Plateau Experience

The Plateau Experience

If you have heard of Abraham Maslow, you would probably be aware of his hierarchy of needs, a series of stages where deficiency needs (such as the need for safety, food, water, etc.) progresses through being needs (self-esteem, acceptance, love, etc.)

However, there are several criticisms of the hierarchy, for example, dancers or gymnasts putting their physical safety at risk while striving for aesthetic beauty, training through injuries, and so forth. One of the greatest critics of the hierarchy was actually Maslow himself. His core criticism was that while self-actualisation should be the result of a lifetime of striving, this was being relegated to weekend LSD workshops to achieve such heightened experience. He also noted that one could achieve self-actualisation but be completely self-centred.

In his 1970 book, ‘Religions, Values, Peak Experiences’, Maslow suggested that the focus on self-actualisation should be replaced with a focus on self-transcendence: transcendence of the sense-of-self. This, he suggested, was characterised by ‘the plateau experience’, something he expanded on following his near-fatal heart-attack. Unfortunately, Maslow had only started theorising about the plateau experience and self-transcendence when he died in June 1970. The only other mention Maslow made of the plateau experience was at a conference, in discussion with Stanley Krippner, with the transcript published in 1972.

Maslow (1970, p.xv) referred to the plateau experience as ‘…pure enjoyment and happiness…’ which could be ‘…achieved, learned, earned by long hard work.’ This experience enabled ‘…the simultaneous perception of the sacred and the ordinary’ in a ‘…unitive consciousness’ (Krippner, 1972, p.113). Maslow referred to this as the ‘Zen experience’, an experience he suggested as cross-cultural (Krippner, 1972, p.114).

The defining features of the plateau experience identified are detailed in the table below:

DevelopmentVoluntaryBy this, one can engage with practises to facilitate the plateau experience, for example, walking on a beach opposed to walking through a city.
Can be taughtVarious transpersonal pratises may facilitate the plateau experience.
Cross-culturalVarious transpersonal practises come from a variety of cultures; similarly, the plateau experience may in turn be a global human experience.
DualitiesWhere, for example, life and death are seen as complimentary. In a more practical sense, engaging with practises that encourage a dualistic approach, for example, maintaining physical effort to achieve relaxation (e.g. progressive muscular relaxation).
Resultant characteristicsCalmness or serenityRelaxation, ‘a sustained state of inner peace’ (Roberts & Aspy, 1993, p.145).
CognitiveA witnessing or ‘mindfulness’; seeing the sacreness in the ordinary; transcendence of time and space; appreciating dualities.
Acceptance of deathConfronting mortality, perhaps in a dualistic notion.

(Adapted from Buckler, 2011)

One practise that can help engage with the plateau experience is Shinrin-yoku.

Further Reading

Buckler, S. (2011). The Plateau Experience: Maslow’s Unfinished Theory. Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.

Buckler, S. (2020). The Plateau Experience: Maslow’s Unfinished Theory (International translations: Dutch, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese). Mauritius: Sciencia Scripts.

Gruel, N. (2015). The Plateau Experience: An exploration of its origins, characteristics, and potential. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 44-63.