Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Peak Experiences!

Have You Been to the Mountaintop?  Exploring Peak and/or Religious Experiences
Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
February 9, 2014


My husband Greg is very proud to be a 46er.  Now the term 46er had no meaning to me before I met Greg – and it probably doesn’t mean anything to you folks either.  But if you grew up climbing the Adirondack mountains, you would appreciate Greg’s accomplishment.  The Adirondack Forty-Sixers are hikers who have climbed all forty-six of the traditionally recognized High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains.  Now Greg climbed most of these as a camper and camp counselor early in his life.  But he had a few more to go after we met, and shared with me that he had resolved to achieve that goal.  And in July of 2007, he did.  It was a Moutaintop – peak experience – literally and spiritually. 

These two combinations of geographical and spiritual peaks are not uncommon.  In fact some scholars maintain that the most important revelation narratives of all three major Western monotheistic religions occurred on mountains. Moses experienced God in the burning bush on Mount Horeb and was given the Commandments on Mount Sinai.   Jesus underwent the Transfiguration on a high mountain in the Holy Land and Muhammed was given the Qur’an in the cave of Hira on the mountain Jabal al-Nour. Many other religious traditions emphasize mountains and hills as holy places where one may find divine wisdom.  Perhaps it’s the lack of Oxygen!  Seriously!

I’m quoting here from an article on Mountains and Mysticism on the internet blog science on religion. 

In a 2005 article in the journal Medical Hypotheses, Arzy and colleagues compared studies of high-altitude effects on physiology with historical reports of mountaintop mystical experiences, and found some fascinating similarities. Mountain climbers suffering from the effects of high altitude and low levels of oxygen have reported such eerie experiences as sensing an invisible presence, having visual and auditory hallucinations, being swept up in powerful emotions (particularly fear), and even seeing light emanating from nearby objects or having out-of-body visions. All of these phenomena are characteristic of many religious or mystical experiences recorded throughout history.
The authors proposed several hypotheses for why mountaintops might be especially conducive to profound religious encounters. First, physical stress – a nearly unavoidable aspect of any good mountaineering adventure – releases endorphins that lower the body’s threshold for temporal lobe epileptic seizures…..


During prolonged stays in high-altitude environments, the researchers proposed, the parts of the brain surrounding the tempero-parietal junction may also become damaged, leading to shifts in one’s sense of self-awareness….. When this area is malfunctioning, eerie experiences like feeling separated from one’s own body or sensing alien presences are more likely.  Finally, the combination of high altitude and social might weaken functioning in the prefrontal cortex… When this area of the brain isn’t working properly, the owner of that brain might be more susceptible to sensory hallucinations and to accepting their validity."….It’s possible, therefore, that the extreme environmental conditions found on mountaintops may help physiologically generate mystical experiences.

These authors go on to point out however – that altitude can’t be making all that difference all the time or everyone in Colorado would constantly be talking to God.   But they are not all talking to God, are they?  Unless God's name is Mary Jane. 

Of course others find peak experiences in the woods, at the beach, in a church, in the kitchen, and, yes, in other rooms as well.  We are not limited by geography, space, place, or time. 

We humans do have these peak experiences!

And since this is Darwin weekend, I wanted to try to explain all of this from an evolutionary perspective.  There has been much written about the evolutionary origins of religions and religious experiences – too many different theories for me to share about today.  There is certainly a difference of opinion among scientists about much of this; but most will agree that we’ve certainly at least evolved to have the capacity for religion and religious experiences.   And by evolution I’m primarily referring to biological evolution – but certainly there has been social evolution – and the passing on of memes or constructs– as well as genes.  And these religious constructs have been passed on effectively because they are usually communicated in emotional situations which make them easier to remember. 

In any case, our pragmatic friend William James would tell us that it doesn’t matter how or why it came about.  He would ask instead -- what is the result of it?  What good are these experiences?

In 1902, William James published a book called The Varieties of Religious Experiences:  A Study in Human Nature.  He did not study religion or religious experiences generally, he studied specific individuals who had religious experiences – people like George Fox, who was diagnosed a schizophrenic, but who founded one of the most peaceful religions ever – The Quakers!

In his book on the Varieties of Religious Experience published in 1902 – and based on his lectures – he made these important claims as summarized by one of his biographers (from Wikipedia):
* (First) - Religious genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions—since institutions are merely the social descendant of genius.
* (Second) The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind—that is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
* (And Third) In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.
The investigation of mystical experience was constant throughout the life of James, leading him to experiment with chloral hydrate (1870), amyl nitrite (1875), nitrous oxide (1882), and even peyote (1896). James claimed that it was only when he was under the influence of nitrous oxide that he was able to understand Hegel. He concluded that while the revelations of the mystic hold true, they hold true only for the mystic; for others, they are certainly ideas to be considered, but can hold no claim to truth without personal experience of such.


Here’s a quote from James’ book about his reason for believing and following the path that mystics follow.  You have to listen closely because the writing is dense:  The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word "bosh!" Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow "scientific" bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament -- more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?

Hmmmmm.  This is heavy.  I asked you for help.   Here’s what I got.  One person shared from a more academic perspective – some of the William James perspective connected with the question of whether these experiences happen as frequently as before, and two others shared experiences they have had primarily through meditation – though interestingly, neither one is meditating now….  Perhaps because they got the message.  They listened, and are now doing.  It takes both.

Just three of you responded.  Perhaps I should not be asking anyway.  Some who have experienced significant peak experiences say that those who have had the experience don’t need to ask – and those who haven’t had the experience – can’t understand anyway. 

My son John, who has had these significant experiences, says this is a cop out for folks who want to control it and not explain it.  So I asked him about his experiences.  Did he see visions of sugarplums dancing it his head – or what?

He said, “No – I saw the world as it really was.”  John explained that he heard a voice in his head that he believed was not himself thinking at the time – but a separate entity; and he accepted it as such saying, “You live your life on faith anyway.”  He said this being was loving and had a sense of humor.  And he tried to listen, observe, and learn.  John says his experience opened up parts of his brain so that he could see patterns of human behavior that he had not seen before.  He said, “People move like fish.  We’re on a river, but we can’t see the water.  There are more connections to each other than we realize.”  He says that when having that experience, you can observe things in nature that teach you life lessons.  It’s not that he saw things that weren’t there.  But he really saw what WAS there so much more truthfully and intensely. 

Here’s an example.  He was on a riverbank in this nature park at the time and a man rode by in a boat and hollered up – I used to live there.  I used to live right there but they took my house away from me.  And John looked down and saw some concrete blocks in the ground – the remains of a foundation – the man’s house, and then he noticed some little bug creatures making their home there.  And he thought – "the home is still here, but it’s someone else’s now.  Some things remain, and some things change – and we have to move on.  It’s someone else’s turn.”  Theodore Parker preached a famous sermon on the Permanent and Transient trying to get folks to understand this.  But John learned it well that day – and it has stuck with him because of the overwhelming feelings of connection he had. 

Now John says the problem comes when folks want to keep that feeling or get back to it, and try for their rest of their lives through various religious practices or taking drugs or whatever to get to to that when in reality, they’ve learned the lesson they needed to learn.  He reminded me that Mother Teresa had the experience of God talking to her, telling her that she needed to feed and clothe the hungry. And she continued to pray and hope for that special experience again, but she never had it.  Nevertheless, she lived it – she did it.  She learned the lesson and she lived it.  And isn’t that more important!!

I don’t climb a lot of Mountains anymore – literally or spiritually.  I stick with the foothills, perhaps because it’s safer. Similarly, Maslow suggested that as we age physically, the intensity of peak moments gives way to a gentler, more sustained state of serenity that he called plateau-experiences.  As he poetically observed in RELIGIONS, VALUES, AND PEAK-EXPERIENCES, "The great lesson from the true mystics {is that} the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends, and family, in one's backyard."  That’s good, because I know from experience with others, that you can fall off the edge of a Mountain.  And I also know that you can learn from the rhythm of a good jog around the neighborhood or walk around the labyrinth too.  You may not have a peak experience, but you can feel the oneness and the call to goodness.  Then you can remember it. 

And that’s another reason that we come to church…  to remember the oneness, to just touch the connection – know it’s there, and be inspired to live life more fully and to help others to do so as well.  So today -- whether we are remembering the thunder from the Mountaintops – or that voice still and small – may it call us to nurture and heal ourselves and the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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