The Last Word
Written by: Edward M. O'Keefe, '56

Lessons “The PE Book” Taught Me

I recently self-published a book about peak experiences — profound “aha” moments when we are sometimes taken out of ourselves (altered states of consciousness) and suddenly behold the unity and beauty of all creation. PEs usually are of brief duration, but are unforgettable due to their intensity and, often, their significant effects on our lives.

Abraham Maslow, American psychologist (1908-1970), coined the phrase “peak experiences” to describe the phenomena experienced by most of the successful, self-actualized people he was studying. (Maslow is most famous for his “hierarchy of needs” schema of human development and his role in founding the academic field of transpersonal psychology.)

In 1956, after completing my B.A. degree in sociology at NU, I was beginning my teaching career at LaSalle Junior High School in Niagara Falls. There had recently been a rash of teenage suicides and we teachers were naturally concerned. While working on a master’s degree in education, I came across the following quote from Maslow — and my life changed forever: “The peak experience is so high that it justifies living itself. Peak experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence. They give meaning to life itself. They prove it worthwhile. To say this in a negative way, I would guess that peak experiences help to prevent suicide.” Reading this was a life-changing peak experience for me, and the first of many lessons that “the PE book,” which took a lifetime to be born, has taught me.

This first lesson for me was that I needed to learn more about these peak experiences and that I had to teach my seventh and eighth graders about them. So began a lifetime study of PEs. I began collecting hundreds of stories from “peakers” through personal interviews. I voraciously read articles and biographies looking for similar experiences reported by both famous and little-known persons. Essays about my students’ peak moments were assigned to my writing classes. (I taught English for 27 years at various levels, junior high to graduate school.) This resulted in always interesting and sometimes amazing class discussions, stories and insights. The most significant of the student essays were added to the collection. Finally, a couple of years ago, having observed the profound effects that remembering their peak experiences had on hundreds of people through workshops and classes, I felt compelled to publish a collection of them, woven around the best theories, explanations and interpretations of the subject I could find. (The book’s bibliography has more than 100 entries, a clue to how much research was involved.)

For me, the most important lesson, quoted above from Maslow, was that PEs were so life-affirming that they could prevent suicides. Other significant lessons taught me by “the PE book” include the following:

  • Peak experiences are not intended only for the development of the person herself/himself. They often act as engines of evolution, furthering, sometimes dramatically, the development of the whole race. For example, many inventors, artists, composers and writers readily admit that their best inspirations came to them suddenly and as “gifts from the universe.”
  • In recent years, PEs have increased in number and profundity, which signifies that help from outside the conscious mind assists us humans through difficult times and/or that we are experiencing a quickening of human evolution, that life is speeding up.
  • Children are more likely than adults to have PEs, that is, until they have been educated by society to distrust these events (and themselves).
  • PEs can best be thought of as the highest and best events of our lives, a continuum of uplifting human events ranging from intuitions and insights, dreams and visions, mystical awarenesses, out-of-body experiences, and near death experiences, to major spiritual breakthroughs leading to profound enlightenment manifestations.
  • The major triggers of mountain-top experiences are nature; music; peak performance as in sports, athletics, artistic performance; the transcendental area including religious/spiritual rites, readings, prayer, healings, sacred places, and sacred scriptures. Also, near despair. Many “peakers” report that only when they were near total despair did extraordinary help come to them, often in dramatic ways. (Two profound examples are Martin Luther King and spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle; their stories are told in the book.)

Other lessons the book taught me, too numerous to explain here, had to do with the barriers, the resistance forces that we live with as human beings that tend to prevent more PEs from happening. Also, I learned ideas to help explain where PEs come from and what their purposes are in the evolutionary development of what Maslow called “the farther reaches of human nature.”

Perhaps the most important lessons for us all are the following practical steps to prepare the climate for more of these marvelous peak experiences to come to us:

  1. Become aware of any peak experiences you have had. Write them down in a journal; talk about them. Maslow found that when his graduate students at Brandeis University did this, they had more peak moments. Ancient spiritual adage: What you think about, grows.
  2. Ask for PEs to come to you to enhance your life and your relationships.
  3. Become your mind’s manager through some form of meditation.
  4. Spend time enjoying nature and music.
  5. Practice appreciation and gratitude for your many gifts.

My wish for you, fellow alums: "Think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Dr. O’Keefe graduated from NU in 1956 with a B.A. in sociology. He served here from 1966-1970 as placement director and government liaison offficer. His former wife, Jackie, received her master’s degree from Niagara in 1973, and their daughter, Rita Franc, ’03, is a graduate of Niagara’s computer and information science program. Ed received a master’s degree from Canisius College in 1959 and a Ph.D. in higher education from SUNYAB in 1974. He served for 26 years at Niagara County Community College as teacher and administrator.