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.