One evening in the winter of 1969, the author Philip Pullman had a transcendent experience on the Charing Cross Road. He tells me:
Somewhere in the Middle East, some Palestinian activists had hijacked a plane and it was sitting on a runway surrounded by police, soldiers, fire engines, and so forth. I saw a photo of it on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then I walked past a busker who was surrounded by a circle of listeners, and I saw a sort of parallel. From then on for the rest of the journey [from Charing Cross to Barnes] I kept seeing things doubled: a thing and then another thing that was very like it. I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement throughout the whole journey. I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes. I was very interested at the time in such things as Frances Yates’s books about Hermeticism and Giordano Bruno. I think I was living in an imaginative world of Renaissance magic. In a way, what happened was not surprising, exactly: more the sort of thing that was only to be expected. What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.
Pullman has rarely discussed the experience, although it left him with a conviction that the universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He tells me: ‘Everything I’ve written, even the lightest and simplest things, has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement’ — including, of course, His Dark Materials.
What do you call an experience like that? Psychologists have struggled to agree. They have been called ‘religious experiences’, ‘spiritual experiences’, ‘self-transcendent experiences’, ‘peak experiences’, ‘altered states of consciousness’, trance, dissociation, psychosis-like, revelation, possession, flow. I like the term ‘ecstatic experiences’, from the ancient Greek ekstasis, meaning an experience where you go beyond your ordinary sense of self, and feel connected to something greater than you. That Something Greater could be a spirit or God, or Nature, or a tribe or nation, or another being or beings. The experience can involve all kinds of emotion, from euphoria to terror.
Most cultures have ecstatic rituals. In 1971, the anthropologist Erika Bourgignon undertook a survey of 488 societies around the world, and found 90% of them had rituals to take participants into trance / ecstasy. Aldous Huxley said humans have a ‘basic and universal urge to self-transcendence’. That urge to go beyond ourselves can take healthy or unhealthy forms. It can help us grow, or we can seek ego-annihilation in destructive and addictive forms.
Modern western culture has a problematic relationship with the ecstatic. From as early as the Reformation, and especially during the Enlightenment, religious ecstasy was seen as delusional, as dangerous for the individual and their society. It was written off as ‘enthusiasm’, ‘hysteria’ and — in the 20th century — as psychosis. As a result, there is still a taboo around such experiences.
Yet we keep having them. One Pew Research poll asked Americans if they’d ever had a mystical experience. In 1960, only 20% said they’d had. By 2009, it was up to 40%. In a survey I did in 2016, 84% of participants said they’d had one or more ecstatic experience. You can read some of them here — including Philip Pullman’s epiphany on the Charing Cross Road, which inspired His Dark Materials.
Unusual experiences like hearing voices or seeing visions — which psychiatry still often classifies as evidence of psychosis — are also pretty normal. Several surveys have found that around 10% of the population report having such experiences at least once in their life. And the vast majority are, like William Blake, not bothered by their voices or visions — it only leads to persistent psychotic illness in 8% of cases, in one study. Many people find their visions or voices helpful and life-enriching. What determines whether their experiences are pathological or healthy (according to the UNIQUE research group at Kings College London) is not the experience itself, but their attitude to it, and the attitude of the people around them. Do they find a positive frame, and a supportive community, or not?
Many artists think of their inspiration as something ecstatic — that’s to say, they think it comes from beyond their ordinary conscious mind, and is somewhat mysterious. In one survey, 70% of contemporary novelists said they heard their characters’ voices speak to them. Charles Dickens once reportedly crossed the road when he saw one of his characters coming towards him.
It’s also pretty normal to find meaning in your dreams. Carl Jung thought that, while most dreams are wish-fulfilment, nonsense, or a rehash of one’s day-to-day concerns, we occasionally get ‘big dreams’ which are more vivid and memorable, and which give us important information from the wisdom of our subconscious / soul. I tested this out in a survey of over 500 people. 80% of people said they found dreams insightful and useful, but most said that such dreams are rare. And people said that such dreams particularly occur in moments of crisis / transition.
Ecstatic experiences are more common in crisis / transition moments in our life, such as childbirth (many mothers report that childbirth and early motherhood can be an ecstatic, and also deeply terrifying, experience of ego-dissolution), serious illness, near-death, and dying. In a 2014 study of 59 participants at a hospice in Buffalo, most reported experiencing at least one dream or vision as they approached death, usually of deceased relatives or friends visiting them. Between 30–60% of bereaved widows also report still feeling in touch with deceased loved ones , including sometimes hearing their voice. Most say they feel comforted by this experience.
While psychology and psychiatry has historically seen ecstatic experiences as delusional and pathological, there is growing evidence that they can often be healthy (something strongly argued by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience back in 1902). Psychedelic research, for example, is building up a large body of evidence that mystical or ego-dissolution experiences help liberate people from chronic personality traits like depression and addiction, and can reduce the fear of death. Sociologists and anthropologists have, ever since Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) also insisted that ecstatic states can be connecting — they take us out of our separate, atomized self and connect us to other people, to nature, to the cosmos. Ecstatic experiences can be healing, connecting, pain-reducing, meaning-enhancing, and fun. That’s probably why many other animals seek intoxicated states, from puffer-fish-toking dolphins to reindeer getting high (literally) on fermented apples.
At the same time, ecstatic experiences can be terrifying, damaging and dangerous. For the last year, I’ve been researching ‘spiritual emergencies’ — moments of spiritual awakening which are messy and quasi-psychotic, but which can be navigated to a positive outcome. I’ve worked with psychiatrist Tim Read to collect 14 personal accounts of such experiences into our forthcoming book, Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency. More on that project here.
There’s nothing essentially ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about such states of mind. The question, as William James said, is how you integrate them and whether they make you a better person or not. As St Paul told the Corinthians (to paraphrase): you may have all kinds of ecstatic experiences, but if you don’t have love in your heart, you’re just making noise. Charles Manson and his followers had a lot of ecstatic experiences, but lacked basic decency and kindness.
Every avenue to ecstasy can become unhealthy, addictive and escapist — from booze to novels to religion to politics. Ecstatic states of mind tend to suspend our critical judgement, and make us hyper-suggestible and vulnerable to cultish indoctrination. They can also easily make us proud, narcissistic and inflated — ‘we are the chosen ones, everyone who opposes us is demonic’. They are not a reliable guide to reality on their own — they are one state of mind among many, not to be ignored or suppressed, but not to get overly attached to either. We need to balance the ecstatic with the rational.
Western culture needs to broaden the ‘Overton Window’ of what we think are normal and acceptable states of mind. Dreams, visions, voices, trance states and other forms of ecstasy are a normal part of human experience, and we make an enemy of our own minds when we deem large parts of our experience dangerous and pathological. We end up like Lyra in The Secret Commonwealth — fearful of our own shadow, alienated from our own daemon.
What do such experiences mean? What do they point to? We can be agnostic about that. We don’t understand consciousness, or how it relates to matter. We don’t know if there are higher intelligences in the universe (which is what people generally mean by ‘supernatural’), and if they communicate with us. We don’t know how our consciousnesses are related to each other, or what happens after death. It’s OK not to know. Ecstatic experiences can give us a deep sense of certainty, but we can hold that a little lightly, and accept the mystery.
Such experiences do suggest, at least, that we are more than our ordinary ego-constructions, that our imagination is extremely powerful, and that wisdom and healing can come to us from aspects of the psyche that are not normally conscious.
I think it’s a dead-end to try and peer behind the curtain and ascertain exactly what or who is communicating with us or what awaits us after death. It’s also a dead-end to make this sort of experience the meaning and goal of your life. Ecstatic experiences are nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, and also nothing to get hung up about. They’re just something that happens when you glimpse beyond the construct of your everyday ego. If they are integrated properly, they can help you go beyond egocentricity and become a kinder, more conscious person. But we can get caught up in chasing ‘special experiences’, when ordinary life is just as remarkable. Being here now, alive and conscious on this planet at this time, is pretty extraordinary.
If you want to find out more on this topic, check out my book The Art of Losing Control, as well as new mini-book Holiday From the Self, which is about my own spiritual emergency after an ayahuasca retreat. I also recommend the work of psychologist Steve Taylor .