The Experience We’re Looking For Is To Feel Alive
“We need a new experience of self — a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I.’”
I took a deep breath, and appreciated the cold air as it began to fill the pockets of my lungs. This was the first moment I’d had to myself all day.
I stared upwards, tilting my head towards the vast, open blue sky. It was beautiful.
Trails of wispy clouds moved slowly overhead, and as I kept on breathing deeply, feeling the sun’s rays on my face, I had a brief flash of insight. I knew that everything was going to be alright. I felt connected. I felt at peace, I felt at one.
What are these moments?
Abraham Maslow called them ‘peak experiences’.
In these moments, life is bigger than you.
You are submerged, immersed, drowned into the now.
All time disappears.
Your sense of self disappears. You are one with the moment.
And in this moment, you know how it feels.
To be alive.
The feeling of being alive
Alan Watts said of the modern world:
“We need a new experience — a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I.”
“If we have a thirst for peak experiences, I believe we are seeking to connect fully and immersively into the present moment — much like lovers seek to merge with each other in the heights of ecstasy.
In today’s modern world, we are numbed at every corner — from rolling 24hr news feeds, to prescription drugs, to social media stories, to our jam-packed and over-full work and social calendars.
The explosion in the mindfulness movement was in part a response to this fast-paced nature, evident of an inner yearning that we need to slow down, and just breathe, as a species. It’s an industry that is now worth $1.1billion a year (and counting).
But reading’s not enough. Neither is the odd bit of mindfulness walking you tend to squeeze in during your lunch break at work.
We’re looking for something deeper.
“What we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” — Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Leo Babuta, author of the insanely popular Zen Habits, urges his readers to sit still for a moment, and feel the experience of being alive.
Notice what it feels like to be alive right now:
- What sensations do you notice in your body?
-What is the energy of those sensations? Does the energy change, or move?
-What is the texture of your breath?
-Do you notice pain, discomfort, tenderness, tightness?
- Get curious and explore, investigate, look even closer.
-Take in the totality of your sensory input, all at once, holding it in your awareness.
- Stay with this feeling, instead of moving on. Then stay a little more.
I thought I would try it.
I was listening to this awesome track at the time, and the combination of just sitting there, feeling, made my heart soar.
It was incredible.
For a while now, I’ve been taking note of a list of ‘energisers’ — things that buzz me up, and generally just make me feel great, and more likely to get this feeling.
Sunshine. Music. People. Dancing. Inspiration. Nature.
Preferably all of these at once, but either of those work on their own, too.
Children are joyously alive
I don’t know about you, but there’s some things that are socialised out of us as children that I’m determined to hold onto, such as:
- Joyous embodiment of the present moment.
- Finding awe and curiosity in everyday.
- Focusing on the process, not the end result
- A vast, unlimited imagination
and many more traits.
Is this where we have lost our way? Do we need to reconnect to our childlike essence, and allow ourselves to be free in the present moment?
Can we really define this feeling in words?
“Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision,
the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placement in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject was to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences”
Maslow tried, to the best of his ability, to categorise the peak experience, to define it in words.
But the true essence of this experience is the feeling it gives us. It is almost ineffable. So perhaps we cannot even use words to describe what the peak experience is about; only to know that it exists.
What does the peak experience or the feeling of being alive give us?
I guess that’s entirely down to the individual. I can only speak from my own experience.
In Big Magic, Liz Gilbert talks about ‘fierce trust’:
“Fierce trust demands that you put forth the work any-how, because fierce trust knows that the outcome does not matter. The outcome cannot matter.”
For me, peak experiences imbibe me with a sense of ‘fierce trust’. This feeling of being alive and so connected in the present moment is so delicious, I want to recreate it at every opportunity.
‘Peak experiences’ usually happen in nature, or in artistic, religious or athletic experiences. For me personally, they only ever happen in nature. And sometimes when I’m writing and listening to music at the same time.
Is the peak experience simply a description of the ‘flow’ state’?
“Peak experiences bear numerous similarities to the concept known as flow described by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of mind during which people become so involved in an activity that the world seems to fade away and nothing else seems to matter. When in a state of flow, times seems to fly by, focus becomes sharp and people experience a loss of self-consciousness.”
It certainly seems similar.
Perhaps ‘peak experiences’ and ‘flow’ are one and the same thing — simply the joyous feeling of being alive.
The feeling of being connected.
Of being in alignment with all of life.
So how do we cultivate this feeling on a more regular basis?
Slow down. Be present. Look at the world like a child. Feel.
And as Howard Thurman says:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive.”