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Altered states

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.

A 10-day Vipassana retreat taught me the meaning of pain

Last Sunday I finished a 10-day Vipassana retreat, at a monastery in Sweden. This was my third attempt to do a monastic retreat – I’d done a runner from both previous efforts, from a Rusian monastery in Lent 2006 (the head monk kept trying to convert me to Orthodox Christianity) and from a Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight in January 2013 (I was bored). This time, I vowed not to do a runner. To make sure, I chose a Vipassana centre in the middle of the Swedish countryside. Further to run.

The Odeshog Vipassana centre, in the south of Sweden near Lake Vattern, offers 10-day, 20-day and three-month retreats as taught by a Burmese teacher called SG Goenka, who died in 2013. The courses are all free, you offer whatever donation you want at the end of the course.

Let me sketch a brief history of Vipassana. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Burmese monk called Ledi Sayadaw made the unusual move of entrusting his teachings to a farmer called Saya Thetgyi, telling him that his mission was to teach Vipassana to laypeople. Saya Thetgi’s students included a civil servant called U Ba Khin, who was a leading figure in the post-independence Burmese government. When he wasn’t running five departments (at the same time), U Ba Khin also taught a 10-day intensive course in Vipassana to a select handful of laypeople.

Bringing Vipassana to lay-people: Saya Thetgyi, U Ba Khin and SG Goenka, from left to right

In 1955, a rich Hindu businessman called SG Goenka was looking for relief from debilitating migraines. He had tried many different medical solutions, at one point living in Switzerland to consult the doctors there, and become addicted to morphine in the process. A friend suggested he try U Ba Khin’s 10-day course, but U Ba Khin told him the aim of the path taught by Buddha was not migraine relief but liberation from the ego. Goenka had his own doubts – he was a devout Hindu, and feared ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’ might be sacrilege. But eventually he was convinced that the Buddha taught a non-sectarian approach to wisdom, and he started the course. He almost did a runner on day two, but stayed, and became a great disciple. In 1971, U Ba Khin passed the lineage to him, with a mission to expand it globally. Goenka left his business, moved to India, and began setting up Vipassana centres – there are now around 170 globally – offering 10-day introduction courses and longer retreats. He was clear he wasn’t seeking to be worshipped as a guru or to convert anyone to Buddhism, but was rather teaching an ‘art of living’.

His courses attracted several young westerners who went on to be leading figures in western Buddhism, including Daniel Goleman, Ram Dass, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Kornfield and Goldstein set up the Insight Meditation Centre in Massachussets in the 1970s, offering similar 10-day and two-week retreats partly inspired by Goenka’s structure. In the spring of 1979, a researcher at U-Mass medical school, Jon Kabat-Zinn, attended a two-week retreat at the Insight Meditation Centre. He writes:

while   sitting   in   my   room   one afternoon  about  Day  10  of  the  retreat,  I  had  a  ‘vision’  that  lasted  maybe  10 seconds…I saw in a flash not only a model that could be put in place, but also the long-term implications of what might happen if the basic idea was sound and could be implemented in one test environment—namely that it would spark new fields of scientific  and  clinical  investigation,  and  would  spread  to  hospitals  and  medical centres  and  clinics  across  the  country  and  around  the  world,  and  provide  right livelihood  for  thousands  of  practitioners.

trends_2014Kabat-Zinn (who was also influenced by other approaches like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism) established what became known as the mindfulness-based stress-reduction programme (MBSR), an eight-week programme drawing on Vipassana breathing awareness and body-scan techniques and also on yoga. That in turn inspired mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and other mindfulness therapeutic interventions. There are now mindfulness centres in over 35 medical schools in the US, mindfulness CBT is provided by the NHS, it’s offered at many companies from Google to the US Army, there are mindfulness apps like Headspace, and courses in everything from mindful eating to mindful colouring. Time magazine has called it ‘the mindfulness revolution’ -it’s also a $1 billion-a-year industry. All this fits in to a prophecy which Ledi Sayadaw liked to quote, that 2,500 years after the Buddha’s death Vipassana would return from Burma to India, and then spread round the world. ‘The clock of Vipassana has struck!’, he would say (along with the clock of yoga and Tibetan Buddhism).

Military discipline

Many people also still go on Goenka’s 10-day courses. Although he died in 2013, you still hear his instructions and chanting by audio at the beginning and end of every meditation session (his baritone chanting is something to hear) and watch an hour-long dharma talk by him every evening. For 10-days, he’s pretty much the only voice you hear, besides the brief interjections from the assistant teacher, which are usually confined to ‘keep working’.

There were 60 people on the course, 30 men, 30 women, who slept in different buildings, ate in different halls, and meditated on different sides of the dharma hall. We all agreed to follow certain rules for the 10-days:  a vow of ‘noble silence’ (no talking or communicating except with the assistant teacher), no booze, no sexual misbehaviour, no phones, books or writing, and no other religious practices in order to ‘give the technique a fair trial’. We also agreed to follow the meditation schedule, getting up at 4.30am and going to bed at 9.30pm.  The Buddha taught that there are three parts to the path – sila, samadhi and panya, or morality, concentration and wisdom. The vows were sila – the moral foundation without which the practice does not bear fruit.  Goenka said: ’Many teachers, both in the Buddha’s time and now, offer samadhi meditation without any sila. They say it doesn’t matter what you do or how you live, just follow this practice and you’ll get the benefits. That’s not true.’ I wondered what he’d make of the mindfulness boom today.

The vows try to strengthen the 10 paramitas or virtues – Buddhism is a virtue ethics which trains people in moral habits like equanimity, tolerance and loving-kindness. The vows were hard – I missed the internet, and missed books and writing even more. The silence I could handle, but I realized I am very intolerant – a few times, I muttered at my room-mate when he disturbed my sleep.

And then there was the meditation. On the first evening, I saw the schedule of meditation, and my heart sank.

Screen-shot-2011-01-19-at-2.09.13-AM1The longest I’d ever meditated before was half an hour, and I thought that was a heroic achievement. Ten hours a day? How would I ever get through it? Initially there was a lot of clock-watching and day-counting, like a prisoner trying to get through a long stretch. Ten days felt like a very long stretch.

The first three days are focused on teaching samadhi, or concentration, through anapanasati, or concentration on the breath. We practiced focusing on our breath going in and out of our nostrils, noticing which nostril it’s going in and out of, whether it feels cold or warm etc. On Day Two, we focused on the nose area, to see if we felt any sensations there, then on Day Three, we focus just on our upper lip. Mind kept running away, of course, into the past and future – you realize how closely memory and imagination are intertwined. Often I wouldn’t realize for 10 or 20 minutes that I’d become lost in an inner movie, then I’d wake up, and bring the mind back.

Your problem-solving, outward-focused, ego-driven mind has been in charge for so long, and it keeps bringing you fascinating insights, like a wagging dog bringing you sticks, and you want to remember and preserve the insights (particularly if you’re a writer), but you don’t have pen or paper, and in any case these ‘insights’ are just a ploy by the ego-mind not to sit still, so you keep gently bringing mind back to the breath. And the strange thing is, it gets easier. By Day Three I could concentrate for a whole hour on the breath without losing focus for more than a minute or two. And I became fascinated by the sensations on the nose or the lip – there’s a whole world going on there!

Torture camp

On the evening of Day Three, Goenka told us that all this samadhi practice was to prepare us for Vipassana proper, which would begin on Day Four. We would ‘make a deep surgical incision’ into the unconscious, in order to lance the pus and begin the healing. It would be painful, it would be difficult, some weak-minded people might even do a runner (not me!). So we should prepare ourselves. On Day Four, we gathered nervously in the hall for the Vipassana ceremony. Goenka (on tape) led us through the 90-minute meditation – we should concentrate on our head, then our face, then our shoulders and arms, then our throat, then our stomach, then….It was a big let-down – firstly, he went quite quickly, so it was difficult to be aware of any sensations in one body part before he’d moved on to the next one. And secondly, wasn’t this just a ‘body-scan’? Where was this deep dive into the unconscious we’d been promised? I was pissed off after that session, annoyed with this overweight burping Burmese businessman, and all these western sheep who chanted ‘sadhu’ (agreed) after his Pali singing, even though they’d no idea what they were agreeing to.

Things got harder in the next session. We were told there was a ‘new rule’ – the three hour-long group meditations each day were henceforth ‘sittings of great determination’, in which we should try not to move for the whole hour. For some masochistic reason, I decided to do these sittings cross-legged, even though I could barely sit cross-legged for ten minutes (because of a skiing injury in my left leg). For all of us, these sessions were intensely uncomfortable and painful. We were told to simply be aware of whatever sensations arose – whether gross (painful) or subtle (pleasurable) – and observe without attachment or aversion. This would overcome our deep-seated ego-habit to react to physical sensations with craving or aversion, which was at the root of all our suffering.

So you would sit there, doing these circuits round the body, from head to toe and toe to head. I’d do roughly four circuits in an hour. The pain in my legs, thigh and buttocks would start around mid-way through circuit two, at the 20 minute mark. By 30 minutes it was quite painful. By 45 minutes it was agony. During the last five minutes, my body would be shaking from the pain, there’d be tears in my eyes, a feeling of nausea, I’d only be conscious of the pain, in my knee or feet or buttock or thigh, stabbing, awful, unbearable pain. So I’d give up, unlock my legs, and the pain would vanish. We went through three of these torture-sessions a day.

Since the development of anaesthetics, we have lost the idea of pain as educative or ennobling, as Ariel Glucklich explores in ‘Sacred Pain’

Why put myself through this pain? Surely there was nothing ennobling about it, it was just my body warning me I’d injure myself. We were told that observing gross sensations without aversion ‘purified’ the accumulated sankharas (habits of craving and aversion) of the past. We would also learn that both gross, solidified sensations and subtle sensations were anicca, or impermanent – they arose and passed away. The sensations might be fast pleasant treble vibrations or slow painful bass vibrations, but they were all part of the same cosmic song of anicca. This realization would liberate us. Really? Or was I just doing permanent damage to my legs?

Transcending aversion

On Day Six, I managed to get to the hour-mark without moving, dragging myself grimly round four body-circuits, my body quivering with the effort, until Goenka’s chanting comes in to mark the hour point, you praise the Lord for the end, and go to your room feeling sick. And then, on Day Seven, something strange happened, in the first ‘sitting of great determination’, about 40 minutes in. The pain was building up, I was observing it and reminding myself it was impermanent, and then something shifted. It was like a light dawned within me, literally, and a cool breeze spread over the top half of my body. It felt like cool vibrations went all through the top half of my body, which were sufficiently pleasant that I no longer felt bothered by the pain in my legs. And then, when I observed the ‘gross sensations’ of pain in my legs, which seemed so solid and permanent, they dissolved too, into subtler sensations. My left foot, which had been totally asleep in a deep freeze, also woke up. Everything in my body dissolved – everything except my left buttock, which remained stubbornly clenched. I observed it, willing its dissolution, but it wouldn’t dissolve, it held out.

Still, it was a breakthrough. It felt like the chemical creation of some new substance through transcending pain. GI Gurdjieff, from the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition (supposedly inspired by Pythagoras’ journey to India), also talks about purifying oneself through the alchemical process of ‘intentional suffering’: ‘One needs fire. Without fire, there will never be anything. This fire is suffering, voluntary suffering’. After this, the sessions became easier, though it was not linear progress – sometimes I’d have a great session, and decide I’d become a very wise and advanced being, and then the next session I’d wipe out after thirty minutes. It was constantly humbling and humiliating. But I learned three main things.

The physical unconscious

Firstly, I learned that pain is intimately connected to aversion. When I’d briefly overcome aversion and find an attitude of acceptance or equanimity, it transformed the pain. When a strong aversion-thought came back, like ‘you’re not going to make it!’, the pain would spike instantly. Insight also transformed the pain – if I reminded myself that the pain was not permanent, not solid, that it rose and fell, shifted, was transient, this helped to dissolve a very solid concrete feeling into a subtler sensation. One particularly noticed this with some of the solid habitual muscular tension we carry around – insight would dissolve these muscular knots, in a fascinating way. The body and mind are intimately connected in a way we don’t yet fully appreciate. States of deep absorption connect to our muscles, autonomic nervous system and immune system in ways that can be profoundly physically healing.

Secondly, I realized the importance of working with what Goenka called ‘the unconscious’, by which he meant our semi-conscious physical sensations. Greek philosophy and CBT also talk about overcoming our attachment and aversion to externals, and cultivating acceptance and equanimity of the endless flux of the cosmos, but the therapy of Greek philosophy / CBT is mainly focused on becoming mindful of one’s thoughts. The focus is mainly cognitive. Vipassana, by contrast, teaches mindfulness mainly through the body – we become aware of our physical sensations and their impermanence, thereby transcending aversion and attachment at the physical level. I think that’s transformative at a much deeper level than Stoicism – many Stoics, including me, might be quite rational at the thought-level, but still basically stuck in attachment and aversion at the subconscious physical level. Vipassana also introduces the idea of karma – sometimes, we may have a sudden physical sensation of, say, pain or anxiety or heaviness, and it may not be related to a present situation, but may rather be a manifestation of a past craving or aversion. So sometimes depression or anxiety simply manifests from the past, and there’s no point looking for the event that triggered it, one just has to note it, and note it won’t last forever. Belief in reincarnation means Buddhism (like Pythagorean-Platonism) is more optimistic than Stoicism – we don’t just endure suffering out of acceptance of the Logos, we endure it and purify it bringing us the promise of liberation in future lives.

Transcending attachment to ecstasy

Finally, I glimpsed a new attitude towards ecstatic or altered state experiences. I wouldn’t say I had an ecstatic experience on the course, it was harder than that. But some of my fellow students did – one girl, who gave me a lift back to Gothenberg, told me about her first retreat, where she felt really high the entire 10 days. Another man told me he felt a sudden shift into a sort of vast inner hall of light. A 1979 phenomenological study by Jack Kornfield found that 95% of students on a three-month retreat and 40% of students on a two-week retreat reported experiences of rapture or bliss (described as piti in the Pali texts). But students also reported painful experiences: the return of difficult emotions and traumatic memories, autonomic disfunction in breathing, shaking, insomnia, nightmarish visions of violence or orgies. Participants on my course also found it very tough at times – my room-mate said he faced the return of deeply anxious thoughts and sensations from his teenage years, and felt ‘almost psychotic’ at times. Another participant told me he’d been beset by violent visions on his first retreat.

Traditional psychiatry would tend to pathologize such experiences, good or bad. But this is a mistake, as Kornfield writes:

Unusual experiences….are the norm among practiced meditation students. Over 80% of our three-month students reported such experiences as part of their normal meditation process. From our data it seems clear that the modern psychiatric dismissal of these so-called ‘mystical’ and altered states as psychopathology – referred to as ego-regression to an infantile state or labeled as psychic disorder – is simply due to the limitations of the traditional Western psychiatric mental-illnesses oriented model of the mind.

We shouldn’t be averse to, afraid of or embarrassed by such experiences, as western psychiatry has taught us to be. At the same time, we shouldn’t become attached to them either. Goenka repeatedly warned that blissful or rapturous experiences were dangerous, because they could lead to craving. People end up playing ‘the sensation game’, chasing the rapture, expecting it, craving it. Laura, the girl who gave me a lift, told me her second retreat was harder than the first, because she’d been expecting the bliss, and instead there was pain. Equanimity towards both painful and rapturous experiences seems to me a much healthier attitude than one sometimes finds in, say, Transcendental Meditation, Romanticism, the New Age, or charismatic Christianity, where the sensation of transcendent bliss, rapture, shakti or kundalini can easily become fetishized as the high-point or goal. For example, in 2013 I had an ecstatic experience in a Christian context, and it was immediately seized on, turned into a ‘testimony’, and telegraphed around the church network. I was told there was a great vocation on my life, and I naturally felt very special and blessed, then confused when the rapture dried up. For 18th century Methodists and Pentecostalists, such rapture is proof that they are the justified elect, proof of God’s favour, of a great awakening, perhaps even the coming End Times. How could you not end up craving such an experience, when such a high value is put upon it?

We need to overcome our cultural aversion to ecstatic experiences, but we equally need to overcome the strong attachment to ecstasy often found in Romanticism, the New Age or charismatic Christianity. Otherwise we become spiritual thrill-seekers, denigrating the everyday and unprepared for the pain. As Kornfield puts it, ‘after the ecstasy, the laundry’.

So I’m back in the world now, and not sure what will survive of my practice in these less propitious circumstances. But I hope I’ll keep on sitting and observing whatever comes up. Goenka advises us to meditate two hours a day, and renounce booze and meat. We’ll see. Meanwhile, at the Odeshog centre, a new batch of students have just arrived, and are sitting down to begin the practice.