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Yearly Archives: 2017

The cabin in the woods

I covered a lot of different types of ecstatic experience in my book The Art of Losing Control – spontaneous ecstasy, ecstasy in nature, sexual ecstasy, psychedelic ecstasy, ecstasy through worship, war, sport, even the internet. I think it was one of the most comprehensive books on the subject – what few books there are on the topic tend to only cover positive experiences, and leave out stuff like, say, the ecstasy of mob violence.

But it’s such a huge, amorphous, tricksy, fluxy experience, that you can’t possibly capture all aspects of it, all the strange forms it takes. There are some big gaps in the book – I didn’t talk much about the ecstasy of comedy, for example.

Two big areas I left out were the ecstasy of mediums and psychics, and the ecstasy of alien or UFO encounters. I was conscious that I was already stretching the envelope in terms of bringing the unusual into the mainstream, and I just thought, if I start talking about mediums and psychics, I’d need to inform myself about the whole enormous literature on telepathy, and I’d be taking myself even further from the mainstream. And UFOs? I really would be among the kooks then.

There are some career risks when you write about ecstatic experiences – I mean, not massively for me, because I don’t have a normal academic career thank God. But they exist. Those risks are even bigger for UFO studies.

Take the example of John Mack, a senior psychiatrist and Pulitzer-Prize winner from Harvard.  He became fascinated by abduction experiences, and wrote a book about them in 1994. Shortly afterwards, he was informed by a colleague that he was under investigation by Harvard. He’d made the mistake, he was told, of not insisting these experiences were symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Instead he’d said he wasn’t sure what they were (he later decided they were manifestations of some sort of Greater Mind). He subsequently resigned from Harvard.

I was wary of wading into these waters. Nor did I know much about them. On the last page of my book, however, I nod to this topic. I wrote: ‘I have a sense of the universe as a vast ecosystem bringing with intelligences. Yet I wonder, why aren’t they more chatty?’ This is a reference to something called the ‘Fermi paradox’, a thought-experiment put forward by the physicist Enrico Fermi: the universe is enormous, there is a high probability of other intelligent life-forms on other planets or dimensions, some of whom are probably superior to us. But where are they? Why aren’t they more chatty?

Well…maybe they are! There are several thousand reported sightings of UFOs each year -the National UFO Reporting Centre says they’re getting more frequent, from 5000 in 1980 to 45,000 in 2010. A surprising amount of people also say they’ve encountered aliens.

In 1987, a horror writer called Whitley Strieber claimed he was abducted from his cabin in the woods of upstate New York by little blue men with enormous eyes, who then raped him with a ‘rectal probe’ and took a sample of his semen (the rape was confirmed by a medical examination). He wrote a book about his experience – Communion – and he and his wife were subsequently inundated with letters from people claiming similar experiences.

They got a lot of letters, several thousand a day at one point. To put this in perspective, Sir Alister Hardy, a biologist who investigated ecstatic experiences in the 1970s,  placed adverts in newspapers asking people to send in accounts of their experiences, and he only received around 4000 replies in total. Strieber received over 200,000 letters. 

Strieber’s book was a huge hit, but his fame made him a target and he was widely mocked, particularly for the ‘rectal probe’. 

 

He says the visits didn’t stop – for several years, his cabin was visited by little blue men and other odd phenomena, which he says many others also witnessed. He even claims there’s still an implant in his ear (I wish he’d just cut off his ear-lobe for the sake of science…well, at least leave it to science after he dies).

What does this have to do with ecstasy? As the smarter UFO scholars have pointed out, the alien encounter has similarities to descriptions of other ecstatic experiences like near-death experiences, psychedelic trips, and mystical experiences – white light; physical manifestations like shaking, heat or buzzing; emotions of awe, terror and joy; an encounter with a higher intelligence, a sense of being chosen, transformed, sent back with a mission (in UFO abductions, the mission is often ecological – the visitors are worried we’re destroying the planet).

As for the erotic aspects, well, older forms of divine encounter are also often erotic – think of all those god-rapes in classical myth, or the sons of God breeding with the daughters of men in Genesis, or God inseminating Mary, or the randy blue divinities of Hinduism, or the sexual rapture of Christian mystics. Rapture, after all, comes from the Latin raptus, meaning ‘to be seized, abducted or raped’.

If you look back at some of the revelatory encounters in the Bible, they’re really pretty weird – Ezekiel seeing spinning discs in the sky, Moses seeing a burning bush, Daniel seeing a figure in the fire, Abraham seeing God and two angels strolling along for a picnic, Jesus ascends into the sky, Paul gets carried up into the heavens. Later Christian visionaries reported seeing cities in the sky – cities, or UFOs??

What to make of it? Like other ecstatic experiences, there are several interpretative positions one could take. You could say that encounter experiences are the product of the human psyche in extremis – Michael Shermer, the well-known sceptic psychologist, says he had an alien encounter once after bicycling for many miles without water, which he put down to exhaustion. Other experiences seem like sleep paralysis. One notes that some of the most famous encounter experiences happen to fantasy fiction writers – Strieber, Philip K. Dick, L. Ron Hubbard. Perhaps they’re carried away not by aliens, but by their imaginations.

A shot from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He said: ‘I’d be very surprised if the universe wasn’t full of an intelligence of an order that to us would seem God-like. I find it very exciting to have a semi-logical belief that there’s a great deal to the universe we don’t understand, and that there is an intelligence of an incredible magnitude outside the Earth.’

Or maybe there really are aliens from other planets visiting us, and humans have mistakenly interpreted it as divine beings. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. An i-phone would seem like a divine talisman to a pygmy. Many science fiction films have riffed off this idea – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: Space Odyssey, Contact, Arrival and others explore the idea of alien-as-God. Some new religious movements have claimed that the gods are really aliens – Scientology, most obviously, but also the Heaven’s Gate cult and the Aetherius Society. Sci-fi also plays with the anxiety that maybe we’re slaves, livestock or prey to these superior beings, as in Prometheus, The Matrix or Predator. 

Both these hypotheses take a more or less scientific and materialist interpretation of the phenomena. But there are other possibilities.

WTF experiences

I’ve just finished a book by Whitley Strieber and a religious scholar called Jeffrey Kripal, called The Supernatural: A New Vision of the Unexplained. Kripal is a professor at Rice University, and one of my favourite scholars of the ecstatic. He’s a great writer, and brave in three ways. Firstly, he’s very good at tracking contemporary forms of ecstasy, looking at low-brow, pop culture stuff like UFOs and superhero myths. Secondly, he bravely explores the connection between the mystical and the erotic (this led to one of his books being banned in India). Thirdly, he’s prepared to include his own ecstatic experiences. And he insists we walk a line between religious reductionism and scientific reductionism, staying open to the weirdness of the ecstatic.

The metaphor I use in my book is of the soul as a cabin in the woods (just like Whitley’s cabin). Occasionally, we hear strange noises in the forest, knocks upon the wall, figures appear at the window. It’s freaky. How do we interpret those knocks?

Ezekiel and his spinning discs

Religions, particularly monotheisms, tend to have a very reductive view. It’s either God, the Devil or your imagination. Come on, really? That’s it? Just look at the revelations in the Bible – Moses is told ‘no one may see me and live’, while Abraham sees God wander up for a picnic. They’re not even called the same names – sometimes it’s Jehovah, sometimes Elohim (which means The Blessed Ones). Even Satan morphs from being a sort of worker for God, in the Book of Job, to being the ultimate Bad Guy in the New Testament and later Christian theology.

Science can be equally reductive. It’s just your brain buzzing, or your subconscious. There’s nothing really ‘out there’ beyond the human. Why not? Why is that a ridiculous and unacceptable idea?

Strieber and Kripal think it’s more complicated than materialism (either brain delusions or aliens from another planet). They suggest that alien encounters are more like encounters with some sort of Greater Mind – what William James called Mind-at-Large – which may be our own Bigger Consciousness, perhaps even our future selves (as in Interstellar). They think these encounters are glimpses of some bigger game that we don’t fully understand, to do with our souls, the future of our species, and our existence in this dimension. Strieber’s wife noted that many of the alien encounters also involved the appearance of friends or loved ones who had died. ‘This seems to be something to do with death’, she said.

It also has something to do with owls. Strieber notes that owls often appeared around the alien visits. His work definitely seems an inspiration for the X Files and Twin Peaks – cabins in woods, alien owls, abductions, FBI investigations, small men dancing…His experiences are pure David Lynch, weird, eery, at times ridiculous.

Whatever it is people are encountering, if it is something transpersonal, it takes the forms of existing culture – if you live in the 20th century, it takes the form of our scientific and pop culture. And it plays with those forms, sometimes taking outlandish and cartoonish shape, as if it’s lampooning the culture, as if it’s…fucking with us. Heraclitus said, ‘nature loves to hide’. So does the Whatever. It refuses to be trapped by human categories. It’s trickster, mercurial, fluxy. That’s frustrating, and scary. But maybe that’s the point. It won’t be reduced.

I respect Kripal’s radical agnosticism, his refusal to get stuck in categories, his epistemological humility, but is it enough? Can it really be the structure for our relationship to the Whatever? What ethics do we take from it? Do we not need some sort of stable cultural myth, some interpretation of the What-The-Fuck, and the ethical prescriptions to be drawn from it?  I put this to Kripal in an interview. He thinks the New Age (including UFO-based spirituality) does actually have a strong ethical component – it tends to be strongly environmental, more open to sexual difference than monotheism, and more open to the weirdness and fluxiness of the What-Have-You.

Well, here we are. Knocks on the cabin roof. Muffled messages through the walls. And homo sapiens, semi-intelligent monkeys, scrabbling to make sense of the messages, opening the door, peering out, and wondering.

The future is already here

I think a lot of emotional problems arise from the fact we’re both subjects and objects.

We’re universes of subjective consciousness.

And we’re also material objects – a body. A jumble of atoms thrown together, skin, bones, muscle, blood. And out of this briefly emerges a Me.

Weird. 

We’re also an object in the eyes of others. An image. Jules Evans. He exists out there, beyond Me, in your minds and words. 

Babies are initially pure subjective consciousness.

They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know where they end and the world begins. It’s a massive trip.

And yet, before they attain language, before they learn their name, before they learn of themselves as a separate being in the world, they know they’re loved.

They feel held by their carers, stroked, and soothed. And they’re know they’re loved and OK.

That’s the basic source of our identity – the ground of our being – before language or self-identity. That basic feeling: ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

I was on the Tube this week, and this baby looked at me with its enormous wondering eyes. It was tripping out. And I smiled at it. And it looked at me for a bit, and then smiled back. It had received that response, that affirmation – ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

That’s an amazing thing. It’s the sunlight that enables the flower of our self to unfold into the world.

Then gradually children gain a sense of their body. They look at their hands in wonder, and realize they are ‘their’ hands, they can control them.

They learn their name, learn they are a thing in the world. My earliest memory, from when I was two or so, is spelling my name out in magnetic letters on our fridge, and being applauded by my parents. My first literary triumph!

Then we develop a sense of how others perceive us, how we are different to other children, how we stand in the order of things.

We might learn, for example, that our big sister is smarter than us, that our mother seems to prefer our brother. We might learn at school that we have a funny name, or a weird head, that our parents aren’t as rich as others. Some thing is wrong with us.

We embark on a lifelong struggle for love and acceptance, and a lifelong fear of rejection and failure. We rate ourselves against others and constantly try to get higher, to be more loved.

We start to ask ourselves: ‘Who am I? Why am I this self, this body? Why this hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or sexuality?’

What’s the point of me?

Am I worthwhile? Am I loveable? Am I any good?

Seven and a half billion people on this planet, 7.5 billion universes of sparkling subjective consciousness, and every one of those points of light have asked themselves, at least once, ‘Who am I? What’s the point of me? Am I any good?’

When we feel we are, we can relax and feel ‘I’m OK, I’m alright’, like we’re in the arms of our mother and everything’s OK. Our body goes into a restful, relaxed and contended state.

But sometimes we feel ‘I’m not OK, I’m no good’, and we feel really alone and threatened. Our whole body reacts with stress, our immune system weakens, adrenalin floods our system, or our serotonin levels sink. Some people get stuck in that mode.

Things can go really wrong when we get caught in feedback loops between our subjective consciousness and ourselves as objects in others’ eyes.

Up to 18, I was a mild narcissist. I really enjoyed my reflection in others’ eyes, the feeling of being a pretty amazing human being, relatively speaking.

It led to a feedback loop – the more adulation I got, the more my self-esteem inflated, like an enormous orange balloon.

Then my pride got a knock, and my self-esteem rapidly deflated.

I started to get panic attacks. I would go to a party, and I would suddenly see myself as an imperfect object in others’ eyes.

I would wonder, what happens if I lose it now, if I fall apart mid-conversation. What would that do to my image? Then I would lose it. I was onto something genuine – our opportunities for love and success in this world depend on how others perceive us. That can be scary.

Our subjective consciousness and our body can go into spasms of fear and self-rejection. ‘I am me, and that’s not OK. That’s terrible!’ We close up and clench in fear and self-criticism.

We can be attacked by those dark twins, self-loathing and self-pity.

The sense that my self is basically unacceptable can lead to such a shitty experience of subjective consciousness, people choose to obliterate themselves with intoxicants, or kill themselves to take the pain away. 

Can we free ourselves of our egos and expand into that limitless sky of sparkling subjective consciousness?

Most religions say we can transcend our selves. We can shift beyond ‘me’ and find a Something More – God, Buddha-mind, the Logos, Atman, Gaia, cosmic consciousness, humanitarianism, the happiness of all sentient beings. Something More.

But here’s the rub. We can seek to transcend ourselves in ways that are self-hating and self-negating.

When I was at university, and fairly miserable, I attended meditation classes. But it did me no good. I was trying to meditate myself out of existence.

My ego-mind was so painful, like a floor scattered with broken glass, that I thought if I kept really really still, I would feel no pain, because ‘I’ would disappear.

It would work for a few minutes, then something would happen and I would step on broken glass again.

Any form of transcendence can really be an attempt to obliterate the hated self. You can throw yourself into humanitarianism, a good cause which you pursue in a desperate way, because you’re not OK, you’re not alright, you don’t deserve to exist. So you try to prove you’re worthwhile human being. 

This elderly Zen monk gave a talk in February, where he said if you want to open up to the limitless experience of consciousness, the way to do it is not to try to deny or obliterate yourself, but to open to the limitless experience of consciousness through self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Yes, even you, with all your flaws. Even crap old you, with your stained teeth, your fat bum, your flabby arms, your crappy clothes, your rubbish job, your disastrous romantic life. Even you mate. Even you!

This old monk – I swear to you, he exists – this monk who had spent his whole life meditating and studying, summed up all he’d learnt with the words: ‘You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved.’

Loved by who or what?

Some people feel they are loved by God. The love of God is the ground of their being.

There are religious traditions and practices dedicated to developing this sense of love – Sufism, Methodism, metta meditation in Buddhism, bhakti traditions like Hari Krishna in Hinduism.

The essence of God is love, focus on that image, that experience, and let your soul be transformed in its warm light.

That’s pretty nice, I like those religions of the heart. But not everyone can believe in some higher loving power.

Your partner loves you. Your family loves you. The love of the family has become more and more important as belief in God has declined. We look for The One who will accept us and complete us. Finally! 

That’s what these recent match.com adverts promised us – self-acceptance through the other. 

(These adverts have been widely mocked and pastiched by the way – here are some examples)

It’s a pretty big ask to expect someone us to completely and unconditionally love you all through your life. You change, your partner changes, there will be times they don’t even like you, let alone love you. Your kids leave home. Your parents have their own stuff going on.

But it’s OK. Your therapist loves you. You can turn to your therapist for unconditional love.

But they don’t really, do they? Their love costs by the minute.

The most important thing, the one thing that will definitely be with you through your entire life, is your subjective consciousness. Your attitude to yourself.

If there is a God, you experience IT through your subjective consciousness. If the love of another person changes you, it is through your subjective consciousness. It’s all right there, in you, now.

We can practice being kind to ourselves. Right now, we can try to accept ourselves in our all rubbishness. 

I try and end my morning meditation saying to myself ‘I’m OK, I’m alright, even with all my flaws and imperfections. I’m fine as I am. I’ll continue to grow and hopefully become a better person, but I’m also fine as I am.’

I can be very self-critical and unkind to myself, so this is a good practice. In physical terms, it switches me from threat-mode to soothing-relaxing-mode. My consciousness doesn’t shut up in fear, it relaxes and opens up.

And I try to direct my compassion out too. ‘I vow to be kind to myself and to others. To help all beings be free from suffering and realize our true natures’.

There are other compassion practices one can do – I’ve put some links below.

We are imperfect, limited beings, and we are limitless universes of sparkling consciousness. That’s what Buddhism teaches – and other religions are not far off. We are imperfect wounded egos in imperfect mortal bodies. But we’re also enlightened and perfect already!

Isn’t that weird? You’re already divine! On some dimension of reality, you’re already there. We’re already there. This is a great day! Our higher future selves are up there looking down on us in compassion, applauding us, and cheering us on. Reach up and give the future enlightened you a high five. The future is already here.

*****

Here are some links about compassion-focused therapy.

Here is the website of the Compassionate Mind foundation, set up by the psychologist Paul Gilbert.

Here’s a good introductory article about compassion-focused therapy.

Here’s an interview with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, who’s made loving-kindness meditation the centre of her work.

Here’s a video about how compassion-focused therapy can help people hearing voices or experiencing psychosis.

Is self-compassion the same as self-esteem? And will compassion therapy make the same mistakes as the self-esteem movement in the 1990s? This piece in the Atlantic explores the differences. And this Guardian feature by Will Storr looks at the cult of self-esteem in the 1990s, and how it was oversold.