The Case Against Peak Experiences

The Case Against Peak Experiences

Is it just me, or does it feel like many Millennials are chasing the dragon for any peak experience available?

From ice-cold plunges to DMT-inducing breath work, 10-day silent retreats, and hero doses of psychedelic substances. 

Apparently the crazier, the better, right?

The Wikipedia definition of peak experience is an “altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals” as per Abraham Maslow’s 1964 book called Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences.

Inducing states of transcendence and euphoria can sound deeply appealing to many. 

The appeal can come from a sense of curiosity to pierce the veil or perhaps that such an experience might finally help us heal from a traumatic event, phobia, or psychological burden.


The higher the peak, the higher the risk


Peak experiences have a place in our societies. Often manifested as rites of passage and at the very least defining. They can and will impact us deeply and hopefully in the way we had hoped. 

During the current Psychedelic Renaissance, I feel that the conversation moving forward must include the increased risk relative to the intensity of a peak experience.

Writing this article, I found out that there is such a thing as spiritual Wikipedia. SpiritWiki includes this quote from Maslow as part of the definition of peak experiences.

“Peak experiences can be intense. A peak experience can produce great turmoil in the autonomic nervous system. At a certain point, Maslow became afraid that his body could not handle them.” 

As I keep a keen eye on the global events, ceremonies, and experiences that are becoming increasingly mainstream, I can’t help but wonder: “It’s one thing if the individual’s nervous system is already vulnerable upon arriving at these retreats, but is the event facilitator skilled enough to support the individual during and also afterward?”


peak experiences


Humility is key


Particularly in the case of plant medicines, these substances historically have been set aside for a very small group of ‘worthy’ people. Those that belonged to a certain group, in a predefined hierarchy, and after very specific initiations, did these individuals gain access to powerful medicines like magic mushrooms. 

Such exclusive ceremonies were indeed used to induce transcendental and mystical experiences. These opportunities were quite rare and available once, maybe twice in their lifetimes.

Today, entheogens are readily available and accessible for virtually anyone to use, and the Psychedelic Renaissance is only getting started!

Harvard Divinity School has a beautiful, long article on the theological reckoning of bad trips. It reads: 

“The collateral damage from main streaming mindfulness can serve as a cautionary tale for psychedelic medicalization: important wisdom is lost when technologies of transcendence are stripped from their spiritual and religious contexts and presented as psychological treatments.”

We are blessed and privileged to a have access to plant medicines in this day and age. Psilocybin and ayahuasca have anecdotally been the healing catalyst for so many, but we must remember that fire can help us cook a meal, or burn the house down. In the same vein, peak experiences are to be undertaken with great care and consideration.


Target market


Those that feel an urgent need to seek healing via peak experiences are often those that are most at risk.

This medical study showed that veterans with PTSD were generally more anxious and showed a more vigilant right brain hemisphere, and a higher alpha frequency peak than those not managing PTSD. 

For those of us that are tasked with the lifelong undertaking of healing from trauma, a peak experience may turn out to be more than our nervous system can handle.

Participating in a peak experience with a delicate nervous system can dysregulate us further. The urgency to heal combined with an eager market is quite dynamic. 

Anyone that is interested in a peak experience should consider deeply their current personal resiliency and the skill level of facilitators in attendance to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.


The window of Heart Rate Variability


Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is an excellent way to measure overall metabolic health, and I also suspect that it can help us understand our nervous systems in a brand-new way.

Assuming that my hypothesis is correct and there is a correlation between our nervous system and HRV, it may prove very useful in helping to gauge any potential risks relating to peak experiences.

An ideal HRV is not only based on the widest possible gap between two states, i.e. a meditative state and a fully engaged state, but it is also based on the curve and shape of the variability.

An HRV that can fluidly move from deeply relaxed states (theta and alphas brain waves) to a more ramped up (beta and gamma brain waves) is a strong indicator of resilience or anti-fragility.



Source: Wiki commons

Surf the wave


The curve of our brain waves, heart rate, and general state should ideally look like a smooth wave. The graph above shows that when we experience plateaus or sharp peaks this correlates to limbic hypervigilance and a nervous system that is potentially distressed.

The wave in HRV is a good indicator that the individual’s nervous system can move through each state skilfully, and fluidly.

So what happens when a person with a less optimally regulated nervous system has a peak experience? Does it mean that those that tend to be dysregulated avoid peak experiences? 

No, not at all.

No one can ever accurately predict what the outcome for each person will be. It may be the exact protocol a person needed at the time. Or, it can worsen symptoms. My point is, each of us must be aware that there is a gamble at play.

Conversations around mental health have never been more open and inclusive. In tandem with this psychological evolution, psychedelics have never been more available or widely praised.



Shortening the learning curve

Learning to use these powerful tools correctly is no small undertaking. 

A sitter, therapist, shaman, or guide should have both experiential knowledge and technical knowledge developed over many years.

The key message is, we need to learn how to vet our own peak experience guides properly.

We will elaborate on this topic in the next blog post of this series; How do I find an experienced guide?

Until then, I will leave you with a Bruce Lee quote: “Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity”.

Peak experiences are deeply valuable and have much to teach us, but they also include a kind of altitude sickness.

I am intent on keeping the art of Minimal Effective Dose at the forefront of the Psychedelic Renaissance conversation.

More soon.


Flow strong,




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Asha Sultana

Asha Sultana

I believe in the power of mushrooms and in the innate intelligence of our bodies. Fungi support human health like none other. Personally, I have used a wide variety of mushrooms to restore my health from heavy metal poisoning and its consequences. Currently living in Cape Town while raised in Canada and born in Romania. My travels have deepened my connection to natural medicines and my commitment to balanced living.

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