Maslow on Peak experiences in Childhood: an Explanatory Study – by Edward Hoffman Ph.D, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Winter 1998 |71
March 13 by The Running Son
Peak experiences in childhood: an explanatory study
In the quarter century since Abraham Maslow’s death in 1970, his concept of peak experience has remained important to personality theory and such applied fields as counseling, psychotherapy, and education. However, it is little known that Maslow became interested in the topic of childhood peak experiences at the end of his life. In this exploratory study, Maslow’s biographer conducted oral and written interviews–phenomenologically based–with more than 250 adult men and women who could recall enduring “peak” episodes experienced before age 14. The results were supportive of Maslow’s hypothesis that even young children are capable of peak moments of lasting impact. After presenting an overview of Maslow’s general approach to peak experiences, a typology (with specific examples) is presented of nine distinct categories of childhood epiphanies, including uplifting experiences in places of scenic grandeur, near-death or crisis episodes, spontaneous moments of bliss, and unforgettable dreams. Directions for future research are suggested.
Among Abraham Maslow’s most intriguing theoretical constructs was that of peak experience. This concept has strongly affected the fields of religious psychology, pastoral counseling, and contemporary theology; generated the specialty known as transpersonal psychology (a term popularized by Maslow); and penetrated the everyday English language as well.
In this article, I first provide a brief overview of Maslow’s peak experience concept and then highlight my own exploratory research on the “peak” moments of childhood and their enduring impact on adult personality.
MASLOW’S APPROACH TO PEAK EXPERIENCES
Although Maslow had been studying religious experience since the mid-1940s with his interest in emotionally healthy, “self-actualizing” people, he published nothing on the topic for years due to his fear of professional ridicule. Not since the days of William James at the turn of the 20th century had academic psychologists shown much respect for the topic of religious psychology, and in the post-World War II era, it had certainly not become intellectually acceptable. Indeed, as a self-proclaimed atheist who grew up in a nonobservant Brooklyn-Jewish household, Maslow found himself uneasy about the exotic narratives of history’s great mystics and sages. But committed to scientific truth wherever it might lead, he persisted in careful investigation.
Finally, in mid-1954, while still struggling to establish fledgling Brandeis University’s Psychology Department, Maslow felt ready to share his findings with colleagues. Fearing rejection of his unorthodox paper, he did not submit it for formal publication to a journal but rather read it aloud at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention that year.
Titling his address “Cognition of Being in the Peak Experiences,” Maslow (1959) began by asserting that
Self-actualizing people, those who have come to a high level of
maturation, health, and self-fulfillment, have so much to teach us
that sometimes they seem almost like a different breed of human
beings. But because it is so new, the exploration of the highest
reaches of human nature and of its ultimate possibilities…is a
difficult and tortuous task. (p. 43)
Maslow went on to describe nearly 20 common features of the peak experience, which he associated with superb inner health. Based on his research sample’s phenomenological reports, these features included temporary disorientation with respect to time and space, feelings of wonder and awe, great happiness, and a complete though momentary loss of fear and defense before the grandeur of the universe. People typically mentioned that polar opposites-like good and evil, free will and destiny–seemed transcended in such instants; everything in the cosmos appeared connected to everything else in dazzling and ineffable splendor.
To what extent do such peaks reflect real perceptions of the world and not merely the regressive, infantile fantasies Sigmund Freud and his supporters had pronounced them to be? Maslow (1959) answered this question by declaring,
If self-actualizing people can and do perceive reality more efficiently,
fully, and with less motivational contamination than others do, then
we may possibly use them as biological assays. Through their
greater sensitivity and perception, we may get a better report of
what reality is really like.., just as canaries can be used to detect
gas in mines before less sensitive creatures can. (p. 64)
Finally, and perhaps constituting the most important aspect of his article, Maslow noted that peak experiences often leave profound and transformative effects in their wake. He alluded to two more or less contemporary reports, one from a psychologist and one from an anthropologist, of mystic experiences so intense “as to remove certain neurotic symptoms forever.” Generally, Maslow (1959) suggested, “the person is more apt to feel that life… is worthwhile, even if it is usually drab, pedestrian, painful, or ungratifying, since beauty, truth, and meaningfulness have been demonstrated.., to exist” (p. 65).
Such conversion experiences, Maslow (1959) declared, “are of course plentifully recorded in human history but so far as I know have never received the attention of psychologists or psychiatrists” (p. 66). He ended his address by emphasizing the need for further study into this highly intriguing but little understood phenomenon of healthy emotional functioning. Pleased with his presentation, Maslow plunged ahead in this scientifically uncharted realm, but 3 years would elapse before the article received professional publication in the Journal of Genetic Psychology.
Over the tumultuous years of the 1960s, Maslow devoted considerable attention to the topic of peak experience. Relying on phenomenological reports of college students and colleagues, he became convinced of two key findings. First, that ordinary people may undergo genuine peaks in the seemingly most commonplace events and surroundings–while waiting for an afternoon bus on a sunlit street, listening to a romantic song on the radio, or preparing dinner for one’s family. Maslow found it astounding that some of his own undergraduates at Brandeis University unknowingly described their peak experiences in language of rapture similar to those of famous spiritual teachers, East and West. The implication appeared clear: We need not be great religious mystics or even practitioners to undergo an unforgettable epiphany during daily living. Nor, as a corollary, Maslow (1970) concluded, is it necessary to meditate in a Tibetan monastery or travel exotically to gain such a wondrous encounter. As he poetically observed in Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, “The great lesson from the true mystics… [is that] the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard” (p. x).
Second, Maslow eventually felt sure that the more emotionally healthy we are, the greater the likelihood of a peak experience and also the more frequent such episodes become in the course of day-to-day events. Maslow also suggested that as we physically age, the white-hot intensity of peak moments gives way to a gentler, more sustained state of inner serenity that he called the plateau-experience. Unlike peak experiences, he suggested, such plateaus can be cultivated through conscious, diligent effort. Shortly before Maslow’s death 25 years ago, he began developing exercises to help people attain the plateau state of consciousness, such as gazing at a tiny flower intently and with undivided attention or at a familiar family member or friend, and imagining “that you (or he/she) is going to die soon.” Such methods, Maslow proposed, can serve to break the dull, habit-worn way we relate to others and help us see the world once more with freshness and delight.
It is interesting that Maslow, as a rather private person, almost never discussed his own peak moments. From the reports of family members and friends, he seemed to have found greatest peace when listening to classical music, especially the Romantic composers, or when bird-watching on Audubon Society nature walks in pastoral New England. Sometimes, at night, to reach a desired inner state, he listened to recordings of birdcalls. Lovemaking with his wife, Bertha, was another source of revelatory joy for him, as he sometimes told her.
Unfortunately, Maslow as an experimentally trained psychologist had almost no formal background in theology or comparative religion with which to gain additional conceptual ground in his “reconnaissance” regarding transcendental or numinous experience. Since childhood, he had regarded organized religion as a historical force promoting intolerance, superstition, and vindictive persecution. There was almost nothing in his own secularist and socialist-minded upbringing that had induced him to feel respectful toward theological or metaphysical thinkers.
Maslow’s unpublished diaries during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s certainly reveal a keen intellect whose favorite thinkers included Martin Buber, Mircia Eliade, Viktor Frankl, Paul Tillich, and Alan Watts. But Maslow’s reading was haphazard and undisciplined, and he lacked both a conceptual framework and a vocabulary for delving more deeply into the heady currents of mysticism. Indeed, in Maslow’s final years, he increasingly turned his attention to decidedly less introspective subjects, such as humanistic management, alternative education, and political-economic theory.
Nevertheless, after the birth of Maslow’s granddaughter, Jeannie, in 1968, he gained renewed interest in peak experiences–especially pertaining to childhood. Intuitively, he felt sure even young children possess the capacity for epiphanies and numinous moments but lack the vocabulary to articulate these. Maslow hoped to begin empirical research once his serious heart condition improved. But he died before starting any systematic exploration on this intriguing topic.
EXPLORING THE PEAKS OF CHILDHOOD
Soon after I completed my biography of Maslow (Hoffman, 1988), our second child was born in early 1989. I felt inspired to undertake something new and decided to follow up Maslow’s interest in peak experiences during childhood. For more than a decade of educational and clinical practice, I had become steadily convinced that even young children are sometimes capable of aesthetic, moral, and spiritual feelings almost completely ignored by mainstream psychology.
Initially, I tried interviewing children but found them unable to describe well their most exalted or ecstatic moments. Then, I interviewed men and women interested in the topic, through placing “author’s queries” in dozens of different newspapers and periodicals. Each individual was asked,
Can you recall any experiences from your childhood–before the age
of 14–that could be called mystical or intensely spiritual? Or, to
put it another way: Can you recall any childhood moments in which you
seemed to experience a different kind of reality–perhaps involving
a sense of rapture or great harmony? As a child, you may not have
recognized the experience as extraordinary or unusual, but think
now from your current vantage point. I am especially interested in
childhood experiences or perceptions that have endured in your
memory and may have permanently affected your view of life or
death, God, the universe, or the nature of human existence.
All those who responded were also asked to provide personal information: present age and occupation, birth order, where and what age each experience occurred, and childhood religious affiliation, if any. Like Maslow and other psychologists interested in real life (rather than laboratory) situations, I adopted a phenomenological approach, allowing people to speak in their own words about the most uplifting experiences of childhood.
Certainly, I recognized that adults may not always recall with total accuracy events that happened many decades ago. Yet, I hoped that a clear enough pattern might emerge to provide new information on this important topic. Eventually, I received more than 250 wide-ranging accounts from men and women in the United States and abroad.
What were my findings? First, it now appears undeniable that some of us (perhaps far more than we suspect) have undergone tremendous peak–even mystical—experiences during our early years. In this respect, conventional psychology and its allied disciplines have painted a badly incomplete picture of childhood, and by extrapolation, of adulthood as well.
Second, after considerable trial and error, I was able to establish a typology of nine distinct (but inevitably overlapping) categories of childhood epiphanies:
* Uplifting experiences in places of scenic grandeur
* Inspiring encounters with nature in one’s own backyard
* Near-death or crisis episodes
* Peak moments during intense and personalized prayer
* Spontaneous moments of bliss or ecstasy
* Profound insights about self-identity, life and death, and related topics
* Exalted experiences in formal religious settings
* Uncanny perceptions with lasting import
* Unforgettable dreams
Space limitations preclude my discussing each category in detail. But certainly these reports indicate that many different kinds of numinous experience are possible during childhood.
Confirming the results of earlier investigators, I have found that near-death encounters (NDEs) can be very powerful and transformative, even for young children. As an Australian woman reported about her near drowning at 9 years of age:
Afterward, I realized that I had to take charge of my own life. I
stopped taking things for granted, and instead started appreciating
my surroundings more. Through my experience, I know that life is
short. But I also realized how precious life is. Death can come at any
time, but I don’t fear death. I was given a second chance at life, and
at that age, I felt it was my duty to learn why and to do the best I
could with my second chance.
Such narratives are important for our understanding of inner transformation. Yet, as psychologist Ken Ring (1984) suggested in Heading Toward Omega, we need not undergo a close brush with death to acquire such an outlook. From the reports of many respondents, one major trigger to youthful ecstasy clearly involves exposure to the natural world’s splendor: the sun, moon, and stars; oceans and lakes; forests and meadows; and even deserts.
As a Canadian woman commented after describing her visionary, childhood perception of the sun as radiantly pulsating and breathing,
Ever since that day, I’ve always sought the sun’s life-giving light and
have delighted in sitting or standing within it. As each day begins,
I find myself looking for signs of the sun: the light playing upon our
bedroom wall, the shadows of leaves dancing along the windowsill.
I’ve even come to regard the sun and the earth as living beings.
In a similar vein, a Swiss man described how he entered a forest clearing on a spring day and “was suddenly overwhelmed by the greenness of the overhanging young leaves and the lush meadow shining under a brilliant sun. I experienced an indescribable state of happiness, with an intense feeling of beauty, tidiness, and perfection.” Such reports validate the viewpoint of Romantic poets like William Blake and William Wordsworth, who contended nearly 200 years ago that childhood is a time of particular sensitivity to nature’s grandeur. Thus, in his memorable poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” Wordsworth (Gill, 1988) declared,
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream. (p. 312)
Moreover, my findings show that ineffable experiences can be evoked by far more ordinary, natural surroundings. In particular, the backyard of childhood is often a place of wonder For some of us, it had a coziness that helped us to feel at home in the world. For others, it became a true refuge, or sanctuary, where quiet and peacefulness reigned in an otherwise untrustworthy existence.
“One day, when I was about four, I was standing alone in our Peoria backyard,” recalls one elderly woman.
It held eight large silver-leaf poplars, with bark that was
black-and-white. I held a tiny china doll in my hand, and then
placed the doll on a piece of the bark. Suddenly, in a way that
I still can’t explain, I experienced the most wonderful, blazing
feeling of happiness. I felt a euphoric awareness that “this
world is wonderful!” Seventy years have passed. Though I’ve
certainly had sadness in my life, this experience was like a beam
of sunshine that seemed to be within everything: a joyful place
to which I could always return.
The childhood doorway to transcendence may thus lie hidden with a flowering garden, a grove of trees, the scampering play of squirrels, or even a pebbled plot of grass with insects.
Most narratives, however, were wholly independent of nature. For some people, the trigger was an act of heartfelt, spontaneous prayer or a formalized religious moment that catapulted them into a timeless and transcendent state. For others, deep contemplation about serf-identity, or life and death, had a powerfully uplifting effect.
“The mystical experiences I now recall always involved getting myself into a `state’–which I consciously achieved–where I would think about infinity, and then actually be infinite,” a young female publisher recalled.
I could connect intensely to the thought that my sense of “I” would
never end: because I had been born just this once, “I” would continue
to exist forever. I would imagine I would see–I would experience–going
on and on–and never ending, or stopping, or dying. I would
imagine myself and my place in the infinite. I never felt pressured
by anyone to experience this inner state, but I always felt renewed
after I did.
Strikingly, there is almost no research in mainstream psychology/ education to suggest that children can become absorbed–let alone uplifted–by such key philosophical or metaphysical questions.
For still other persons, the catalyst for inner awakening involved an uncanny perception or a dream experience. A young artist who grew up in New York City described a repetitive dream in which her waking-life neighborhood was replaced by
a vast plaza of mother of pearl shimmering gently in the sunlight.
The plaza is semicircular, and I walk toward the far, curved edge. It
is bounded by a low colonnade of white marble. I see that beyond it
lies a boundless ocean, aquamarine and sparkling. The sky is clear,
brightly and serenely blue. I am filled with infinite joy, expansiveness,
and peace …. When this image is most clearly present in my
mind’s eye, I feel assured that I’m centered, and living and responding
from my higher self.
For still others among us, the entry point to bliss was a seemingly ordinary moment of daily life. For instance, a retired governmental meteorologist related how
One spring afternoon, when I was about 10, I was walking home
from school alone. Suddenly I experienced an unsurpassed feeling
of happiness and understanding. Everything seemed to fall into
place and possess the greatest significance. Although I still saw the
same, usual surroundings, they were now unbelievably vivid. I
stared entranced at my feet and the fuzzy little yellow flowers that
the acacia trees had dropped on the sidewalk. There was no outward
change in my behavior, but I wanted intensely to be alone and
undisturbed, so I could experience my sudden new feeling to the
fullest. I walked on home, and of course, the insight began to
dim–although it lasted perhaps several hours with diminishing
Clearly, many pathways exist by which we as children–and surely, as adults too–may reach a higher awareness. One catalyst seems to be aesthetics. We are certainly familiar with tales of remarkably precocious composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Obviously, to write a sonata at the age of 4 requires an awesome talent. But in a different sense, it may be that many of us, as children, are far more stirred by music and art than is generally recognized.
Public schools in the United States and elsewhere have generally regarded such activities as mere frills. Yet, as far back as the turn of the 20th century, iconoclastic educators like Rudolf Steiner (founder of the international network of Waldorf schools) strongly argued for the centrality of aesthetics in all aspects of education. With the recent emergence of art and music therapy as legitimate professional fields, perhaps this situation will change for the better.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
Although my research on childhood peak experiences offers a variety of intriguing findings, I hardly view these as definitive. Rather, they are intended to build upon earlier, preliminary studies such as those by Armstrong (1985), who presented accounts of children’s transpersonal experiences and a developmental model that depicted prepersonal and transpersonal states as occurring parallel to transpersonal stages. Specifically in my own study, limitations in the makeup of the sample group raise several issues that can be resolved only through further empirical work. Perhaps most striking, more than two thirds of the respondents to my author’s query were women. This result may partly reflect a gender (and ethnic) difference among the readership composition of those periodicals in which my author’s query had initially appeared. Yet, because American men are generally recognized to be uncomfortable about gazing inward, this result was certainly not surprising. Nevertheless, it immediately raises the question, Are girls more likely to undergo peak experiences than boys? If so, is this difference due primarily to the influence of biology, upbringing, or a combination of the two? Or, conversely, are boys just as apt to have such uplifting episodes but more prone to suppress them afterward (Davis, Lockwood, & Wright, 1991)?
My own hunch tends toward the latter hypothesis, for a simple reason. Major gender differences in how we communicate with one another indicate that by elementary school age, girls spend far more time sharing feelings than do boys. If so, then the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” may well explain the relative paucity of numinous childhood memories for men: Things we don’t talk about, we tend to forget. A related hypothesis is that men in the United States may be less likely to divulge such unconventional experiences to psychological researchers.
At any rate, only additional exploration will tell. It will also be interesting to discover if boys are more prone to certain types of peak experiences than are girls. Certainly, considerably more information is needed on cross-cultural differences with regard to inspirational moments of childhood. For instance, very few of my cases represented African American, Asian, Caribbean, Hispanic, or Native American backgrounds. Nor were there significant numbers involving upbringing in non-Western religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. In follow-up work, it will undoubtedly be fascinating to compare the accounts of such individuals with those interviewed in my study.
Finally, it will also be important to learn whether numinous or blissful episodes during our early years are related to specific patterns of family life. For example, several respondents explicitly commented that their victimization through abuse or incest somehow led them to find uplifting inner resources that might not have emerged in more pleasant circumstances. Does a parallel therefore exist to near-death experiences and their transformative power? More evidence is definitely needed on this and many other matters pertaining to youthful peaks.
In the quarter century since Maslow’s demise, we have entered a new global era. There is special urgency now in finding those aspects of human experience that transcend the ethnic and nationalistic differences that can divide us. By understanding more fully the nature of our highest moments of life, we can help create a more peaceful and harmonious world.
Armstrong, T. (1984). Transpersonal experiences in childhood. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(2), 207-230.
Davis, J., Lockwood, L., & Wright, C. (1991). Reasons for not reporting peak experiences. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 31(1), 86-94. Gill, S. (Ed.). (1988). William Wordsworth. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hoffman, E. (1988). The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow. Los Angeles: Tarcher.
Maslow, A. H. (1959). Cognition of being in the peak experiences. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 94, 43-66.
Maslow, A. H. (1970). Religion, values and peak-experiences. New York: Viking.
Ring, K. (1984). Heading toward omega: In search of the meaning of the near-death experience. New York: William Morrow.
Reprint requests: Edward Hoffman, 60 Wesleyan Road, Smithtown, New York 11787.
EDWARD Hoffman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the New York City area. A longtime member of AHP, he is the author of more than 60 articles and 10 books in the fields of psychology and spirituality. These include major biographical works about Wilhelm Reich, Abraham Maslow, and, most recently, Alfred Adler. The latter incorporated extensive interviews with Adler’s surviving family members and archival research on several continents. Dr. Hoffman has also written several books on the psychological relevance of Hasidism and Kabbalah. These include The Way of Splendor (Jason Aronson) and Despite All Odds (Simon & Schuster). His most recent book is titled Opening the Inner Gates: New Paths in Kabbalah and Psychology (Shambhala).
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