My Initial ExperienceI can remember my earliest peak aesthetic experience quite vividly. It occurred during my first multi-day backpacking trip in 2002. The location – the Conundrum Hot Springs in Colorado – is an idyllic and appropriate setting for such an experience to occur. The springs are perched in a beautiful valley at 11,200 feet above sea level, snugly nestled between two opposing ridgelines exploding with June wildflowers -– the place was heaven on earth. We had three days to explore the area, take in the lush hillsides, drink from the crystallize streams, and scramble up the neighboring peaks.
What I now understand as a peak aesthetic experience occurred on the second day of the trip. It happened while we were simply sitting, enjoying the beauty and grandeur of the valley. The physical size and sheer perfection of the place quickly overwhelmed me. Still today, I remember being overcome by a distinct feeling of joy and insignificance. As a couple tears rolled down from my eye, I recall asking myself: “Where have I been all my life? If something this perfect exists… something that I previously had no knowledge of, what else is out there?” It was as if, after 19 years on the planet, I had been shown something truly magical for the first time. I had experienced untrammeled wilderness, and I would never be the same.
ResearchIt wasn’t until college that I understood that my experience at the Conundrum Hot Springs wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime epiphany. In fact, the phenomenon had a name; people were studying it! During my senior year at the University of Illinois, I took a graduate level class called Environmental Psychology. In private sessions after class, the professor spoke about her newest research, which centered on Peak Aesthetic Experiences. She told me that, “In such experiences there is the sense that something very special and powerful has occurred. Words fail most of us when talking about this magical form of consciousness, characterized by the experience of the union of self and other, individual and world.” She spoke of “Disorientation in space and time; ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness; a perception that the world is good, beautiful and desirable; feelings of being lucky, fortunate, or graced.” Wow, this was some heavy stuff!
Research with Professor Vining revealed that Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, originally coined the term “Peak Experiences” (you may remember his more famous ‘hierarchy of needs’). According to Maslow, these experiences are possible when individuals reach a level of self-actualization. Maslow describes Peak Experiences as “self-validating, self-justifying moments with their own intrinsic value.” When I asked Professor Vining how she planned on studying something as abstract as peak aesthetic experiences, she responded: “Until the late 1970’s scientists ignored emotion for the most part for the same reason. Now research on emotion, both quantitative and qualitative, is thriving and I suggest that experience of awe and wonder could easily be studied in similar ways.”
ConclusionsIt is no secret that my first peak aesthetic experience had a profound and lasting impact on my life. Now, seven years later, I live less than 20 miles away from Conundrum. Unfortunately in recent years the hot springs have seen the effects of overuse. Since 2002, I have devoted much of my life to exploring – often for extended periods of time – wild places throughout the world. While I haven’t done so in order to replicate my initial peak aesthetic experience, I have have been fortunate enough to have a few other peak aesthetic experiences.
Throughout my conversations with other people, I often wonder how many people have had similar experiences. And when I realize that a lot of people haven’t, I wonder if it would be as easy as bringing them to the foot of a massive glacier, to the top of a previously unclimbed mountain, to the middle of a valley exploding with fall color? And more importantly, what would be the net effect of these experiences if they could be replicated throughout society? Would it diminish the significance of the experience to the individual? Or, would it be powerful enough to invoke a sustainable, worldwide conservation ethic?
So I ask all of you: have you ever had a Peak Aesthetic Experience? If so, what was its effect on your life?
The Conundrum Hot Springs
On one of the neighboring ridges
Climbing one of the neighboring ridges
Wildflowers in Conundrum Valley
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