Peak experiences, perfect moments and the extra-ordinary

Story highlights

  • A psychologist defined peak-experiences as accompanied by wonder, awe and reverence
  • Peakers tend more often than nonpeakers to say their lives are very meaningful

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)The closest I've come to a profound religious experience happened at a Zen Buddhist monastery in the mountains. I was a sophomore in college, and my mom invited me to join her for a long weekend group retreat at the Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a collection of Japanese-style buildings surrounded by woods in the Catskills of New York state.

The retreat was rigorous and invigorating. The teaching was formal. We meditated for long stretches at a time, longer than I ever had. We enjoyed meals in collective silence while following an ancient three-bowl ritual taught to us in advance. And we performed ordinary chores that were opportunities for more meditative focus. I treasured the nature, quiet, rules and pushing myself, though at one point, I nearly passed out at the conclusion of an extended pre-dawn sitting.
    On our last morning, I joined a walking meditation that required an increasingly quick pace around a walkway that circumnavigated the main temple. The sun had just risen, hitting the trees that flanked our path. I noticed a fawn feeding close by and -- in that moment -- felt overwhelmed by the animal's beauty and my connection to that beauty.
      Then, as we rounded a corner and the deer left my sight, I looked at the head of the man in front of me. He was short and losing his hair. And as I lovingly peered down at his male pattern baldness, I had this profound revelation: Everything is equally beautiful. This man. The deer. The mountain. Me. All of it. We are all the same, and it's all beautiful and good.
      This numinous feeling stayed with me for a long time afterward, and more than 25 years later, I can still easily connect to that moment, conjure it up as a truth I discovered and continue to value.
      I had what the psychologist Abraham Maslow defined as a "peak-experience": an ego-transcending moment more extraordinary than most others. "The world seen in the peak-experiences is seen only as beautiful, good, desirable, worthwhile," Maslow wrote in his compact 1964 volume, "Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences." They are usual accompanied by epiphanies, he explains, and emotions such as wonder, awe and reverence.
        Maslow argues that what I thought of as my "religious experience" at the Buddhist monastery, he would prefer to call a human experience. It can be defined, measured, even induced by intense mental or physical exertion or psychedelic drugs. He wanted these moments to be less mystical and more accessible because, he argues, our lives are