Being aware of peak experiences

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By Janny Wilcke

A prominent psychologist named Abraham Maslow coined a phrase for those occasional brief occurrences in life when circumstances seem to produce a sense of complete well being. Maslow called such ecstatic feelings peak experiences. While all of us suffer tragedies in our lives — I’ve certainly had mine — most of us also have peak experiences now and then, perhaps some more than others.

Maslow spoke of peak experiences as being characterized by a transcending of time and location, almost disorientation; and feelings of awe and wonder, maybe affection and happiness, and a momentary loss of anxiety and fear. These moments can be religious or romantic, or they can be as commonplace as a mother who gazes into the eyes of her child or a hiker who beholds a mountain sunrise.

I have experienced this feeling of absolute joy and inner peace while picking blackberries on our farm in the soft warmth of a summer evening.  The cat rubbing my legs and the grassy breath of a horse over my shoulder combined with the drone of summer sounds is almost mesmerizing, and I have felt as though I were about as close to heaven as one could be on earth.  It is a very lovely feeling.

The Salt River Creek winds around the perimeter of our farm.  It isn’t easily accessible on our side.  You have to pick your way through weedy brush and fallen trees.  One day last fall my two oldest granddaughters and I packed snacks, towels, and pails and wended our way through the fields to spend an afternoon at the creek. The girls caught minnows and acted out stories as they played in the water, while I stretched out on one of the large rocks jutting out from the creek bed. The warmth of the sun slanting through the trees lining the stream put me in a trance-like state. With my eyes shut, the back-drop of summer sounds intensified and separated, the rustling of the leaves, the ripple of the running water, the whine of the locusts, and the chattering of the birds – and the girls – created a beautiful fog in my mind.  I felt the sense of complete and utter peace – a true peak experience.

My husband experienced these feelings while doing nothing more than simply mowing pastures. As a boy, he dreamed of a farm of his own, finally realized when we moved to Henry County in the late 1990s.  He’s described to me the heady feeling of working his own land, the stresses of his job left on campus, the co-coon of the farm transport

ing his thoughts far from other responsibilities.

Broadcaster Dennis Prager has written that gratitude leads to happiness, an attitude I heartily endorse. I believe we need to be consciously grateful for the good in our lives, and we all have some good if only we’ll look for it. 

For me, it was a combination of my grandchildren, the solitude of the creek, and my gratitude for my health, the agility to walk through the fields and the vision and hearing to experience it. “Pollyanna” is the name of a century-old book in which a young orphan girl seeks always to look on the bright side of things. Her name was soon a synonym for that attitude. Sometimes the term is used derogatorily by those who shut themselves off from the happiness life has to offer.  Yet, no one can deny that focusing on the positive in life induces more happiness than seeing and focusing on the negative.  And determinedly adopting a sense of gratitude is a way of seeing that the glass of your life is half full instead of half empty.

Gratitude and peak experiences go hand in hand. The wonderful thing about such moments is that they catch you off guard.  They just happen.  I never expected the blissfulness I experienced that autumn afternoon as I headed to the creek with my granddaughters.  And I surely didn’t anticipate that picking blackberries would elicit feelings of such joy.  But I’m grateful for those days and look forward to more. I am excited about all of my peak experiences yet to come.