Epiphanies and peak experiences

In previous posts I’ve written about the mystery of consciousness and non-ordinary states of consciousness. In this post I’ll examine epiphanies – an ordinary, though not everyday, state of mind – and peak experiences.

As a retired psychotherapist, I think that some people are resistant to insight; but anyone who is capable of introspection will sometimes experience epiphanies. These are sudden bursts of new awareness, insight, or intuitive understanding of something in our lives, often in the form of “so that’s why I/you/he/she/it ________!” In an older sense, the word can also mean sudden awareness of the presence of a deity or some other supernatural entity; but there’s nothing supernatural about insight epiphanies. I’ve witnessed many moments of epiphany in therapy sessions, and I’ve had a few, myself. Epiphanies can lead to changes in attitude and behavior.

Peak experiences – a term coined by Abraham Maslow – transcend mere epiphanies. Like epiphanies they are generally spontaneous, unplanned experiences. Some, but not all, fall into the category of mystical experiences. Apparently, not all people have them. They can’t be reliably induced, like hypnotic or psychedelic states of consciousness, but certain conditions may trigger them or cultivate their likelihood. Athletes may experience them when they’re “in the zone” and performing at the peak of their abilities, and I imagine that Alex Honnold had one he free climbed El Capitan, in Yosemite. When peak experiences occur, they can be quite profound and moving. They can be life-changing.

I’ll give some examples from my own life. My longest-lasting peak experience was a day in my youth when I solo hiked 25 miles of wilderness trails at Bandolier National Monument, in New Mexico. It was the most challenging hike of my life, but I’ve never felt more strong, confident, self-reliant and alive. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like I belonged in that wilderness, as surely as every rock and tree and rabbit that I saw. I got back to the campsite at twilight, rubber-legged with fatigue, but exhilarated.

Other peak experiences I’ve had involved a profound sense of oneness with the universe, or the sense of being in the presence of something “holy.” One occurred on a winter day when I was living on the second story of a Victorian-era house in Talladega, Alabama. There were deciduous trees in all directions surrounding the house, their branches now bare. I suddenly found myself serenaded by the sound of raucous  bird cries, and looking out a window, I saw all of the tree branches in sight covered with black birds. (I wasn’t a birder back then, so I can’t tell you what species.) I ran from window to window, discovering rows of black birds on every limb of the surrounding trees. I wept for joy, bathing in the sound and awed by the sights I saw, looking out each window – at one with what I was witnessing.

Another “mystical” peak experience occurred while I was working. I was employed as a mental health counselor in rural Alabama. An elementary school teacher of “homebound” disabled students asked me to accompany her to the home of one of her students, to evaluate her learning potential and see if I could make any recommendations. The girl was nine or ten, blind, spastic, and severely developmentally disabled.

The family was poor, and lived in a house in the woods – simply furnished but immaculately clean. The girl’s mother took us to the parlor, where the girl – dressed in pajamas as I recall – was strapped to a wooden armchair to prevent self-injury. Her unseeing eyes darted around in response to sounds; her head and limbs jerked spasmodically; her mouth was slack and her face expressionless. I felt inadequate to the task at hand, but watched intently as the teacher interacted with the child – holding her hands, stroking her cheek with a finger, and talking to her. I saw no signs of comprehension, and the girl’s facial expression remained blank.

Then the teacher produced a portable 45 rpm record player from her accessory bag and plugged it in. She placed a record on the turntable, turned it on, and placed the needle in the rotating groove. The song that played was “I’m a little teapot/short and stout./Here is my handle/here is my spout.” Clearly, the teacher had played this song many times before, because the girl’s face lit up in a smile and she made happy noises. And in that instant, I knew that I was in the presence of God.

I was, and remain, an agnostic. But I have no other words for what I felt – what I knew – at that moment. I can’t identify any changes in my philosophy or in my life that resulted from my epiphany (in the older sense of the word), but I’ll never forget the lesson I learned from that child. The best I can put it in words is, “if there’s a God, it’s EVERYTHING.” This is identical to the Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God.

When people ask me if I believe in God, and I have the time, I respond, “Define God.” To me, whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If there is a God, I don’t believe It has a gender or a preferred name, but is beyond comprehension. If I were any kind of theist, I’d be a pantheist. Pantheists are always in a holy place.

More about mystical experiences in my next post.

 

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