The trap of overvaluing peak experiences and devaluing mundane existence

Profile photo of Jordan Bates Jordan Bates (@bashfulkoala) 11 months ago

I just started reading the book ‘The Places That Scare You‘ by the Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron. These words of hers really struck me:

“In the sixties I knew people who took LSD every day with the belief that they could maintain that high. Instead they fried their brains. I still know men and women who are addicted to falling in love. Like Don Juan, they can’t bear it when that initial glow begins to wear off; they’re always seeking out someone new. 

Even though peak experiences might show us the truth and inform us about why we are training, they are essentially no big deal. If we can’t integrate them into the ups and downs of our lives, if we cling to them, they will hinder us. We can trust our experiences as valid, but then we have to move on and learn to get along with our neighbors. Then even the most remarkable insights can begin to permeate our lives. As the twelfth-century Tibetan yogi Milarepa said when he heard of his student Gampopa’s peak experiences, ‘They are neither good nor bad. Keep meditating.’ It isn’t the special states themselves that are the problem, it’s their addictive quality. Since it is inevitable that what goes up must come down, when we take refuge in the lord of mind we are doomed to disappointment.”

I think this has been one of my follies the past few years, and I think it’s a very common trap in the modern world. We’re surrounded by novel and stimulating distractions and experiences, and we get the idea that life can just be an endless series of highs. We try to turn every little experience into a peak experience. Instead of just eating a meal, we smoke weed beforehand and listen to music and browse Twitter while eating the meal, looking for all of the ways the meal might be enhanced. Chodron asserts that this is ultimately an unfulfilling approach to life, because highs always have accompanying lows and because if we take this approach, we become afraid of mundane existence and will always be running away from it, rather than learning to appreciate the simple wonders of the commonplace. She urges us to embrace the mundane and to become very aware of the various strategies we employ to escape from feelings of boredom or discomfort. When we reach for our phone or for a beer or turn on the TV, etc., what are we running away from? What don’t we want to look at in ourselves or in life? Perhaps nothing. But she suggests that we are often distracting ourselves from something we find unpleasant, and that the only way to truly overcome that unpleasantness and fear is to stare directly at what frightens us with a detached objectivity and sense of humor. We can look at our darkness and see that it isn’t so bad after all — that it is just human. And we can look closely at mundane existence and see that even the most ordinary things are wondrous, when seen from a certain perspective. We can sit with our boredom, our fear, our discomfort, and our pain, and we can learn that we need not be afraid of these parts of ourselves/our lives. We can embrace them gently, accept ourselves more fully, and see what can be learned from “the places that scare [us].” 

Thoughts?

February 22, 2016 at 5:42 pm
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sandy (15) (@sandytorna) 11 months ago ago

Wow this is fantastic. I am definitely guilty of chasing those highs. When you asked “what are we running from?”, it reminded me of a thought I had not too long ago when I was tripping lsd. I jotted down a note in my journal that reads:” I like working. It keeps me busy. It keeps me distracted.” This brought me to a whole slew of questions…..One of those moments in midst tripping where you are unaware if are you reaching clarity or only excess confusion. But I kept coming back to this particular question and I desperately wanted an answer : What exactly is there that I am distracted by? I thought about this for a few days and eventually reached the conclusion that is must be that of my own mind. I am in the trap that you explained. The trap to participate in novel and stimulating experiences so I can constantly feel a “high”. Working is one of those for me. It’s anxiety provoking so the adrenaline rush is insanely rewarding. My heart beat pounds for another hour even after I leave work. And I fool myself in believing the only remedy to calm down is to smoke weed after. Chasing the next “high” is insanely addictive… I think I might read the “The Places That Scare You.”

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Jordan Bates (4,204)A (@bashfulkoala) 11 months ago ago

Chasing the next ‘high’ is insanely addictive…”

It really is. To some extent I think we’re wired to look for the next high. And especially in the modern world, where we have access to previously unknown kinds of highs and super-enticing forms of stimulation, it’s really difficult not to begin to fall into this trap. I don’t think seeking novel and stimulating experiences is in itself all that bad, so long as we take time regularly to just *STOP* and look around us. To gently observe our thoughts and our surroundings and to be okay with non-activity, non-stimulation, calmness. We need to teach ourselves that there is nothing to be afraid of, that there is no need to distract ourselves from our inner lives or the “mundane” external world. This book is helping me to see the value of meditation in a way I have not previously. I would highly recommend reading it. 

Another quick thing I’ll mention is that I think one is especially caught in this trap when one feels the need to seek out ever-greater and more exciting highs. Like, say, one has done LSD 10 times, so now it’s time to do LSD and Molly at the same time, or to dabble in some other, harder drug. Or, say, one has been snowboarding for years, so now it’s time to hang glide or skydive or try some more extreme trick that might lead to death. The problem seems to be in establishing an ever-higher baseline of contentment and happiness. Something as simple as eating in restaurants too much to the point where one is not satisfied with plainer, home-cooked food is a good example of this. Or taking too many dab rips to the point where you can no longer enjoy a simple joint. Seems to me that life is full of all sorts of highs, and that it’s okay to experience these, so long as we can also continue to appreciate the everyday and don’t feel the need to keep raising our baseline of enjoyment. Something like that. Thanks for the great comment, Sandy. 

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sandy (15) (@sandytorna) 11 months ago ago

I concur; if we are not biologically wired this way, this ever-seeking  mindset is all we have ever known thus far in this modern world anyway. The current age of our society has definitely experienced a drastic shift in priorities, and I suppose this may be due to the fact that our basic needs are being met. We are left with these overwhelming cravings to experience more in life (next high). Take your parents for example, or take mine for now..My dad escaped Cuba leaving with only the clothes on his body. He knows what being poor feels like..what being poor looks like..even what being poor tastes like. When he was my age, he was living to only SURVIVE. Now me–I was born into a middle-class family. I have been handed all my necessities and more; shelter, transportation, food, water, education, love, etc. I have the option to dream, to go after my dreams..my parents have set me up for success. (Like you said: we have access to previously unknown kinds of highs and super-enticing forms of stimulation..to add to that, we have the OPTION to involve ourselves in such living). And here’s the very problem with that: I don’t know how to appreciate mundane living. It took me a hell ride through depression to learn to appreciate living at all. Appreciation is something that I need to TEACH myself. But I suppose, all in all  the more grateful I become, the less fear will consume me regarding non-activity, non-stimulation. LOL what is meditation not the answer to… 

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ian (1) (@ianmcminn) 11 months ago ago

Thanks, Sandy for your post.  I like your and Jordans thoughts on the addictive quality of peak experiences.  For me I like to think of not squandering any experience that comes my way, including all the boredom, plainness and generally common types of situations that I have everyday.  With that said I still try to be present as I reach for a beer, or seek out the next thrill that my mind wants me to chase.  

I think the trap is we end up living futile lives where we forget to cherish each moment in the way your dad did when escaping Cuba.  For me, living in the moment helps circumvent that waste of energy on the peak experience that I think my generation has and previous ones have wasted on staying excited.

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sandy (15) (@sandytorna) 10 months, 4 weeks ago ago

I admire your mindset Ian. May I ask how you remain present and humbled? Did you always seem to have this outlook, or did you train yourself into acquiring it? 

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Melissa (5) (@m3lissarichardson) 11 months ago ago

Currently, I am experiencing some form of this feeling. I just got home from travelling over the last 1 1/2 years to 8 countries. Today I walked around my city again for the first time(Seattle), the air was cold and I felt out of place. I listened to the people in business suits have generic conversations and I wondered if they were happy. There were more homeless people than ever and no one makes eye contact on the streets. I experienced such a freedom that coming back to the concrete jungle feels sad. I guess I’m just trying to find a balance because you can’t travel forever but there’s got to be a better way than what I’m seeing. We work our lives away and don’t question if there’s another option. An easier one that involves more free time and happiness. Or maybe we believe that it’s not possible. I’m not sure what is going to happen but I can feel the flaws of humanity more than ever now. I don’t want to get stuck on this feeling and miss out on all the magic happening right before my eyes. I just feel like I’ve maybe outgrown my home and the system. Or maybe I’m not thinking straight because I’ve been living in a different reality for so long. Naturally people are always going to want more, but maybe there is nothing more powerful than human connection. I think we can experience peaks all the time if we lower our expectations. 

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Jordan Bates (4,204)A (@bashfulkoala) 11 months ago ago

damn, Melissa, i can relate so much with what you’re saying. i wrote an article on HE a while back that i think might interest you, if you never happened to read it. at least CTRL+F and look for “reverse culture shock.” i wrote a section on just what you’re describing. maybe it has something of value to offer you. traveling *definitely* gets one addicted to peak experiences and extraordinarily novel/stimulating circumstances. i do think it’s a great test of one’s ability to accept the mundane to return to one’s home country. it was really hard for me. anytime i’ve been home in the Midwest, i start going kind of stir-crazy and looking for peak experiences — weed, alcohol, exercise, gambling, etc. i’m really glad i found Chodron’s book because now i can see this pattern more clearly, and next time i go home, i will try to sit with the boredom and seeming triviality and accept it, without being so frantic to move from one peak experience to the next. 

still, i do wonder if the traveler has such a hard time returning to our society’s normality because travelers tap into a more primordial human happiness. below, in response to Ellie, i wrote: 

this makes me wonder if being nomadic is just healthier for us and jibes better with what we evolved to do. our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, nomads, always looking upon new vistas. i feel more in touch with the magic of life when i’m on the move.”

i’m almost wondering if nomadism is a healthier and more fulfilling mode of existence than stationary-ism. of course, being stationary allows for all sorts of good things like becoming integrated into communities, developing good habits, etc. it’s really difficult to discern which trade-offs are more worth it. for now, i’m on the move. i could totally talk more about this. DM me if you like or find me on FB. i really feel for you and have been precisely where your’e at. take care.

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Melissa (5) (@m3lissarichardson) 10 months, 4 weeks ago ago

okay i added you on facebook and ill send you a message in a few days when ive had more experiences and a better idea of how im feeling about everything. it would be so great to get more insight from someone thats been here :)

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samuel (12) (@gogochaos) 10 months, 4 weeks ago ago

Hey, I am really interested in what you both have been saying about travel. I am a senior in high school, and I want to take a gap year and travel next year before I go to college. So what I am asking is less related to the topic of this discussion – which I find fascinating as a side note – but more on the side of travel. Where did you go? How did you afford it? Any ideas, suggestions, advice you can tell me? 

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Jordan Bates (4,204)A (@bashfulkoala) 10 months, 3 weeks ago ago

For my answers to those questions, Samuel, read this article: http://highexistence.com/11-takeaways-from-8-months-of-unemployed-nomadism/

: ]

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Ellie (1,351)M (@tangledupinplaid21) 11 months ago ago

That’s a really great book. I enjoy the parts where she says that it’s good to be brave enough to exist with our boredom (or something along those lines, it’s been a while since I read it) without running from it.

When you say “even the most ordinary things are wondrous, when seen from a certain perspective”, is that a form of seeking peak experiences?

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John (25) (@jzic123) 11 months ago ago

Nice thought — if you manage to transform a (subjectively) ordinary moment into a wondrous moment through a perspective shift, I would deem that as a peak experience. Maybe the highest of all peak experiences because it arose from within you, and is completely repeatable.

I suppose you could get obsessed with ‘seeking’ a similar peak experience, but once you realize you are the peak experience creator (through perspective shifting), the addictive thrill of ‘hunting’ for a peak experience via external stimuli would likely lose its luster. 

You wouldn’t search for a well when you have a working faucet in your own home. 

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Jordan Bates (4,204)A (@bashfulkoala) 11 months ago ago

glad you’ve read it and would recommend, Ellie. : )

your question is really poignant. thank you for noticing that what i suggested might also be a form of seeking peak experience. i hadn’t seen that shadow aspect.

i need to think more about it. i’m torn. on one hand i think i reached a point a while ago where it’s almost my default state to see the world as kind of surreal/wondrous/odd/enigmatic . . . i think the majority of the time (though this is quite hard to say), the world doesn’t seem “mundane” to me. although, actually, i take that back. i’m not quite sure whether i more often see the world as mundane or as surreal/wondrous/enigmatic (or at least interesting in some way). i want to think that the latter is my default state, but i think this may be a shadow aspect i’m presently identifying — that i am afraid of the world being a boring place devoid of magic and so i don’t admit to myself that it feels that way a fair share of the time.

when i was back in Iowa for the holidays, for instance, things did feel terribly mundane sometimes. it may be that i *think* i’ve learned to always see the world as wondrous because i’ve traveled so much the past 2.5 years and it’s easier to see the wonder and beauty of the world while traveling. this makes me wonder if being nomadic is just healthier for us and jibes better with what we evolved to do. our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, nomads, always looking upon new vistas. i feel more in touch with the magic of life when i’m on the move. once i’m in a certain location/routine for a while, it begins to become somewhat mundane. however, if i try, i believe i can see any moment as wondrous, when i recognize that i am existing at all and that i can’t explain why or how it’s happening. but of course i’m not focusing on this all the time, and i guess Chodron’s point is that that’s okay. we’re not going to focus on the wondrous all the time, and we need to be okay with the times when life seems commonplace. this makes me wonder whether or not true sages or masters reach a point where life is never experienced as commonplace — where they’re always in touch with the wonder. 

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Garrett Payne (14) (@gpayne44) 11 months ago ago

This sounds like a book that I should read! I was once guilty of doing exactly what this author warns against; I had my first psychedelic experience a little over 3 years ago and while I still to this day consider it to be the most significant experience of my life thus far, I did fall into the trap of seeking out peak experiences via drug use and disregarding the mundane for a short time. 

Drug use seems to be an especially relevant form of peak experience seeking presently (at least in my country, the US) with the legalization of marijuana gradually spreading through American minds and legislation and a renewed interest in psychedelics. In my case, mushrooms opened the door to a level of introspection that I had never dreamed was possible. Essentially they showed me that I had never really known myself for what I actually am. As a result, I started studying and practicing meditation independently in an effort to better understand myself and how I fit into the bigger picture. This was great, but I was initially impatient and overly curious so I would always smoke marijuana before meditating. I wanted each meditation session to bring back a hint of the psychedelic experience. It took me a long time to experientially understand the purpose of meditation, and through that process I learned that peak experiences can only exist against a backdrop of extraordinarily average events, and, further, that in my individual creation of this backdrop my new persona was and still is being formed.

In my opinion, peak experiences such as psychedelic trips are good for shattering our outdated and misinformed perspectives, but we must work diligently in the normal waking state to integrate the lessons they provide. We cannot forfeit our personal power to the thrill of a peak experience. 

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emma (192) (@emmaclaire) 10 months, 4 weeks ago ago

Mad respect for Pema. She’s one of my favorite human beings. 

She also advocates “leaning in” to discomfort instead of running away. Because, as you said, to have highs you must have lows. You simply can’t run for long. Lows are part of the human experience and I believe discomfort is where the majority of our growth comes from. The idea is to fully experience everything.

For the past few years, I’ve been doing a combo of running away and seeking peak experiences. I’ve been to about 19 countries in the past 3 years. Volunteering, studying, getting yoga instructor certified, backpacking… constant novelty. Travel jolts you awake. There’s always something new to decode or read or taste or see or do. Your senses are ridiculously heightened to take in as much of your new surroundings as possible. You haven’t made any (or many) conclusions about your surroundings and everything is open to interpretation. Like psychedelics, travel helps you see life from a new perspective and gives you a high or peak experience. I think that’s important and beautiful but you simply cannot get that high all the time. If you do, peak experience becomes the new mundane equilibrium you were running from in the first place.

I’ve been (mostly) back at home in my Midwest suburban hometown for the past 6 months. I never thought I would say that. I thought I would be living in some cool American city or abroad. But surprisingly and honestly I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m devoting time to learning (and teaching) yoga and meditation. I’m reading. I’m going for familiar walks. I’m connecting with old friends. And sometimes I’m just sitting. I’m content where I am. I don’t crave getting away. I think the true gift of travel and psychedelics are that they give you a new pair of lenses through which to see the world. They help you learn how to be mindful. And once you get to a place of mindfulness there is novelty and beauty surrounding you all the time. There are lessons hidden in less-than-pleasurable experiences. And you can enjoy peak experiences for everything they are. You lean into everything. 

I’m thankful for my travel experiences and they helped me get to this place of contentment, but I don’t “need” them anymore. It’s easy to point fingers at people who never took the opportunity to broaden their horizons and get away. But I think perhaps the individual who is truly content and embracing life might look like your average Joe on the outside. They’ve found contentment in the mundane. What if the people I always thought were sheep are the ones who truly have it figured out?

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Jordan Bates (4,204)A (@bashfulkoala) 10 months, 3 weeks ago ago

What if the people I always thought were sheep are the ones who truly have it figured out?”

That last sentence game me chills, Emma. Thanks so much for this illuminating, in-depth, and well-written response. Literally everything you said completely resonates, and it seems we think very similarly. As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, I was just home for 2.5 months in my hometown — a small town of 12,000 people in Iowa. To be fair, I went home shortly after an extremely rough breakup, so that may have been part of why I felt somewhat lonely/unhappy/stir-crazy a fair bit of the time I was home. There is also the fact of my having now had many experiences that people in my hometown cannot relate to, and the fact that I now think quite differently than most people in my hometown, which is naturally somewhat alienating and makes me feel as if I don’t belong. But I also think I am somewhat addicted to peak experiences and wasn’t prepared to feel so un-stimulated, to feel that everything was so mundane, had never changed at all, and would never change. It depressed me somewhat, though I think I accepted these feelings and did learn from them. Still though, I was so glad to leave again and get back on the road — back into a world of possibilities. 

I’m curious if your hometown is as small as mine, or if it’s larger. I definitely aspire to be able to do what you’ve described — to be content anywhere, even in my seemingly boring-ass hometown. And actually, once I started to develop a routine that included working out, reading, and meditation, I did begin to become more content there. Although, one problem is that my friends who still live there are kind of bad influences, as all we do more or less is drink, smoke weed, watch TV, and go gambling. : / I think I could do it (live there for a while and be content), though at this point I just don’t feel any desire to move back. The road still calls. I don’t think I *need* the travel, but I do so love it. I love everything you described — the constant challenge, constant novelty, heightened senses, new perspectives. It seems so conducive to growth and expanding one’s worldview. I think I’ll always want to go on more adventures for those reasons and so many others. 

I’m actually flying out tomorrow to head to Canada to live in a cabin on a commune / maple syrup farm for 3 months. It’s about an hour outside Montreal in the middle of a large forest. In some ways, this is an exciting travel experience. It’s something I’ve dreamt of doing for a long time. But I’m also thinking that 3 months of mostly solitude without many of the stimulating aspects of modern life (I will still have Internet, though) will be a good chance to “lean in” to the seemingly mundane and learn to be content with its simple joys — natural settings, reading, meditation, the opportunity to be creative. Hopefully this will be a very learningful experience that will help me move closer to a place where I don’t “need” travel or endless peak experiences. If it goes well, I may try to spend long periods of my life living simply, in a small home, close to nature.

To return to the question of yours with which I opened this response (re: the people you always thought were sheep): I don’t think it’s black and white. I think your sentiment is poignant because I think many “sheep” *have* figured out how to be content with the simple joys of life and have accepted their lot in a beautiful way, taking pride in their role in their community, whatever that may be. However, I also think there are many “sheep” who are deeply discontented/dissatisfied on some level with the path they’ve chosen. I think many people hate the jobs/rat race they’ve ended up in, but they’re too afraid to try to break the cycle and do something else or explore what they really love. And many folks living a more traditional American life are addicted to alcohol, gambling, food, TV, etc. (more peak experience-seeking). So I think there are all kinds. I think there are many “sheep” and travelers/uncategorizables out there who are/would be able to be completely content in a simple, stationary, more mundane existence. And many who are not/would not. I would consider myself more in the former category than the latter, though I’m not there yet. But I guess it’s a blessing to have room to grow. I’m sure there will always be deeper levels of acceptance and contentment to realize. Here’s to continuing to “lean in” and discover them. 

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Jordan Bates (4,204)A (@bashfulkoala) 10 months, 3 weeks ago ago

P.S. I’m not really a fan of the term “sheep” and only used it for convention’s sake. I don’t like it for exactly the reason Emma pointed out — that many people who appear to be mindless conformists are actually much wiser / broad-minded than one would guess. I also think that even the most mindless of conformists still have inner worlds much more rich and complex than one would guess, and “sheep” is a dehumanizing term that negates that fact. Nonetheless, the term is a useful functional shorthand for someone who has followed a traditional life-path narrative, and that’s how I used it here. 

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Jacki (4) (@Jacki-Othon) 10 months, 3 weeks ago ago

The dichotomy of novel vs. mundane could be reflective of the rift in the flow of energy between the external and internal world. Is magic inherent in the world around you, or do you look at the world and perceive magic? And then how do you respond? Do you absorb the magic, sucking it from the environment until it is no longer present in your physical surroundings, forcing you to move on to find more? Or do you return the magic, breathing it out and creating more? 

All of the universe is movement. Perhaps movement is the purpose. So do we move our physical bodies as the universe moves us to move, or do we internalize the movement? And, are we giving back? Do we inhale experience and exhale art, or are we simply absorbing? Does the magic stop within us, keeping us on the move like hunter-gatherers as we seek it anew, or are we evolving into farmers and learning the magic of pulling life from the soil beneath us–that subtle dance of life-death-life that we coax forth from our fingertips?
Can we give as well as take? Can we move towards that which we desire, and be open to receiving what the experience has to offer? And what, then, will we have to offer in return? It’s the flow that keeps us going, not through the intake or the output, but in the space where the two meet and are one. 

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Kerry (0) (@Kerry-Needs) 10 months, 3 weeks ago ago

What an absolutely fantastic response. I can certainly resonate with what you are saying. 

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Kiwi1303 (3) (@Zuberov) 10 months, 3 weeks ago ago

In my oppinion, this behaviour is an after-effect of all the artificial “wonders” humans are presented with. The reason for this are all the attempts of the powers of the day to control the people – mass media and consumerism make it difficult to enjoy “ordinary life”. The human vanity has been elevated to a high level, making people intolerable to their ordinary self and providing them with an escape mechanism for this hideous monster called boredom.

<div>Boredom is also artificial, it’s the product of overflooding our minds with things we must want, must like and must have to be a part of a certain society (at least in the western world). The huge ammount of toys at our disposal shifts the focus from the ordinary, but natural things in life. We don’t see anything ordinary on TV. There’s nothing ordinary in all the bilboards and commercials, displaying superficial images of extremely happy, extremely beautiful people, places or objects.</div><div>
</div><div>Because of these manipulation tricks, modern people always pursue peak experiences – they’re afraid, that if they are not at the top, they are not anywhere. Of course, almost all of the peaks are overrated, because they don’t happen naturally. Instead of comparing good with bad (peak vs. drop), we compare good with better or bad with worse. But this is an unhealthy comparison. We can understand neither the good, nor the bad, because we constantly run away from this opposition of peak vs. drop. We are also unwilling to understand what makes a peak great and a drop awful, even though we are solely reaposnible for both of these events.</div><div>
</div><div>Peole are somewhat scared of the ordinary, because they feel the lack of control. Everything everywhere tells you that you are the master of your life, but that can be absolutely true only if you live in an isolated bubble in some parallel universe. In our world we do have circumstances, often out of our control, and this scares us to death, because they may lead to a peak, but they may also lead to a drop. Instead of accepting both outcomes as equally valuable parts of our lives, as events that are expanding our conciousnes, we perceive only the peak and run away from everything else until we figure out, that there is no peak without a drop to compare it to.</div>

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samuel (12) (@gogochaos) 10 months, 3 weeks ago ago

I ordered this book because of your post, and it just arrived so I’m pretty excited haha

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