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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.

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.