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You don’t need drugs or a church for an ecstatic experience that helps transcend the self and connect to something bigger
In 1969, the British writer Philip Pullman 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’. The author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) 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.’
What does one call such an experience? Pullman refers to it as ‘transcendent’. The philosopher and psychologist William James called them ‘religious experiences’ – although Pullman, who wrote a fictionalised biography of Jesus, would insist that God was not involved. Other psychologists call such moments spiritual, mystical, anomalous or out-of-the-ordinary. My preferred term is ‘ecstatic’. Today, we think of ecstasy as meaning the drug MDMA or the state of being ‘very happy’, but originally it meant ekstasis – a moment when you stand outside your ordinary self, and feel a connection to something bigger than you. Such moments can be euphoric, but also terrifying.
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. In our culture, since the 17th century, if you suggest you’re connected to the spirit world, you’re likely to be considered ignorant, eccentric or unwell. Ecstasy has been labelled as various mental disorders: enthusiasm, hysteria, psychosis. It’s been condemned as a threat to secular government. We’ve become a more controlled, regulated and disciplinarian society, in which one’s standing as a good citizen relies on one’s ability to control one’s emotions, be polite, and do one’s job. The autonomous self has become our highest ideal, and the idea of surrendering the self is seen as dangerous.
Yet ecstatic experiences are surprisingly common, we just don’t talk about them. 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. In a survey I did in 2016, 84 per cent of respondents said they’d had an experience where they went beyond their ordinary self, and felt connected to something greater than them. But 75 per cent agreed there was a taboo around such experiences.
There’s even a database of more than 6,000 such experiences, amassed by the biologist Sir Alister Hardy in the 1960s and now mouldering in storage in Wales. They make for a strangely beautiful read, a sort of crowdsourced Bible. Here is entry number 208: ‘I was out walking one night in busy streets of Glasgow when, with slow majesty, at a corner where the pedestrians were hurrying by and the city traffic was hurtling on its way, the air was filled with heavenly music, and an all-encompassing light, that moved in waves of luminous colour, outshone the brightness of the lighted streets. I stood still, filled with a strange peace and joy … until I found myself in the everyday world again with a strange access of gladness and of love.’
The most common word used when describing such experiences is ‘connection’ – we briefly shift beyond our separate self-absorbed egos, and feel deeply connected to other beings, or to all things. Some interpret these moments as an encounter with the divine, but not all do. 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 became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, 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. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace? Can one seek ecstasy?
Pullman thinks not. He says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. It is far too self-centred. Things like my experience are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism.’
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. As the author Aldous Huxley wrote, humans have ‘a deep-seated urge to self-transcendence’. However, we can get out of our ordinary selves in good and bad ways – what Huxley called ‘healthy and toxic transcendence’…