In “The Happiness Hypothesis”, Jonathan Haidt describes the natural human ability to experience awe and self-transcendence:
“Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence….awe happens when two conditions are met: a person perceives something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually vast, such as a grand theory…); and the vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures. Something enormous can’t be processed, and when people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks while in the presence of something vast, they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive. They often (though not always) feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well. By stopping people and making them receptive, awe creates an option for change….” Pp. 202-203.
Abraham Maslow referred to these as “peak experiences”—“those extraordinary self-transcendent moments that feel qualitatively different from ordinary life.” Some of their features: “the universe is perceived as a unified whole where everything is accepted and nothing is judged or ranked; egocentrism and goal-striving disappear as a person feels merged with the universe; perceptions of time and space are altered; and the person is flooded with feelings of wonder, awe, joy, love, and gratitude. Maslow’s goal was to demonstrate that spiritual life has a naturalistic meaning, that peak experiences are a basic fact about the human mind.” P. 205 in Haidt.
Have you had a peak or self-transcendent experience? Was it inspired by the vastness of nature or great works of humanity—as Kant defined the two causes of genuine awe, “the starry sky above and the moral law within”? Were you changed in a meaningful way? Why do human beings seek and value these experiences? Come discuss at our September meeting.