Against ecstasy

My friend Jules Evans has recently published an essay arguing that religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience. The essay is in part inspired by his new book, The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience. Despite the title of this post, I have nothing against ecstatic experiences per se, nor do I think that religion has, or ought to have, a monopoly over them. But I do think Jules gets a good number of things wrong, and I’m going to argue why.

Jules’ Aeon piece opens by recounting a mystical experience that occurred to the British author Philip Pullman back in 1969: “[he] was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. [He] wasn’t on drugs, although he had been reading a lot of books on Renaissance magic. But he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception.’ He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose.’ He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’”

Jules goes on to say that Pullman calls that sort of experience “transcendent,” but that he prefers the term “ecstatic.” I call it hallucination.

Is it possible that a sudden (apparently unprovoked by drugs, but it could have been) shift in conscious perceptions gives a human being temporary access to a deeper reality (whatever that means)? Sure, it’s possible. Is it the most likely explanation of what happened to Pullman? Hardly. And as I wrote in a previous post, confusing mere logical possibility with actual empirical probability is a major portal into woo-thinking, defined as “adj., concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey. Also n., a person who has mystical or new age beliefs.”

Jules continues: “Over the past five centuries, Western culture has gradually marginalised and pathologised ecstasy. That’s partly a result of our shift from a supernatural or animist worldview to a disenchanted and materialist one. In most cultures, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit world.”

Indeed, although I would call supernatural and animist worldviews rather naive and ungrounded in reality, while disenchanted materialism is about looking at the world as it actually is (insofar as we understand it), and not as we wish it would be. There is, based on what is reasonable to know, no such thing as a spirit world.

Notice, incidentally, Jules’ tendentious use of words here: “disenchanted” and “materialism,” rather than, say, “reason-based” and “naturalism.” To be disenchanted is not usually considered a good thing, as disenchantment is next door to cynicism (with a small-c, not the ancient philosophy). And materialism sounds harsher than naturalism (yes, I’m aware that philosophically the two are not the same thing, but the opposite of supernatural is natural, not material).

Jules mentions an interesting statistic: “The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent.” He takes this as a good sign, telling his readers that if they had some such experience they are not alone. But I find it disturbing that half the population has at times lost contact with reality, and am puzzled by the fact that the percentage has more than doubled in the past half century. Why would that be? Are human beings suddenly developing better abilities to get in touch with the Deep Beyond? More likely (again, possibility vs probability!) we live in times that are alienating and disturbing for a larger and larger chunk of the population, which then seeks relief in fantasies, whether induced by drugs or not. Both the problem (alienation) and the response (fantasizing) are worrisome, because wishful thinking has never been an effective answer to life’s difficulties.

Jules tells us that “the philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, also had a ‘mystic moment’ when he suddenly felt filled with love for people on a London street. The experience didn’t turn him into a Christian, but it did turn him into a life-long pacifist.” I’m not so sure it did, Russell was a lifelong liberal-progressive. But at any rate I can hardly see one of the founders of modern analytical philosophy entertaining for a moment that his subjective experience was somehow a reliable window into an alternate, and better, perception of reality. The revealing phrase here being “it didn’t turn him into a Christian”…

Jules got interested in ecstasy after he had a bad accident when he was younger, a near-death experience during which he felt “immersed in love and light.” I’m really glad he survived and recovered, but a fleeting sensation one has under extreme circumstances hardly counts as evidence of a deeper reality, as much as I’m sure it was very psychologically useful to him. When he says “I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self,’ ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you,” I would say that no, there is nothing in you that cannot be damaged, and to believe so is a delusion. You just got very, very lucky. But then again, I am a “disenchanted materialist” who thinks that there is no reason to believe in a soul or a pure consciousness. (Though I do believe there is a self, of the Humean type, i.e., a constantly shifting, dynamic bundle of perceptions. That one too, of course, is hardly indestructible.)

Jules departs from the views of the above mentioned Philip Pullman, who thinks that ecstatic experiences just happen, they cannot be sought: “I disagree. It seems to me that humans have always sought ecstasy. The earliest human artefacts — the cave paintings of Lascaux — are records of Homo sapiens’ attempt to get out of our heads. We have always sought ways to ‘unself,’ as the writer Iris Murdoch called it, because the ego is an anxious, claustrophobic, lonely and boring place to be stuck.”

This passage reveals a number of things. First off, Jules is equivocating (in the philosophical sense, and very likely not on purpose, i.e., not in order to deceive his readers) on the meaning of ecstasy. Art surely is an attempt to “get out of our heads,” as he puts it, in a lose sense to “transcend” our selves. But so is, for instance, science. Just watch Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot if you doubt it.

Indeed, anything that we human beings do beyond taking care of our basic need to survive is an attempt to transcend ourselves, from paintings to music, from science to mathematics, from religion to philosophy. But it seems very strange to me to assent to the notion that our ego is a lonely and boring place. It is whatever we make of it. There is a wonderful world out there, full of other, fascinating human beings. There is a vast universe out there, full of wonders beyond our imagination. What sort of a small mind could possibly find that either lonely or boring?

How do we actively seek ecstasy, according to Jules? “In its most common-garden variety, we can seek what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow.’ By this he meant moments where we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. We could lose ourselves in a good book, for example, or a computer game. The author Geoff Dyer, who’s written extensively on ‘peak experiences,’ says: ‘If you asked me when I’m most in the zone, obviously it would be playing tennis. That absorption in the moment, I just love it.’ … Or we turn to sex, which the feminist Susan Sontag called the ‘oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their mind.’”

Of course. And I lose myself, or experience flow, in all sorts of experiences, including — bizarrely, I know — while writing blog posts or books. But none of this has anything whatsoever to do with Jules’ starting point, which, remember, was the perception of a deeper reality about the world. One can be a perfectly thoroughgoing “disenchanted materialist” and still lose oneself in a game of tennis. Or in sex (I much prefer the latter.)

Jules tells us that “such everyday moments might seem a long way from the mystical ecstasy of St. Teresa of Ávila, but I would suggest that there is a continuum from moments of light absorption and ego-loss to much deeper and more dramatic ego-dissolution. Csikszentmihalyi agrees, saying that moments of flow are ‘the kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.’”

But there is, in fact, no reason at all to think that either Jules or Csikszentmihalyi are right. Rather than a continuum I see a hopeless mix of apples and oranges, and I seriously doubt St. Teresa would appreciate her mystical views being mentioned in the same sentence as tennis playing and sex.

Yet Jules tells us that “that’s what humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, through various ecstatic techniques such as strenuous dancing, chanting, fasting, self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation or mind-altering drugs.” Okay, if those are the choices, I’ll take sex and tennis, in that order. Or perhaps a dose of my favorite drug, a dirty martini with three large olives, shaken, not stirred.

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things, as many people inclined toward mysticism do: “researchers have discovered that one dose of psychedelics reliably triggers ‘mystical experiences’ — moments where people report a sense of ego-dissolution and connection to all things, including to spirit beings or God. … One dose of psilocybin helped to reduce chronic depression and addiction, and also significantly reduced the fear of death in patients with cancer.”

But, insofar as we can reasonably tell, there are no spirit beings or gods, so what psychedelics are triggering are hallucinations, defined as “a sensory experience of something that does not exist outside the mind, caused by various physical and mental disorders, or by reaction to certain toxic substances, and usually manifested as visual or auditory images” (dictionary.com). And while there is no doubt that drugs can help with medical conditions, that does in no way make them reliable guides to the Deep Beyond, nor does it mean we should take them to buttress our wishful thinking, in turn generated by our “lonely and boring ego.” You feel lonely? Get out and meet people. You feel bored? Read a good book, enter in conversation with the best minds humanity has ever produced. Have sex. Play tennis, even.

And then comes more (pseudo)science from the article: “A 1979 study by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield in California found that 40 per cent of participants on a two-week meditation retreat reported unusual experiences such as rapture and visions (including hellish visions). Kornfield writes: ‘From our data it seems clear that the modern psychiatric dismissal of these so-called ‘mystical’ and altered states as psychopathology … is simply due to the limitations of the traditional Western psychiatric mental-illnesses oriented model of the mind.’”

Uhm, no. What the study shows is that meditation can trigger side effects of the hallucinatory type. Which may still be acceptable if meditation provides benefits to its practitioners (it does, I myself practice), but, again, is absolutely no reason to reject “Western” science (i.e., science). If you have hallucinations while taking drugs you are normal. If you have them at frequent random intervals in your regular life you should see a psychiatrist.

Jules gives us another fascinating personal testimony: “I spent a year exploring the world of charismatic Christianity, including the globally renowned Alpha course, and eventually succumbed to the ecstasy myself. It happened in a church in Pembrokeshire filled with Pentecostal pensioners. Suddenly, I felt filled with a force that knocked me back and took my breath away. It felt like proof. The preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus and, at the back of the church, I raised my hand. The next week, I announced my conversion on my newsletter, and around a third of my subscribers immediately unsubscribed.
A few weeks later, however, the high passed, and the doubts came back. There were still basic tenets of Christianity that I couldn’t accept, particularly the idea that the only way to God is through faith in Jesus. So what had happened? Had I been hypnotised by the preacher, the ritual and the crowd emotion? Yes, probably. But that doesn’t mean it was unhealthy or unspiritual.”

Actually, Jules, that’s precisely what it means: it was both unhealthy and unspiritual. As shown by your own rather quick de-conversion (“the high passed”), once you had time to reflect on what had happened.

“Ultimately, there’s something in us that calls to us, that pulls us out the door. Let’s find out where it leads.” Well, go ahead, but proceed with caution. As for me, I’m heading to sharing a nice dirty martini with some of my close friends.

55 thoughts on “Against ecstasy

  1. Robin Herbert

    Good article. I think your conclusion is exactly right , especially this part:

    Actually, Jules, that’s precisely what it means: it was both unhealthy and unspiritual

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  2. Jules Evans

    Dear Massimo

    I had a sense I was driving into dangerous territory in writing about ecstatic experience, and that an enforcer from the self-appointed woo-police might pull me over. Indeed, if one of the definitions of woo-thinking is ‘concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey’, then any discussion of mystical experiences is itself instant woo. But then, anything that discusses emotions is also apparently woo!

    I’m glad that you have taken issue with my piece, because you are exactly the sort of person I want to win over – rational, sceptical, anti-religious, but also searching for ways to live wisely and well. I want to persuade you that humanism has nothing to fear from this area of human experience, indeed, that humanism without transcendence and ecstasy is fatally narrow and impoverished, and not fit for purpose.

    That argument is in itself nothing new. Christopher Hitchens argued: ‘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. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates.’ Sam Harris likewise argues that if humanism ignores or pathologizes altered states of consciousness and moments of ego-transcendence, it’s ignoring one of the most valuable areas of human experience.

    I think you’re wary of this topic and see it as woo because you think my main point is that ecstatic experiences are evidence for some sort of Deep Reality or Greater Mind. I don’t argue that in this piece.

    My argument is 1) Ecstatic experiences are surprisingly common. 2) People make sense of them in different ways, including atheists. 3) While western science has historically pathologised such experiences, they’re often good for us. That’s all I’m arguing – do you have any issue with these points?

    To go through them one by one.

    1) Ecstatic experiences are surprisingly common. This dismays you, and you take it as a sign that more people are retreating into fantasies. You’re entitled to your interpretation of the data, but it doesn’t render my data false. Also, ecstatic experiences are more common among the university-educated, and among the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ – so the greater incidence of such experiences show the expansion of higher education and the decline of religion, two things I guess you support.

    2) I point out that, while a majority of people report ecstatic experiences where they feel connected to something greater than them, they make sense of these experiences in different ways. In other words, I am specifically not trying to force people into one particular metaphysical interpretation such as the existence of a Greater Mind. That’s why I tell the anecdote about Bertrand Russell. You’re wrong about Russell, by the way – he wasn’t always a liberal progressive, and he says his moment of ‘mystical illumination’ DID change him into a pacifist. See this article: https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/russelljournal/article/view/1369/1396

    3) Western science has historically pathologized ecstatic experiences, but actually there’s increasing evidence they’re often good for us. This is an important point.

    I first explore flow experiences, moments where we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves, stop ruminating, and lose track of time. Such experiences take us beyond normal ego-consciousness, and that’s why we love them. You take issue with my assertion that the ego is a lonely and boring place to be stuck, and say ‘what sort of a small mind could possibly find [the world] either lonely or boring?’ Small mind? Hey, I thought we were friends! What I mean by the ordinary ego-mind is when our consciousness is dominated by ego-rumination – worries about me, my career, my status, my relationships, my past, my future. Meditate for five minutes and that’s the reality you encounter. That’s boring and lonely. When we’re deeply absorbed in something – nature, art, science, a game – we are taken out of ourselves and stop ruminating. That’s good for us. You agree?

    You say my theory of the continuum of absorption is a ‘hopeless mix of apples and oranges, and I seriously doubt St Teresa would appreciate her mystical views being mentioned in the same sentence as tennis and sex’. Why? There are rare moments in all the activities I mentioned when the flow deepens into a more radical altered state – there are many reports of altered states / spiritual experiences from sport, from nature, from the arts, sex and so on. As for the connection between mysticism and eroticism – have you read St Teresa?? Mysticism in all the major religions is deeply erotic.

    So I’ve argued that these sorts of flow experiences are often healthy – but not always. I then argue that deeper ecstatic experiences are also often healthy – but not always.

    We know that spontaneous ecstatic experiences often lead to a sense of enhanced flourishing. Sometimes people interpret these experiences as feeling connected to some greater consciousness. Does it mean that this ‘greater consciousness’ exists? Not necessarily. We know that many people on psychedelics feel connected to some sort of higher power, and this is healing for them – the more they report a mystical experience, the more likely their trip is healing for them. Does that mean a higher power really exists? No. All the data shows is that these ‘mystical experiences’ are often healing.

    We know that many people have near-death experiences like mine, where they feel connected to a higher power that loves them. Does that mean it really exists? No. But people typically come back from NDEs with an enhanced sense of flourishing – it was certainly healing for me.

    We also know that faith-healing in, say, Sufism, Pentecostalism or African spirit religion can be genuinely healing for people with psychological and psychosomatic problems. There’s a lot of evidence for this – see my colleague Simon Dein’s work on religion and mental health: https://wcprr.org/wp/volume/volume%2009%20num%202/03.religion.pdf. This doesn’t mean that Jehovah or Allah genuinely exist. As William James argued, it may be the placebo effect, or it may be there really is some higher power that operates through the subliminal mind. We don’t know.

    I’m not arguing that faith-healing is always healthy – far from it. It can be dangerous and unhealthy. But if you’re arguing that religious healing is always unhealthy, then your anti-religious bias is blinding you to the empirical facts.

    You’re entitled to believe that feeling connected to a higher power / cosmic consciousness or some other sort of spirit is a pathological hallucination requiring psychiatric intervention. That’s your personal opinion – you happen to be in the minority. But it’s also been the consensus opinion of state psychiatry for the last century, and that’s unhealthy and illiberal, because it means people who admit to an experience that’s actually pretty normal risk being labelled mentally ill, put on medication, and even sectioned.

    Thankfully, western psychiatry is gradually shifting its opinion. There’s a growing understanding that anomalous or out-of-the-ordinary experiences like hearing voices, sensing the presence of deceased loved ones, feeling connected to a higher power etc are not necessarily signs of mental pathology, nor indication of a brain disorder such as schizophrenia. We now know that around 10% of people hear voices, that around 60% of people sense the presence of a recently-deceased loved one, and that a majority of people sometimes have ecstatic experiences where they feel connected to something greater than them. This does NOT mean any of this should be taken as evidence of a spirit world. Psychiatry can and should be agnostic about such metaphysical questions – the important question is, is this person a threat to themselves or other people? Are they in distress, and how can we help lessen their distress?

    So these are my points: 1) Ecstatic experiences are surprisingly common 2) We can make sense of them in different ways. 3) They’ve historically been pathologized but there’s increasing evidence they can be good for us. I end by arguing 4) there ARE serious risks to ecstatic experience, and the best way to mitigate those risks is to have a culture which helps us integrate these experiences, rather than deny them.

    There’s a lot more we could discuss about this, including the value of evidence from subjective experiences. Such evidence can’t tell us reliable things about the external world (is there really a higher power) but can tell us reliable things about human experience (did you feel connected to a higher power) and about human flourishing. However, I would like to remain open to the possibility that this feeling of being connected to something greater than oneself – so common among humans – may perhaps point to a genuine reality, an extended consciousness, which we call ‘supernatural’ but which is probably entirely natural.

    Given that we don’t yet understand how consciousness relates to matter, why not stay open to that possibility rather than automatically dismissing it as woo?

    Enjoy the martini.

    Jules

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  3. SocraticGadfly

    Especially reading Jules’ response, I don’t think her ideas are all bad. But, having read Horgan’s book multiple times, including when he attended a psychadelics “drug-in” shortly after his family had lost a pet? He doesn’t “attack” mystical experience … but he never “succumbs,” either.

    For some reason, I’ve never written a review, but I’d call it a five-star book: https://www.amazon.com/Rational-Mysticism-Dispatches-Between-Spirituality/dp/0618060278/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1499780840&sr=8-1&keywords=Rational+Mysticism

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  4. Bunsen Burner

    ‘Suddenly, I felt filled with a force that knocked me back and took my breath away. It felt like proof.’

    I’ve had a number of people describe something like this to me. Does anyone know what is actually going on here? Temporal lobe epilepsy? Actual hypnosis? Some reaction of our minds to repetitive rituals and chants? Why would these experiences be so often associated with religious gatherings, rather than say football matches?

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  5. SocraticGadfly

    Bunsen, all of the above and more. Persons diagnosed with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder or similar have a far higher rate of “depersonalization” than the general public, for example. Would be easy, given certain settings, for a person experiencing depersonalization to read more into it. Ditto for the similar “derealization,” perhaps the subject of Alice’s size changes at the hand of Lewis Carroll.

    Rituals? As for their association with religion? Maybe religions of history recognized the power of the repetition early on and co-opted them. And, not just religion. Note the “haka” chants of Polynesians. Traditionally associated with war. Likewise, ancient Viking warriors going “bearserk,” or commonly “berserk” now. Give football matches a few hundred years. Maybe Tottenham will have a vision of winning EPL! 😉

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  6. Robin Herbert

    I first explore flow experiences, moments where we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves, stop ruminating, and lose track of time

    That’s just me 90% of the time.

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  7. Daniel Kaufman

    Dr. Evans, I don’t know if you’ve ever lived among Pentecostals, but I have. Indeed, I have been living in the buckle of the Bible Belt for almost 20 years. I appreciate your highlighting the bright side of ecstatic irrationalism, but it seems to me the negative side is far more common and extensive. Our city is the location for the headquarters of the Assemblies of God, and it seems to me that the relationship between their penchant for irrational, ecstatic meltdowns and their irrational, socially and politically hysterical behavior, usually at the expense of minorities, immigrants, non-Christians, and gay people, is not accidental. It’s certainly interesting that the non-ecstatic Anglicans and Episcopalians have a much more sensible, live-and-let-live attitude.

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  8. SocraticGadfly

    Couple more notes for Jules.

    The empirical fact that faith healing works isn’t proof of anything metaphysical, of course. It’s proof of the placebo effect and related.

    Ditto, the idea that “voices in one’s head” aren’t WEIRD doesn’t mean anything metaphysical; it only means that voices in one’s head aren’t proof of mental illness.

    I have no problem accepting those things.

    But, unless I want to massively hoist myself on Hume’s problem of induction, Occam’s Razar tells me that it’s highly unlikely that this is a higher consciousness, individual immaterial souls or anything like that. The razor shaves this way because, through things such as scientific study of NDEs, etc., per Bunsen’s comment and my response, we know such things are natural. Natural as in non-metaphysical. To still hold on to the idea that Something (sic on the capital) is behind this is, to riff on an old phrase, a “higher consciousness of the gaps.”

    Related to that? The issue of whether or not some of these things are psychologically pathological is a different issue than whether or not they offer support for a metaphysical realm. It is unfortunately that Western psychological science has, in the past, overly pathologized some of these things. It is not unfortunate that, pathologized or not, it has developed naturalistic explanations for them.

    THAT is an important point.

    Otherwise, “transcendence” comes about as close to being a “mush word” as does “progressive” in today’s American politics.

    Sam Harris? He also, wrongly, tries to claim that Buddhism is not (and has not been) a religion, and other things. (And I know Massimo thinks about the same of him as I do.)

    ==

    Massimo, per your one “aside” in the original post? Try mixed doubles at the nudist colony. 😉

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  9. synred

    Yet Jules tells us that “that’s what humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, through various ecstatic techniques such as strenuous dancing, chanting, fasting, self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation or mind-altering drugs.” Okay, if those are the choices, I’ll take sex and tennis, in that order. Or perhaps a dose of my favorite drug, a dirty martini with three large olives, shaken, not stirred.

    Marx’s was right– religion is the ‘opiate of the people’ — literally.

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  10. synred

    Note the “haka” chants of Polynesians. Traditionally associated with war. Likewise, ancient Viking warriors going “bearserk,” or commonly “berserk” now. Give football matches a few hundred years

    The US Army does similar things with marching and chanting which I know from the year of ROTC drill I had to endure at Santa Clara (before they dropped the ROTC requirement. If had to do again I’d just cut the drill. The class (basically history and strategy) — Robert E. Lee was great on tactics, but poor on strategy — if you have enough cannon fodder you can win by losing).

    I flunked drill anyway — couldn’t march in step — more a matter of coordination than principle.

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  11. garthdaisy

    See “Jill Bolte Taylor’s” “stroke of insight” Ted talk.

    This suddenly awoken “awareness” or “conscious experience” was always there but being muted somewhat by the analytic side of the brain which suddenly shuts down temporarily for some reason like a stroke or psilocybin for example leaving your brain in a state of pure awareness. And yes you feel connected to something greater than yourself because you are. You are connected to the universe and nature. You are a part of of a giant quantum field, which is definitely greater than yourself.

    Sincerely
    The fun guy.

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  12. ejwinner

    I’ve had a couple such ecstatic experiences in my life. There’s a sense that one has a profound insight into some unifying theme to the universe, a sense of being safely at home in it, a ‘one-ness’ with the cosmos.’ Yes, all that. But this sense of insight is unsustainable without a religious or other cultural context to which one can repeatedly refer. But this context itself has to be sustained. Those who bounce from religion to religion, or those like myself with profound doubts, will feel disappointment. Was the Great Insight not so great? Was there no force behind it, but only a momentary glimpse? It sounds like for Evans, this ‘momentary glimpse’ is enough. For me it never was, which deepened the inevitable sense of disappointment once the ‘high’ had passed.

    It will come as a surprise to some, that what finally led me to abandon the search for the ecstatic was my readings into Buddhism – not the woo version popular in some circles in America, but the real stuff from India, Tibet, China. As it turned out, Buddhist thinkers have long been aware of the ecstatic experience – and have long been as skeptical about it as Massimo has expressed here. As our friend Socratic likes to remind us every now and then, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

    I think to have such ecstatic experiences, one has to want them – desperately (even if, as with Pascal, unconsciously). One has to want some sense that the universe has to hang together – completely, such that the immediate and the personal is profoundly connected at the root to the infinite and eternal.

    But the universe is only a collection of weird fragments of matter, and our lives in it are held together with such willow the wisps as memory, conversation, social convention. At root they may very well be weird and fragmentary in ways we don’t wish to admit; in which case the most profound wisdom would prove to be the most commonplace. Wash the dishes, sweep the floor; say hello to your neighbors; drive carefully and obey all traffic laws; “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (Voltaire).

    No, I’ve had my share of ecstatic experience. Now, I’d rather join Massimo with a martini (albeit I prefer beer, if that’s OK).

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  13. SocraticGadfly

    That said, Dan, non-exuberant conservative-to-fundamental religious groups can cause their own problems of the type you mention. I know from experience within the conservative wing of Lutheranism. Fundamentalism Islam is another example. Certain groups within Orthodox Judaism come to mind.

    And, not just in monotheism. The RSS in Hindu-nationalist Hinduism, or the 969 Movement within Buddhism killing Muslims in Burma (hello, Sam?) also come to mind.

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  14. jbonnicerenoreg

    “The universe is alive, conscious and full of purpose.” He wishes to show “the truth of that statement”. Understanding is inseparable from mystical experience. The flow experience as experienced in sports and other activities does not contain this element. The mystical experience is going ‘beyond’ the everyday and scientific understanding of the world. It is not simply an ‘ekstasis’ or going outside of mundane experience which can be triggered by drugs as well as flow.

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  15. Thomas Jones

    I spent a good chunk of time in the 70’s and 80’s personally exploring such matters, both in actual experimentation and in reading. For a subject that almost invariably leads to wordy accounts of what is supposedly ineffable, I haven’t seen much explanatory progress, however. I don’t begrudge those who engage in these speculations or practices provided they pose no immediate and irreparable harm to themselves or others. Granted, such prospects are difficult to predict, and I am one inclined to let others dive in dark waters before me. Whatever urgency such questions had for me have been assuaged over time by a halting acceptance of my mortality. It is my belief that much of topic is deeply conflicted by conceptualizations of existence and mortality.

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  16. Jules Evans

    Daniel – I hear you. If I lived in the Bible Belt I would probably be sick to death of any talk of ecstasy. I live in the UK, a culture thats highly secular and – to my mind – lacks outlets for the ecstatic in any sense. Does ecstasy necessarily lead to intolerance and authoritarianism? No – Methodism and Pentecostalism were quite socially progressive in their time, as were the Quakers. The Bauls – an ecstatic movement in Hinduism – are far more socially radical than mainstream Hinduism. I am interested in how we can balance the ecstatic with the sceptical and Socratic, as the ancient Greeks did. I don’t think one can entirely banish the ecstatic, one can find healthier or less healthy forms of it.

    SocraticGadfly – Im glad you accept western science has over-pathologized these experiences and thats been harmful. you say these things are non-metaphysical – as in, theyre entirely physical? I dont think you can reduce ecstatic experiences to just changes in the autonomic nervous system and brain, though they definitely involve them. i think they also involve alterations in consciousness. whether our individual consciousness is accessing some greater consciousness, well, who knows. I personally tend to think so, I dont know how i would go about persuading you of that! Some scientists have tried to prove the existence of an extended mind, or the survival of consciousness beyond death…but I didn’t go there in this book, I figure my plate was full enough proving that 1) ecstatic experiences are common 2) they’re often but not always good for us and 3) we need a culture thats more open to such experiences to help people find, integrate and make sense of them.

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  17. valariansteel

    ” We now know that around 10% of people hear voices, . . .”

    Inter alia, I’m not sure about that percent here. Where is that stated, and is there sufficient proof to justify that percent? I would rewrite that sentence as “we now know that around 10% of people [claim to] hear voices . . .”, at best, or delete the statement altogether.

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  18. synred

    You are a part of of a giant quantum field, which is definitely greater than yourself.

    True if current theory is correct (and hit has damn good track record).

    Sounds mystic but it’s not. The quantum field is not conscious.

    Are you joking?

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  19. synred

    I had one such experience smoking pot. I had the realization the universe was big and w/o meaning. Laughed a lot.

    The content of such experiences seems depend on your preconceptions.

    I don’t agree with my experience entirely. There is ‘meaning’ but we supply it. It’s not a property of the universe or quantum fields.

    There is no God and my cousin Socratic is his prophet. God is not responsible for Good and Evil — for obvious reasons.

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  20. SocraticGadfly

    Jules, as in yes, I think they’re just material. Like Massimo, and I presume Dan, and some others, I think consciousness is a complex problem. Unlike Chambers or others, I do not think it is a hard problem, needing nonmaterialistic souls, zombies or anything else. We may never fully explain every material element of it, but yet explain more than we do today.

    And? We may never get to the final particles of quantum theory. It still works, and we still understand it pretty well.

    ==

    Cousin, yes!

    (My “signature” on the RSS feed for my blog is, in a riff on Muhammad: “There is no god and I am his prophet.”)

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  21. SocraticGadfly

    For the record, Jules (and others), I’m a secularist with a graduate divinity degree, and I taught a class on issues in death and dying a number of years ago. Although NDEs don’t shed a full light on metaphysical experience claims, they certainly shed enough. A few students in my class said they’d had NDEs. None of their descriptions led me to see anything metaphysical involved.

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  22. synred

    The closest I get to ecstasy is eating at Nobu, on Miami beach.

    Spicy Thai food produces a gentle high .. no seeing God though … at least for me. It may just be release of endorphins, buts less unpleasant than 4 hours at the Church of the Nazarene.

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  23. brodix

    Conceptually I see a basic dichotomy of the sides of this issue. Consciousness and thought are not synonymous. Consciousness is constantly absorbing information carrying energy and digesting it into the ordered forms we experience as thought.
    So consider how they relate; Consciousness is moving forward in time, as the forms it constructs coalesce and then peaking, recede into the past. What if the conscious state keeps experiencing more than it can process? It gets “high.” Often followed by a crash, if one does know the territory.
    What if consciousness is so constrained by the forms of its thoughts, that it can never seem to be free of and go beyond them? Life is pretty mundane.
    So those who have ridden the wave enough, have a bit more trouble staying in the lines of what is assumed and those who never get beyond their particular box, think it is the only reality.
    Those of us who can see both sides, both the framing and the sentience, know there is danger in going too far in either direction. On the one side, the demons are as real as the angels and on the other side, being too rigid in our assumptions does lead to forms of totalitarianism, where everyone has to fit the mold.

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  24. Robin Herbert

    I live in the UK, a culture thats highly secular and – to my mind – lacks outlets for the ecstatic in any sense.

    Haven’t lived in the UK for a while, but there were plenty of opportunities for ecstasy when I lived there. The Clash at Brixton in 1979, for example. Hunting through Barrowlands in Glasgow for old musical instruments followed by a curry at the Ceylon Tea House. That moment Dad’s friend says “Would you do me a favour and drive my Triumph Herald Vitesse back to Glasgow for me?”. Walking through London looking at the old industrial architecture, or just walking through feeling the yellow winter sunlight on you. Or walking from Exeter to Plymouth across Dartmoor (and being told to get the next train back where I came from by the Plymouth Police). The Thali Deluxe at Ronak’s on Romford Road, East London.Taking a boat over to Ireland and spending a week cycling and camping. Hearing the rousing cheer as I cross the finishing line at the London Triathlon – stone cold motherless last. I could go on all day like this. I bet I could find such opportunities in today’s UK.

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  25. Robin Herbert

    Hi Jules,

    I am not so much the Woo Police as Woo Anonymous. When you talk about putting up your hand to commit to a proposition that you don’t actually believe, because what you were doing felt like proof – been there, done that, still have the rosary. That, in itself, seems to constitute harm and you were lucky it wore off so quickly. It might just as well have been committing yourself to the proposition that none is worthy of worship but Allah and Muhamad is his prophet.

    If you are encouraging people to seek these kinds of experience for the reason that these experiences feel good or that they might have some health benefit, then remember the adage “if it has an effect then it probably has a side effect”.

    On the other hand if people are seeking these kinds of experience as a search for a connection with something greater or deeper then they are almost certainly doomed to failure. Not that I assume there is nothing greater or deeper, but simply that humanity has been searching for these things for thousands of years and it is highly unlikely that any given person is going to be the one who finally cracks this in the few years they have available, even if there is something to be found.

    So I see these kinds of experiences as being similar to taking a drug to alter our consciousness. People can do this if they like. I won’t. And maybe I am denying myself certain experiences but it seems to me that what I have is enough.

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  26. wtquinn

    Against Celsus (I mean Ecstasy)

    Christopher Hitchens describing his natural disbelief: “Most important of all, perhaps, we infidels do not need any machinery of reinforcement. We are those who Blaise Pascal took into account when he wrote to the one who says, “I am so made that I cannot believe.”

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/features/2007/god_is_not_great/religion_poisons_everything.html

    If born anti-theist by nature (unless one later self-identifies as anti-theist-fluid), the observance of individuals engaging in ecstatic/transcendent woo-woo with the numinous is accurately described as hallucination.

    Massimo: “Both the problem (alienation) and the response (fantasizing) are worrisome, because wishful thinking has never been an effective answer to life’s difficulties.”

    I agree it is worrisome based on what weaponized opposing in-groups are wishing about as the effective answer to life’s difficulties. Shamans, as an example, spend a significant percentage of their time cursing other tribes in preparation for war:

    SHAMANS AMONG US: Schizophrenia, Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Religion-by Joseph Polimeni

    http://josephpolimeni.com/

    Are the leaders of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc. sects Shamans and Schizophrenic? Of course not. Impossible. They pray to God, who is One and Good (Bad dog Epicurus!, bad dog!). About Peace.

    And Hitch continued: “And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.”

    Hopefully (my favorite wishful thinking word) it’s not terminal and we are filtering out the poison.

    Massimo: “But, insofar as we can reasonably tell, there are no spirit beings or gods”

    Of course there are.
    They live in the quantum world of Ecstasy.
    Without which, life would be absurd.

    🙂

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