Exploding with fiery intelligence

Our editor Jon Sutton reviews The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience, by Jules Evans.

How do you ‘unself’? Do you feel that need, to let go of your emotions, of inhibitions, to break down the walls of fear and shame and connect with something way beyond our small and mortal bodies? Many psychologists and writers have discussed this ‘deep-seated urge to self-transcendence’. In this book philosopher Jules Evans paints a colourful picture of his search for ecstatic experience.

Evans, who is Policy Director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, imagines the book as a festival, with each chapter as a different tent or zone exploring a different way that people find ecstasy in modern Western culture. Well aware of the dark side of transcendence, what Jung called ‘the shadow’, Evans warns ‘in some tents you’ll feel at home; others might seem a bit weird, but just go with it’. 

The festival metaphor is no coincidence. Within our circles, Evans’s midlife crisis is probably a fairly stereotypical one: as an ‘introverted, cerebral, bachelor academic’ and practising Stoic, he decided he wanted to ‘loosen up and learn to let go’. Clearly the place to start was a week-long naturist tantra festival followed by a 10-day meditation retreat. Thankfully his book is so much more than an earnest, self-important gap-year postcard (even if he does write that ‘the universe is a giant lava-lamp of matter’). Evans is a wise guide on this trip, and he soaks up plenty of psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, popular culture and much more. He’s looking for ‘a middle way – a way to marry New Age play to some kind of wisdom, belief, shared ritual and authority that is not toxic or intellectually shallow’. 

Evans largely finds that middle way, although I think I’m with Brian Eno, who says: ‘Mysticism isn’t an explanation. It’s a way of getting rid of a problem. You don’t know what’s happening, so you call it God.’ But Evans doesn’t force his faith upon us, instead showing himself to be open to all manner of teachings. His stone tablets are handed down by Barbara Ehrenreich, William James, David Lynch, Aldous Huxley, Bruce Springsteen and others. And the book holds an empowering message: Evans’s own near-death experience having convinced him that suffering is based on beliefs, not burned-out neural transmitters. Get out there and transform your relationship with the world.

Evans suggests there are two risks in our culture – the main one being that we pathologise ecstatic experiences and push them away, ending up ‘shut off in our narrow ego-prisons’. Personally, I think the book sometimes falls foul of the second risk he mentions – that we become too attached to ecstatic experience, ending up thrill-seekers, ‘sensation-addicts’. There’s quite a lot of ‘bucket list’ type description, forced communal jollity… I could have done with more of the old Stoic Evans leading the way, and more consideration of the kind of solitary experience which opens the book: the wind on your face, damp sand under boots, a huge sky, an enthusiastic Labrador, the world ‘exploding with fiery intelligence’.

We should cut Evans some slack though: as he concludes, ‘it’s effing difficult to talk about the ineffable’, and his main goal is simply to bring this conversation into the mainstream. In keeping with the ecstatic experience itself, this is a wild, wondrous, wide-eyed journey, and Evans has convinced me at least that it’s a trip worth taking.

- The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience, by Jules Evans, is published by Canongate. Hb £16.99

Read more on Jules Evans in our archive, and see his suggestion for our 'PsychAtoZ'.

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