Defining Mysticism

Commentary on Abraham Maslow's
"Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences"

~Sandra Stahlman

Maslow states that the transcendent experiences occur universally, and they can be characterized as being of a theistic, supernatural, or non-theistic content. Very important with Maslow is the idea that the experience is as unique as the person experiencing it. Regardless of content, and how the experience is interpreted and used, Maslow points out that there are certain characteristics which are constant to what he has termed "peak-experiences," a term which encompasses the spectrum of mystical states of consciousness. Maslow prefers the term "peak-experience" because he wishes to secularize the experience, feeling it is necessary to define the experience as one that is natural and available without an organized religious context. However, this is not to say that religious context is unimportant. He comprehends the need for a framework of values with which to interpret and understand the experience. However, Maslow believes that since the peak-experience can be stimulated by non-religious settings and activities, the framework by which we interpret our experience must encompass everyday life - beyond the realm of "religion." Then, Maslow says, "Religion becomes...a state of mind achievable in almost any activity of life, if this activity is raised to a suitable level of perfection." (p.170)

In the field of psychology, particularly around the time Maslow was starting his study, the prevalent idea was that since the inner mind was not tangible, it could not be objectively studied. Maslow hoped to provide a framework which could be used, both personally and scientifically, to explore peak-experiences. With a common language of terms ("peak-experience"), the frequency of occurrence and variation of the experience can be measured and examined. Individuals can use Maslow's terms to relate their subjective experience and compare it to the subjective experiences of others. In this manner, Maslow feels mystical experience will become incorporated into our everyday language, part of our culture.

Maslow presents a list of characteristics -- formerly assigned only to religious contexts -- to encompass all varieties of peak-experience, whatever the context. He describes how the experience tends to be unifying, noetic, and ego-transcending; it gives a sense of purpose to the individual, a sense of integration. He feels that peak-experiences can be therapeutic, as they tend to increase free will, self-determination, creativity, and empathy. Maslow believes that we should study and cultivate peak-experience, so that we can teach those in our culture to those who "have never had them or who repress or suppress them" (p.179), providing them a route to achieve personal growth, integration, and fulfillment.

Maslow, Abraham. "Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences." Personality and Religion. Harper & Row: New York, 1970.

Written by Sandy Stahlman, 1992, at the University of Rochester

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