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.

 

Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.