Exploding with fiery intelligence
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
Here, with the kind permission of Canongate, we publish the introductory chapter to The Art of Losing Control. Keep an eye on Twitter @psychmag for your chance to win a copy.
Welcome to the festival
I was walking along the beach beside Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. It was a clear, bright September afternoon on one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in England. Across the water was Holy Island, where St Cuthbert had worshipped standing in the sea, and his followers had created the Lindisfarne gospels, the oldest and perhaps most beautiful book in European culture.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was trying to get an internet connection. I was expecting an important email. I checked my phone again. Still nothing. I was in a tetchy mood. I’d come up there for a peaceful getaway from London, but was disturbed until the early hours by a wedding party in the hotel bar, then awakened at six by sea-gulls cackling at me from the street outside. Bloody sea-gulls. Bloody wedding party. Bloody internet. Bloody beach.
And then something changed. I started to enjoy the walk, the exertion, the feel of the wind on my face, the give of the damp sand under my boots. The rhythm of walking calmed my mind. The waves washed in, nibbled at my boots, and washed out again. A Labrador ran up and wagged hello. I looked up and noticed quite how huge the sky was. It was streaked with thin white wisps, like marble, lit up by the sun setting behind the castle, and the light was reflected in the water on the sand.
It was as if the world was exploding with fiery intelligence. It filled me with an almost painful sense of its beauty. Yet this was just one moment in one corner of Earth, more or less unnoticed, except by the handful of people walking along the beach. My heart lifted with gratitude for this planet of endless free gifts.
I set off for my hotel in a completely different mood. I felt lifted beyond the narrow anxiousness of my ordinary ego, switched into a more open, appreciative and peaceful mindset. I thought about taking a photo of the sunset and sharing it on Facebook. And then I thought, ‘No, there’s no need to go begging for others’ likes.’ Just enjoy the moment without trying to convert it into social capital. But, obviously, I did take a photo, and I did post it on Facebook. It got ninety-one likes!
Our basic need for transcendence
In some ways, that moment was quite ordinary. It was just one of those moments that come along now and then, when our consciousness expands beyond its usual self-obsessed anxiousness into a more peaceful, absorbed and transcendent state of mind. It can happen when we’re sitting on a bus, playing with our children, reading a book, walking in the park. Something catches our attention, we become rapt, our breath deepens, and life quietly shifts from a burden to a wonder. These are the little moments when we expand beyond the ego, and they’re deeply regenerative.
The writer Aldous Huxley argued that all humans have a ‘deep-seated urge to self-transcendence’. He wrote: ‘Always and everywhere, human beings have felt the radical inadequacy of their personal existence, the misery of being their insulated selves and not something else, something wider, something in Wordsworthian phrase “far more deeply infused”.’ The psychologist Abraham Maslow likewise thought humans have a fundamental need for ‘peak experiences’ in which they go beyond the self and feel connected to something bigger than them. More recently, the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote of how humans all seek ‘flow’, by which he meant moments in which we become so absorbed in something that we lose track of time and forget ourselves.
The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch called it ‘unselfing’. She wrote: ‘We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world.’ But this anxious ego-consciousness can shift through focused attention, particularly when we’re absorbed by something beautiful, like a painting or a landscape. Murdoch continued: ‘I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.’
All of us need to find ways to unself. Civilisation makes great demands of us: we must control our bodies, inhibit our impulses, manage our emotions, ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’. We must play our role in the great complex web of globalised capitalism. Our egos have evolved to help us survive and compete, and they do a good job at this, by spending every second of the day scanning the horizon for opportunities and threats, like a watchman on Bamburgh Castle looking out for Vikings. But the self we construct is an exhausting place to be stuck all the time. It’s isolated, cut off by walls of fear and shame, besieged by worries and ambitions, and conscious of its own smallness and impending mortality. That’s why we need to let go, every now and then, or we get bored, exhausted and depressed.
From flow to ecstasy
We all have our own ways to unself, during the day and throughout the week. My former housemate had a bath-time ritual – he’d light candles, play music through a little speaker, add various oils to the water, and get into the bath for up to an hour. Others might lose themselves in a book, or gardening, or going for a walk. Playing tennis is my favourite way to forget myself – I sometimes reach a moment when the normal ego-chatter dies down, my attention becomes absorbed, and life is blissfully reduced to the area of the tennis court.
And then there are the deeper forms of ego-loss that people find in deep contemplation, or psychedelics, or during incredible sex, or in close brushes with death, or through spontaneous transcendent experiences. In profound moments of ego-loss, people feel deeply connected to something greater than them – nature, the cosmos, humanity, God – to the extent they go beyond any sense of ‘I’ and ‘you’. In mystical literature, these deeper moments of ego-loss are known as ‘ecstasy’, from the ancient Greek ekstasis, which literally means ‘standing outside’ the self. Today, we think of ‘ecstatic’ as meaning ‘very, very happy’, but ego-loss can also be terrifying. These deeper experiences are rare, but many of us have experienced them – in a survey I did in 2016, I asked respondents if they’d ever had an experience where they went beyond their ordinary self and felt connected to something bigger than them (this is my working defi- nition of ecstasy). Eighty per cent of respondents said they had – this included Christians, atheists, agnostics, and ‘spiritual but not religious’ people.
As Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has shown, there is a continuum between the everyday moments of light ego-loss, which he called ‘flow’, and the much deeper moments of ego-loss which the mystics called ‘ecstasy’. He told me: ‘Flow is a kind of toned-down ecstasy, something that has some of the characteristics of ecstasy – the feeling that you’re losing yourself in something larger, the sense of time disappearing – but flow happens in conditions that are usually rather mundane. It can happen washing the dishes or reading a good book or having a conversation. It’s a kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.’
Healthy and toxic transcendence
Everyone seeks ways to turn off the ego’s chatter and feel a sense of connection to other people and the world. However, there are better and worse ways of reaching this state. There is healthy transcendence, which improves our life and our society, and there is toxic transcend- ence, which damages us and our society. Any method of letting go, however innocuous, can become problematic.We could become addicted to switching off the mind with a bottle of wine every night, or junk TV, or a spliff, or Valium, or porn, or heroin, or violence. One in four people in the UK is obese, one in twelve suffers from alcohol depend- ency, millions of Americans are addicted to the $10 billion opiate-painkiller industry, and we’re all addicted to the internet.6 The actor Martin Sheen, a recovering alcoholic, has said that addiction is really a misdirected search for transcendence, connection and love. Aldous Huxley called it downward transcendence – we turn off the mind, but in an unhealthy way.
How we let go, then, is a question of fundamental importance for us and for our society. Do you let go in ways that are healthy or toxic? Does our society offer us good ways of losing control, or does it offer only shallow and toxic forms of transcendence? The critic Susan Sontag warned of the ‘traumatic failure of modern capitalist society . . . to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending moments . . . The need of human beings to transcend “the personal” is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual. But this society serves that need poorly.’
Learning to lose control
I work at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, at Queen Mary University of London. I’m fascinated by how our inner lives are shaped by our culture and history. I wrote my first book, Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations, about how Greek philosophy inspired cognitive behavioural therapy, and how it still helps many people through difficult periods of life, including me. I’ve spent the last few years working to revive Stoic philosophy, teaching it in schools, prisons and even a rugby club. But I decided I can no longer call myself a Stoic (despite getting a Stoic tattoo on my shoulder in a moment of rashness) because it misses a lot out.
Stoicism insists the way to flourishing is via rational self-analysis and self-control. That’s often true, but not always. There is something to be said for those moments when we lose control, when we surrender to something greater than us, even if it means going beyond critical rationality. The Stoics had little positive to say about romantic love, or intoxication, or music, dancing and the arts in general – all of which involve moments of ecstatic surrender. Their philosophy lacks rituals, myths and festivals, which have helped humans find ecstasy over the millennia. And Stoics have never been great at community. As we’ll see, one of the important functions of ecstatic experience is to connect people to one another in love. Midway through my life, I decided to go beyond Stoicism and search for the ecstatic. As an introverted, cerebral, bachelor academic, I wanted to loosen up and learn to let go. I was looking for a greater connection to other people, and also perhaps to God . . . or, at least, for some form of ego-transcendence.
Over the last four years, I’ve ventured way beyond my comfort zone. I attended a week-long tantra festival. I put myself through a ten-day Vipassana retreat, where we meditated for ten hours a day. I joined a charismatic Christian church for a year, and learned to speak in tongues. I went on a rock and roll pilgrimage to Memphis and Nashville, and sang gospel at the church of Al Green. I taught myself lucid dreaming, debated the reality of elves with a roomful of psychedelic scientists. I even went to a 5Rhythms ecstatic dance workshop. It’s been a long, strange ride. I wanted to discover how other people find ecstasy in modern Western culture, a culture in which the traditional route – Christianity – is in decline, judging by church-attendance figures. I interviewed many people about their preferred route to ego-loss, using online surveys and through conversations with experts, including the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi; the Bishop of London; the musicians Brian Eno, David Byrne and Sister Bliss; the author Philip Pullman; and the hypnotist Derren Brown.
Western culture’s problem with ecstasy
I’ve decided that Western culture has a problematic relationship with ecstasy, and this narrows and impoverishes our experience of reality. In 1973, the anthropologist Erika Bourguignon undertook a survey of 488 societies around the world, and found that 90 per cent of them had institutionalised rituals for achieving ego-loss. Western society is very unusual in its lack of such rituals and its denigration of non-rational states of mind. That’s a consequence of the Enlightenment, and the shift from an enchanted to a materialist world-view.
In an enchanted world-view, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit-world. The animist cosmos teems with nature spirits, the spirits of the dead, deities and spiritual energy.The Christian cosmos is created by God and filled with benevolent and malevolent spiritual forces.The human psyche in an enchanted cosmos is ‘porous’, to use the philosopher Charles Taylor’s phrase – our ego is a rickety old shed in a haunted forest. In an ecstatic experience, the shed is filled with spirits.We may be possessed by evil spirits, but we may also be inspired by good spirits and blessed with charismatic powers of healing, creativity or prophecy. The shaman, prophet and artist are ecstatic mediators between the tribe and the spirit- world, keeping relations cordial. Otherwise the spirit-world may destroy us with madness or environmental destruction – as the god Dionysus destroys King Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae. We’re not really masters of ourselves in the enchanted cosmos. We’re meeting-houses for spiritual forces, and we must learn to let the right ones in.
In a materialist world-view, there are no spirits or gods out there. Ecstasy is a mental delusion. The universe is a giant lava-lamp of matter, beautiful but inanimate, ruled by mechanical laws.The human body is likewise a machine, which somehow produces consciousness in the brain. Spiritual explanations of physical or psychic phenomena are ignorant and childish. In this disenchanted world-view, ourselves are ‘buffered’, to use Taylor’s phrase: we are walled off from other people and from nature by our self-conscious rationality. We must learn to govern ourselves and control our impulses, not to placate any supernatural beings, but rather to win the approval of the Public, the new god of the humanist universe.The Public is always observing us, and we must remain polite and self-controlled at all times, lest people think we’re unreliable or crazy, and we get ridiculed or ostracised or locked up. We are – or must struggle to be – masters of ourselves. Rational control is the basis of morality, and losing control is shameful.
The demonisation of ecstasy
As Western civilisation shifted to a materialist world-view, it increasingly denigrated ecstatic experiences, and privileged rationality as the only sane and reliable form of consciousness. Dreams had been a gateway for divine messages. Now they were just side-effects of physical processes. Visions had been sacred revelations. Now they were ‘idols of the brain’, in the words of materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes. From the sixteenth century on, ecstasy was increasingly labelled ‘enthusiasm’, which came to signify a mental illness, the product of an overheated brain or an over-active imagination. Enthusiasm was the ‘anti-self of the Enlightenment’. It was a threat to the Enlightenment ideal of the rational, autonomous, polite and industrious self. The religious enthusiast became an object of ridicule in the works of Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding and William Hogarth. Enthusiasm was also a threat to public order. The seventeenth- century Wars of Religion showed, supposedly, how much damage religious enthusiasm could do.The Encyclopédie warned that ‘Fanatical superstition, born of troubled imagination, overturns empires.’To protect public order, the state should be secular and rational, and religion should be banished from the public sphere, privatised, rationalised, and drained of all ecstatic fervour. The better-educated the populace, the less likely they’d fall prey to ecstasy. ‘Science’, wrote the philosopher Adam Smith, ‘is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition’.
Then, in the nineteenth century, as European imperialism spread around the world, Victorian anthropologists increasingly associated ecstatic states with primitive cultures, that were considered less civilised, less rational and more superstitious and childish than Westerners. To give way to ecstasy was to degenerate to their primitive level. As the sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich said: ‘The essence of the Western mind, and particularly the Western male upper-class mind, was its ability to resist the contagious rhythms of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality in the seductive wildness of the world.’ If you let the drums seduce you and gave way to ecstasy, you’d end up like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a depraved lunatic.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the discipline of psychiatry tried to prove that ecstasy was a physical disease of the brain. The French psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot claimed ecstasy was one of the stages of ‘hysteria’, a degeneration of the brain that affected both men and women (but mainly women). He insisted that the ecstatics of yesteryear, from St Teresa of Ávila to Joan of Arc, were actually suffering from hysteria. This medicalisation of ecstasy was part of a broader political campaign by Charcot and his colleagues to secularise medicine and replace nuns with nurses in hospitals. Charcot wasn’t able to cure many of the hysteric women at his clinic, although one patient, Jane Avril, claimed to have healed herself through dancing – she went on to become a famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Charcot also failed to locate the physical basis of hysteria. But over the next century Western psychiatry moved in the direction he outlined. Psychiatrists were – and to a large extent still are – deeply hostile to religious experience, and tend to diagnose unusual experiences, like visions, as symptoms of neurophysical pathologies, which must be suppressed with anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.
Ecstasy, then, has been demonised over the last three centuries of Western culture. It’s been attributed to the nervous temperament or weak education of women, the working-class and non-white cultures. Because of our cultural suspicion of ecstasy, there is a taboo around spiritual experiences. Aldous Huxley said:‘If you have these experiences, you keep your mouth shut for fear of being told to go to a psycho- analyst’ – or, in our day, a psychiatrist. I’ve experienced this taboo myself - I had a near-death experience when I was 24, which I describe in the next chapter, but never told anyone about it, even though it was a positive and healing experience. It was too far beyond the bounds of the normal. But this fear of any states of consciousness besides the rational narrows our existence and makes an enemy of reality. Peter Berger, the sociologist of religion, wrote in 1970:
Human life has always had a day-side and a night-side, and, inevitably, because of the practical requirements of man’s being in the world, it has always been the day-side that has received the strongest ‘accent of reality’. But the night-side, even if exorcised, was rarely denied. One of the most astonishing consequences of secularisation has been just this denial . . . [This] constitutes a profound impov- erishment . . . human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy.
The sixties revival of ecstasy
There have been counter-movements over the last 300 years of Western civilisation, attempts to revalidate ecstatic experiences, but on the whole they’ve taken place at the popular level. There was Methodism, Pentecostalism and other ecstatic forms of Christianity. But they were generally working-class movements, mocked by the intelligentsia.There was the political ecstasy of nationalist movements, from the French Revolution to the Nazi Third Reich, but that didn’t end very well. The rapturous mob at Nuremberg associated ecstasy in intellectuals’ minds with what Gustave Le Bon called the ‘madness of crowds’. There was the Romantic Sublime, the individual feeling overwhelmed by the arts or nature. But this was very individualistic, rather elitist, and not hugely transformative – in the Sublime, the Romantic is always on the verge of losing control, but never quite does (one wouldn’t want to make a scene in the gallery).
The biggest revival came in the 1960s, when there was a sudden explosion of ecstatic practices into mass culture. The writer Marilynne Robinson has suggested the 1960s were a Great Awakening, comparable to the religious revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Robinson notes, the ecstasy started in black churches in America, then spread to other Christian denominations. But the ecstatic explosion was not confined to Christianity. The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests we are ‘now living in a spiritual supernova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plain’. Eastern contemplative practices, including Vipassana, yoga, tantra, Transcendental Meditation and Hare Krishna, were brought over to the West in the 1960s and attracted huge followings. New Age spirituality flourished through Wicca, magic, neo-shamanism, nature-worship and human potential encounter sessions. Psychedelic drugs became widely available. The sexual revolution encouraged people to search for the ultimate orgasm at swinger parties and leather clubs. People sought immersive experiences at art-happenings, experimental theatre and underground cinema. Rock and roll took Pentecostal ecstasy from black churches, secularised it, and brought it to white middle-class audiences. Even sport became a means to transcendence – people turned to surfing, mountain-climbing and jogging as a way to get out of their heads. There was a widespread urge to lose control, turn off the mind, find your authentic self, seek intense experiences.
We’re still feeling the effects of that supernova. It permanently changed our attitude to sex, drugs, religion, pop culture, contemplation and, through all of these, ecstasy. As a result, while religious attendance is declining, ecstatic experiences have become steadily more reported in national surveys. In 1962, 22 per cent of Americans told a Gallup poll they’d had a ‘religious or mystical experience’. By 2009 the figure had grown to 49 per cent. The sixties made us more open to ecstasy – and that includes atheists. Christopher Hitchens remarked shortly before his death: ‘I’m a materialist . . . yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic . . . It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work; without this we really would merely be primates.’ But the sixties has something of a tarnished record in many people’s minds. Baby-boomers’ enthusiastic search for ecstasy led to some dark places. Seekers ended up in toxic cults. Charismatic Christianity became associated with huckster mega-churches and the intolerant politics of the religious right. Eastern gurus turned out to have clay feet.The New Age embraced all kinds of nonsense, from horoscopes to crystal skulls. LSD turned out to be less benign than its prophets had predicted – people lost their minds, ended up in psychiatric institutions. The free-love revolution climaxed in an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases. The imperative to lose control and seek your personal high threatened to undermine the social order: violent crime rose steeply from the 1960s to the 1980s, as did divorce and single-parent families. And the world was not as radically changed as sixties utopians expected.
Instead, late capitalism absorbed young people’s yearning for ecstatic experiences, packaged it, and sold it back to them.
As a result of the tarnished legacy of the 1960s, Western culture today has a deeply ambivalent attitude to ecstasy. We’re fascinated by ecstatic experiences, but terrified of losing our minds.We’re frightened of being brainwashed and ending up in a cult. We dislike the idea of religious authority: we want ecstasy, but on our own terms, preferably without dogma, hierarchies, or long-term contracts. Can we learn to lose control safely, or is it always dangerous? To answer this, I needed to look not just to history but to the new science of ecstatic experiences.
Body, mind, culture and spirit
For much of the twentieth century, the scientific study of altered states of consciousness was ‘relegated to the academic dustbin’. There was very little research on ecstasy, and what there was tended to treat it as patho- logical or primitive. But since the sixties, and particularly in the last decade, the science of altered states has become more mainstream and accepted. There’s still much we don’t understand about this area of human experience, but we’re learning a lot, and it’s transforming our model of the psyche. You can examine ecstasy from four levels: body, mind, culture and spirit. First, we can explain ecstasy as alterations in our neural chemistry, in our brain functioning and our autonomic nervous system. We know that giving people chemicals can trigger ecstatic experiences – a dose of the hormone oxytocin makes them feel spiritually connected to other beings, while a dose of LSD radically alters brain functioning and leads to mystical feelings of ego-loss. We know some ecstatic experiences are connected to brain disorders, like migraines and temporal lobe epilepsy. Neuroscientists have attempted to locate the precise part of the brain responsible for transcendence – the ‘God spot’ – but most now think ecstatic experiences are too complex and various to be attributed entirely to one neural location. Many of the ecstatic experiences we’ll encounter are deeply embodied – they are visceral reactions involving the brain and autonomic nervous system, which regulates breathing, circulation, digestion, the genitals, and other bodily functions. However, just because ecstatic experiences affect the brain and body, that doesn’t mean they are nothing but neurochemical processes.
At the next level up, we can explore ecstasy by examining how it affects people’s consciousness, and asking them to describe their experience. This is the phenomenological approach taken by William James in his 1902 classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, by other pioneers of psychology, like Carl Jung and James’s friend Frederic Myers, and by modern researchers in the field of ‘transpersonal psychology’. We can measure ecstasy using psychometric scales like the Hood Mysticism Scale or the Spiritual Transcendence Scale, which ask people to what extent they agree with statements like ‘I felt connected to all things’. The phenomenological approach explores how ecstasy alters people’s ordinary sense of self and takes them into altered states of consciousness. Rationality, James insisted, is just one mental state in a much wider spectrum of consciousness, including dreams, epiphanies and states of deep absorption. The everyday conscious self is a small shed in the dark forest of the subliminal mind, made up of subconscious and embodied patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour. Moments of ecstasy, according to James, Myers and Jung, are moments when the ordinary ego dissolves and the larger subliminal mind comes into consciousness. At the third level, we can explain ecstatic experiences as socio-cultural phenomena. This was the approach taken by the sociologist Émile Durkheim, by anthropologists like Victor Turner and I. M. Lewis, and by social psychologists including Jonathan Haidt. We can look at how rituals trigger ecstatic experiences in groups, and bond those groups together in what Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’. We learn how to lose control from our culture – for example, the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann studied how people in charismatic churches learn to speak in tongues. Cultural history helps us examine the rituals, forms and structures through which people have dissolved their egos over time, from acid house to jihadism, from flagellants to football hooligans. Humans are constantly improvising new scripts, new ways to lose control, and these new scripts spread virally through groups like a medieval dancing plague.
There are long and bitter academic disputes between these three ways of explaining ecstasy but the three levels interact in fascinating ways. In a Pentecostal church, for example, the ritual of worship absorbs and alters people’s consciousness, which triggers deep reactions in their brains and autonomic nervous systems.
And then there is the fourth level, the spirtual level of explanation. People sometimes describe their ecstatic experiences as an encounter with some Other beyond the human.This is the level at which academic science gets embarrassed and fidgety. It’s easy to dismiss this level as woo-woo, because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to falsify people’s accounts. But before we reject people’s beliefs as nonsense, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what we don’t know: we don’t know what consciousness is, we don’t know how our consciousness is connected to other beings and to matter, we don’t know if there are intelligences higher than humans, we don’t know if consciousness survives death. Nor am I going to try to answer any of these questions definitively.
At the spiritual level of explanation, we can follow the lead of William James: he thought there may be a spiritual dimension (or dimensions) to reality, which humans are not usually aware of, but which we sometimes connect to in moments of ecstasy. But he remained agnostic, as I will throughout this book. What we can do is honestly describe our own experience, and the experience of others: did it feel to you as if you were connecting to some spiritual entity or power? And we can look at the fruits of such experiences in our lives. Did it lead to healing, inspiration and flourishing, or was it bad for you?
Ecstasy is healing, inspiring and socially connecting
Ecstasy is very often good for us. First, ecstatic experiences can be profoundly healing. Stoic philosophy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) teach that the way to heal negative emotions is to use rationality to examine and change our thoughts and beliefs. However, CBT heals only 40 to 50 per cent of cases of anxiety and depression; many find it too rational and cerebral. There’s an alternative model of the emotions and how to change them, put forward by William James, and refined by neurophysiologists such as Antonio Damasio and Stephen Porges. In James’ model, emotions arise not only through thoughts, but also through gut reactions in our autonomic nervous system. In James’ model, you can change your emotions not just from the top-down, using rationality, but also from the bottom-up, through the body – by altering your breath, exercising, singing or dancing, listening to music, going for a walk in nature, having sex, eating, taking intoxicants, and so on. James also taught that we can heal the psyche through non-rational states of consciousness – flow states, spiritual experiences, trances, dreams, psychedelic trips – which dissolve the rigid walls of the ordinary ego and tap into the healing power of the subliminal mind. This can liberate people from ingrained psychophysical habits, like depression, fatigue or addiction. Most cultures in the world have rituals in which people find healing through ecstatic surrender. Aristotle, despite being a rationalist, recognised that such rituals have ‘an orgiastic effect on the soul’ through which people ‘are restored as if they had undergone a curative and purifying treatment’.
Second, ecstatic experiences can be inspiring – a word that has its roots in classical and Christian ideas of spirits breathing into us. Plato insisted that artistic inspiration comes from ‘divine madness’, and many artists and scientists say some of their greatest inventions and creations come to them through subliminal states of consciousness, and feel like a gift from ‘beyond’ (although they differ in their explanations of what that ‘beyond’ is).
Third, ecstatic experiences are connecting. Ecstasy is the experience of bursting beyond the walls of the ego and feeling a sense of love- connection to other beings. Ecstatic rituals create the feeling of communitas, agape, goodwill or tribal unity. Secular modernity shaped us into walled-off rational selves disconnected from our subliminal mind, our bodies, each other, the natural world and (perhaps) from God. It’s boring and lonely to be stuck in that rickety old shed. Émile Durkheim warned that modern Western society, lacking an outlet for ‘collective effervescence’, risked descending into anomie, loneliness and mental illness. His prediction proved prescient: in a 2010 survey, 35 per cent of Americans over 45 said they felt lonely much of the time; two-fifths of older people in the UK said the television was their main company; 10 per cent of British people said they don’t have a single close friend; one in five said they felt unloved. We need outlets for more ecstatic connection in our societies, or people turn to toxic communities, like cults, gangs, and networks of addiction.
Finally, moments of ecstasy can give people a sense of meaning and hope in the face of death. We feel connected to nature, to the cosmos, and perhaps to God in some form or other, and this can give us a sense of identity beyond the ‘I’, and the hope that perhaps something in us survives beyond death. I’m not going to try to prove the immortality of the soul, but it’s certainly the case that people emerged from Greek or Christian ecstatic cults able to ‘die with a better hope’, in Cicero’s words. Likewise, people emerge from near-death experiences less afraid of death. Several recent trials found that psychedelics dramatically reduce depression and anxiety in the terminally ill by triggering mystical expe- riences. A more ecstatic society may transform our attitude to death.
The dark side of ecstasy
But it ain’t all roses. There are risks to ecstasy too. When you dissolve the ego, you can be flooded with repressed aspects of the psyche – what Jung called ‘the shadow’.We’ll examine the difficult experiences people can have through meditation, and also through psychedelics. Spontaneous spiritual experiences also have their risks: people can become grandiose, suffer ego-inflation or convince themselves that they’re the Messiah.
When we’re in states of deep absorption, our critical rationality is suspended and we become highly suggestible. That can be healing if you’re in a safe and nurturing environment, less so if you’re in a cult. As I mentioned, the spiritual supernova of the 1960s led to a prolifer- ation of cults, from Jonestown to the Manson Family. Daesh, or ISIS, has many of the features of a charismatic death-cult. The flipside of the ecstatic sense of togetherness is a paranoid demonisation of outsiders - the world becomes neatly divided into Us versus Them. At the extreme, the sense of a cosmic battle can lead to the dark catharsis of blood- sacrifice: the demonic outsiders become the scapegoat, whose blood will purge the body politic.
But the most common risk in our culture is that we become unhealthily obsessed with the ecstatic. Modern spirituality can become all about the peaks, the rapture, the ‘God-like hours’. Spirituality can become commodified into an ecstatic experience economy - this moment of transcendence was brought to you by Red Bull. The obsession with heightened expe- riences can lead to an unattractive spiritual entitlement: you don’t get it unless you’ve spoken in tongues/been to Burning Man/taken magic mushrooms. And we might never put in the hard work to turn the epiphany into durable habits. Abraham Maslow warned: ‘Peak emotions may come without any growth or benefit of any kind beyond the effects of pleasure. The rapture may be very profound but contentless.’
The festival of ecstasy
I’ve imagined the book as a festival, with each chapter as a different tent or zone. Each tent explores a different way that people find ecstasy in modern Western culture. As at a festival, in some tents you’ll feel at home; others might seem a bit weird, but just go with it and see what happens. Not everyone you meet will be trustworthy but I’ll try to point out the dodgy geezers. I hope the book provides a map to help people find the good stuff at the festival, while avoiding the risks.
One of the most useful ideas to keep in mind, as we navigate through the festival, is sixties psychedelic guru Timothy Leary’s emphasis on ‘set and setting’. ‘Set’ means the mindset or intention one brings to an ecstatic experience. When we journey beyond the ego, we can have euphoric or terrifying experiences, and it’s important to maintain equa- nimity and not give way to mania or panic. At the moment, Western culture is inclined to what the religious scholar Karen Armstrong calls ‘unbalanced ekstasis’ – either we’re terrified of it, as a consequence of the Enlightenment, or we’re manically attached to it, as charismatic Christianity and New Age spirituality can be. We need to try to greet whatever comes our way with equanimity. The other important intention to cultivate is humility and compassion. There’s a real risk, when you go beyond the normal bounds of the ego, that you succumb to pride and ego-inflation. Humility, from the Latin humus meaning earth, helps us to ‘earth’ ecstasy, in Armstrong’s words, to prevent it ‘from becoming selfish and self-indulgent, and give it moral direction’.
The second part of Leary’s ‘set and setting’ concerns the context in which an ecstatic experience takes place. Context has a decisive effect on the outcome of ecstatic experiences, and on whether they’re healthy or toxic. We’ll explore many different cultural contexts for modern ecstasy, from New Age rituals to rock festivals to charismatic churches to extremist gangs. Some communities I really immersed myself in, others I skirted at the edges of. You might say this approach is typically post-modern – a sort of spiritual bungee-jumping where one dips into traditions without ever swimming in the deep end. Maybe so. But it’s not my intention to convert you to any particular religion. It’s up to you to choose which tent you want to stay in.
The festival begins with spontaneous spiritual experiences. Then we look at how we can actively seek these experiences and integrate them into our life.We explore the world of ecstatic Christianity, then explore how the arts and rock and roll have become alternative ‘churches for the unchurched’. Next we find ecstasy through drugs, sex and contemplation, before considering the ecstasy of war and extreme sports. In the penultimate chapter we consider how ecstatic experiences connect us to nature; and finally we explore transhumanism, and the idea that technology enables us to transcend our humanity and become gods.
Remember, I’m not suggesting Western civilisation should become a permanent festival of ecstasy. That would be dangerous escapism, not to say impractical. The ecstasy of Dionysus (the Greek god of intoxication) needs to be balanced with the rational scepticism of Socrates. Without Dionysus, Socratic rationality is arid and soulless, but without Socratic reflection and practice, Dionysiac ecstasy is just a rush. It’s only through repeated practice that epiphanies become habits – the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield wrote: ‘After the ecstasy, the laundry.’
In Aldous Huxley’s Island, one character ponders: ‘Which did more for morality and rational behaviour – the Bacchic orgies or The Republic? The Nicomachean Ethics or the maenads?’ To which the reply is given, ‘The Greeks were much too sensible to think in terms of either-or. For them it was always not-only-but-also. Not only Plato and Aristotle, but also the maenads . . . All we’ve done is take a leaf out of the old Greek book.’
Now it’s time to enter the festival. Let’s head to the Entrance, to explore spontaneous spiritual experiences.
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