Peak Experiences

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Near Monterey, California, 2013

I chased my one-year old through the sand as he toppled over, laughed, and stood back up again, rubbing sand in his palms and licking it off his lips, taking in each new sensation. We stood near the rough surf,  but far enough so Alistair didn’t fear the crash accompanying each wave. Instead we looked on in awe, together. Just us on this secluded strip of beach behind our cheap motel, far enough off Highway 1 to be deserted at 10 am. Certain logistics of our mother and son road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway were fraught with difficulty. The cheap motel didn’t provide cribs, so I had to buy a pack-and-play. Caring for a toddler alone on such a long drive involved frequent stops, diaper changes, outfit switch-outs and forays into grocery stores for fruit pouches.

But something happened to me on that drive. We wound through coastal towns and over historic bridges, beside beach-side campgrounds and through high, twisting cliff tops. Alistair didn’t say much at his age, but I never felt alone. I sang music at the top of my lungs, stopped to take photos and take in fellow travelers. I listened to the birds and the seals and the wind.

We got back into L.A. after dark and with a crashing reality I sat in a gas station parking lot booking a hotel on Priceline. I GPS-ed my way through Los Angeles traffic to the hotel, adjacent to a shopping center with a parking lot the size of small town. Alistair, as usual with hotels, was beyond excited. I felt elated but wasn’t sure why. My exhausted body wrestled an over-tired toddler and worked out a major calf cramp from being in the car so long. But I got Alistair to sleep right away and I sat alone in the darkness of the hotel room in bliss.

The road trip had been magical. I felt renewed, more in touch with myself than in a long time. Infinite possibilities stood before me. I could do anything. Life was amazing. It didn’t matter how a messy life existed back in Moorhead,  waiting for me. In that moment, all was clear.

I’ve since learned what I experienced on that day in April of 2013 : a peak experience.

Abraham Maslow, of the hierarchy of needs fame, described peak experiences as occurring when a person “feels himself, more than other times, to be the responsible, active, creating center of his activities and of his perceptions. He feels more like a prime-mover, more self-determined (rather than caused, determined, helpless, dependent, passive, weak, bossed). He feels himself to be his own boss, fully responsible, fully volitional, with more ‘free-will’ than at other times, master of his fate, an agent.”

Maslow also said, “Think of the most wonderful experience of your life: the happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly ‘being hit’ by a book or painting, or from some creative moment.”

I’ve been considering my own dedication to the experience and pursual of peak experiences recently.

Everyone who knows me would probably agree I’m a sensation lover, a novelty seeker, and an experience-minded person, sometimes to the detriment of stability or comfort. But comfort, to me, is stifling. (In one sense of the word, that is; comfort can have different meanings.)

There is a song by American Authors which I don’t particularly love, but these lines always stands out to me:

“I guess I’m going home,

’cause all my cash is gone,

I spent it all trying to feel alive.

Go big or go home…”

The rest of the song eludes to the singer being adventurous, sleeping when he’s dead etc. So he’s….going big, yay! Oh wait…he can’t anymore. He’s going home.

And that, I feel, is the struggle. I don’t want to give in to the status quo. Life IS too short for that. I’ve been lucky enough to live with few regrets (but some I’m still trying to work through, such as moving my entire family to North Dakota after college).

Maslow speaks of being hit by a book as an example of a peak experience. This can happen for free at your house. It’s certainly happened to me (Harry Potter, seven times over). I’ve felt this even more through my life over movies.

I remember leaving the movie theater -Tinseltown- at age thirteen after watching Good Will Hunting. I cried in bed that night, feeling so ALIVE. I was never going to be a math genius – but when Matt Damon drove down the road to get Minnie Driver, I realized I could come from my own version of Southie and be anything I wanted to be and go anywhere I wanted to go. Life stretched before me.

(I could list movie examples all day. For example, I still can’t listen to Secret Garden by Bruce Springsteen without feeling the same deep emotions evoked from the Jerry Maguire movie soundtrack…..)

Another ‘free’ peak experience I’ve been consistently hung up on is love. Maslow would concur love invokes incredible peak experience potential. Some of the times I’ve felt most brave, most myself, and the most clarity is regarding matters of romantic love and maternal love for my son. When I started dating my now-husband Alex, I felt I practically floated through life. I was riding a cloud of elation from his flat to my flat, and the town we lived in took on a character of its own. Edinburgh, Scotland will forever equal LOVE to me because of this connotation. The city doesn’t provide clarity to me the way Maslow’s peak experience theory would suggest, but it does evoke the emotion of the true peak experience which occurred there, when I fell head-over-heels for Alex. I just get off the plane there and feel like a better version of myself.

I’m not a drinker, a smoker or a drug taker. When people say they get ‘high on life’ , though, I understand what they mean. Because life is where the genuine ecstasy comes from. It can be hard, and sometimes life feels like lurching from one doldrum to another with some tragedy and unfairness thrown in. But peak experiences can be sought and lived, and they make life out of day-to-day living.

I want to live a life full of peak experiences. I urge others to do the same.

( And what’s healthy for the soul is healthy for the mind and body, too.)

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One of my first and most profound peak experience occurred while traveling to California with my best friend our first year of college. This adventure seemed epic enough to warrant its own blog post, Where Dreams and Hobbits Come True….

P.S. Here’s a better video than the American Authors’ one about the same kind of thing (if you like EDM) :

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