The Role of "Peak Experiences" in Spiritual Practice

What kinds of magical spiritual experiences are possible and should we be chasing them?

The Role of "Peak Experiences" in Spiritual Practice

A peak experience is an often ineffable or "magical" experience that may occur for some people during deep spiritual practice (e.g. meditation), or sometimes spontaneously during normal daily activity or during sleep.  They can also be induced by psychedelic substances.  Such experiences could include:

  • General feeling of complete release, euphoria, psychedelic patterns, visions or bright lights (Nimitta)
  • Out of Body Experiences (OBE) or astral projection
  • Experience of egoless-ness, completely dissolving of self, "nothingness" or floating in a void
  • Dream-like experiences, including meeting deceased people or a "deity"
  • Lucid dreams
  • Experiences that feel "more real than real life"

They are typically intense but short lasting (hence a "peak"), however the subtle effects on your experience. or shifts in your perspectives on life, can last much longer.

Personally I don't count Samadhi, nor continuous Jnana (nor the simple continuous joy and clarity during a good meditation) as peak experiences, because these last much longer, being states of peace and clarity, free of conceptual bounds such as ego.  For one who is very good at meditation these can arise reliably and continue for some time.  Peak experiences are much more unpredictable and often unexpected.

Also notice I haven't used words like "bliss" and "pleasure" even though that can sometimes be part of it, its certainly not the primary aspect.  True peak spiritual experiences tend to leave you with a sense of awe, profundity, insight, deeper meaning or a glimpse into a reality rather different than you thought.  This isn't an "orgasm", nor are you "getting high" or "tripping out"... you already know how to make those happen if you are just chasing pleasure.

Some people have peak experiences spontaneously, particularly those who are very dedicated to long term spiritual practice, and who practice genuinely with little expectation.  Others may have it the first time they meditate, but never again, even though they spend huge effort trying to recreate that first time to no avail.  Others never do.

Rest assured that whatever you get or don't get, it is always for the best.  Having a peak spiritual experience isn't the goal of spirituality.

The benefits and the pitfalls

I have had a number of peak experiences in the past and they are almost always very unexpected.  However, I have very few these days.  I no longer put a huge emphasis on them as I did when I was a beginner, and therefore I wont bother to describe or glorify mine here.

Such experiences can be a double edge sword.  On one hand they can be good motivation, and a sign you are on the right track, especially for beginners or those with some doubts (although there are much better signs like just generally feeling happier and less agitated by things).  They can also leave you with lasting shifts in perspective (often very subtle), such as simply taking life less seriously having seen a deeper reality which felt more real than what you thought "real life".  Though this will wear off quickly if you just go back to your everyday activity without using this perspective shift to deepen your practice and further explore your inner self.

However, peak spiritual experiences can also be a distraction.  They can inflate the ego.  They can inspire false goals, convince people that seeking such experiences or pleasures is what their practice is all about.  A long spiral of "experience chasing" can ensue, typically misguiding a seeker for some time.  They can induce clinging to a special magical experience.  In the worst cases they can cause addiction and attachment, particularly if induced through certain psychedelic substances (although many of these substances have anti-addiction properties, some do not).

There are plenty of people out there (I used to one of them) that will tell you that you must have some sort of profound peak experience in order to even begin to understand the true nature of reality or the "non-dual".  Just as there are plenty who think you must have an IRL guru with true "lineage" for any real spiritual growth. I personally disagree with both, and really its your ability to embody spirituality in your thoughts, speech and action, that is more important, as well as your ability to consistently see the ordinary experience directly in front of you clearly.  Anything you do to improve those is great, whether its simply consistent meditation practice, selfless acts, reading or listening to spriritual resources, having a guru, or indeed: chasing peak experiences.  If you are consistently meditating, looking into your own self and studying what brings your peace, then I think you are better off than someone who had one mushroom trip where they exploded into a million pieces and now thinks they are the local spiritual authority.

Wisely dealing with peak experiences and potential paths to having one

It is best not to expect or force peak experiences, nor to deliberately recreate past peak experiences.  If they do spontaneously arise, take them as a small sign and motivation to keep going. Reflect on them later, but do not get distracted by them.  Bragging about them may take you a step backwards.  I would also like to point out that in my personal experience, taking shortcuts (substances) to achieve peak experiences were not as powerful and beneficial as those that spontaneously occurred from within during normal meditation or yogic practices (such as lucid dreaming or Yoga Nidra).  I also think that if you try substances, then you really need an intention for personal growth and facing your inner self, rather than just wanting to escape or trip out.  The "set and setting" is important.

My theory is that in order to more easily have a peak experience, it can help to be first sitting in a mild emotional low.  Yes, that means you actually want to be in an kind of chronic slightly unsatisfactory place to begin with.  Most people at the beginning of their spiritual path will actually have this, whether they notice it or not, as this is usually what brings a person to spirituality in the first place. Suffering is a teacher.  I no longer live in the chronic-unsatisfactory zone of life so therefore I don't really have emotional lows from which to easily produce an emotional peak.  They go hand in hand.

Therefore while wishing for a magical peak experience, you may also be unwittingly wishing for an unsatisfactory emotional low in life!  The age old saying: Be careful what you wish for.  If you do find yourself in a low point of life, maybe a "high" experience will help in the short term to get back on your feet.  Just don't ride that roller-coaster up and down too long if you are looking for lasting relief and true growth.

Equanimity, not pleasure, is the true goal of a spiritual path.

Having said all this, if you are interested in exploring peak experiences, my tip is to look wholeheartedly and patiently into Yoga Nidra, breath-work, and Lucid dreaming.  These tend to produce interesting results with lasting positive effects, if you are genuine and patient.  Even if you do not get peak experiences from them, they are worth sticking to long term as the benefits can be great either way.  I don't promote psychedelic substances even though they are interesting, mainly because I found their effects weaker and mainly superficial in comparison, and they tend to promote a typical "quick fix" consumerist mindset which is actually ineffective long term.  Let alone the possibility of forming attachment and addiction to them.

Should you chase them?

I don't discourage experience chasing, I only make people aware that it is a thing so they know that at some point they can stop when they feel tired of it.  I myself knowingly chased special experiences and "relaxation", and I feel it was necessary, if only to make me tired enough to relax and truly "come home".  I eventually realize what was right here all along and will never come or go, and nobody could just tell me that, I had to go through the process of chasing my tail first.  It isn't the only way to get to peace but it is one legitimate way, as long as you are aware enough to know when to stop or let it go if it doesn't work out.  So go right ahead chasing with full confidence, but use the experiences wisely if you have one, and remember the pitfalls!