By Terence T. Gorski, Author

Peak Experiences and 12-Step Spirituality

Many recovering people have spiritual experiences that they believe are closely related to their recovery. Some of these spiritual experiences have classic religious elements such as visions of or actual communication with God, a saint, or a spiritual being.

Many other recovering people, however, have spiritual experiences that involve profoundly altered states of consciousness with no overt religious aspects. It can be difficult to make sense of these spiritual experiences. A concept that has helped me to understand the non-religious altered states of consciousness is the idea of peak experiences introduced by Abraham Maslow.

Abraham Maslow identified a unique psychological experience which he described as PEAK EXPERIENCES which have the same characteristics as non-religious spiritual experiences described to me by hundreds of recovering people over the course of my career.

These peak experiences are profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture. During peak experiences people feel whole, centered, integrated, fully alive, and profoundly important as a unique individual. Yet, at the same time, they feel as if they are an integrated part of or actually merging with the universe.

Many people describe the sense of having a peak experience as simultaneously feeling like the omnipotent center of the universe, while at the same time feeling totally humbled and insignificant in the face of the infinite face of the universe.

During peak experiences people feel more aware of truth, justice, harmony, and goodness than at other times in their life. There is a close connection between the frequency and intensity of peak experiences and the capacity for self-actualization.

Self-actualization is the ability to make one’s sense of self and creative ideas real through self-regulated action in the world. People who have high levels of self-actualization tend to have more frequent and intense peak experiences.

The combination of peak experiences and conscious efforts at developing the capacity for self-actualization moved people toward higher levels of awareness of their human potential.

As self-actualizing people reach high levels of growth and development, the peak experiences occur on deeper levels accompanied by more profound and meaningful altered states of consciousness.

Maslow’s conceptualization of peak experiences as a unique state of psychological consciousness began the continuing trend of integrating spiritual experiences into the main-stream of psychology.


On a personal level, here is how I define spirituality for myself:

Spirituality is measured by having a sense of meaning and purpose in life and a sense of deep connection with other people. It also involves the capacity to transcend or rise above pain a problems of life without lapsing into denial or delusions. It also involves a sense of detached awareness, profound peacefulness, and at times, a sense of awe or wonder. It is bodied in a sense of being one with God while at the same time being a rational human being with volitional consciousness, i.e. we have the capacity to make our own decisions following or defying God’s will.

My favorite prayer is: “God grant me the knowledge of your will for me and the courage to carry that out.


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