Experiencing awe helps us to feel more human, says Caspar Henderson. We would do well to seek it out
My daughter recently had to make a rainstick for school, so she pulled a cardboard tube out of the recycling, found some dried beans to create the sound of rain when it’s shaken, and taped up the ends. The noises from her new creation were underwhelming compared to those from a model you can buy online for a few quid but they were enough to bring to my mind a simple and beautiful poem by Seamus Heaney. “Upend the rain stick,” he writes, “and what happens next/Is a music that you never would have known/To listen for…”
Towards the end of his life in 1970, the psychologist Abraham Maslow, best known today for his theory of the hierarchy of needs, considered putting self-transcendence at its top, above self-actualisation. Beyond the “merely healthy” individual, he suggested, were those who became better human beings for others as well as for themselves. And a key factor in this transition, he suggested, was what he called “peak experience”. By this he meant “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality”.