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New book on ecstatic experience (not by me)

There’s a new book out later this month on the psychology of ecstatic experiences, and why they’re good for us. It’s called Stealing Fire, by two performance coaches, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. It might be disconcerting to have another book on ecstasy published two months before my own, but actually I’m glad others are walking the same path and coming to similar conclusions. I disagree on one or two points the authors make, however. The book isn’t out until later this month, but I heard them on The Psychology Podcast, here. Great podcast by the way.

So why did these two coaches, who specialize in teaching ‘flow’, start talking instead about ecstasy, or ‘ecstasis’ as they call it in the ancient Greek word. Kotler says that they started coming across similar experiences across a whole range of domains – meditation, psychedelics, the arts, sex, extreme sports. ‘It was a broader category of which flow is a subset.’ In fact, the Positive Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihayli developed his concept of flow (i.e moments where we’re blissfully absorbed into a challenging activity) out of the idea of ecstasy, as he told me in this interview.

Nomenclature is tricky for this domain of experience. William James and Alister Hardy wrote of ‘religious experiences’, defining them as ‘individuals standing alone in relation to the divine’ – but that ignored collective ecstatic experiences, and the fact atheists also have moments of self-transcendence. Durkheim spoke of ‘collective effervescence’ which sounds like a bubble bath. Abraham Maslow wrote of ‘peak experiences’, but that ignores the fact these experiences are often terrifying, and occur to people in life-crises. These days, the few psychologists who explore this terrain still haven’t agreed on nomenclature – some study ‘self-transcendence’, others ‘out-of-the-ordinary or anomalous experiences’, others ‘mystical experiences’, or ‘altered states of consciousness’. Not to mention the related research fields on hypnosis, trance and possession. The topic is so interdisciplinary – from aesthetics to sex to sports to politics – and the authors are to be applauded for recognizing that and not being deterred.

Personally, I’ve also gone for ‘ecstasy’ as my preferred term, because it’s got the longest history. But the risk of that is people think you mean either MDMA or ‘feeling very, very happy’. The authors make the mistake too of describing ecstasius as ‘north-of-happy states’. No! As Gordon Wasson, who reintroduced magic mushrooms into western culture, wrote: ‘In common parlance ecstasy is fun. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. The vulgar abuse the word: we must recapture it in its full and terrifying sense.’ Another risk, which I may have fallen into, is that talking about ‘ecstatic experience’ makes it all about something happening within oneself, something one ‘has’, rather than something transpersonal happening beyond you, an encounter or realization rather than an experience (which sounds more like a thrill).

The altered states economy

The authors are coaches who make a lot of money giving talks and workshops to companies and CEOs on flow and peak performance, so they are quite focused on the practical business applications of ecstasy. They speak of the ‘altered states economy’, and suggest that today we spend around $4 trillion a year trying to get out of our heads and beyond our egos. ‘That’s insane, and no one’s talking about it’, says Wheal. To get to this figure, they added up all that we spend on, say, legal and illegal drugs, the alcohol industry, extreme sports, gaming, immersive arts like IMAX or festivals, gambling, self-help and psychology, and so on. It’s a bit rough-and-ready, but their basic point is right – the human desire for self-transcendence and ego-loss is fundamental, and late capitalism has found many ways to make money from it, including addictive behaviours like drugs and gambling. I’ve also written about what I call (in a nod to Joe Pine’s idea of the experience economy), the ‘ecstatic experience economy‘. There is also a political economy of ecstasy – states and empires use awe and wonder to increase their power, and now corporations like Disney, Cirque du Soleil and Magic Leap sell us enchantment and transcendence.

Tony Robbins and the human potential movement helped to instrumentalize ecstasy as a tool to capitalist success

The authors also want to convince us of how ecstasy leads to peak performance. This is very much in the tradition of human potential coaches like Anthony Robbins, who teaches how ecstatic or peak states can unlock our life-potential (hence his use of fire-walking, pumping techno, trampolines and so on in his seminars). They’re particularly interested in how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs used meditation and psychedelics to unlock their creativity. They quote life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss: ‘The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.’ Tune in, turn on, get rich!

This weird fusion of the ecstatic and the capitalist goes back to Stanford Uni in the 1970s, when pioneers of the digital economy like Jobs, Stewart Brand and Douglas Engelbart mixed coding with Bay Area spirituality. Engelbart introduced LSD boot-camps at his Stanford research unit (after one trip he invented a toilet that played music when you peed in it). This led to the idea that the main route to ecstatic experiences would be the start-up, the dot.commune, the guru-CEO creating a new utopia in cyberspace. A great introduction to this is Fred Turner’s history, From Counterculture to Cyberculture.

I guess my issue with the selling of ecstasy as a way to peak capitalist performance is that, historically, ecstatic experiences have involved a revolution in the self and a revolution in values. St Paul is utterly transformed after his Damascene moment, his values are utterly transformed – he has died, someone new has been born. The instrumental use of ecstasy for conventional goals of success and power seems to me closer to the magic of Simon Magus or Aleister Crowley. But it’s often there in religion too – what is the Prosperity Gospel if not the instrumentalization of ecstasy for worldly aims?

The risk of the psychology or neurobiology of ecstasy is it leaves out the ethics. Most spiritual traditions emphasize that ecstatic experiences are at best a distraction and at worst a serious risk if they’re not grounded in strong ethics. Later psychologists have come to this conclusion too – William James suggested we evaluate religious experiences based on the ‘fruits’. I think the authors understand this, they speak of the ‘dark side’ of ecstasy, and warn it often leads to unbridled hedonism. But that’s not the main risk, historically. The main risk is that ecstasy without humility leads to pride, the feeling that you’re special, chosen, elite, Crowleian supermen. Kotler and Wheal’s book, talking about the special ‘Prometheans’ or ‘supermen’ whose ecstatic experiences prove how wise and advanced they are (and rich! did we mention they’re rich?), could feed this tendency.

The four drivers of ecstasis

The authors argue we’re at a special moment in history, when suddenly we understand ecstatic experiences better than ever, and can get them ‘at a flick of a switch’. Why now? Because of four drivers. Firstly, psychology. Kotler says that, after William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, psychology took a ‘hundred-year detour’ and focused on psychopathology. Altered states of consciousness were dismissed or pathologized, but in the last decade psychologists like Czikszentimihayli and David Yaden have realized they’re actually good for us. This is not quite right – as co-author Jamie Wheal notes, ecstatic experiences were hugely studied in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, particularly through the human potential movement and transpersonal psychology. What’s really happened in the last decade is that transpersonal psychology has gone mainstream, thanks to the rise of contemplative science and the return of psychedelic science.

Secondly, neurobiology. Brain-scanning techniques have enabled scientists to take ecstasy more seriously. Before, it seemed a very flakey topic for research, that led into career cul-de-sacs like parapsychology or after-death-investigations. But look, a brain-scan – something really is happening! This was reassuring for the Doubting Thomases in academia. Now, there is interesting neurobiology on ecstasy done by scientists like Andrew Newberg, Richard Davidson and Robin Carhart-Harris, showing the neural correlates of states of ego-loss and deep absorption.

There is a danger that these very early insights are then uncritically seized upon to argue that ‘the mystical is now neurobiological’, as Wheal puts it, or that the mystical has now been ‘decoded’ as Kotler says. In other words, because something happens in the brain, mystical experiences are nothing but brain events. This would be a big mistake by psychiatry – it has a 300-year bad record of pathologizing and ignoring these experiences, to the great harm of many people and of western culture in general, for which no one has ever apologized. Now, when it starts seeing the positive side of these experiences, it again rushes to a triumphalist scientistic interpretation.

As the podcast presenter, Scott Barry Kaufmann, who researches in this field, points out: ‘Everything is biologically mediated, so that statement is not as exciting as you think. There’s so much we don’t know – we’re at the start, not the end point.’ He’s quite right. Andrew Newberg, for example, has found that ecstatic experiences involve the emotional processing areas of the brain. Well, no shit! How is that useful, besides as a way of getting sceptical scientists to take ecstasy seriously?

The third driver the authors outline is pharmacological – particularly the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ today. No arguments there, though again it’s very very early days in the research. And the fourth driver is technological. New technology makes ecstasy more widely available than ever before, they argue. For example? New amplification technology makes music concerts better. In the old days it was just the Grateful Dead, now we have huge EDM festivals. Uh huh. And new skis make powder skiiing easier. Right….I’m not entirely convinced. Just because electric guitars are more advanced now than the 60s, doesn’t mean people play them better than Hendrix did, or that the experience of the audience is more intense than it was at Monterey or Woodstock (who really thinks that?) It’s partly the shock of the new that creates the ecstatic – the shock of, say, the first use of the Roland 303 in acid house.  I’d say humans are constantly inventing new technologies and scripts for ecstasy, from cave paintings to virtual reality. Our age has developed some new scripts, but so did every age before us.

I also think that, like many secular psychologists and neuroscientists, the authors don’t entirely get the connection between ecstasy and ritual. Like Sam Harris, they’re impatient with ritual, which is all woo-woo. They want an entirely stripped-down, rationalist, flick-of-a-switch mechanistic ecstasy, one liberated from middle-men. Wheal says:

For folks who have mythological or mystical explanations and assumed [ecstasy] came from grace or adherence to religion, we can say, here are the mechanisms. It cuts out the middlemen, the priest class, those who presume to tell us how to get it. This is our human birthright. Mystical experiences can be demystified and we can create them a hell of a lot more often than when people are bowing and scraping to Mecca.

Kumbh Mela. Low-tech ecstasy

Never mind the casual insult to 1.6 billion Muslims, this fails to understand the power of rituals – including pilgrimages – to bring us to ecstasy. You think westerners now have more ecstasy than ever before? Compared to the Middle Ages? Compared to, say, Indian culture today? OK, Burning Man now attracts thousands and thousands of people…The Kumbh Mela in India attracted 120 million people in 2013, and they had no more technology than tents, chillums, bhang and a river. And what the Sixties showed us is you can do away with the ‘middlemen’ of Christianity, but often new middle-men rise up – gurus, artists, politicians, rockstars, dare I say it, even self-help coaches, who ‘presume’ to tell us how to find ecstasy and what it means.

I also think the authors miss out an important cultural driver for why we are talking about ecstatic / spiritual experiences today. The main reason, I think, is the decline of organized religion in the west. This has created a large group of ‘nones’ or ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, who are just as hungry for spiritual experiences, perhaps even hungrier than before. Hence the fact that, while attendance at church is going down, the number of people who say they have had spiritual or mystical experience in the US and UK is going up.

But a spirituality based on ecstatic experiences and detached from moral dogma and community can mean we become overly attached to them, we fetishize them, we make them the goal of the journey, rather than something which may or may not happen along the way. So what then is a more appropriate goal? Love and awakening to our true selves, I would say. Transhumanists, life-hackers and human potential coaches always speak of ‘peak performance’, and rarely about love, vulnerability, openness.  ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’

Having said that, there’s much that I agree with in Kotler and Wheal’s analysis, particularly their insight that the internet has allowed an open-source big data approach to ecstasy, a ‘crowd-sourced Bible’ – the exact phrase Ive used in my book! I didn’t copy you, guys, I swear. I’ll definitely give the full book a read when it’s out later this month.

Why do psychedelics reduce anxiety in the terminally ill?

st-francis-measuredTwo new studies just published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that a single dose of psilocybin (the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms) significantly reduces anxiety and depression in people with terminal cancer. You can read them for free here.

The first trial, by a team at NYU medical school led by Stephen Ross, found ‘immediate, substantial and sustained clinical benefits of reduction of anxiety and depression’ in participants who took a single dose of psilocybin, versus a control group. Many cancer patients suffer from depression, anxiety and existential distress. The NYU study found that, after the treatment, 80% were in remission for depression at 6.5 month follow-up, and 75% were also in remission for anxiety.

This is unprecedented for a pharmacological intervention. It’s twice as effective in reducing depression and anxiety as anti-depressants and, unlike them, only has to be taken once. The study notes:

This pharmacological finding is novel in psychiatry in terms of a single dose of a medication leading to immediate anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects with enduring (e.g. weeks to months) clinical benefits.

The second study, by a team at Johns Hopkins medical school led by Roland Griffiths, was similar in set-up and found similar results – a 78% remission rate for depression after six months, and an 83% remission rate for anxiety.  Two previous studies, by UCLA and the Heffter Research Centre in Zurich, also found psychedelics significantly reduce anxiety in terminally-ill cancer patients.

The question is: how? How does a single dose of a chemical cause such dramatic and sustained changes in a person’s attitudes? The studies are somewhat coy, but they point to something called ‘the mystical state of consciousness’:

This finding suggests a potential psycho-spiritual mechanism of action: the mystical state of consciousness. The mystical experience is likely to be one of several mediators that transmit the effect of psilocybin to changes in anxiety and/or depression.

It’s strange to find the phrase ‘mystical state of consciousness’ tucked away in all the bland statistical analysis of the modern scientific journal article. Of course, ‘mystical states of consciousness’ are quite hard to define – indeed, one of William James’ definitions of them is they are ‘ineffable’. So how can scientists measure them?

The scientists in these studies used various psychometric tests to measure people’s subjective experiences. Some of them are fairly standard, such as the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), which measures how depressed someone is by asking them to what extent they agree with questions like ‘I sometimes want to kill myself’ – this scale is widely used to see if someone with depression is in remission after a course of therapy.

To measure mystical experiences, the scientists used a variety of scales. One is the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, developed by Walter Pahnke, a religious scholar who did pioneering research into psychedelics and mystical experience at Harvard in the 1960s. The scale asks people to what extent their experience felt like the following (I’ll just give a sample of the statements):

teresaI. Internal Unity
26. Loss of your usual identity.
35. Freedom from the limitations of your personal self and feeling a unity or bond with what was felt to be greater than your personal self.
41. Experience of pure Being and pure awareness (beyond the world of sense impressions).
77. Experience of the fusion of your personal self into a larger whole.
83. Experience of unity with ultimate reality.

II. External Unity

14. Experience of oneness or unity with objects and/or persons perceived in your surroundings
47. Experience of the insight that “all is One”.
51. Loss of feelings of difference between yourself and objects or persons in your surroundings.
74. Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.

III. Transcendence of Time and Space

2. Loss of your usual sense of time.
12. Feeling that you experienced eternity or infinity.
34. Sense of being “outside of” time, beyond past and future.

IV. Ineffability and Paradoxicality
6. Sense that the experience cannot be described adequately in words.
23. Feeling that you could not do justice to your experience by describing it in words.
59. Sense that in order to describe parts of your experience you would have to use statements that appear to be illogical, involving contradictions and paradoxes.

V. Sense of Sacredness
5. Experience of amazement.
8. Sense of the limitations and smallness of your everyday personality in contrast to the Infinite.
31. Sense of profound humility before the majesty of what was felt to be sacred or holy.
80. Sense of awe or awesomeness.

VI. Noetic Quality
3. Feeling that the consciousness experienced during part of the session was more real than your normal awareness of everyday reality.
9. Gain of insightful knowledge experienced at an intuitive level.
22. Certainty of encounter with ultimate reality (in the sense of being able to “know” and “see” what is really real ) at some time during your session.

VII. Deeply-Felt Positive Mood
10. Experience of overflowing energy.
30. Feelings of peace and tranquility.
43. Experience of ecstasy.
60. Feelings of universal or infinite love.

Another scale is the Mysticism Scale, developed by Ralph Hood. It measures very similar attitudes – timelessness, sense of unity with all things – though in a slightly less obvious way. A third scale is the Spiritual Transcendence Scale developed by Ralph Piedmont (clearly if you want your child to be a mysticism researcher, call them Ralph). This scale measures sense of connectedness to humanity, sense of the unitive nature of life, and sense of joy from personal encounter with a transcendent reality.

These scales suggest that psychedelics give rise to some unusual beliefs about reality, such as the belief one is suddenly in touch with ‘ultimate reality’, the belief that there is ‘spirit in all things’, a sense one has reached ‘pure consciousness’ or the belief one is in touch with ‘universal love’. None of these beliefs could be exactly checked by science. Indeed, some of them might be outright rejected by traditional materialist science, such as the belief there is a spirit in all things.

The studies tip-toe around the big question: do psychedelics reduce anxiety and depression in the terminally ill by changing their beliefs about the afterlife? This, after all, is one of the most common insights from the mystics of the past – there is something in us beyond the ego which is immortal and divine. Contemporary psychedelic scientists, eager for acceptance in the mainstream scientific community, duck this metaphysical question by pointing to quantitative reductions in depression or ‘increases in the transcendence / mysticism scales’.

This sort of quantitative analysis would be well supplemented by qualitiative research – interviews with the participants where they describe their trip.  UCLA’s earlier study of LSD for terminal cancer patients did more qualitative interviews, and sure enough, people said things like ‘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’. There are also some interviews with participants of the recent Johns Hopkins study on YouTube – you can see them struggling to put their experience into words (they’re ‘ineffable’ after all).

Time magazine interviewed one participant in the Johns Hopkins study, who described her trip:

suddenly I saw my fear. It was a black mass inside my body. I felt a volcanic anger toward my fear and I screamed, “Get the f-ck out, I won’t be eaten alive!”As soon as I screamed at it, the black mass of fear disappeared. I began to feel like I was floating in the instrumental music playing from the headphones I had on, and I started to feel love. I felt like I was being bathed in love and it was overwhelming, amazing, wonderful.

This accords with the experience of Aldous Huxley, who famously took LSD on his deathbed. Psychedelics had showed him, he said, that ‘love is the central cosmic fact’. Again, not really an assertion one could scientifically test to see if it’s true.

When I attended Breaking Convention last year (which is the world’s biggest conference on psychedelics) I asked Thorsten Passie from Harvard, who has studied how LSD reduces anxiety in those with life-threatening illness, whether anxiety was reduced because people had new beliefs about the self and the afterlife. He replied: ‘We didn’t ask them, but I think so.’ I also asked Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins, lead-investigator of one of the new studies. He replied: ‘Not everyone necessarily becomes convinced there’s an afterlife, but quite often they become open to that possibility for the first time. That’s a big change to the total certainty they are facing annihilation.’

Walter Pahnke’s early research on LSD with terminal cancer patients in the 1960s was less coy. He wrote:

Our experiments have indicated that deep within every human being there are vast usually untapped resources of love, joy and peace…these feelings are released most fully when there is comolete surrender to the ego-loss experience of positive ego-transcendence, which is often experienced as a moment of death and rebirth.

He continued:

One of the greatest fears about human death is that personal individual existence and memory will be gone forever. Yet having passed through psychological ego-death in the mystical experience, a person still preserves enough self-consciousness so that at least part of individual memory is not lost.

In other words, psychedelics appear to give people near-death experiences where their lifes aren’t actually in danger. They give people the experience of ego-death, and a sense that this is OK, that the universe / God loves them. And this helps them face the future prospect of their actual death, because they think there’s something beyond the ego – whether that’s described as ‘pure consciousness’, ‘mind at large’, ‘God’, or whatever. This is very similar to what happens in actual near-death experiences, for example after cardiac arrests – people come back with reduced anxiety about death, because they no longer think death is the end. Researcher Kenneth Ring says that reduced anxiety about death is ‘the most consistent finding in NDE research’.

Clearly, more research needs to be done on this, which directly explores how psychedelics change people’s beliefs about the nature of the self, the nature of reality, and the afterlife. It’s an interesting topic, because how should science treat these new mystical beliefs – as delusions? As placebo? Or perhaps as insights that are potentially true? Does it matter if the insights are true or not, as long as they improve people’s moods?

I suspect psychedelics will soon be widely used in palliative care. How would that change our culture? How would it change our attitude to death? And to life? Could psychedelics play a role in a spiritual revival in our over-rational and materialistic culture?

Albert Hoffman, inventor of LSD, hoped that psychedelics could inspire a ‘new Eleusis’ –  he was referring to the Eleusinian Mysteries, the great religious cult of ancient Greece, which existed for 2500 years, before it was shut down by the fanatical Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD. No one knows precisely what happened during the secret ritual – initiates were mystes, sworn to silence, which is where the word ‘mystical’ comes from – but participants apparently drank a potion, and then went on a terrifying trip to the underworld, before being reborn as children of Demeter. The philosopher Cicero said he thought Eleusis was the greatest single contribution of Greek culture to the world. It enabled people to ‘die with a better hope’ – just as psychedelics help the terminally ill.

Ergot, which contains lystergic acid, may have been consumed at the Eleusinian Mysteries
Ergot, which contains lystergic acid

In the 1960s, mycologist Gordon Wasson speculated that the Eleusinian potion contained ergot, a fungus that grows on corn which contains an LSD-type compound. Certainly, there are similarities between descriptions of the mystery rites and LSD experiences. Plutarch, who was a priest of Eleusis, described the inititation as ‘wandering through the dark … terrors, shivering, trembling … after this a strange and wondrous light, voices, dances and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions’. Compare this to the account of one participant in a 2014 trial of LSD for those with terminal cancer: ‘It was just really black … I was afraid, shaking … It was total exhaustion … like an endless marathon … Suddenly a phase of relaxation came … It became bright. Everything was light … It was really gorgeous … The key experience is when you get from dark to light.’

Quite similar, no?