Abraham Maslow and ecstatic humanism



This week, I read Abraham Maslow’s 1964 little book, Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences. It’s only 100 pages long, but something of a classic, and anticipates the contemporary interest in the science of spiritual experience that’s apparent in, for example, Sam Harris’ new book (which I will review shortly).

In the 1950s and 60s, Maslow tried to move psychology beyond the reductionism of behaviourism and psychoanalysis, and make it more concerned with how people flourish and ‘self-actualize’. In that sense Maslow’s work anticipates Positive Psychology - indeed, he came up with the phrase.

In the last decade of his life, Maslow recognized that any psychology of flourishing needed to include the ‘data’ of transcendent or ‘peak’ experiences, also sometimes called ‘altered states of consciousness’.

Psychology had, until that point, not paid much attention to transcendent experiences, with the golden exception of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Instead, it went down a naturalistic and mechanistic path, along with every other academic discipline. Behaviourism ignored transcendence ( it ignored all cognition), while Freudianism nodded towards ‘oceanic feelings’ but tended to define such experiences as pathological regressions to infantile mother-love.



However, in the 1960s, there was a sudden resurgence of interest in altered states, no doubt in part because of the proliferation of psychedelic drugs, the Dionysiac ecstasy of rock and roll, and the growing popularity of eastern contemplative practices like yoga, zen, Transcendental Meditation and Hari Krishna chanting. There's been a more sustained focus since then, as academia (and particularly neuroscience) tries to explore the various states of consciousness. I'm off to a big conference next month on 'contemplative studies' - an example of this growing interest.

Still, there are not many serious studies of ecstatic experience (I’ve listed some below, please add more in the comments), perhaps because such experiences are hard to describe and pin down, perhaps because they’re right at the disputed boundary between naturalism and supernaturalism. There is some reputational risk when you go near the edge of the paradigm. You might fall off.

Those psychologists brave enough to cover the topic - Maslow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or Sam Harris - are keen to give a naturalistic account of ecstasy, to bring such experiences 'within the jurisdiction of science' as Maslow puts it (sounding like he has an arrest warrant for Dionysus).

But this attempt raises problems - is it really ecstasy (ekstasis - to stand outside of yourself) if you’re not going beyond the self? Is is really ‘transpersonal’ if you’re not going beyond the person? If you define ecstasy naturalistically as ‘ego dissolution’, then what is the ego dissolving into? And why should that dissolution feel so good and so cosmically significant?

I’ll return to these questions but first I’ll briefly summarize Maslow’s thesis.

Facts and values

Maslow suggests our society is suffering from a disastrous crisis of ‘valuelessness’, which has arisen from the split between science and religion. Facts and values have been sundered, leading to an instrumental, technocratic and amoral science on the one hand, and a dogmatic and irrational religion on the other.

Multicultural, liberal society rejected organized religion as a moral guide - we don’t like the idea of priests indoctrinating our children with superstitious dogma. However, we don’t know quite how to discover or teach ‘spiritual’ values, beyond bland liberal ideas like tolerance, diversity and well-being.

The challenge, then, is how to bring facts and values closer together, to build a science-philosophy of human flourishing, one that 'fits' our biological nature while still being sensitive to the cultural varieties of flourishing. A similar challenge has been highlighted by thinkers including Max Weber, Sam Harris, Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre. In some ways this involves a recovery of virtue ethics, which was an ethical philosophy based on a biological account of humans.

Reintegrating the transcendent

So far, however, humanist alternatives to religion have tended to be rather dry, rationalist and Apollonian. Look at John Dewey’s humanism, for example, or the Skeptic-humanist movement of the last 30 years, or modern Stoicism, or Positive Psychology. Where the emotions are included, they tend to be low-arousal emotions like happiness or gratitude, rather than more heightened and wild emotions like ecstasy.

Maslow insists that humanism needs to speak to the Dionysiac side of man as well as the Apollonian. Any humanistic psychology or philosophy of flourishing needs to include transcendent / ecstatic experience - it can't leave such experiences to the old religions.  In this, he anticipates the work of Positive Psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,  Jonathan Haidt and Sam Harris, as well as organizations like Sunday Assembly, which are trying to create a more ecstatic humanism.

Ecstatic humanism at Sunday Assembly

Ecstatic humanism at Sunday Assembly

Have we marginalized or pathologized ecstatic experience?

Why are transcendent or ecstatic experiences so often left out of psychology and humanism? Maslow suggests some people are uncomfortable with such experiences because they seem to ‘conflict with the materialist-mechanistic philosophy of life’. Ecstatic experiences can feel like ‘a kind of insanity, a complete loss of control, a sense of being overwhelmed by irrational emotions’. They can feel like you're connected to a spirit, which is normal in other cultures, pathological in ours. So we ignore them, repress them, don’t talk about them.

It’s interesting to wonder if westerners have such experiences less often today than 500 years ago. Has the rise of secular modernity closed us off from such experiences, making us put a higher value on being self-controlled, rational and autonomous? Some thinkers have argued along those lines, such as Charles Taylor, Martin Heidegger, Iain McGilchrist or Ted Hughes.

But we can’t prove that thesis - there’s no way of measuring the frequency of ecstasy in the past and present. Certainly, such experiences are not in the cultural mainstream today - we don’t talk about them much. But ecstatic experiences have always been seen as a bit strange, a bit frightening, not something you necessarily shout about - people might think you were possessed by demons.

Speculatively, I’d suggest such experiences still spontaneously occur to people, but we are less likely to attribute such experiences to God, and less likely to re-order our lives around them. We are also less good at engineering such experiences today, because of the decline of monasteries and their collective wisdom, although perhaps this is changing because of the diffusion of eastern religious practices.

Naturalizing ecstasy

Maslow insists ecstatic experiences can easily be fit within a naturalistic framework. He writes: ‘It is very likely that the older reports [of ecstasy], phrased in terms of supernatural revelation, were in fact perfectly natural, human peak-experiences of the kind than can easily be examined today’.



Maslow does not try to reduce ecstatic experiences to various types of pathology - epilepsy, catalepsy, dissociation, hysteria or schizophrenia -  as many early psychologists did. Instead, he sees them as ‘peak experiences’ - more likely to occur to highly self-actualized people. They’re right at the top of his pyramid of self-actualization.

The characteristics of peak-experiences

What, then, are peak-experiences like? What is the view from the top of the mountain? Maslow insists that peak-experiences typically have very similar features, no matter what religion or culture the ‘peaker’ happens to be in. The routes up the mountain may be different, but the view from the top is the same. The view is this:

  • Unitive consciousness: there’s a sense of the reconciliation of opposites, of the particular and the universal, the temporary and the eternal, the self and the cosmos.

  • The cosmos is one: a sense of the universe having ‘some kind of unity, integration’ and even direction and meaning.

  • A sense of absorption, focus, concentration (what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’)

  • A widening of one’s sense of self beyond the little ‘me’, towards identification with the cosmos

  • A transcendence of ego-striving / desire towards a more serene sense of ends / ultimate purpose. This reminds me of Kant’s writing on aesthetic experience as a transcendence into the ‘kingdom of ends’.

  • A sense of rightness - the cosmos is ordered, just and beautiful. ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’, as Julian of Norwich put it.

  • A decrease of anxiety and fear, and especially a lessening of the fear of death.

  • A playfulness, joy, wonder, perhaps a sense of being more alive and more ‘you’ - this is one of the paradoxes of ecstatic experience, you both feel you have transcended ‘me’ and yet also reached a deeper self.

The mystical versus the organizational

Maslow argues that peak-experiences are entirely natural, and happen to most people (although some people are ‘non-peakers’ and have no recognition of such experiences). Most religions begin in such experiences, in the ‘private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer’.

What happens in religious evolution, he suggests, is that the prophet’s peak-experience is seized on by priests, who dogmatize it, systematize it, and use it as a means to control and exploit others. Ironically, the bureaucratic system they build might actually be inimicable to further peak-experiences in adherents - so Maslow argues that non-religious people and non-theists might have such experiences more often.

The denigration of traditional religions

Maslow is right that mystics are often suspected, marginalized and persecuted within their religions (particularly within Abrahamic religions), because they offer the prospect of an unmediated experience of God rather than an experience mediated by priests. As a result, priests often attack mystics - just like the priests of Jerusalem attacked Jesus.

However, Maslow goes too far to suggest the best way to achieve transcendence is outside of any religious culture, in some sort of wordless culture-less symbol-less personal vacuum. Must we all invent our own personal religion? Must we reject all the inherited wisdom and art of previous generations? How exhausting! What a waste of all that wisdom.

As he admitted in a 1970 preface to the book, ritual, liturgy and religious symbolism is not just disposable window-dressing - it’s much deeper than that, as Carl Jung would tell him. It’s a guide through the unconscious. It’s a ladder to transcendence, a trellis around which the flowers of transcendence can grow.

And liturgy, ritual, symbol and myth also binds us together - Maslow ignores the collective aspect of ecstatic experience, as William James also did. Such experiences are not just private and solitary - they are also moments of collective agape, eunoia, love, brotherhood. Think of the collective ecstasy of Pentecostalism, or of festivals like Woodstock and Burning Man.

If we abandon traditional religious wisdom-cultures, and invent our own personal religions as Maslow suggests, how do we make sure that we are not the God of our new religion? There is a risk in the human potential movement that we end up as God. Maslow says that ‘self-actualized people, ie fully evolved and developed people’...are ‘godlike, heroic, great, divine, awe-inspiring, lovable’.

You could call this the ‘superhero fallacy -  it was widespread in the 1960s, and particularly at Esalen. Some affluent and educated westerners discover altered states of consciousness, and they start to believe they are superhumans, X-Men, shamanic magi of incredible powers. The risk is they become puffed up and full of self, rather than surrendering their selves and emptying themselves out to be filled by God.

What about the dark side of ecstasy?

Maslow's book focuses on the positive aspects of peak experience, and more or less entirely ignores the dark side of ecstasy - how experiences of ego-dissolution can sometimes lead to neurosis and even psychosis; how mystical experiences can sometimes lead to a loss of purpose and meaning, rather than a gain; how collective ecstasy often leads to dogma, fanaticism, cultishness, or the demonization of opponents; how often ecstasy is connected to violence.

The suicide bombers of 9/11 were ecstatic. One reason western society medicalized and pathologized ecstasy in the 17th and 18th centuries - calling it things like ‘enthusiasm’, ‘hysteria’, ‘dissociation’ and so on - was because ecstasy was seen by Enlightenment thinkers as a threat to the social order. And they were right, it is,

Are we sure there is one peak?

Maslow warns about the danger of science being over-confident and positivistic. But I think his analysis is over-confident. How can he be so sure there is only one peak of human experience, and that the view from the top is always the same?

The paths to God / transcendence are much less certain and predictable than he suggests - sometimes you’re not sure if you’re going up or down. Rather than naturally unfolding when we have ticked off all the other boxes of human experience - safety, food, relationships, fulfilling work etc - ecstatic experiences often happen when we are at our lowest ebb, when we’re depleted, depressed, disorientated, perhaps close to death.

Suffering sometimes breaks open the old self and reveals the light - while people who pride themselves on being highly evolved may be too self-satisfied to go beyond the self.

And we can’t easily reduce all the varieties of religious experience to one ‘core experience’ without doing them an injustice. The transpersonal psychologist Jorge Ferrer put it better - rather than ‘many paths and one mountain’, we could say there are many shores looking out onto an ocean. We can’t be entirely sure they’re looking out onto the same ocean.

Are such experiences easy to naturalize?

Finally, and most importantly, I am not convinced by Maslow’s contention that it is easy to fit such experiences into a naturalistic psychology. I think he betrays an institutional bias towards naturalism, which is shared by other psychologists of ecstasy like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Jonathan Haidt. This institutional bias damages their account of ecstasy.

Firstly, if you look at people’s accounts of ecstasy in, say, the Alister Hardy Religious Experience database, they often feel like an encounter with a spiritual Other - a spirit, a dead loved-one, a saint, an angel or daemon, a god.  Maslow’s peak-experience, like Csizksentmihalyi’s ‘flow’, cuts the Other out of the photo. In his account of peak-experiences, we never really go beyond the bounds of the self to let in this Other. It’s not really transpersonal.

Instead, Maslow and Csizksentmihalyi's naturalized versions of ecstasy become not moments of surrender, but moments when we feel we're really 'on it', really in the zone - in control and masterful. This naturalized and super-powered experience appeals a lot to corporates (who lapped up the concepts of flow and peak-experiences) but has very little to do with the self-surrender of traditional ecstatic experience.

Secondly, Maslow notes that a common consequence of such experiences is a reduced fear of death. One also often sees this in the thousands of spiritual experiences in the Alister Hardy Religious Experience database. People come away from such experiences believing death is not the end, that there is something beyond it. That was certainly the main 'fact' I took from my near-death experience: there is something in us that does not die.

What that ‘something’ is, is uncertain. It may not be a mansion in heaven, or a Tibetan bardo, or 72 virgins waiting for their Jihadi lover, or even the survival of the personality in any recognizable form.

But this much is clear -  people have, for millennia, come away from transcendent experiences with a sense that our consciousness is part of a bigger consciousness, to which it returns after death. How does that fit into naturalism?


Here are some books I've read on ecstatic experiences - do add any other good ones in the comments. Thanks!

Marghanita Laski: Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences (1961)

Ann Taves: Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (1999)

Charles Tart: Altered States of Consciousness (1969)

Erika Bourgignon: Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change (1973)

Mircea Eliade: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951)

Judith Becker: Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trance (2004)

William James: Varieties of Religious Experience (1901)

Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind (2012)

Mihaly Cziksentmihayli: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)

Evelyn Underhill: Mysticism (1911)

Emile Durkheim: Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912)

Daniel B. Smith: Muses, Madmen and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity (2008)

Brian Inglis: Trance: A Natural History of Altered States of Mind (1990)

Norman Rosenthal: Transcendence (2011)

Any other recommendations?