with 100% certainty that this is all due to meditation.

 
 
hannahtoo
 
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17 March 2018 07:32
 

I’ll risk giving another analogy that came to my mind, hoping the responses aren’t too derailing.  Another type of peak experience is sex.  Our culture is obsessed with this subject, and we learn through songs, movies, magazines, and other media what sex is like…or what it is supposed to be like.  Do X, Y, Z and you reach the peak.  If not, do A, B, C.  If not, then you’re frigid or maybe just need the help of sex aids M, N, O.  Or else you should talk to a therapist to see what is keeping you from this peak.

My guess is that the reality of sexual pleasure is much, much more diverse. And fixating on a cultural stereotype is distracting from true self discovery. 

My point in all this is that I don’t necessarily think that more meditation or better meditation or even perfect meditation conditions will necessarily lead to a peak experience for any particular practitioner.  Despite what the sages might say.

[ Edited: 17 March 2018 07:42 by hannahtoo]
 
brazen4
 
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17 March 2018 08:15
 

Pure conjecture:  It seems to be that anything that gives one a perspective of separation from their internal dialogue has the effect of opening up a kind of deeper perception of their world, inner and outer. Words fail me here, but I have heard it described as “seeing the essence of things” more directly. Various drug experiences I’ve had have felt this way. Even though the feeling fades as the drug effect fades some basic memory remains. I totally agree that we are not all the same in how we experience changes in this realm. It all seems so haphazard actually.

 
sojourner
 
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18 March 2018 19:18
 

Hannah - I do think there are a couple of esoteric eastern offshoots out there that incorporate some elements of sexuality into spirituality, but for the most part I feel like spirituality traditionally stresses a stark difference between corporeal pleasure and spiritual happiness. Also, it’s not an analogy you tend to hear when people describe spiritual experiences (which you’d think would be common if they were very similar - people tend to say “It’s just beyond words, there’s no way to describe it”, but I assume most people have had an orgasm, meaning if it were comparable to that it wouldn’t be all that hard to describe) so I feel like that might apples and oranges. Maybe not though - a part of me does wonder how much descriptions of spiritual experiences vary depending on the person describing them. Is it more that some people don’t have a huge emotional range to begin with, so what seems surreal to them would seem like ‘Tuesday’ to someone else? Or would anyone, across the board, agree on the nature of such experiences being sort of beyond words, outside the normal scope of daily life?


brazen - I’m not sure about the whole internal dialogue thing. I have heard other people give that one rave reviews, ha ha, but as I have little personal experience with that leading to any kind of notable subjective state, I’m not sure what to make of it. I believe people when they say there’s really something ‘to’ it, I just don’t have much personal experience there. For me any meditative experience that seemed even slightly transcendent has centered around metta practice and love, which seems not mutually exclusive from the ‘clearing your mind’ path but not obviously linked either.

 
 
hannahtoo
 
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19 March 2018 08:03
 

My point isn’t to compare “corporal pleasure” with “spiritual happiness.”  (As an aside, I think there is more to sex than corporal pleasure.)  However, I see emotions and thoughts as taking place within the living networks of the brain.  Thoughts and feelings are linked to brain structure, chemicals, electrical impulses, etc.  And each person’s brain is unique, as we are individuals.  So it makes sense that our paths to, and capacity for, various states of conscious must vary.

I think it was Timothy Leary who equated the insights of LSD with enlightenment.  Sam Harris (a serious meditator and former LSD taker) seems to agree that these states share some important aspects.  Leary said the difference was that LSD takes your brain to these places quickly, like a jet takes you across the country.  While meditation takes you slowly, like walking the distance.  And with meditation, you understand more about the journey to the new state, so to speak.  In any case, it seems that enlightenment must be linked to chemical pathways in the brain. 

Just as people react differently to psychoactive chemicals, they also react differently to meditative practices.  There is no assurance that a drug will have the desired effect.  Same for meditation.  I think you are contemplating this, through your OP. 

How important are these peak experiences?  I have an inkling that there may be a link between the ecstatic state and the part of my brain that determines “this is wonderful and important.”  But it may not actually be so important in the long run, if that makes sense.  Sort of like a person may get an idea when she’s high, and think it’s brilliant in the moment, but afterwards realize it was quite mundane or even non-sensical.  Or yeah, she may still think it’s brilliant later.

As an example, one significant LSD experience I remember is sitting in the forest, feeling the trees around me living and growing.  It was a sort of physical connection I’d not felt before.  I really don’t know if it was any real connection, or just imagined, but it carried over to increase my everyday link with nature.  Outside of this experience, I’ve had many opportunities to commune with nature, and I seek them out.  Recently, on a vacation to Baja California, I was privileged to get up close and personal with gray whales, as well as myriad fish and some sea lions.  This kindled in me that marvelous feeling of being part of the animal kingdom, instead of merely a human, entangled in crazy human society.  But while the LSD feeling was a sort of jolt, the recent encounters generated more like a tingling peace. 

The LSD experience shook me up at the time.  But 40 years later, I’m not sure how crucial it was to my life journey.  A few years later, I sat on a hillside meadow, and a small storksbill plant caught my eye.  I saw that it had flowers as well as several stages of developing seed heads on the same plant.  I had a big “aha!” as I finally grokked just how the pollinated purple flower transforms into the pointed brown seed head.  I was raised a city girl and had read in books about how this aspect of botany works, but now I truly understood.  And I understood the important difference between book learning and experiential learning.  I felt a jolt of joy.  I’d say this moment of insight was as key as any other in my life.  (I went on to become a naturalist and a school teacher.)  It happened with no trigger except for me being quiet in nature.  So that is what I try to do now.

 
sojourner
 
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19 March 2018 08:54
 

Hannah… yeah, I’m agnostic on the question of whether spiritual states represent something that are clearly - to pretty much anyone - outside the realm of day-to-day experience, or if everyone has their own range and one person’s “peak experience” is another’s “How I feel when I walk in nature.” On the one hand, people that experience things like NDEs or what Harris describes as moments of total selflessness in meditation seem to be pretty adamant that they are outside the usual scope of experiences. On the other, there is simply no way to really compare subjective states, as they are entirely subjective. What two different people see as the referent for the word ‘love’ or ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ may be quite different.


Overall I would say meditation has progressed for me in more or less the way I would have expected. The things that people commonly reference - appreciating nature more, feeling more concerned about others, feeling overall calmer (which for me is not necessarily all that calm, but given my starting point, still relatively calmer,) and so on, are all things I very much see in my life. And I certainly have unusual experiences when I’m meditating for extended periods, I just don’t know that I’d call them peak experiences (A not uncommon one for me is just an overwhelming sense of revulsion and germ phobia, for example, to the point of freaking out over sleeping in retreat center beds because other people have been in them and so on - I’m not sure if this is my underlying neat-freakery coming to the surface as viewed under a microscope of attention; or if it represents something more philosophical, like sharply feeling the boundaries of ‘my system, me, I” and “other stuff - germs, contaminants, toxins, etc. - ‘out there’” as conceptual boundaries between self/not-self come more into focus, but either way, it sure as heck ain’t a peak experience, ha ha! Useful in terms of contemplative progression, probably, but peak, no.) So I’m not sure what to make of that, if those “Wow!” experiences are an important landmark on a trail of progression, or more like a forest animal that you may or may not happen to see when you’re in a given territory.

 
 
brazen4
 
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19 March 2018 13:58
 

The reason I bring up internal dialogue is that its significance was stressed by people I knew at the time (young adult) who taught me the basics of what I came to know of as meditation. Focus on the breath was just a way of easing “attention” away from the internal chatter and its accompanying emotional baggage. For me personally, that made sense as I have a very active internal chatter box and it’s a nuisance much of the time. I don’t think everyone has the same degree/amount of internal chatter and so I agree we all have different starting points. I think that for myself being able to stop engaging that chatter (not necessarily stopping it) was so refreshing (peak) was because I was starting from such a noisy place.

 
sojourner
 
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19 March 2018 20:51
 
brazen4 - 19 March 2018 01:58 PM

The reason I bring up internal dialogue is that its significance was stressed by people I knew at the time (young adult) who taught me the basics of what I came to know of as meditation. Focus on the breath was just a way of easing “attention” away from the internal chatter and its accompanying emotional baggage. For me personally, that made sense as I have a very active internal chatter box and it’s a nuisance much of the time. I don’t think everyone has the same degree/amount of internal chatter and so I agree we all have different starting points. I think that for myself being able to stop engaging that chatter (not necessarily stopping it) was so refreshing (peak) was because I was starting from such a noisy place.


I think that’s great, and like I said, I know a lot of meditators seem to feel this way, so I think there is definitely something to it. I think for me my orientation is just a bit different. Sometimes I find that letting go of thinking can be quite helpful, as I’m kind of the opposite and enjoy being in my head so much that it’s almost a bit addictive. So when I take a break from discursive thought, it can be like going to the gym - didn’t really want to do it, but glad I did afterwards. And sometimes it’s helpful when I can see I’m stuck in a repetitive loop. But the ‘letting go of discursive thought’ has never been compelling for me in the way Harris describes (and, in fact, I sometimes lean towards the opposite end of the spectrum - using thought in the form of analytical meditation as a tool to combat mental negativity, something the Dalai Lama seems to use as a frequent practice.) I’m not sure if that means I’m doin’ it rong or it’s just natural variation among meditative minds. I feel like so much of this stuff is uncharted, best guess territory!

 
 
brazen4
 
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20 March 2018 10:35
 

NL, I can relate to alot of what you are saying. Using the thought process itself to reduce mental negativity is one such area. I can change what I tell myself about myself or about anything at all including what ever is in front of my eyes at any given point in time. Part of that process for me is sorting out what I am actually feeling negative about and then getting beyond my various justifications/biases. I always seem to be aiming to that state of mind where “everything really is OK”. I have gotten better at differentiating my stuff from someone elses stuff. In terms of the world at large, where many things are not OK, no matter what I tell myself, I can get mired down. It is that negativity where I need the power of silence, however close I can manage to get to it, to ease me into a more rational and possibly productive frame of mind. I don’t know that it is ever helpful to look at meditative practices as right or wrong. Just a continuing education course where results take the place of grades. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, any honest efforts in that direction is time well spent.

 
sojourner
 
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20 March 2018 13:03
 
brazen4 - 20 March 2018 10:35 AM

NL, I can relate to alot of what you are saying. Using the thought process itself to reduce mental negativity is one such area. I can change what I tell myself about myself or about anything at all including what ever is in front of my eyes at any given point in time. Part of that process for me is sorting out what I am actually feeling negative about and then getting beyond my various justifications/biases. I always seem to be aiming to that state of mind where “everything really is OK”. I have gotten better at differentiating my stuff from someone elses stuff. In terms of the world at large, where many things are not OK, no matter what I tell myself, I can get mired down. It is that negativity where I need the power of silence, however close I can manage to get to it, to ease me into a more rational and possibly productive frame of mind. I don’t know that it is ever helpful to look at meditative practices as right or wrong. Just a continuing education course where results take the place of grades. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, any honest efforts in that direction is time well spent.


Lol, I stopped even attempting to separate my states from other people’s states around the time I got mildly upset that one of my students had a sudden nosebleed, and then after helping him got a nosebleed myself. Coincidence? Probably. But at some point I said to hell with it and if I’m not sure I’ll just think “At least one of us is feeling X. I’m not sure which one, but either way, now I am feeling X, so let’s go from there.” I have a complicated relationship with emotional contagion.


As far as anxiety, I should probably mention that anxiety is an issue for me, so it may be very different for someone who’s pretty typical in that area. So I’ve gotten better about knowing when something is random panic that it’s best to just ‘sit with’, and when thinking it through logically can help. If I’m driving and out of nowhere suddenly become terrified that if I take my niece to the lake this summer she might drown, at this point I know enough to say “This is a mild panic attack. I don’t need to see this as anything other than that - a mild panic attack. I’m going to focus on driving and just be with it, because thinking about it will be like getting on the circular merry-go-round from hell. Sometimes you just have to ‘sit with’ feeling afraid for awhile.” If I’m obsessing over whether or not a work contract is going to be renewed, though, then I can say “Ok, what is the worst case scenario here? Will the world end if it doesn’t get renewed? What can I do to improve my chances and what do I need to just let go?”, and analyzing it can actually be helpful.


So it depends - and I agree, I think continued efforts in such areas, whether you want to frame it as positive psychology or spirituality (as I think there’s a lot of overlap between the two,) are efforts well spent. I am still curious about the whole ‘peak experience’ thing - what that represents and if it represents anything important. Maybe I’ll add a book on Buddhist psychology to my ever-growing reading list, I’m sure it has something to say on the topic.

 
 
brazen4
 
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20 March 2018 17:08
 

One quick thing on peak experience which I also find fascinating. There is an account on utube by Eckart Tolle (spelling?) where he describes his experience of extreme change that happened abruptly and didn’t stop. It took him 2 yrs to begin to function “normally” and he describes the change and change process as “blissful” sooooooo…...not sure what all happened to him but he doesn’t sound like he’s making it up. He then went on to become a Buddha type guy and I think he still is. Now thar is some peak experience. Its important to get the early Eckart account.

 
sojourner
 
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20 March 2018 21:26
 
brazen4 - 20 March 2018 05:08 PM

One quick thing on peak experience which I also find fascinating. There is an account on utube by Eckart Tolle (spelling?) where he describes his experience of extreme change that happened abruptly and didn’t stop. It took him 2 yrs to begin to function “normally” and he describes the change and change process as “blissful” sooooooo…...not sure what all happened to him but he doesn’t sound like he’s making it up. He then went on to become a Buddha type guy and I think he still is. Now thar is some peak experience. Its important to get the early Eckart account.


I’m not entirely sure that I believe Eckart Tolle’s story. I know that sounds harsh and probably cynical, but I had a bit of a “Wait whaaaaat?” moment recently when reading about how the famous teacher Munindra said he saw Dipa Ma in the sky, building structures in mid-air. Before this I pretty much took everyone at their word on their meditative experiences (and I still take Harris at his,) but I was a bit shaken up by Dipa Ma’s claims, in that they 1) Seem really unlikely but 2) Came from someone who was fundamental in bringing meditative practices to this country. If those people were - at least on some level - more or less hucksters, then what does that say about the endpoints of meditation in general? This actually troubles me a fair bit. Dipa Ma supposedly had miraculous abilities - not vague ‘I think I had a meaningful dream but that’s subject to interpretation and selection bias so who knows’ type stuff, but literally the ability to turn air into building material to climb into the sky, or to astrally project herself into two places at once - and yet she supposedly had lost interest in pursuing these by the time Westerners arrived for teaching, so that they never actually witnessed them? I feel really terrible saying this but - I’m sorry, that sounds like a bunch of bull, and it also sounds like a way of attracting Western dollars for ‘guru’ teaching. And again, these are people who were central to some of the best meditation centers out there - if their stories don’t line up, what are the odds that other people’s do? It seems that every spiritual path from Scientology to Christianity to Buddhism has tales about amazing feats that occur only when no one is / was around to verify them.


Sorry - I don’t want to disparage anyone or cast doubts in a way that is ‘unwise’, as Buddhists would say. So if these people are telling the truth, I hope the truth shines through in the end, and they’ll forgive me for my ignorance on the topic. But the idea that maybe I have just been naive about spiritual claims is a rather recent one for me, and one that I’m still grappling with at the moment. So I’m not 100% sure that I believe Mr. Tolle - if nothing else it seems odd that the fruit of spiritual enlightenment would be to go and sell lots and lots of books, no?

[ Edited: 20 March 2018 21:29 by sojourner]
 
 
brazen4
 
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21 March 2018 01:38
 

I understand your skepticism and have a good bit of my own. When ever big money starts to become a prominent part of the “spiritual” picture a detraction in the basic message seems inevitable. Whenever magic claims of any sort are part of the picture I have no interest at all. Tolle doesn’t make any magic claims but I don’t see his message as anything more than basic old time Zen teachings. He sort of puts his own stamp on it so I don’t hold that against him. I discovered him about 6 or 7 yrs ago and found his story of “peak experience” fascinating. I listened to a few of his lectures and that was it. I just listened to one of his recent offerings as we are talking about peak experience and he still sounds OK to my ear. Not compelling though. When I want some good old fashioned Zen I put on Alan Watts. Now there was a character, did his lecturing in the 50’s and 60’s, a little before my time but not much before. He was a Brit who came to the US through academia and just had a great grasp and knowledge of eastern religions. He could divulge info without getting all “spooky” and had a certain British flair. Apparently he was quite the party animal also and later on in life kinda over did it. Getting back to money influences, I’m a little worried about Harris. His live shows open with the audience sounding like they’re at a rock concert. I hope Sam isn’t falling prey to that seductive rockstar energy. I know the money must be good. The recent talk about “merch” gives me a sinking feeling and I hope he steers clear.

 
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