Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Maslow and the peak experience

A long time ago, like around 1990 - I read an essay in a book of cyberpunk short stories called Semiotext(e) SF from the subversive publisher of the same name. It stuck with me this whole time and really shaped the way I view things. I lost the book many moves ago and it's out of print so it wasn't easy to find but I recently re-ordered on Amazon from a used book vendor.

The subject matter is peak experiences which in my mind are essential for balanced living and something I've written about a few times. Here's the story OCR'ed for your benefit in all it's original splendor - enjoy!

Colin Wilson, a literatus or homme des lettres who has accomplished great things in nearly every print genre from philosophy to encyclopedias, has exercised tremendous influence on anti-authoritarian circles, thanks to his work in libratory psychology. But he is also idolized in SF circles for his Lovecraftian pastiches. Legend has it that Wilson once criticized HPL's atrocious style and was challenged by August Derleth to do better. SPACE VAMPIRES and LIFE FORCE were the result, by far the most orignial contributions to the Mythos since the master's death. HPL's genius owed much to sexual repression. Wilson's inspira- tion was to uncover the sexually "buried"in pulp and horror and free it from its bonds, transforming its energy from neurosis to self-realization. He has recently published a major SF far-future trilogy, SPIDER WORLD, with a similar philo- sophical agenda.

Bob Banner, who edits CRITIQUE: A JOURNAL OF METAPHYSICS AND CON‑SPIRACY (the best periodical on conspiracy theory), asked Colin Wilson for a brief resume of his central philosophical idea. We found the result valuable enough to warrant its inclusion as one of our three non-fiction pieces. Some doubt has recently been cast on Sheldrake's interpretation of the "100th monkey" mate­rial—but this doubt cannot rule out the possibility of some other "vitalist" de­velopment in biology with the same implications. Morphogenetic field research looks particularly promising in this respect. Aside from this one point, we find Wilson's essay a powerful manifesto of self-evident importance.

Maslow, Sheldrake, and the Peak Experience

By Colin Wilson

The other day in our local pub, a stranger asked me how many books I had written. When I said 55, he looked startled, and asked me whether there was any constant theme that ran through them. Lying awake in the middle of the night, I decided to treat this as a challenge, and try to summarize the basic theme of all my work. The result—which follows—comes as close to it as I can manage in a couple of thousand words.

About twenty-five years ago, I received a letter from an Ameri­can professor of psychology called Abraham Maslow. What he had to say struck me as breathtakingly original. Maslow said that, as a psy­chologist, he had got tired of studying sick people, because they never talked about anything but their sickness. It struck him that nobody had ever bothered to study healthy people. So he asked around among his friends: "Who is the healthiest person you know?" And he then got all the healthy people together and asked them questions. He immediately discovered something that no one else had ever found out: that all ex­tremely healthy people have, with a fair degree of frequency, what Mas­low called "peak experiences," experiences of bubbling, overwhelming happiness.

A typical one was as follows. A young mother was watching her husband and children eating breakfast. Suddenly, a beam of sunlight came in through the window. She thought: "My God, aren't I lucky?", and went into the peak experience.

When Maslow talked about peak experiences to his students, he made another important discovery. They began recalling peak experi­ences which they'd had in the past, which they'd now half-forgotten. He realized that this is the problem: that we all have peak experiences, but we take them for granted and quickly forget them. But as soon as his students began recalling their peak experiences, and talking about them to one another, they all began having more peak experiences. Talking and thinking about them somehow put them in the right frame of mind for further peak experiences.

All this excited me tremendously. For obviously if science could discover how to induce peak experiences, most of our worst social prob­lems would vanish. Even then, in the early 1960s, it was obvious that most of our problems are due to boredom and frustration, and that alco­holism, drug abuse, football hooliganism, vandalism and sex crime are really a muddled search for the peak experience. If we could learn the secret of the peak experience, we would be well on our way towards H. G. Wells's "modern Utopia."

But when I put this question to Maslow, his answer disappointed me. He said he didn't think it was possible to have peak experiences "at will." They came when they wanted to, and there was nothing much we could do about it. Yet it seemed to me that this comment ran counter to his basic optimism. And I settled down to try and answer the question of how to induce peak experiences.

The first clue was that Maslow's students had started having more peak experiences as soon as they began thinking and talking about them. The reason is obvious. Thinking and talking about happiness puts you into an optimistic frame of mind. You get the feeling that man was intended to be happy. The philosopher Epictetus made the interesting observation: "Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems." That is to say, we tend to get stuck in a thoroughly negative frame of mind. That is why healthy people have more peak experiences; they don't waste so much time worrying about things that will never happen.

In the past twenty-five years, I have learned a great deal about the various tricks for inducing the peak experience, and have proved to my own satisfaction that Maslow was mistaken. (Un‑ fortunately, he died before I had time to tell him so.) There are a great many simple mental techniques for inducing the peak experience, and the basic method is always the same: to deliberately generate "inner tension," followed immediately by relaxation. Graham Greene discov­ered the basic method when, as a teenager, he played Russian roulette with his brother's revolver. When the hammer clicked on an empty cham­ber, he experienced an overwhelming sense of delight. This method is obviously not to be recommended, but anyone who thinks about it care­fully will see that it contains all the important clues.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent four days in Amsterdam, trying to teach a roomful of "mature students" how to induce peak experiences. The experiment was successful beyond my expectations. During the final session, two students became convinced that they could see a golden light, while another said she had apparently floated clear off the floor.

But does all this bring us any nearer to "a modern Utopia?" Five years ago, I would have said no. But in the meantime, there has been a new and fascinating development. This is largely due to the work of one single man, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake. It was She!drake who, in a book called A New Science of Life, came up with a theory of evolution that outraged most of his older colleagues. According to modern biology, evolution occurs through changes in the genes. According to Sheldrake, there is a simpler and much quicker method, which he calls "morphic resonance." The simplest way of explaining this is to cite the famous story about the monkeys on the island of Koshima, off the coast of Japan. Scientists fed the monkeys unwashed sweet potatoes, and one exceptionally bright female named Imo discovered that if she washed her potatoes in the sea, they were not only less gritty, but tasted better. Soon all the monkeys on Koshima had learned the trick. But so had other monkeys on the mainland—monkeys who had had no kind of contact with those on Koshima.

Was it some form of telepathy? Apparently not, for it not only works for animals, but for crystals. Some substances are extremely diffi­cult to crystallize in the laboratory. But as soon as one laboratory has succeeded in doing it, the substance begins to crystallize much easier all over the world. At first it was thought that visiting scientists had carried tiny fragments of the new crystals on their clothes or beards. But this possibility was finally eliminated. Apparently the crystals were some­how "learning" from one another... Sheldrake set out to prove his theory with a number of experiments. One of these involved sending out thou­sands of those trick "pictures" in which a face is concealed in a mass of lines. He reasoned that once a certain number of people had learned to "see" the face, increasing numbers of people would be able to see it immediately. And that is precisely what happened.

If Sheldrake is right—and the biologists are fighting him tooth and nail every inch of the way—the consequences would obviously be momentous. To begin with, we would have to recognize that our writers and artists are largely to blame for the chaotic state of society. The chief qualification for a Nobel Prize is apparently to believe that life is futile and meaningless, and to say this in books and plays that end in the defeat of the hero. We stuff this poisonous rubbish down the throats of our children at school and university, and apparently believe that we are equipping them to face life. If there is anything to the theory of morphic resonance, then this is the equivalent of pouring plague germs into a city's water supply.

On the other hand, if a fairly large group of human beings could learn to have peak experiences at will—or simply learn to put themselves into the state of mind in which peak experiences are likely—then, ac­cording to Sheldrake, it should continue to spread naturally to increasing numbers of people. And perhaps a century hence—perhaps far less— everybody would be born with the ability to induce peak experiences. And the face of our civilization would be totally changed.


Anonymous said...

interesting concept.

hellophotokitty said...

off to tap into my own peak experience!