The Need for Peak Experiences in a Superficial World

man climbing on rock mountain


In my favorite fiction book, Once a Runner, there is a scene where the protagonist Quentin Cassidy has gone all-in. He’s living in a cabin in the woods, training with his coach and training partner, Bruce Denton, all in the pursuit of seeing what’s possible. One day, Denton suggests a tough but manageable workout, twenty quarter-mile repeats with a short jog. As they finish up the workout, Denton turns to Cassidy, “Another twenty,” he says.

After forty repeats Denton suggests another twenty, but this time Cassidy is on his own. Before departing, he leaves his protege to finish off the insane workout by himself with a message: “Runners deal in discomfort. After you get past a certain point, that’s all there really is… I know you can do this important thing because I once did it myself and when it was over I knew some very important things.”

On more than one occasion, whenever I’m going through a tough time, or the world seems like it’s gone mad, friend and mentor Mike Joyner tells me “sixty quarters.” Although I’ve never asked Joyner what he means exactly, our shared experience of running gives me an idea. In the depths of fatigue, when you are flooded with feelings, emotions, doubts, and uncertainty, eventually you figure something out. The path clears, you realize what it means to feel alive, to feel connected to others who have challenged themselves in just about any endeavor. You are forced to inhabit a new perspective, to see the world a slightly different way.

In the same chapter in Once a Runner, Cassidy described interval workouts as “the modern distance runner’s equivalent to the once popular Iron Maiden, a device as you know used by ancient Truth Seekers.” Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell called these phenomenon ​peak experiences​. As he told PBS’s Bill Moyers in a classic interview, “The peak experience refers to actual moments of your life when you feel that this has told you something, something has come through in your experience of your relationship to the harmony of being.” When Moyers asked Campbell about his peak experience, he replied it was a 4×800 relay at the Penn Relays, a famous track meet.

These experiences don’t just occur in sport. I’d venture that some have had this experience lost in the creative act—be it sculpting, painting, or writing. Others may experience this kind of deep feeling and knowing on a religious or spiritual journey. Some may find it when meditating or being out in nature. Others need to do something difficult, to challenge themselves and push beyond normal.

History is littered with humans going through rituals that are designed to help us feel, experience, and know. Chief among them are ​tribal rites of passages​ that still exist to this day. Many are designed to be perspective changers, to designate the transition of a child into an adult.

We might laugh at the current iteration of people paying tens of thousands of dollars to have someone yell and scream at them as they ​pretend to go through bootcamp hell​, all in the name of “reclaiming their masculinity.” While that might be absurd, the healthier alternative is often the mid-life endurance adventure. Over the past twenty-five years we’ve seen a steady rise in the number of people taking on a marathon. And as those become too easy for some, ultramarathons have gone from complete niche to seeing exponential growth.

In the modern world, despite Joyner’s suggestions, most of us are not going to go down to the track to run sixty quarters. Yet we’ll sign up for simulated survival adventures, take on marathons and triathlons, or if we’re a billionaire, try to launch ourselves into space.

As modern life numbs us, the pull to feel and know deeply is irresistible. We’re increasingly living in the meta-world, filled with cheap feelings and experiences. We reach for the online slot machine of dopamine. We over-rely on superficial connections on social media instead of real life engagement. And too often the strongest emotion we have is the anger from watching too much news or media content that is designed to make us feel just that.

That’s not feeling alive. That’s not a peak experience. That isn’t going to lead us to know much of anything. So we turn to challenges, often physical in nature, as a substitute.

Take the marathon for example. It’s challenging, something that we’ll have to dedicate time, energy, and effort to get through. During the training and racing, we’ll be inundated with barrage of feelings and emotions. Fatigue, anxiety, excitement, and so much more. But at the same time, it’s communal. We often train with a group of people going through the same doubts and discomforts. And even if we don’t, on race day we’re surrounded by thousands of others going through a version of the same thing. At the very end of our journey, we look back and see a changed person who overcame a challenge that they could barely fathom just months prior. We figure out something about ourselves as we go on that journey. It is as real as anything.

As the world goes more virtual and disconnected, we need to embrace things that make us feel alive. But, here too, we can go wrong. There’s the real: a marathon that you choose to do, that challenges you internally to make progress toward a goal. And there’s the artificial: a bunch of men paying someone to scream at them as they suffer where the whole point is to cosplay a warrior and simply survive. Sure, they look similar, but context matters. One is simulated survival. It’s feeling discomfort, pain, and fatigue, but of the pointless variety. It’s suffering for the sake of suffering, hoping that there’s some magic transcendence that comes with it. The other is exploring your limits in a meaningful pursuit where there is a standard you are up against. It’s going to the depths of the well and realizing that regardless of the result, you are capable.

As I look around at the chaos of the past few years, I can’t help but wonder how much of it is to needing to feel engaged, to feel alive, to feel connected to those around us. When we lack those ingredients in life, we’re going to seek them out somewhere else. But too often, we reach for the quick filling, sugar filled beverage that seems appealing, but only quiches our thirst and hunger acutely. It’s not fulfilling. The sugar filled soda is the cosplaying our way through an experience. What we need more of is the deep kind of experiencing. The kind that leads to truth. Our own equivalent of sixty quarters. In the book, Cassidy didn’t run this ridiculous workout to prove to himself he was tough. It was part of his quest to explore his limits, to see if he could break through to compete at the highest level. It was real, meaningful, and had a purpose. For some, that might mean a marathon or completing a novel. For others, a deep spiritual practice or a 10 day silent meditation retreat. Or, in the midst of the always on, always connected world, it could simply be your own version of what Cassidy sought, minus the running, time spent in a cabin in the woods, shooting the shit with your best friend as you navigate life.

Go find your sixty quarters.


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