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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Beyond the fear barrier

A barrel sponge surrounded by fish at Dixon’s Pinnacle in the Andaman Islands

I decided to learn scuba-diving while I was travelling in India. I took a flight from Chennai to the Andaman Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Burma. I stayed on Havelock Island, the most popular island for tourists. It has one incredible beach, soft white sand with barely anyone on it, and also some great diving sites off its coast with living coral –  sadly, a rare thing these days. The island is increasingly popular with middle-class Indian tourists, even though many can’t swim – some sign up for a ‘sea walk’, where they walk around on the bottom of the sea wearing a diving helmet, or a ‘dive experience’ where they are carried around underwater by a professional diver. There are occasional accidents – a young Indian drowned while snorkelling the day I arrived. Another tourist was eaten by a crocodile back in 2010, but I was assured that was extremely rare.

I signed up with one of the many diving companies to do a PADI Open Water and Advanced Diving course – five days in all. The first day was just learning theory. There was a lot to learn, about all the equipment one relies on, the hand signals one uses to communicate underwater, and the danger of nitrogen blood poisoning or of air expanding in your lungs if you ascend too quickly. You had to fill out a questionnaire, which asked lots of questions like was I subject to anxiety or panic attacks. I put no, although I have in fact had panic attacks many years ago.

The next morning, we went snorkelling in the morning, just a few metres out from one of the beaches. I’d never even been snorkelling before, and it was extraordinary, seeing these colourful, weird fish swimming around me without any fear. In the afternoon, we put on the diving equipment for the first time, and swam down to perhaps 10 metres or so. It felt weird at first. You’re aware you’re in an alien environment, surrounded by water, yet breathing. Initially, I breathed too hard, because I didn’t really trust the procedure. I could hear my own breathing, sucking in rather desperately, as if it was my last breath. But if ever I started to feel anxious, I could just look up and see the surface above me – it wasn’t that far away. So that counterbalanced the claustrophobia or sense of being trapped. We swam around a reef which alas had bleached (ie died), but there were still plenty of interesting fish around – clown fish, angel fish, sea-horses, lion fish, sting-rays, enormous napoleon, and even a sea-snake, which thankfully kept its distance.

On the third day of the course, we went for a deeper dive. I had a new instructor. She talked a lot, nervously, and it made me nervous. We took a boat out to deeper water, and put on our equipment. While we waited to go in, another group of divers surfaced. ‘How is it?’ my instructor asked. ‘Bloody awful!’ one of the divers said. ‘There’s a strong current, and terrible visibility.’ My instructor looked at us and grimaced.

We jumped in the water, and immediately you could feel the current pulling you back. We grabbed hold of a rope and tugged ourselves along to the descent rope. Then we started to pull ourselves down. I had to kick hard to go against the current. The sea was murky with little bits of white floating around. We pulled down deeper and deeper, to 15 metres. I was out of breath, and sucked harder on the air regulator. It didn’t seem to be working properly. I breathed harder, with desperation. ‘I’m panicking’, I thought. ‘I’m freaking out’. This realization made me panic more. What happens when you panic at 15 metres? I couldn’t just go up to the surface. I was trapped. Is this how I would die?

The instructor could see I wasn’t going forward anymore. She came up and gave me the thumbs up sign. I shook my head and pointed to the surface. She told me later she could see by my eyes I was panicking. She nodded and looked around for the other diver in our group. I managed to slow my breathing down somewhat, and the regulator worked better. I realized I was OK, I was not going to drown, and told the instructor I was OK. She gave me a long hug.

That hug was actually hugely helpful. We don’t touch enough in western culture. There is a touch-deficit, which is pretty toxic for mammals like us. We’ve privatized touch, so we pay strangers to give us massages, or even to give us hugs. I think back to the bad LSD trip I had when I was 18, which traumatized me for several years. That could have turned into a good trip, if I’d just got a hug. And the trauma could have lasted a lot less long, if I’d told my loved ones and got some hugs. I think touch is often more healing than talk.

A very interesting guy I met in India, Anthony Fidler, is giving a London Philosophy Club talk next Wednesday on using mindfulness and touch practices as a way of dealing with psychosis. Anthony had a psychotic breakdown when he was 23 or so, and working as an accountant for PWC. He spent several years in the terrifying underworld of psychosis, and taught himself to stay centred even in the midst of terrifying visions, partly through staying in touch. I met him on a Zen retreat in the hills of Tamil Nadu, which I’ll write about in a few weeks. He seemed a very calm, collected person, the epitome of no-drama spirituality. I’d have never guessed he’s been though several psychotic episodes over the years.

Anyway, back to the Andaman Sea. We carried on with the dive, though I was still about two notches away from panic all the time. And because of my anxiety, my breathing was erratic, meaning I raced through my air really quickly. If you’re calm and relaxed, your air can last, say, an hour or more on a deeper dive. My air only lasted 18 minutes that dive. Diving is one long breathing meditation.

We went back to the boat and climbed on board. We didn’t really talk about what happened, but I was embarrassed and frightened. Had I nearly died? I was due to start the Advanced Diving course the next day, going down to 30 metres. Bad idea?

I spoke to another instructor that evening, and told her what happened. I asked if people could die from panicking underwater. She told me there were stages of panic. The really dangerous stage was when people lost it completely, and rejected their equipment, literally taking the regulator from their mouth. That was when they drowned. I hadn’t got to that stage, I’d just been over-breathing, started to panic, then calmed down again. She thought I would be OK and said ‘it would be a pity to end your diving on that experience’.

The next day, in fact, did not involve a deep dive. We went back to the shallower water and practiced buoyancy control and various other manoeuvres, including taking off our masks and changing regulators at 10 metres depth. I was back with my original instructor, in whom I had more faith, and I did the manoeuvres fine. That evening, we went for a night dive, illuminating the water with small torches. Occasionally we’d see other groups of divers emerge from the dark and we’d turn off the torches so as not to confuse them, then sit hiding out as they swam obliviously past. The instructor told me to wave my hands around, and the dark water lit up with luminous plankton. We walked out back onto the beach under the stars.

The next morning, it was time for the deep dive. We took a boat out to a site called Dixon’s Pinnacle, discovered by a local diver a few years before – all the diving sites have only been discovered 10 or 15 years ago, and there are still hundreds of sites waiting to be discovered. I was fairly nervous, but I told my instructor about my previous anxiety attack and explained that I wanted to take it very slow, and might abort at any time. He was fine with that. This meant I felt more in control of the experience.

The conditions were better, the current not too bad. We swam out to the descent line and started to go down. This time, I went feet first, and took my time, careful to keep my breathing slow and regular. My instructor asked me if I was OK every five metres or so. I was OK. I repeated a mantra to myself sometimes: ‘Trust your equipment, trust your instructor, keep breathing’.

We went down, down, descending to 30 metres through this clear blue sea all around us, stretching out like some giant cathedral. Down, down, down. Finally we saw a reef beneath us, and we let go of the rope and swam towards it.

There were so many fish it almost took my breath away. Thousands and thousands of them. Everywhere I looked, there was some new, weird species –  beautiful, ugly, stub-nosed, round-nosed, short and flat, long and thin, yellow, gold, silver, red, orange, green, purple, striped, polka-dot, rippling with extraordinary colours, thousands of tiny fish like a cloud of butterflies, shoals of silver fish that curved like a flamenco dancer as they were hunted by trevally. Not to mention the glorious colours of the coral itself. Our instructor had amazingly sharp eyes – he pointed out a giant lobster, its antennae poking out from a hole. We saw a moray eel, grumpy and cantankerous; and an octopus, shy and intelligent. At one point, I looked above me, and a shoal of barracuda had appeared out of nowhere – they were completely still, staring grimly ahead, like infantry preparing for battle. We swam up the reef and let the current carry us over it. It was a glorious feeling to float over the rainforest and look down at the life teeming beneath me. The fish were so clear, so colourful, so pixellated, somehow it was like the most extraordinary virtual reality trip, and I moved my hands towards the fish just to remind myself they were real. Occasionally a fish would swim up and peer at me. I’d laugh and wave back.

Barracuda off Dixon’s Pinnacle, Andaman Islands – photo by Adam Jadhav

If ever I felt a twinge of anxiety, I focused outward and become absorbed in wonder. I felt a deep sense of gratitude to this place, where I didn’t belong, for letting me visit. The closest experience I could compare it to was visiting the Masai Mara in Kenya – in both environments, you didn’t know what wildlife you would stumble upon next. You were on their turf.

We kept checking our air, and after about 40 minutes it was time to go back up. I’d controlled my breathing well and hadn’t used my air quickly. I felt full of joy and lightness at having gone through the fear barrier and seen that extraordinary world. That’s the reward for facing fear, isn’t it? A bigger world. An expanded reality. We were all in a good mood on the boat home, including a lady in her 70s who’d been diving for the last 40 years. It had been a good dive, we agreed. And I learned three things. Keep breathing. Keep in touch. And if you feel anxious, look out, and wonder.

Humans have only been scuba-diving for around 50 years. And, just as we discover this incredible underwater world, we discover we’re killing it. Two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is apparently now bleached, and unrecoverable. And that must have been one of the most extraordinary sights in all of nature. And I contributed to the damage, through all the flights I took on my travels. Still, one other thing I learned from India is it’s much easier to be vegetarian than I imagined. So I now eat much less meat, as my small effort to mitigate climate change and protect the incredible, bizarre, funny and wondrous life-forms that live all around us.

For more on ecstatic or sublime experiences in nature, check out my new book, The Art of Losing Control, out this week! And you can sign up for weekly articles like this, along with links to interesting stories from the net, at the newsletter box in the right-hand column.

Why getting out of our head is good for us

At the end of last year, an unusual article appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. A single dose of a drug appeared to dramatically reduce anxiety and depression in those suffering from life-threatening cancer, far better than any other treatment. The drug was psilocybin, the psychedelic found in magic mushrooms.

The two trials, by NYU medical school and Johns Hopkins medical school, are the latest in a series of recent studies which claim psychedelics have remarkable therapeutic powers, helping people overcome chronic emotional disorders and addictions. So how exactly does a single dose of a psychedelic drug create such radical personality changes?

The Johns Hopkins study wrote: ‘This finding suggests a potential psycho-spiritual mechanism of action: the mystical state of consciousness.’

Come again?

For over three centuries, western science – and in particular, psychiatry – has tended to pathologize ‘mystical experience’, to reduce it to a delusion or mental illness. In the Enlightenment, natural philosophers called it ‘enthusiasm’, and blamed on an over-active imagination or an over-warm brain. In the late 19th century, psychiatrists labelled it ‘hysteria’. In the 20th century, spiritual experiences were (and still are) reduced to brain disorders like schizophrenia or epilepsy.

The consequence of this long pathologization of ecstasy is that there’s a taboo around such experiences. As Aldous Huxley put it: ‘If you have an experience like this, you keep your mouth shut, for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst’, or, in our day, a psychiatrist. And the result of that taboo is that western culture has become spiritually flat, afraid to let go, stuck in our heads and our egos, lacking a window to transcendence.

In the last few years, however, a consensus has begun to emerge in psychology and psychiatry that ecstatic experiences – moments when we go beyond our ordinary ego and feel a connection to something bigger than us – are often good for us.

Scientists can’t agree on what to call this sort of experience – it’s variously studied as self-transcendence; flow; mystical, religious, spiritual or anomalous experience; altered states of consciousness; or (my preferred term) ecstasy. But scientists do agree that it’s an important human experience that can be very healing. This is a big shift for western science, and western culture.

Breaking the mental loop

Ecstasy is good for us because it gets us out of our head. Emotional disorders like depression, anxiety and addiction are perpetuated by rigid and repetitive patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. We get stuck in loops of negative rumination, endlessly thinking about ourselves and our imperfections. We can free ourselves from these rigid mental habits by using rationality to unpick our beliefs – this is what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does.

But we can also get out of these loops by shifting our consciousness. To use the terminology of the New Testament, we can have sudden epiphanies which break us out of the tomb of our egos, giving us the experience of being born again. Being reborn – suddenly reconfiguring the self – is a fundamental human capacity, not found only in followers of Jesus.

There are shallower and deeper forms of ego-loss. At the lighter end of the spectrum, there are the sort of ‘flow’ states which we might find each day or week, where we lose ourselves in reading a good book, or walking in the park, or going for a run. These activities settle and absorb our consciousness, taking us out of the loop of rumination, helping us forget ourselves in the moment (here’s an interview I did with flow psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on flow and ecstasy).

Iris Murdoch called it ‘unselfing’. She wrote:

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world…The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind…Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.

Nature is the most reliable route to this sort of ego-dissolving wonder. When we go for a walk, run, ride or swim in nature, we might discover what Wordsworth called ‘the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness’. We get into the ‘reverie’ that Rousseau wrote about when he went walking, feel a mind-expansion at the beauty of the landscape, and this breaks the loop of rumination. Here’s a 2015 study on how a 90-minute walk in nature reduces rumination.

The arts can do something similar – absorb our consciousness so that we lose ourselves in the moment, in the book, poem, play, painting, song, cathedral etc – and this shift in consciousness breaks the loop of rumination and takes us somewhere quieter, better, more spacious. A 2016 mass survey by Durham University found reading and nature were our favourite ways to rest – and  switching off the restless ego-mind is an important part of that. Likewise, meditation and prayer can help us find the space between our ruminating thoughts. Many of us use sport as a way to get out of the noise of our head and into our bodies.

Such moments of absorption can be very socially connecting. Suddenly, we’re taken out of our ego-loops and joined in what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called ‘the hive mind’. That’s a great antidote to the chronic western affliction of loneliness. We might get that experience singing, dancing, marching or playing music together, which studies shows helps to synchronize people’s breathing and even heart-beat. We might get collective flow from playing or watching sport together, or participating in a concert or political rally. Or – the oldest route – we might get it by worshipping the divine in some form or other.

The deep end of absorption

And then there are deeper moments of self-transcendence, which the mystics call ‘ecstasy’, in which one becomes so absorbed in a moment or activity that one’s identity and conception of reality are radically altered, perhaps permanently. Such moments are rare, but they can be life-changing. At this deeper end of what I call the ‘continuum of absorption’, one finds experiences like strong psychedelic trips, moments of deep contemplation, spontaneous spiritual experiences, and near-death experiences.

Take spontaneous spiritual experiences. In surveys, between 50% and 80% of people say they have experienced a moment of ecstasy, where they’ve gone beyond their normal sense of identity and felt a deep connection to something greater than them. Here’s one example:

During my late 20s and early 30s I had a good deal of depression. I felt shut up in a cocoon of complete isolation and could not get in touch with anyone…things came to such a pass and I was so tired of fighting that I said one day, ‘I can do no more. Let nature, or whatever is behind the universe, look after me now.’ Within a few days I passed from a hell to a heaven. It was as if the cocoon had burst and my eyes were opened and I saw. Everything was alive and God was present in all things….Psychologically and for my own peace of mind, the effect has been of the greatest importance.

In a survey I did, agnostics and atheists also reported moments where they felt a deep connection between themselves and all things – indeed, arch-rationalist Bertrand Russell had a mystical moment where he suddenly felt profoundly connected to everyone in the street. He said that experience turned him into a pacifist. We might make sense of such moments of connection differently, but they seem very common, and on the whole good for us.

Psychedelics are similarly effective at giving people a sense of spiritual connection and oneness. Comedian Simon Amstell has spoken of how a psychedelic brew called ayahuasca, found in the Amazon jungle, helped him overcome depression: ‘Before I left I felt broken. After I came back, I didn’t feel broken anymore…I felt like I was part of the world, not disconnected from it.’

After 40 years in the wilderness, psychedelics are rapidly returning to the mainstream of western medicine. Just this month, the Lancet published a trial showing the effectiveness of ketamine at treating chronic depression, while BBC One’s main daytime TV show, Victoria, had a segment on the benefits of LSD microdosing in managing emotional problems. Other trials have found psychedelics effective at treating depression and addiction.

One of the most powerful forms of ecstatic experience is the ‘near-death experience’. Thanks to improved resuscitation procedures, NDEs are increasingly common and there are several academic research units studying them. They seem to share common features, particularly an encounter with a white light and a sense of being profoundly loved. People typically return from NDEs less afraid of death, because they no longer think it’s the end. I had an NDE myself when I was 21 – that’s how I became interested in this topic – and it helped me recover from PTSD. After five years of feeling my ego was permanently broken, I realized there was something within me bigger than my ego, which was loved and OK.

Other forms of ecstatic experience seem to work in a similar way – they take people beyond their constructed ego and give them a sense of love-connection to some greater whole. In the trials I mentioned at the start of this article, psilocybin seemed to give the participants an NDE-type experience. Here’s the report of one participant in the NYU study:

For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving. I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realize all my anxieties, defences and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.

Now, this poses a challenge for western science. It appears that moments of ecstasy or ‘mystical experiences’ can be very therapeutic. But are they true? Are we really connected to all beings and the universe in some kind of psychic love-connection? Is there really a loving God beyond our ego? Tucked away in the formal language of the Johns Hopkins study is the comment that one psychedelic trip increased people’s belief in the afterlife (see the passage below), and this was one of the factors in the reduction of death-anxiety:

Remarkable: a material that makes us believe in the immaterial. But is that just a placebo-delusion?

We don’t know. Maybe such experiences give people an insight into a genuine connection between our consciousness and all things, a connection that materialist physics doesn’t yet understand but might in the future. Or maybe the experience of oneness is really in our head – recent studies appear to show that both LSD and meditation improve brain connectivity, so parts of the brain that don’t normally talk to each other come online and connect. Maybe that’s what the blissful feeling of oneness ‘is’. We don’t know. But we do know such experiences are often healing.

However, there are risks to ecstasy as well. Ego-dissolution is a form of radical surgery, as it were, which shakes people out of their usual habits of thinking and feeling and allows them to press re-set. That can be dangerous if it’s not done with proper therapeutic support. It can release buried trauma, or latent psychosis. It can be difficult to go back to one’s previous life.

I’ve had personal experience of the negative effects of psychedelics, for example, after I had a bad LSD trip when I was 18 which left me struggling with paranoia and post-traumatic stress for several years. Scientists have also studied frightening experiences of ego-loss that emerge from meditation. Spontaneous spiritual experiences can be terrifying and hard to integrate or explain to other people, particularly in a highly secular and ecstasy-averse culture like Europe.

Even some communities which put a positive value on ecstasy can be harmful. New Age or charismatic Christian communities are one of the few places in western culture where we still have permission to trance out and dissolve our egos. But such communities can put a rigidly dogmatic interpretation on ecstatic experiences – either they’re Jesus, or the Devil. They may foster an ecstatic sense of togetherness, but at the cost of demonising outsiders. They may lead to the toxic worship of a guru-figure who triggers the ecstasy. They may cash in on people’s craving for exaltation.

Having studied ecstasy over the last five years, I’ve come to two conclusions. Firstly, we need a more balanced relationship with ecstasy. We shouldn’t be averse to it or embarrassed to talk about it. Ego-transcendence is not bonkers, it’s natural and good for us. But we shouldn’t get hung up on it either, and start thinking we’re incredibly special for having a spiritual experience (we’re not). They’re just part of the long journey towards awakening.

I feel like western culture is a bit like a balloon – because there’s such a flattening of the ecstatic in the mainstream of our culture, it bulges out in other areas (the New Age, charismatic Christianity), in which there’s too strong an emphasis on it.

Secondly, we need to develop controlled spaces to lose control. That’s what religious rituals have provided humans for millennia, and what the West lost in the Reformation and Enlightenment. Since then, we’ve improvised many new places for transcendence – from cinema to New Age cults to acid house to football hooliganism. But not all of these new places are healthy.

One new place for ecstasy is therapy and medicine. Ecstasy is returning to the mainstream of western culture thanks to medical research in fields like psychedelic science and contemplative science, which shows ecstasy is healing. The benefits are potentially huge, but the risk is that scientists become priests, and the Gospel of Mindfulness or Psychedelics becomes the new dogma.

A second new ‘space’ for ecstasy is the internet, where people come together to share their ecstatic experiences online. We’re in an era of mass experimentation in ecstasy – rather than look to priests or gurus, we self-experiment, then sharing our results with others through online and offline communities like www.erowid.com, where users share their trip experiences; or meditation sites like reddit.com/r/Meditation; or in self-help groups like the Hearing Voices network.

Such communities are an example of a new, wired spiritual democracy: no one is in charge, everyone is an expert. I imagine virtual reality will take this online mass ecstasy one stage further – though here the replacement for the church will be the corporation (Facebook etc) which manages and monetizes the online communion. And there’s a risk that, in our desperation to share our ecstasy online, it ends up being just another selfie.

Alongside these new spaces for ecstasy, I think we in the West need to find a way to re-engage with existing religious traditions, particularly our inherited tradition of Christianity, which we mock in public while endlessly stealing from the backdoor. Christianity, for all its flaws, teaches us how to embed ecstasy in an ethical context of humility, charity and surrender to Something More than the self.

Some modern forms of ecstasy – the New Age, the occult, the human potential movement, transhumanism – often encourage humans to get pumped up on ecstasy to try and become super-powered gods. This seems like dangerous ego-inflation to me. We have something godlike within us, but the way to connect to it is not by flying off into ungrounded superhero fantasies, but by sitting down quietly and accepting our weakness and imperfection. ‘We descend by self-exaltation’, said St Benedict, 1500 years ago, ‘and ascend through humility.’

This article summarises some points from my new book, The Art of Losing Control, which explores how people find ecstasy in modern western culture. You can buy the book here (it’s also available in Kindle and paperback).