15 January, 2018Issue 3636.1PhilosophyReligion

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Varieties of Ecstatic Experience

Maya Krishnan

Jules Evans
The Art of Losing Control
£16.99 (hbk)







“From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight, fire.” This was the state of Blaise Pascal’s mind on the night of November 23, 1654. “Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ.” He noted all this on a scrap of paper, which was only found after his death, sewn into the lining of his doublet. Some have called Pascal’s experience a religious epiphany, while others have conjectured that it was the side effect of the onset of a migraine. The role of Pascal’s ecstatic experience in turning his attention from mathematics to theology has inspired admiration in religious quarters and scorn in philosophical ones. “Philosophical suicide” was Russell’s verdict. Nietzsche was only slightly more kind, dubbing Pascal “the most instructive victim of Christianity”.

Contemporary analytic philosophy is no more sympathetic to severely altered mental states. Philosophers of perception talk about hallucinations as a defective form of perception and epistemologists label them obstacles to knowledge. Philosophy’s ongoing hostility toward atypical experiences is intertwined with broader societal attitudes. In some cultures, epileptics are seen as having special connections to a world of spirits. In Western culture, epileptics are sick. And how could we see the matter any other way? Even the West’s most convinced cultural relativist would be unlikely to take guidance on the basis of someone’s epileptic seizure.

The modern West’s suspicion of ecstatic experience receives a salutary challenge in The Art of Losing Control, the latest book by Jules Evans, who is currently a research fellow at the Centre for the History of Emotions at the Queen Mary University of London. Evans’s previous book on the connections between Stoic philosophy and cognitive-behavioral therapy, entitled Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, established him as a non-academic philosopher interested in how to implement philosophical ideas in everyday life. The Art of Losing Control is a continuation of Evans’s project of adapting the insights of wisdom traditions for his fellow well-off and well-educated Westerners who are looking for a way out of their secular alienation.

The thesis of The Art of Losing Control is that ecstasy is one of the elements missing from modern life. Ecstatic experiences, which Evans defines as experiences in which someone went “beyond their ordinary self and felt connected to something bigger than them”, are defended in pragmatic terms as legitimate responses to a basic human need to transcend the ego.

Pragmatism provides Evans with his overarching philosophical framework. Evans cites William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience as an inspiration for his strategy of examining far-out states of mind from the point of view of the person having the experience. Evans likewise follows James in bracketing questions of ultimate truth in order to focus on the question of what is useful or beneficial to people. While Evans is ultimately unable to transcend the shortcomings that tend to accompany an exclusively pragmatic standpoint, his Jamesian approach does have the virtue of encouraging openness towards that which might seem bizarre.

The quest to understand the significance of ecstasy leads Evans through LSD and BDSM, extended meditation retreats and deep immersion in nature, and Christian revival festivals and rock concerts, many of which he himself tried out. He goes to a Christian revivalist meeting, reports how “wave after wave of painful bliss hit me”, returns a convert with a “heart on fire”, and then uses interviews with both contemporary religious leaders and hypnotists skilled at inducing altered mental states to provide an engaging reflection upon an experience he found inspiring yet bewildering.

Evans is at his strongest when discussing psychedelics and Christianity, two subjects with which he has extensive personal acquaintance and whose complexity he appreciates. Trouble starts at a 5Rhythms dance class. On a Monday night in a church hall, “ringed by statues of goddesses holding branches”, Evans dabbles in a style of dance inspired by kundalini yoga. Kundalini yoga or practice is a technique of awakening energies which are supposed to lie at the base of the spine. The concept of kundalini is mentioned in the Upanishads, and various kinds of kundalini yoga are associated with the worship of the Hindu deity Siva, but to Evans, kundalini is pure “New Age play”, and his account is written for laughs (“The bony geriatric is leaping around like a goat on crack”). While 5Rhythms is certainly more New Age than traditional Indian, Evans does not differentiate these elements, and he directs the same satirical attitude towards both.

Matters get even more questionable in a chapter entitled “The Tantric Love Temple”, which is a sensationalistic study of eight-hand massage, “polyamorous play”, and “mindful self-pleasuring”. The word “tantra” is thrown about, but Evans never clarifies what tantra consists in. No experts are cited, although Evans does include a lengthy quote from a friend of his who seems to equate “basic tantra” with “breathing in and out at the same time while looking into each other’s eyes” and claims that “if more people learned basic tantra, it would save marriages.” Evans’ willingness to let uninformed impressions stand in for actual research about Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions reveals one of the major weaknesses of the book. Evans tends to afford unwarranted authority to his own voice and the voices of people like him in those areas where he most sorely needs to be listening to experienced practitioners and real experts.

The shallow treatment of South Asian practices raises the broader issue of the ethical and political dimensions of the pragmatist’s hunt for ecstatic experiences. It seems that the secular West, bored with its own arid egocentricity and frequently disinclined to rehabilitate Judeo-Christian traditions, is turning to other cultures to supply it with ecstasy. The profiled experiences include South American shamanic ceremonies involving the psychoactive plant ayahuasca, Vipassana meditation courses whose techniques are drawn from Theravada Buddhism, and ecstatic communion with nature inspired by practices of Native Americans.

The importation and adaptation of experiences of ego loss does not have to be a problem if it is done in the right way. But is troubling to treat other cultures as experiential storehouses which can be raided for ‘good feels’, yet whose conceptual frameworks and intellectual contributions are not worthy of consideration. Engaging with non-Western traditions requires dismantling the hierarchy which allows non-Westerners to be adept at having feelings but which reserves the authority of interpretation for Western scientists and intellectuals.

The treatment of experiences from non-Western traditions as a product ready for consumption is one manifestation of a more general risk of experiential consumerism. Evans warns of the danger of spirituality becoming “commodified into an ecstatic experience economy”, but his defense of ecstasy in terms of human health and happiness risks the same outcome. “Ecstasy is often very good for us”, Evans writes. Yet a SoulCycle-attending, quinoa-noshing, Lululemon-clad lifestyle is no less consumerist for treating health as its gospel.

The pragmatic strategy raises the risk of instrumentalization by leaving aside questions about truth and reality in favor of questions like, “Did it lead to healing, inspiration and flourishing, or was it bad for you?” Ecstatic experience is supposed to take us out of our egos, but the focus on what is “good for us” or “bad for you” invokes the shadow of the grasping ego and its incessant chatter of me and mine. To be fair, the pragmatic approach does have its uses. Accounts of the mental health benefits of ego-loss experiences might help shift the attitudes of policymakers who uphold the criminalization of psychedelics and psychiatrists who treat hallucinations solely as symptoms of an underlying disease. Pragmatic considerations are more likely to move these groups than are abstruse analyses of the epistemology of ecstasy.

But a genuine defence of ecstatic experience cannot stop with a discussion of “healing”. Otherwise, the pragmatic defence risks re-entrenching the very assumptions that historically led to the devaluation of ecstasy. To say that we “need to let go” or that we have a “fundamental need for ‘peak experiences’” is to make a similar point that Hume, Feuerbach, and Marx all advanced in their criticisms of religion: it’s a mere projection whose main function is to satisfy human needs and desires. In tracing the causes of Western society’s current anti-ecstatic orientation, Evans cites the way that the Enlightenment “privileged rationality as the only sane and reliable form of consciousness”. Challenging the denigration of ecstasy requires going beyond pragmatism and defending the sanity, reliability or even rationality of the ecstatic mind.

The hesitance to offer such a defence has deep historical roots. Pragmatic accounts of religious experience, and indeed the very conceptualization of religion in terms an ‘experience’ that can be ‘had’, arose in the nineteenth century in response to Enlightenment attacks on traditional arguments for the existence of God. Thinkers as diverse as William James and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher treated ‘experience’ as a core element of religion with a self-standing integrity and authority that could be understood independently of rational considerations. While this approach may have seemed like an effective dialectical move in a context in which reason and religion were seen as opposed, its long-term effect was to isolate religion from those discourses on truth and reality which might differentiate it from a self-serving fairy tale.

Here is one place where more serious engagement with non-Western intellectual traditions could advance the project of rehabilitating ecstatic experience. The second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna used rational arguments to defend the position that the self lacks ultimate reality. Santideva, an eighth-century Buddhist philosopher working in the tradition initiated by Nagarjuna, argued for the same conclusion in a manner reminiscent of the most rigorous of contemporary analytic philosophers. If there are rational arguments which demonstrate that the self might not be so real as we are inclined to think, then the experience of going beyond one’s ordinary self could be, or lead to, the direct apprehension of what is rational and real.

The basis thesis of The Art of Losing Control is a sound one: most Westerners are stuck within the confines of the ego, and they should look to ecstatic experience as a way of starting to get unstuck. Still, Evans could have been much more radical in his defence of ecstasy. His pragmatic position, like the urbanely skeptical everyman persona he adopts in his writing, shields him from the risk of seeming too woo-woo or bizarre. But the best moment in the book occurs a few pages from the end, when Evans drops the pretence and says what he really thinks:

I know this is a minority view among academics, but I think when we die we encounter a consciousness far superior to us. And we are connected to it through love. I believe this because of my own near-death experience, but also because of evidence from other people’s NDEs and mystical experiences on psychedelics (which reliably reduce people’s fear of death), and from the authority of mystics from the Buddha to Plato to Jesus.

The book would have been better and bolder if Evans had started instead of ending here. Evans is so careful to maintain the appearance of respectability that he doesn’t focus on the arguments which would best defend ecstasy, and which seem closest to his own heart. I was left wondering what this book might have looked like if Evans had really allowed himself to lose control.


Maya Krishnan is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.