In high school I sang with a four part harmony ensemble. Three friends and I brushed up on spirituals, madrigals, and little-known choral works by major composers, and worked with a music teacher to polish them to perfection. Then we would perform in concerts with other students, our singing complementing piano pieces and string quartets.
Before our first performance I sat in the audience listening to the other students play. We were in the foyer of our school’s new music center – an intimate space with a warm acoustic – and I was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with others as the music washed over me.
A friend took his place in front of us, carrying his cello into the spotlight, the rich dark wood shining. He began to play – I don’t remember what. What I remember is how I began to feel as he played, how the quality of my experience shifted, the register of my consciousness changing with the register of the music.
I started feeling fuzzy, as if a warm tingling was spreading through my body, like the coziness you get sometimes tucked up in bed but just before sleep. A profound relaxation came to rest upon me, a sense of well-being, peace, and contentment – something I rarely feel as an energetic over-achiever who is often dissatisfied. I felt I was right where I needed to be at that moment, that nothing could possibly go wrong, and that everything was perfect with me, and with the world.
Then I disappeared.
The difference between “me” and “the world” simply fell away, like a silk gauze separation slipping from my mind. Not a violent shift but a sort of expansion of “me-ness” into everything, and an infusion of everything into me. That second part, actually, more than the first: it felt as if something was rushing into me from outside, as if there was simply more of me, because I was being supplemented and enlarged and empowered by something, everything else. The universe? The cosmos? God?
I began to have visual hallucinations, colors sort of buzzing and glowing in crazy vibrant ways, and always the music of the cello, which seemed to stretch on forever. With these sensations came a sense of deep satisfaction and joy – bone-deep happiness, a sort of happy that goes right into your guts and mind and soul until it is you and you are it and there’s nothing else but that feeling flowing into you until it isn’t you.
It was awesome.
Was it God?
I thought so. For about a month, I thought I had spoken with God. I had grown up in a nonreligious home, I had never been a believer, but I had no other language with which to describe my experience. I spoke with religious friends and tried to tell them what I had seen, and mostly received blank stares – I didn’t get the sense they’d shared my experience – but they still wanted to interpret it using their religious phrase.
I began to read the works of religious mystics – the poems of Rumi were a favorite – and in them I saw echoes of my own experience, all of them relating that experience to the Almighty. So, for a while, this atheist thought he had spoken with God.
Then I found Abraham Maslow.
Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology, did some of the first scientific (well, scientific-ish) research into what he came to call “peak experience”: moments of transcendent euphoria experienced (he claimed) by people the world over, frequently demonstrating common patterns and forms. The description he offered – based on interviews with those who had enjoyed these experiences – fit what I had undergone to an uncanny degree: I had lost my sense of space and time; I had felt fearless and powerful; I had felt totally subsumed into that present moment.
More revelatory to me than the mere description of my experience, though, was Maslow’s explanation for it: rather than ascribing peak experiences to God (as did many of the people he interviewed), Maslow argued that the basic experience is human, and that we use the language of “God” to describe it because that is the only language available in most people’s culture to discuss such things. “God” is the description, not the cause.
Maslow’s explanation is by far the more elegant, to my mind. It explains how these experiences can be common across cultures, even when those cultures paint a picture of a very different sort of God, and why these experiences are almost invariably interpreted as an encounter with a particular deity the indiviudal is already familiar with. It explains how these experiences can be the result of physical trauma, or induced by pharmacological intervention. Maslow’s explanation is simply more parsimonious than the alternate possibility – that there really is a God going around infusing just some people, sometimes, with profoundly euphoric feelings (how unfair would that be for everybody else?).
But Maslow’s humanistic approach to peak experience is important in a deeper way: it provides a framework within which non-believers like me can recognize the reality and value of such experiences without overthrowing our deepest intellectual commitments. Maslow (alongside William James and others) opened the door for a naturalistic appreciation of transcendent moments which enriches our understanding of human beings, and of our extraordinary capacity for experience.
If we atheists take Maslow seriously – and I think we should – we can recognize as Humanists and atheists that transcendent experience can be both real and enormously profound, even life-changing. The common aversion to every aspect of “spirituality” in the atheist community – while an understandable reaction to unclear thinking and fuzzy language – shuts us off to the appreciation of genuinely valuable human experiences.
My experience was certainly valuable for me. I was inspired by Maslow to learn more about humanistic psychology. That led me to investigate Humanism itself more deeply. In turn this seeded a love of theories of human development, which blossomed into a commitment to education – which became the subject of my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees. And I found Maslow because of one boy with a cello in the foyer of my high school music center.
Transcendence can change your life. For real.