The "Mystical Experience" in Religion

William James described something very similar to Maslow's peak experience, calling it the mystical experience, in his 1901-1902 lectures at Edinburgh published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He noted that mystical experiences often produced physical sensations such as heat or "fire" inside, and they were often accompanied by mental healing.

What phenomenon very similar to peak experiences did William James describe?

James offered the example of woman who felt she was coming down with flu-like symptoms during an epidemic. She had attended lectures on "mind cure" that summer, so she decided it would be a good opportunity to test the principles.

I went to bed immediately, and my husband wished to send for the doctor. But I told him that I would rather wait until morning and see how I felt. Then followed one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

I cannot express it in any other way than to say that I did "lie down in the stream of life and let it flow over me." I gave up all fear of any impending disease; I was perfectly willing and obedient. There was no intellectual effort, no train of thought. My dominant idea was: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me even as thou wilt," and a perfect confidence that all would be well, that all was well. The creative life was flowing into me every instant, and I felt myself allied with the Infinite, in harmony, and full of the peace that passeth understanding...

I do not know how long this state lasted, nor when I fell asleep; but when I woke up in the morning, I was well.' (James, 1902/1958, p.106)

Maslow agreed with William James that "mystical experiences" were often associated with religion. But to Maslow this was not a necessary part of their definition. Peak experiences could also occur in connection with ordinary life.

What things besides religion did Maslow say were likely to trigger peak experiences?

They came from the great moments of love and sex, from the great esthetic moments (particularly of music), from the bursts of creativeness and the creative furor (the great inspiration), from great moments of insight and of discovery, from women giving natural birth to babies—or just from loving them, from moments of fusion with nature (in a forest, on a seashore, mountains, etc.), from certain athletic experiences, e.g. skin-diving, from dancing, etc. (Maslow, 1962)

How common are peak experiences, according to Maslow?

Maslow also says he found "peak experiences are far more common than I ever expected." In his original theory, peak experiences were supposed to be characteristic of mentally healthy people. But, Maslow writes, "These peak-experiences occurred also in average and even in psychologically sick people." In fact, "Practically everybody reports peak-experiences if approached and questioned and encouraged in the right way" (Maslow, 1962).

How did Maslow tie peak experiences to "psychological health"?

Maslow came to regard peak experiences as temporary periods of extreme mental health. He noted the "considerable overlap between the characteristics of peak-experiences and the characteristics of psychological health (more integrated, more alive, more individual, less inhibited, less anxious, etc.)" (Maslow, 1962). He also said peak-experiences must be spontaneous, not hampered by self-consciousness.

What are some other characteristics of peak experiences?

Can you bring about these experiences at will? No! Or almost entirely no! In general we are "Surprised by Joy," to use the title of C. S. Lewis's book on just this question. Peaks come unexpectedly, suddenly they happen to us. You can't count on them. And hunting them is a little like hunting happiness. It's best not done directly. It comes as a by-product...for instance, of doing a fine job at a worthy task with which you identify (Maslow, 1962).


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey