Defining Peak States
July 16, 2006
Have you ever noticed that some people just seem to be happier, healthier, more successful, able to weather life’s ups and downs more easily than you do? I think we all have, and of course there are a variety of reasons. In the current psychological paradigm, it’s believed these people had better childhoods, had fewer traumas, better genetic backgrounds, better friends, and so on. In this model, it boils down to two factors - better genes or a better environment. And recently a third element has been added, better prenatal care. But wait - our cultural ideas about why some people are better off has a flaw that was discovered when a longitudinal study of children ‘at risk’ because of bad early environments were studied.
Twenty years ago these studies, quite against expectations, found that a small group of ‘at risk’ children lived through their terrible childhood experiences and yet flourished anyway. They became known as ‘invulnerable children’. The existence of these children caused a tremendous furor, because some people interpreted the data as saying that trying to help ‘at risk’ children was pointless, since clearly the environment didn’t make any difference. Of course that argument was ridiculous since only a very few children could be put in that category, but it was definitely a puzzling result. One might suppose that they were just fortunate in life’s genetic lottery, but even more puzzling was that occasionally some of these invulnerable children as adults would suddenly stop being invulnerable. To explain this, conventional theory decided that there must be a threshold of accumulating trauma, the straw that broke the camel’s back idea. But this was a clearly a pretty weak explanation, as a number of these adults were living in pretty good situations by that time.
Let’s turn our attention from those amazing adults we know or invulnerable children we’ve heard about and look at something in our own lives that might give us the answer. Have you ever had a moment in your life where you felt very, very different and wonderful? Everything seemed to be exceptionally perfect, time slowed down as if you were a child again, or some other aspect of what was going on was so remarkable and unique you’ve never forgotten it? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to live your life in that state every day, and not just for the short time you had it? These moments are called ‘peak experiences’, and if they last for a long time they’re called ‘peak states’.
What if many of those amazing adults or invulnerable children were in just such a type of nearly continuous peak state? That would surely cause them to seem more resilient and happier than the rest of us, although unless you had some sort of test for it this explanation might be easy to overlook. And sure enough, it turns out that a small percentage of the population do live in nearly a continuous type of peak state. Although there are several types that can occur spontaneously, the most obvious and significant of the naturally appearing kind we call ‘Aliveness’. This state has several characteristics, but one of the most important for this discussion is that the person who has it feels that their past was not emotionally traumatic. They experience the present with an underlying sense of calm, peace, and lightness that exists even when they feel their feelings. Such a state does tend to make one's life drastically better no matter the past or present circumstances. And certain types of circumstances can take this state away. Just as in the case of the invulnerable children who stopped being invulnerable.
We now turn our attention to what conventional psychology has to say about the existence of peak states.
The historical development:
In the 1960’s, Dr. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology, popularized a phenomenon he’d noticed he called ‘peak experiences’. These were those moments where life just became an amazingly wonderful experience. They might spontaneously occur while being surrounded by exceptional beauty, or during a physical event like running a race, or for a variety of reasons or no particular reason at all. Humanistic Psychology was formed partly to look at this phenomenon. Though an incredible amount of techniques, methods, practices, and therapies came out of this movement, the bottom line was that they still did not understand what caused peak experiences, why some people experienced them and others not, or any way to rapidly and permanently have them for oneself. In fact, the idea that these experiences could be had permanently as a state of being was doubted.
The confusion on what was really occurring got worse as the years went on, as more and more data from various spiritual, religious, psychological, and shamanic groups was accumulated. Spiritual groups talked about spiritual states, but they often disagreed about what they were or even which ones were the best. Also, as techniques such as meditation for exploring these states came into the popular culture, a number of people where starting to have a whole variety of unusual spiritual and other strange experiences. Because of all this, another branch of psychology called Transpersonal Psychology was formed to study these even more unbelievable experiences and states.
The seventies and early eighties saw a huge burst of enthusiasm for this work, but by the nineties a change occurred. The initial enthusiasm for understanding and having peak experiences was waning, with the pioneers feeling they’d gone as far as was possible. The hoped for results had not materialized. From the Institute’s perspective, this was because the early models that were developed were fundamentally flawed, and could not be used to solve the basic problems.
By the 90’s a change outside of these areas was taking place involving radically effective emotional and physical healing. A group of therapies, all invented independently, were starting to become available. Dr. Charles Figley of Florida State University (the creator of the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) forced the acceptance of some of these therapies into mainstream psychology in 1995 and gave them the name of ‘power therapies’. The field is still in turmoil around this topic, as conventionally trained therapists and academic psychologists resist these new processes - for the simple reason that they’re too good to be true from a conventional perspective.
These power therapies have created a change in what people believe is possible in the professional field of physical and emotional healing that humanistic and transpersonal psychology never did. These tools are unbelievably fast, simple, and effective, and people are starting to question their cultural assumptions because of stunning personal experience. This change in expectations has also effected our Institute, as it’s created a climate and group of therapists and other healers who are willing to look at what our Institute’s Whole-Hearted Healing technique can do - and who then feel comfortable in using it when it lives up to its claims.
Most healers using power therapies are not searching for a peak state - in fact, most probably don’t believe it’s possible. The dominant model in the profession at the present time is that people will feel better as more and more traumatic material is healed, and usually there is truth to this. Yet, these techniques are often causing people to feel dramatically better for various lengths of time, more so than can be accounted for by removing their current pain. During or right after finishing the healing session, a significant percentage of clients also report having all sorts of spiritual and shamanic experiences that they had never heard of before or don’t believe in. Still these wonderful moments almost always soon pass.
From our Institute’s perspective healing trauma is a lot like pulling pitchforks out of people who are in hell - when you’re done, you’re still in hell, you’re just more comfortable there. Don’t misunderstand - the work these paradigm pioneer therapists and healers are doing is vital and necessary to millions of people. But what we’d really like is a way to change people so that they’re in a peak state - after all, it didn’t take years of therapy so that you could have that amazing peak experience of yours, did it?
A new approach
At this point, I’m (Dr. Grant McFetridge) going to give you a little personal history so that you’ll better understand the approach we took. I was one of those fortunate people who seem to have a generally good life no matter what awful stuff was going on. In hindsight, I was in a peak state (called ‘the Beauty Way’ or sometimes 'Aliveness') about three quarters of the time. But I didn’t know it. The differences between me and other children were not really very noticeable to me or to others, and it wasn’t till my twenties that I could clearly see that I was somehow different than other people. But, not knowing any better, I assumed whatever it was that I was seeing must be cultural. All this changed at age 29 when I moved back to normal consciousness during a very traumatic time in my life, and stayed there. To me, it was like going to hell. People just don’t realize how bad their situation is, as they have almost nothing except perhaps a momentary glimpse to compare it to.
This started a quest to get back what I had lost. I had several advantages in this search. First, I knew exactly what the differences were, and could explain them clearly in English. Second, I knew you could have it as a state of being, since I’d had it 29 years. Third, I knew that working to become a good person or using spiritual techniques or therapy wasn’t the key, as I’d had this from the cradle, and anyway I certainly wasn’t a perfectly nice, spiritual little kid even though I had had that state. To my intense puzzlement, the spiritual teachers I sought out had no idea what I was talking about. The spiritual practices that I used with fanaticism did not take me to the state I wanted. During this period, by using a number of techniques, I had a whole raft of different peak, spiritual, and shamanic experiences. Which puzzled me further, as they were amazing but not what I was looking for, and I couldn’t understand what was really going on in my psyche. I was a successful electrical engineering consultant and University lecturer during this period, and finding and understanding the underlying model was what I was trained to do. I learned virtually every model, belief, and practice I could find. Yet clearly none were on the right track, as my personal experience contradicted them all.
I also started getting sick during this period, and came close to death. This pushed me into learning physical and emotional healing techniques also. I nearly died before a friend of mine healed me using a modified version of Holotropic Breathwork™. It turned out that the cause of my illness was tremendous despair I’d experienced at age 29, along with an unconscious decision that I could never have what I wanted in life, and that there was no point in continuing to live. This experience made me realize emotional healing was important, so I decided to heal everything that was in my psyche. To do this, I invented the Whole-Hearted Healing technique, as there were no available effective, fast and permanent healing techniques at the time that I was aware of.
As I eliminated traumatic material, I eventually realized the triune nature of the brain. Later, I found that a brain biologist in the 1960’s named Dr. Paul MacLean had discovered this also, yet this fundamental breakthrough in understanding the real underlying biological dynamics in the psyche never made it to the psychological profession. And still to this day it’s virtually unknown. Briefly, our brain is divided into parts that each operate independently in an average person. Although they have scientific names, we know them as the body, heart, and mind. There is also a forth brain that is less familiar to people. With this insight, I realized that many (but not all) peak states were caused when the brains merged together into one unified organism. And that the state that I had lost was due to several of the brains merging together relatively continuously.
Even though now I understood what was necessary to regain the ‘Beauty Way’ peak state, I still didn’t know how to do it. And there were a lot of loose ends in my understanding, involving all those other spiritual and shamanic experiences. So, I figured that by healing all my traumatic material I’d eventually find out what was causing my brains to stay separate by sheer elimination. Not an elegant approach, I admit, but I was baffled. I also had the assistance of a number of very courageous volunteers acting as experimental subjects in the course of the work, and it couldn’t have been done without them. And we finally cracked the core problem. Six months later we found a solution to this core problem. This led quite quickly to realizing how everything I’d ever experienced or read about fit together in the elegantly simple 'developmental events model'. This was one of the peak periods in my life! I finally understood what caused all those other states and experiences, and how to go about efficiently regaining them. And that my goal of recovering my ‘Beauty Way’ was far, far short of what I could really have.
Building on this fundamental breakthrough has lead to all sorts of discoveries in the area of healing, spirituality, and other fundamental questions of mankind.
- Vulnerable but Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth (3rd edition 1989) by Emmy Werner, Ruth Smith with an Introduction by Normal Garmezy. This book describes the original Kauai longitudinal study of children at risk which discovered the phenomenon of invulnerable children.
- Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (1964) by Abraham Maslow. Covers the first descriptions of peak experiences in the professional literature.
- "Going for the Cure" by Mary Sykes, Family Therapy Networker (July 1996). The first descriptions in a peer reviewed journal describing successul treatment techniques for PTSD.
- The Triune Brain in Evolution Role in Paleocerebral Functions (1990) by Paul MacLean. Dr. MacLean ran a research group at the US NiH researching the triune brain in primates and in other species.
- Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy (2010) by Stanislav and Christina Grof. Dr. Grof was one of the founders of Transpersonal Psychology. His many books are fundamental to that field.
- Peak States of Consciousness (2004) by Grant McFetridge, James Hardt, and Jacquelyn Aldana. An introduction to this new field of psychobiology.
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July 16, 2006: First version of this webpage.