Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The ‘Peak’ Experience

I have always believed that great classical music helps us transcend our own limitations. This is most obvious in the state of rapture that some listeners reach when completely immersed in the music they are listening to. But there are some thoughts I wanted to share on this by first deconstructing the most common myth surrounding the ‘peak’ experiences in listening to classical music - that the peak experience is akin to some sort of spiritual orgasm or nirvana that takes you well and truly out of this world. That it is a tried and tested method of jettisoning your mind out of reality.

Listening to classical music is not escapism. It is not an aid to forgetting, to dodging the pain or confusion of our everyday lives, or to numbing ourselves to the cut and thrust of life’s challenges. Classical music is not some drug to induce a temporary ‘high’.

If that qualifies what the peak experience is not, then what exactly would we say this experience is? I would suggest that the peak experience in listening to great classical music is one that stirs the mind, heart and soul to a new level of awareness.

Let me elaborate.

If you notice, I have inserted the word ‘great’ before classical music. That implies some distinction between shall we say, run-of-the-mill music and the truly enduring and significant works in the repertoire. While run-of-the-mill works can engage and excite for sure, I would suggest that in most such cases the weakness of the piece either in inspiration or organization precludes the ability to ‘throw’ the listener to a new level of awareness.

Secondly, the operative word is to ‘stir’. The implication is that the peak experience results in not only a mixing up (re-organizing) of some of the emotions and thoughts in us, but also an awakening or rousing-up that takes us to a new level of awareness. This stirring is not something we may recognize on a conscious level, but it is I would think an intrinsic character of the peak experience.

Finally, the peak experience takes mind, heart and soul to ‘a new level of awareness’. This is not to imply that listening to the Bach’s B Minor Mass unlocks the secrets of eternity to the tuned-in listener or that listening to Beethoven’s late string quartets or piano sonatas reveals to us the meaning of human suffering. They might and they often do (far be it from me to set a limit to what the peak experience can do!!). But when we say ‘a new level of awareness’, it could simply be a greater mindfulness of our own spiritual nature, a better perspective on what matters most to and in our lives, a deeper appreciation of the beauty in life, a gentler view of ourselves, a more forgiving view of our world, a more optimistic view of our chances battling our own challenges, a renewed relationship with our God, a renewed relationship with ourselves, or simply a joy that heals. After all, the word ‘peak’ implies reaching a point from where the view is different!

These are the new levels of awareness that religious retreats aim to achieve, that self-development workshops and books promise and that every individual seeks in some way or the other. And this is the peak experience that listening to great classical music can achieve.

We mentioned ‘mind, heart and soul’. So let us be clear, the peak experience is not some emotional high that makes you tearful, delirious or ecstatic merely for emotion’s sake. Great classical music engages mind, heart and soul to take us to a new understanding. Like that view from the mountain top, it has a way of putting things in perspective. No wonder then that the Hindu Goddess of music, Saraswathi, is also the Goddess of wisdom!

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