Sunday 4 January 2015

Peak experiences - the Christian difference

Peak experience is a name for those times, perhaps moments, of highest and happiest consciousness.

Opening Christmas presents with the family, or sharing a funny experience at the dinner table; walking past the ruined chapel on a frosty morning, looking at the stars and seeing a meteor...


I think I always regarded them as 'true' in some sense, truer than the ordinary mundane consciousness, and truer than existential despair - but the question always was: true in what sense?

True in what sense?


Some would have it that the truth of peak experiences is about consciousness and human evolution - that peak experiences are the kind of consciousness humans ought to have always, a high energy/ high frequency consciousness; and their message is that we should try and live so that we have more and more of them (each peak experience being a clue to thin kind of thing we ought to be doing, and how to get further peak experiences), until the state becomes continuous...

Some would have it that peak experiences are premier examples of the power of the imagination, the imaginative mind - not objective in the sense of having real-world factual correlates; but, yes, objective in the sense of being really in our minds and a universal human experience - and the lesson is that we should become artists of our own lives;  so that our life becomes a self-creation...

Some would have it that peak experiences are an attunement with reality, moments when we cease to be separated from the rest of the world, and recognize our relatedness - moments when we become free of the curse of consciousness, the literalizing, factual, deadly and dead hand of 'rationality'; free of socialization, of civilization, modernity - and the lesson is that we should live naturally, instinctively, spontaneously, un-self-consciously: become again (like) animals inside action and inside the world and unaware of our situation...


But these and other variants amount to locating peak experiences in our own minds, so the peak experience is ultimately a psychological state - and the specific content of the peak experience is just a means to this state of mind.

So the frosty beauty of the morning and the light on leaves and crumbled walls is merely a means to the end of my state of mind; in particular that yearning element of the peak experience (Sehnsucht) - that yearning for some kind of ideal, eternal and perfect frosty morning - that is a thing which (by this consciousness-focused, psychological view) never can be satisfied, which has no independent existence.


By this consciousness-focused, consciousness-based view of peak experiences, the specific content of peak experiences are merely a trigger to the desired state of mind. So, the fact that (say) frosty mornings, the stars and planets, neolithic temples or the Cheviot Hills, or the thought of Numenor are reliable triggers - says something about me and my upbringing and the way my mind (brain) is set-up; but nothing about the ultimate nature of reality - and this consciousness-centred view of peak experiences would regard it as an error to suppose that I can ever find any of these thing in actual, factual reality.

In effect, peak experiences are like dreams - those rare paradisal dreams; and the only way that those dreams can be made 'real' is for us to dream them continuously.

By this perspective, the only possible 'place' we can find the content of our peak experiences is in the world of imagination. The only place I can find Numenor is in my own interpretation of the fictional works of JRR Tolkien and any further fictional works I may find or make on the topic; and the only way I could be in Numenor is to imagine I am in Numenor; and the only way - even in theory - I could be in Numenor 'permanently' would be to live in a dream (or a psychotic delusion).


So, to locate peak experiences, our best moments, in imagination is to yearn that life be a dream: a chosen dream, a lucid dream, a self-fulfilment dream - but 'just a dream' nonetheless.


By contrast, as a Christian my understand of peak experiences, and my interpretation of peak experiences as a glimpse of reality - locates them not in dreams, delusions, fictions, imaginations or the products of human creativity but in Heaven.

The feeling I get on a frosty morning becomes a glimpse of objective external reality, existing independent of myself and my mind or brain, and the reason I am made so happy about it is that this glimpse is a promise!

For a Christian, the yearning (the Sehnsucht) is like the child's yearning for Christmas - that is a yearning for something that really will happen; but it really will happen in a fully satisfying and permanent way. The only question being: whether I personally want to join this happening?

Christmas will happen, and it will be everything I hope for; the question is whether I want to 'join-in' and celebrate it?


But what of the specifics? If I yearn for the past, or an imagined place like Numenor, do they literally exist and could I literally live there in some kind of actuality that was not merely a self-gratifying daydream or happy delusion?

The answer is that these things and places and people are literally real but incompletely understood and distortedly understood - that all the things which trigger peak experiences are glimpses of the same thing - and indeed we already know this, instinctively.

We already know that peak experiences are not atomic and autonomous and one-off and disconnected and contradicting; but instead all peak experiences are linked, are separate glimpses of the same thing which - if we could see it properly and comprehend it - is one coherent and harmonious thing. Our peak experiences are momentary understandings of permanent reality; which is an actual place where we as actual people (as ourselves) can go and will go if we consent to it.

What we cannot have, is the partial glimpse only and detached; we cannot have a permanent and satisfying inhabiting of nothing-but a frosty chapel, a family joke, Christmas morning or Numenor.

Rather, what we can have is a life of the essence of all of these (and more).


So, in the end, peak experiences are either about a real, actual and possible place and situation that we ourselves could actually inhabit; or else they point to a world of lovely dreams and fulfilling delusions and gratifying self-deceptions.

That is the Christian difference. The peak experiences happen (thank God) either way: the frost on the fallen leaves has the same psychological effect up-front. But the Christian difference is that peak experiences are ultimately really real. It is what happens the moment after the peak experience that is different - when we ask ourselves 'what does that experience mean?

When I am a Christian, the momentary feeling of joy I get from that single frost-edged fern is a partial and distorted but true vision of some actual place that I can actually dwell-in.

And that difference makes for a big difference.


Think of it as a child would see it. The child has a fantasy which thrills him, which he loves, which he years-for - King Arthur or Robin Hood, Power Rangers or Bionicle, whatever it may be. He wants it to be real: really-real - actually existing as a place that he could go to, with all the things he most loves about it; and not a disappointment but as good as he hopes-for, when he gets there.

Anything less is a failure.

Anything less is not really-real.

Anything less is just something else - any adult who tries to tell the child that he really doesn't want that but wants something else, it perceived as practising a bait-and-switch.  


Christianity properly understood, properly explained, must be really-real, and must satisfy the most powerful yearnings of children - not of course immediately, here and now - but ultimately, the promise is (must be) to give us in reality what we most deeply want in our imaginations.

Not something else, but that.

Because those deepest yearnings are placed in us by God to guide us back to Him, and are (or should be) our source of hope beyond current circumstances.


Thus Christianity truly is wish-fulfilment - not whim-fulfilment, but that which we must deeply, earnestly, really wish for - what we, as children of God, and as actual children, most wish for - excitement, happiness, fighting and rest, knowing everything that we want to know, perfect health and healing of all hurts, to love and be loved - securely and forever.

That is the Heaven that is glimpsed by peak experiences. Anything less is not enough. Anything other is not what we want.


A straight answer to a plain question.

The child asks: is it real, can I go there?

The answer: yes, and yes.



MC said...

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

Nicholas Fulford said...

Peak experiences are objectively brief, but subjectively long. They entail a full body/being sense of direct, complete, and ultimate satiety. Awe that feels ubiquitous, boundless and pulsating combined with an unaffected / unwilled state of gratitude. Words disappear, time feels elongated, and vital force permeates a sense of intimate presence.

These are those moments that restore, that glow through the embers that remain upon returning to a normal state. Latent most of the time, but rising as water in a flower stem from hidden roots elicited by the warmth of morning sun upon the petals of my face returning innocence and vitalizing joy. I ooh and ah, cooing as a dove or newborn. I become an instrument in perfect tune, resonating the subtle and overwhelming grandeur of beauty's essence singing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF. Indeed. But the question I am asking is: what does it mean? Is it merely a transient psychological state - or some kind of truth? And if truth, then what kind of truth?

tgj said...

Not every fantasy can be obtained in a more or less straightforward manner, but some of them can. I think most adults have had the experience of actually getting something that they fervently imagined, and then getting bored of it. Are the fantasies that you are describing really different?

When St. Symeon the New Theologian saw the uncreated light, as close to seeing God as is possible in this life, he was told that to believe that this was the ultimate experience revealed smallness of soul, as it was only a pale shadow of what would be revealed in the next. It is characteristic of our modern times that people settle for mere extrapolations of slightly beyond ordinary sense experiences as representing the thing that God became man in order to give us. We are like children in the worst way, so enamored of our dolls that we cannot even imagine falling in love with a real person. Can we even fall in love any more, as empty as that ultimately is? Our souls approach the smallness of an abstract point, with no length, width, or height.

David said...

@Bruce - It is so good to know that that other people feel the same way about these things. I have often found myself transported by nature and the small simple details of a living interaction with it. The example you give of a frosted fern is one that I have often found myself marvelling at on a solitary winter walk with a foolish grin plastered across my face. Such moments feel as though I have accidently stumbled across an invitation to playful encounter and wonder with the creator himself. I had once dismissed these kinds of 'peak experiences' with the usual secular rationalisations which stultify and deaden genuine intuitous experiences of reality with a raw efficiency;the kind of deadening that reaffirms the banal and mundane as no longer noteworthy, a closing of the door to the genuinely magnificent and awe inspiring that can be found in simple reality if one takes the time to invite it (like starting a wordless conversation) or is invited.

One particular day will always remain captured in recent memory: a trip with friends to the fjords of Iceland; skipping stones over a pristine lake and watching in wonder where the sky mirrors the earth at the horizon and a thousand worlds were reflected in the ripples; the laughter and joyful conversation, a feeling of utter completeness and wholeness out-of-time to those happy moments.

It occurs to me that the animistic or Pagan experiences with nature that I have always sought in life, literature and in private reverie before becoming a Christian are now unfathomably enhanced and now on such occasions I walk through the woods and 'talk with God'in my prayers; we seem to walk together,each frosted fearn a reminder that heavenly father loves me personally and that heaven awaits us if only we can perceive the transcendent and follow his lead with the pure trusting heart of a child unto a parent.

Thanks for this wonderful post; much more articulate than I am able. The cynics and the skeptics will always find grounds to refute or engage in reductio ad absurdum with their reasonings (I used to be one of them but I got bored of it and it never really worked for me anyway), but truely I ask you, can such a shared and instantly identifiable, uniquely human (transcendental) experience really be adequately explained away by some kind of reductionist or evolutionary paradigm, explaining the master magicians tricks as mere 'slight of hand' and that we are somehow suckers for falling for it, wishful-thinking leading us astray?! Well these arguements don't fool me anymore. The glorious works of heavenly father are there for all to behold everyday if only we will look with fresh eyes :-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@David- So glad to know this struck a chord with you.

"can such a shared and instantly identifiable, uniquely human (transcendental) experience really be adequately explained away by some kind of reductionist or evolutionary paradigm"

- Well,yes it can - in the sense that when you are doing evolutionary biology there are only two admissible explanations -sheer chance, or sheer chance incrementally amplified by natural selection. Once you are inside science, God is not an option - that just is the way science is set up.

But, of course, the same applies to the science itself - if we reject peak experiences as an accidental by product of chance/natural selection - then so is biology itself, including the theory of natural selection.

This leads into the typical modern nihilism, the mood of uncertainty about everything, the despairing fear that maybe nothing is read and nothing really matters.

So, in that sense, I would say the explanation is very obviously NOT adequate - and would only be acceptable if it was compelling on the grounds of perfect logical consistency and overwhelming evidence - neither of which is true.