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’.
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How can we seek ecstasy in a healthy way? 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.’ Others shift their consciousness by going for a walk in nature, where they find what the poet William Wordsworth called ‘the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness’. 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’.
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’. You don’t expect a full-on ecstatic experience every time you go to a concert, museum, mountain or date. But you know that, on a good day, you might just be transported.
And then there are the deeper moments of ego-loss that one might term a ‘mystical experience’. Can we seek them? Certainly. 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.
‘Modern psychiatric dismissal of altered states is due to the Western psychiatric mental-illnesses model of the mind’
Take psychedelic drugs, an ancient technique for getting out of our heads. In the past few years, academic research into psychedelics has re-started after a 40-year hiatus. 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. On the whole, people in research trials find such a trip one of the most meaningful, satisfying and healing moments in their lives. In a series of separate trials recently by Imperial College London, New York University and Johns Hopkins Medical School, one dose of psilocybin helped to reduce chronic depression and addiction, and also significantly reduced the fear of death in patients with cancer.
Another way in which humans have traditionally sought ego-transcendence is through contemplation. Western culture abandoned its own contemplative traditions during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but in the past 50 years Eastern contemplative practices have flooded in to fill the vacuum. Around 9 per cent of adult Americans meditate, and 15 per cent practise yoga.
For most people, contemplation is a way to take a break from the chattering ego-mind. But occasionally people have more powerful experiences of ego-dissolution, especially on retreats. 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.’
A third way that people seek ecstasy today is through religious worship. In his classic text Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James noted that surrendering to a higher power often triggered deep psychological healing and growth. The experience of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), is one notable example of this: after decades of struggling with alcohol dependence, he finally surrendered to a God he barely believed in: ‘Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe … it burst upon me that I was a free man.’
Wilson set up AA as a mechanism to help other people find transcendence through ‘surrender to a higher power’, even if they aren’t sure what that means. Ecstatic religious movements such as Sufism and Pentecostalism offer similar healing through surrender. 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.
Nicky Gumbel, the Anglican priest who developed the Alpha course, says that ecstatic experiences – what he calls ‘encounters with the Holy Spirit’ – could be God, or could be simply human psychology. What matters is the fruit. Does it lead to healing and good works, or not? This is remarkably close to James’s attitude. He thought that faith-healing could be the subconscious, or could be access to an actual spiritual dimension. We can’t know for sure. But we can look at the fruits. Most humans in the non-Western world still seek psychological healing not from psychiatrists or therapists, but through the ritual of surrender to a God or spirit. It might offend our modern skepticism, but it also often works.
Any way out of our heads can be unhealthy – that includes reading, computer games, war or religion
Psychologists and psychiatrists are moving from their traditional hostility to ecstasy to an understanding that it’s often good for us. Much of our personality is made up of attitudes that are usually subconscious. We drag around buried trauma, guilt, feelings of low self-worth. In moments of ecstasy, the threshold of consciousness is lowered, people encounter these subconscious attitudes, and are able to step outside of them. They can feel a deep sense of love for themselves and others, which can heal them at a deep level. Maybe this is just an opening to the subconscious, maybe it’s a connection to a higher dimension of spirit – we don’t know.
Yet there are risks to ego-dissolution too. It can be a very frightening experience, and we might struggle to integrate it into our ordinary lives. We could ‘unself’ in social contexts that are unsafe or exploitative, that push us into narrow, controlling and hate-filled dogmas. We might insist that our route to God is the only route, and everyone else is demonic. We might get over-attached to the ecstatic, and foolishly seek a spiritual life entirely made up of special experiences. A peak experience is just a peek – we still have to put in the boring, hard work to deconstruct our egotism.
How do we reduce the risks of ego-dissolution? We can try to take care of one another in groups, both offline and online; we can look to the wisdom of various spiritual traditions, and respectfully compare notes; and we can draw on the burgeoning science of ecstatic experiences. But we will never entirely eliminate the risks. The journey beyond the self is not safe or predictable. On the other hand, staying in the self also has its risks – boredom, staleness, sterility, despair. Ultimately, there’s something in us that calls to us, that pulls us out the door. Let’s find out where it leads.
The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience by Jules Evans is out now (Canongate).
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is policy director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations (2013) and The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience(2017).
Psyche: The Core Concept
Who owns the mind? Is it the believers in spirit, that illusive "thing" that isn't a thing, but somehow resides in the brain . . . or is it the heart? Do scientists own the mind? Those dissectors and understanders who deny something just because they haven't seen it yet? Before Wilhelm Wundt opened the first experimental psychology laboratory in 1879 there was no academic discipline of psychology separate from philosophy and biology. Perhaps it should have stayed like that for a while longer at least: the study of mind from a physiological perspective as a subfield in biology and the study of mind from a conceptual perspective as a subfield of philosophy.
Although there are more psychological issues today that can be significantly and reliably treated by a particular psychological approach than there were one hundred years ago, it remains the case that for most psychological complaints, schools of thought or academic orientation are not related to successful treatment. Rather it is similarity of background and values and the creation of a trusting rapport that are most correlated with successful psychotherapy. Furthermore, for common "neurosis," talk therapy with a skilled practitioner (or even trusted family member) is more effective over the long run than an equivalent-length treatment with any pharmaceutical. Especially since many pharmaceuticals begin to backfire after prolonged use-backfire due to tolerance and side effects, where the benefit begins to be outweighed by the drawbacks. The current tendency to prescribe a pharmaceutical, simply because it works at first, is mistaken. We must find combinations of treatments that are explicitly chosen to be effective without relapse when the chemical is finally withdrawn.
There is an important role played by healing professionals who fight to stop pathology and the damage it incurs. There is also a huge role to be played by those who try to guide healthy, mature living in order to forestall the advent of pathology, especially pathology caused by lifestyle choices, using harm reduction, not moralizing. The psycheology approach I describe next is mostly oriented toward facilitating and guiding healthy maturation and to a lesser extent toward fighting true pathology, except during emergency circumstances.
Psycheology: The Study of the Soul
This blog integrates my own evolution into the discussion of using psychedelics for healing. I can illustrate this point by defining a word I've crafted and like to use in my practice, the word psycheology. You won't find the word psycheology in any dictionary (I've searched). Rather, it is a made-up word-a neologism (from the Greek: neo meaning "new" and logos meaning "word" or "statement," or meaningful sound, information as patterned energy). Psycheology is a word I created in my effort to reclaim the true, original meaning of the word psychology.
The word psychology comes from the Greek psukhe, meaning "soul," "spirit," "mind," "life," and "breath," combined with the Greek logos, here used as "statement," "expression," and "discourse," more often thought of today in the form of "-ology," as "the study of." Although the academic and clinical discipline of psychology has become a medical-and therefore a pathology-oriented-field, prior to the late 1800s, the study of our inner mental life was the study of our soul, our deepest self or essence.
My purpose in writing this blog is to bring psychologists, my clients, and us all back to psychology as the study of the psyche, to a focus on the ground of our being, to the soul, because it is this part of us that is the earliest, deepest, and the most authentic part of us. From a psychotherapeutic perspective, the psyche is the part of us that is the most influential in effecting behavioral change and improving self-esteem. Not coincidentally, it is also the part of us that we see illuminated during the psychedelic experience, and it is this illumination of our true nature (or the corresponding "death" of our identification with the ego) that accounts for the therapeutic value of the psychedelic experience. This effect is similar to the concept of sympathetic vibration; wherein a still tuning fork brought into contact with a vibrating one will begin to vibrate at the same frequency. If our conscious attention or identity is brought into contact with or awareness of our deepest ground of being, our conscious awareness elicits or comes into identity with-becomes-that same deepest sense of self. We are changed-transformed-back into identity with the true self we abandoned in our childhood quest for parental love.
To foster this process of re-identification, we must come to view much of behavior now labeled "neurotic" not as pathological, but as the organism's natural response to developmental and environmental stresses on the path to maturation. From this perspective, "neurosis" is better seen as developmental challenge-the surmounting of which brings maturity or wisdom-rather than as pathology.
The term neurosis, as generally applied, is not accurate or helpful. In fact, one of the most negative influences on mental health is the "sick" concept itself, which tightens and distorts, keeping us from a natural unfolding and realignment.
In essence, we need to have psychiatrists (doctors who can prescribe medical and, nowadays usually pharmacological, treatment) treat true biochemically based behavioral disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, and return the clinical practice of psychology to the unfolding of the psyche, in all its beauty and complexity, as a non-medical, natural phenomenon.
With the exception of these biologically based illnesses, psychology must come to be seen as the science of spiritual maturity. We call people "neurotic" when, in reality, it's not a medical illness they are suffering from, but spiritual immaturity. We must redefine spirituality, too, not as supernatural, but as simply the natural unfolding toward the wise, mature end of the normal curve of human developmental psychology.
In my practice, I find over and over again that big-picture understanding, active listening, and fundamental positive regard work best. From my perspective, "healing" takes place only when we get underneath our modern imago, persona, or personality, to rest at the ground of our being-to naturally unfold according to our perfect, inner template for development. That process both requires and facilitates the emergence of self-acceptance and will.
The Psycheology Approach to Psychotherapy
To summarize, in their approach to clients, therapists with the psycheology worldview will tend to naturally express many approaches from the following list of philosophies and methods:
- Psycheology is about the direct experience of the foundation of our true self. I want to emphasize that in psycheology, we are not talking about the personality but the true, original self-the self we were born as, before our parents "had at us." Our true, original self lies under our personality, in the transpersonal ground of our being, at our core.
- As newborns, we are all perfect. Of course we all have individual differences at birth, like the wide-ranging forms of trees in the forest, yet we are all "perfect" in our essence.
- Safety-love-is the central issue of infancy; lack thereof results in defensive highjacking of the ego function to create a personality as an acquired strategy to attain love.
- Personality is a strategy devised by an earlier, immature version of our adult self.
- Neurosis is the natural, stepwise unfolding of human maturation. It's not about pathology, but spiritual immaturity.
- Empathy and acceptance-love-for our parents and ourselves enables us to relax and release the knot in our psyche, to disidentify with the defensive personality and reidentify with our original, core self-to finally complete our childhood.
- The desire for change is a reflection of the problem, not of the solution. So, working on yourself or your relationships doesn't work. Rather, the only thing to "do" is simply to be; and simply being is not the result of an active pursuit, but rather the natural result of releasing the self from the encumbrance or distraction of immature personality strategy.
- Transformative developmental change is possible through a stepwise, dualistic dance-a combination of transcendent change that touches soul, reaches forward and cathartic change that removes unconscious chains, releases the past (more on this in chapter 5: The Development of an Integral Clinical Approach).
- Psychedelic therapy can be a safe and extremely effective tool in facilitating transformative developmental change by enabling us to see ourselves with love and to safely engage in catharsis. Stunted or skewed development can be gotten back on track, but psychedelics are not cognitive development-or enlightenment-in a pill. Psychedelics can trigger insight, but behavior change takes time, and in this culture, such realignment is often harder to sustain than we acknowledge.
- Effective methods exist for changing policies and bureaucracies, and we are honor bound to bravely apply them in the pursuit of science, truth, and freedom (see appendix 1: How to Put Science into Action to Change the World).
- Having laid out these key lessons, as good global citizens, we are compelled to actively apply these finding, to improve the world.
- It's important, too, for us to speculate about the future of psychedelic therapy and policy - and whether the re-integration of psychedelics into western civilization could provide a rite of passage for our culture as a whole, healing Cartesian duality, and elevating us to a new, integral level of society.
The psycheology approach to healthy human development is yogic and ayurvedic: seen as a perfect, healthy, developmental process of maturation. Psycheology approaches the human organism as a single whole seen sometimes as body, sometimes as mind, sometimes as spirit, but most effectively approached as the integral of all three.
Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development (Inner Traditions, 2011), by Neal M. Goldsmith, Ph.D.