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Religion and the arts as ‘let’s pretend’ collective improv

Cave-painting from Lascaux, from approximately 30,000 BC

I’m interested in the idea of religion and the arts as forms of collective improvisation – play-areas where people can let go of their normal ego-construction and social situation, and play at other selves and other worlds. This is, in the words of Brian Eno, ‘the central human trick’. He said in his Peel lecture last year:

If you watch children playing what they’re doing mostly is let’s pretend. Let’s pretend this stick can change you into a frog…what they’re really saying is let’s imagine. Imagining is possibly the central human trick….We can imagine worlds that don’t exist…You think about this world by imagining alternatives to it.

Altered states are central to these shared alter-worlds – through ritual, we enter into highly suggestible hypnotic or trance states, in which our ego-constructions become fluid and alterable, we get immersed or absorbed in the collective play, in alter-selves and alter-worlds. Our imaginings seem really real.

Other animals also seek out altered states (moose get high eating fermented apples, for example). But only humans create collective alter-worlds, through words, symbols and songs. Think of our homo sapiens ancestors creating the shared otherworld of the cave at Lascaux – a decisive moment in evolution, a window into a new reality. Humans can make the imaginary collective, turn it into art / religion, and thereby make it real. It becomes real in our emotions, in our ethics, in our bodies, in our relations, in our societies.

Then the Otherworld culture becomes material for new improvisations, new riffs, new songs  – we absorb the old material into our imagination and sing new versions of the stories for our own time. For example, the 14th-century mystic Margery Kempe gorged herself on devotional literature, until finally her inner world spilled out into the outer world, Jesus appeared to her, she becomes part of the Christian story. Religion, in this sense, is a form of massive-world fan-fiction (a point made nicely by Helen MacDonald last week).

CS Lewis actually had a chapter in Mere Christianity called ‘Let’s Pretend‘, where he wrote that when we pray the Lord’s prayer ‘you are dressing up as Christ…Let us pretend in order to make the pretence a reality’. The arts are also a sort of ritualized play, which can be made real in our lives. This is what Hippolyta means in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when she says:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy,
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

The play ‘grows to something of great constancy’ because our minds are ‘transfigured so together.’

Pippa Evans (second from the right) in Showstopper
Pippa Evans (on the right) in Showstopper

I’m interested, then, in improvisation in the arts and religion, their connection to altered states of consciousness, their therapeutic power. I’ve been reading Tanya Luhrmann on charismatic Christianity as a form of collective improv, Keith Johnstone on mask-play as a means to trance states and possession by ‘other selves’ or alter-egos, and Ken Campbell on comic play as a form of catharsis, a shame-release of the madness inside us. To explore further, I interviewed the wonderful Pippa Evans, who is both a highly accomplished improviser (she stars in Showstopper! a very funny musical improv show now on in the West End), a stand-up comedian (for which she’s often used an alter-ego, Loretta Maine), and one of the founders of Sunday Assembly, the Godless church. She also runs a course, Impro Your Life, using improv workshops to help people develop their interpersonal skills.

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What makes a good improviser?

A really great improviser is open, switched on, and able to deal with pretty much anything that’s thrown at them. They’re like a footballer who’s body is a trampoline; things can just bounce off them! A great improviser listens closely to their partner. They hear everything – words, tone, silence. Improvising is 100% a social skill.
And for me, the biggest thing is being able to throw away your ideas – to have 10,000 ideas of where a scene could go, but if your partner says something that doesn’t relate to your ideas, you throw them away and never look back.

What is a ‘gift’ in improv?

A gift is when someone gives you specifics about the scene you are in, which you can then play with. So if we’re doing a scene together and I say ‘Dad, remember I only eat salad’, I’ve just given you loads of information (or ‘offers’) about the scene, rather than me coming on and saying ‘hi’, and leaving you to do all the work. We were doing an exercise called ‘QVC’ – two people have to improvise a shopping channel. And sometimes people say to their partners ‘why don’t you tell us about the product?’ That’s an empty offer – they haven’t helped their partner at all. They haven’t even named the product. At least say “Tell us about the shampoo!”

The one improv technique I’ve heard of is ‘yes…and’. What is that?

‘Yes…and’ is a building tool. It’s great for blue sky thinking. You have to agree with your partner (say ‘yes’) and add to the idea (that’s the ‘and’).
Let’s make a cup of tea!
Yes and we’ll have cake too!
Yes and we’ll share it with our neighbours!
Yes and they will high five us!
Yes and we’ll have a big group hug!
Yes and we’ll break the record for group hugs!
Yes and everyone will get a medal.

The energy of improv is obviously enthusiasm. Is that quite different to the energy of stand-up, which is often the energy of the cynical outsider?

Pippa as Loretta Maine
Pippa as Loretta Maine

Yes, it’s very hard to do stand-up and suggest everything is great. People don’t want to hear that. I struggle with that sometimes, because I am quite happy-go-lucky. I think that’s how I ended up inventing this character called Loretta Maine, an American singer-songwriter. She’s like a real person, and I can slip into her really easily. She’s a fun alter-ego to have, because she’s the complete opposite of me, she’s pretty horrible, quite aggressive and really hates life. She says things everyone thinks but no one says. People love her!

So alter egos give people permission to let out other sides of themselves?

Yes. I suppose Loretta came out of an angry place. A frustrated place. She gave me permission to go on stage and connect with the worst part of everyone. I have a song called White Wine Witch, about how awful women are when drunk on the grape juice. It gets a massive response.
Character work is kind of cathartic as a performer, like a kind of masked confession.

The catharsis of shame-release. That’s a massive part of what the arts and religion can do.

What I love about stand-up is that you get 500 people in a room who don’t know each other, all laughing because they’ve all met or been the White Wine Witch. Impro is also about overcoming shame and self-consciousness. I was brought up to be good and do everything right and not upset anyone. And to suddenly go on stage and say whatever falls out of your mouth is so invigorating. So dangerous!
There’s an exercise called ‘endless box’, where you pull objects out of an imaginary box and have to name them. I always say to people ‘don’t worry, the worst thing you’re going to say is c*** and I’ve already said it’. You can see people physically worried about what they might say. It’s actually good to get all that stuff out of your mouth. We store all these weird, dirty, nasty things in our brains, and you can get them out in a little exercise, it’s good for you.
It’s great to watch people slowly shedding their hang-ups and fears that really hold them back. When people come on the Impro Your Life course, they say things like ‘I just want to be able to say what I mean in a meeting’. It’s awful that people need a class to say what they want. Impro is very good at that.

Did Loretta ever come out in real life?
Yes, there was this time a man was pestering me in the street, and I became Loretta, and just told him to back the fuck off. She’s terrifying. I felt my body changing entirely.

Did you eventually get sick of her?
Yes, I stopped doing her about a year ago. I was doing her every night, and I got frustrated. I switched to doing solo shows as myself. But I needed that five years as Loretta to get back to being myself. I learned the skills of stand-up while being someone else. And I still let her out occasionally, which means I can really enjoy her.

It seems like a lot of improvisational ability is to do with working memory. Firstly, your memory of particular musical styles and story structures. But also your memory of what has happened already, and how you weave in spontaneous occurrences into the story. Why do we get such satisfaction when a comedian does that?

When I do stand-up, I’ll often name-check someone in a song who’s been mentioned before, and they can’t believe you remember and they’re now part of the song. We’re just impressed with anyone who can remember anything. Also it’s the feeling of completion. Like I told you about an elephant in the first scene, we haven’t mentioned an elephant, then at the end an elephant saves the day. The audience goes nuts. It’s satisfying. The great circle of life, and all that.

It might go back to the roots of culture in the oral tradition – the poet or rhapsode who can remember an incredibly long poem, and who maybe weaved in new elements too.

Particularly with impro, it’s also proof that you were listening and that the show is improvised.

One thing I noticed about Showstopper was your real skill as story-tellers. You’re obviously so familiar with story structure, with the ways stories usually go. So the audience doesn’t feel it’s completely off the wall, it does feel like a story arc, and that’s satisfying.
Yes, we’ve studied story structure. We’ve read Story, Save the Cat, all these books on film craft. When we started, we’d do the Hero’s Journey quite often. Now, because it’s all so ingrained in us, it’s almost 100% done on feeling.
“It feels like now we need something bad to happen to your character”. Or “It feels like now we need the moral message”. Sometimes we know there are things we want to hit, as it were. But we’ve done shows where it’s been completely different, where we really don’t know where it’s going or going to go. That’s when you get to this flow place, this crazy, beyond-your-brain place, where you just have to be in it, and have to literally, as Frozen says, ‘Let It Go’, because if you even try to contemplate what the fuck is going on, you will destroy the hivemind magic. That’s when you have to be ‘yes and’ mentally. 
We did a Showstopper set in the Vatican, but an American senator had come to make it more glamorous. It made total sense in the end. Keith Johnstone said “An improviser is like a man walking backwards, he doesn’t know where he is going but can always see where he has been.”
During the performance, you have to trust what came before rather than trying to guess where it’s going. You can’t judge it till the end. They’re the best shows. Because you can’t phone it in. You have to be on, alert and focused the entire time.

Some of impro is clearly thinking on your feet and being adept. Some of it is also unconscious – ingrained skills and patterns. And then is some of it a sort of altered consciousness?

There’s a conscious level, where you’re consciously steering and making decisions. Then there is this other level, which is where all the muscle memory is, where all the skills are ingrained. And then, when I’m working with certain people, and have worked with them a long time or have a certain connection with them, you do find yourself singing songs and you don’t know where it’s coming from, but it sounds amazing, and you can’t believe it – you feel like you’re floating above it watching this lovely moment.
It might not be the whole show, just a moment in it, where you know you’re connected with someone. It’s some combination of the freeness of your brain and the connection with the music and the character you’re playing giving you freedom…and you really believe. I remember singing a song with Andrew Pugsley, it was the last Showstopper at the Apollo, the song was called called ‘When’s My Birthday Dad?’ I was his daughter, he worked on the Bakerloo line. The line was ‘You know all the tube stops but you don’t know when my birthday is’. And it just fell out of my mouth, and the whole audience went ‘Ohhh!’. They believed this little girl, being played by a 33 year old woman, was real. They believed that my Dad, being played by a 33 year old male, was real. And our troubled relationship touched them. There was this moment of creative connection, truth connection, a realness.

It’s one of the strange things with creative performance – you get a moment of ‘realness’ when you’re on stage playing an eight-year-old. Imaginary play seems to give people a greater sense of realness and connectedness than normal life, sometimes.

Sunday Assembly
Sunday Assembly

I think it all comes back to…we want the Other, the God, the feeling there is something bigger than us. We sometimes get that in moments in Showstopper when everyone in the room feels connected together. There was a show when my mother (not in real life) was trapped in a tree – she was suddenly revealed at the end during a song. Again – the audience were hushed. We shared this moment, this shared emotion of lost parents, or family. We grieved together. And then we sang a chorus.

You don’t know quite how it happens, where it comes from.

And you don’t know if you’ll ever get that feeling again. How can we ever find this again? There’s no formula.

So is religion a form of improv? Christianity could be seen as a collective extemporisation, an ‘as if’, a collective imagining or creative play based on certain standard themes, stories, symbols, which people draw on and riff in new directions.

Seriously long-form improv?

Yeah. Or like fan-fiction – you feed deeply on the stories, then imagine yourself into them and riff off them.

Pippa with Sunday Assembly co-founder Sanderson Jones
Pippa with Sunday Assembly co-founder Sanderson Jones

When I went to church, I knew a guy who wrote worship songs, and they were really over-complicated, and I remember saying ‘your hymns are really complicated, you should write something simple’. And he said ‘God is so with you’. And I was like ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘that’s a message from God’. And I sort of believed him, but now I think it was just us being really in tune and connected.

What they call God and the Holy Spirit, others would call being in tune with each other.

Yes, being so present and attentive. I’ve met performance artists who have the air of monks or nuns because they’re so focused on their art, they don’t care about any of the trimmings. You do feel they’re slightly on another level.

Do you find something in the arts to what you used to find in the church?

Yes. Showstopper is like a family in a way, it gives you a feeling of belonging in a group, being very honest and emotionally available with each other. It’s a very intimate group, because of the stuff just coming out of your mouth. When I used to go to church and do the Holy Spirit stuff and shake and fall over, I think that’s a very similar feeling to when we’re doing a scene and we don’t know where it’s going, and we come off stage and feel really euphoric and literally can’t sleep because we’re so excited at the mystery of what happened.
And the guidance too – the older improvisers are teaching you and you’re teaching the younger people. And, now I think about it, improv can be a bit like religions in that you have different groups insisting on different rules. You have Johnstonians, who follow the teachings of Keith Johnstone and do an improv based often in games, then you have the way of Second City, which follows Del Close. And sometimes groups fall out, which is really painful. Or choose a different path. Or split off into new groups. It’s the Judean People’s Front all over again.

The spiritual experiences survey

One evening in the winter of 1969, the author Philip Pullman had a transcendent experience on the Charing Cross Road. He tells me:

Somewhere in the Middle East, some Palestinian activists had hijacked a plane and it was sitting on a runway surrounded by police, soldiers, fire engines, and so forth. I saw a photo of it on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then I walked past a busker who was surrounded by a circle of listeners, and I saw a sort of parallel. From then on for the rest of the journey [from Charing Cross to Barnes] I kept seeing things doubled: a thing and then another thing that was very like it. I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement throughout the whole journey. I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes. I was very interested at the time in such things as Frances Yates’s books about Hermeticism and Giordano Bruno. I think I was living in an imaginative world of Renaissance magic. In a way, what happened was not surprising, exactly: more the sort of thing that was only to be expected. What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.

A scene from The Golden Compass, based on Pullman’s book

Pullman has rarely discussed the experience, although it left him with a conviction that the universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He tells me: ‘Everything I’ve written, even the lightest and simplest things, has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’

You could describe that moment as an ecstatic experience – Pullman felt suddenly shifted beyond his ordinary sense of self and reality, and connected to a cosmos alive with meaning and purpose. In his case, it was a spontaneous and unexpected experience, although he was evidently somewhat primed for it by his reading of Renaissance magic. I’m fascinated by such ecstatic experiences. How common are they in modern western culture? Have they become less common as our culture has become less religious and more rationalist? What triggers such experiences today? And how do we make sense of them, if not in a traditional Christian framework?

Spiritual experiences are becoming more common in UK and US, apparently

Research suggests such experiences are, surprisingly, becoming more common in western societies. The Religious Experience Research Centre set up in 1969 by Sir Alister Hardy asked British people: ‘Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’. In 1978, 36% said yes, in 1987, that had risen to 48%. In 2000, over 75% of respondents to a UK survey conducted by David Hay said they were ‘aware of a spiritual dimension to their experience’. In the US, spiritual experiences are also apparently becoming more frequent – in 1962, when Gallup asked Americans if they’d ‘ever had a religious or mystical experience’, 22% said yes. That figure had risen to 33% by 1994, and 49% in 2009. The Pew Research Centre found last month that a ‘growing share of Americans regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and a sense of wonder’, despite – or perhaps because of – the decline of religious affiliation in the US.

What’s going on? Several possible things. Hay suggested that a ‘deep cultural taboo’ existed against talking about spiritual experiences, because of the negative view of them held by mainstream psychology and psychiatry until recently. That taboo has lessened since the 1960s – psychiatry and psychology are becoming more open to ‘anomalous experience’ and aware they’re not usually pathological (quite the contrary). Culturally, we are becoming more OK about talking about them – one colleague dubs this ‘the Oprah effect’.  Both Christianity and spirituality have, since the 1960s, become much more experiential (see the work of Linda Woodhead on spirituality and Tanya Luhrmann on experiential Christianity). We are increasingly suspicious of external authorities – the church, the Bible – and more interested in our own spiritual experiences.

That goes for atheists too. While old-school atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or Carl Sagan tended to be suspicious of spiritual experiences and to dismiss them as chemical side-effects, tricks or delusions of the brain, a growing number of atheists and humanists like Sam Harris, Barbara Ehrenreich or Philip Pullman are happy to talk about such experiences and insist on their importance for human flourishing. Indeed, Sanderson Jones, head of the Sunday Assembly (a network of humanist churches), describes his life-philosophy as ‘mystic humanism’.

Results of the survey

I thought it would be fun to do a little amateur survey of my own, using SurveyMonkey. As with my dream survey, there was a great response, with 309 people filling in my questionnaire. As with the dream survey, this is obviously a rather selective sample, i.e those who either read my blog, are connected to me on Twitter and Facebook, or are members of London Philosophy Club. Mainly British middle class people, in other words. But the survey attracted a good cross-section in terms of philosophical and religious view points – 25% Christian, 14% agnostic, 24% atheist / humanist, 30% spiritual but not religious. So what did the survey reveal? You can dig into the results for yourself here, but here’s a summary.

Firstly, I asked if people had ‘ever had an experience where you went beyond your ordinary sense of self and felt connected to something bigger than you’. 84% of you had, with 46% of you having such experiences less than 10 times, and a lucky 37% having them quite often. Only 16% said they’d never had such experiences – that rose to 22% for agnostics, 31% for humanists, and 43% for atheists. Those calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ were the most likely to report such experiences, closely followed by Christians. So spiritual experiences seem very common – although there is obviously a self-selecting bias here, as those who aren’t interested in such experiences are less likely to bother with the survey.

I then asked if such experiences happened to you alone or with others, or both. William James and other researchers of ecstasy have thought such experiences usually or always happen to us alone. That’s not the case – only 37% of you say you’ve only had such an experience alone, with 63% saying they’ve had them with others. Ecstatic experiences are often collective.

Burning Man
A love-connection at Burning Man

What are such experiences like? People described all kinds of experiences, but the most common word they used was ‘connection’ and similar words like ‘unity’, ‘at one’, ‘merging’, ‘dissolving’- such words appeared in 37% of people’s descriptions. This tallies with what Dr Cheryl Hunt, editor of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality, told me yesterday at a conference: ‘Connection is the word people use most often to describe such experiences’.

Connection to what? Lots of things. People reported feeling connected to God, to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, to the spirit of deceased loved ones, to the cosmos, to the energy of all things, to nature, to all beings, to humanity, to a loved one, to a group of people, to an animal…or to all of these things. Some examples:

Feeling this deep connection to the earth and to life and to God

feeling of warmth and connectedness with the earth and with other people

I’d taken acid in my 20s. I felt connected to the universe, as though I could understand all of the atoms in the far stretches of the galaxy

Feeling of being surrounded by joyful singing Angels

an overwhelming sense of ‘oneness’

I was in Bangkok surrounded by strange sounds and smells. Bells were ringing. It was quite hot, I was in a rickshaw. Momentarily I felt as though my own spirit had left my body and I became part of everything.

i was on the sofa [on ketamine] with a cat on my lap and stroked him endlessly until we became part of the same then both bodies seemed to rush in a tunnel of lights until we were in an open white space where we were suspended and part of everything.

a euphoric sense of loving everyone around me

Feeling at one with the universe, blissful

Standing on the tip of a mountain, watching the snow fall and suddenly feeling a strange sense of expansion and contraction where I became aware of an underlying ‘sameness’ between me, the snow and the mountain

on public transport, surrounded by people I have no connection with, I suddenly get an overwhelming feeling of love for them all

an immense empathy for anyone I met (including animals)

Watching the starry sky, and totally relaxing and feeling this amazingly huge universe is actually home…

When I spend time in deep conversation with one of my children it feels like we move to a higher level of consciousness. Often we will lose track of time and I feel connected to an unknown greater power.

Being very impressed by the sheer fucking scale of the universe and how I was super connected to all of it while at a jazz gig when I was 18 stoned and excited to popping point by the music

Being with a group where people take turns to speak and share authentically and are listened and responded to from the heart….there’s a feeling of surrender to the group

It was in a park. A windy day, and I cut through these magical woods on route and passed a natural pond which was absolutely alive. The wind was in such a direction that it was inspiring all kinds of amazing patterns in the pond. I was mesmerized looking at this and felt in a trance. I felt part of the pond, the wind, the patterns, my thoughts and feelings, the trees, wildlife, and was laughing out in joy.

Sometimes, we get a sense of a cosmic pattern through some strange coincidence, as when Volkonsky finds himself next to his nemesis Kuragin on a field-hospital bed in War and Peace, and ‘ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart’.

Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC's adaptation of War and Peace - a moment of 'ecstatic pity'
Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace

Check out this amazing story from the survey:

A month ago in a market in Myanmar I spotted across the vegetable sellers someone who I had tried to avoid meeting in London a city we both live in. This ex girlfriend who had been my ‘best friend’ since childhood betrayed our friendship by having an affair with my husband. She broke up my family and her own and although my husband was also culpable, the misery and guilt killed him prematurely, he had a massive heart attack and died at 55. So I have hated her, and forgiveness was not possible. I spotted her crouching to take a photograph and hid myself, whilst I looked at her. When I went back to my hotel that evening after having a wonderful evening watching the sun setting over the stupas, she was in the foyer with two friends I totally panicked and hid myself again. I watched them take her luggage to a room four doors down from mine. This event shook me coming as it did after a trip across se Asia where I had spent much time contemplating Buddhist teachings and in discussion with monks had thought about forgiveness and anger and attachment. I think this episode was in some way part of a transformative process forcing me to face my demons and let go of my hatred. The next day at breakfast I went down fully prepared to meet her and felt no fear or need to express anything, I felt nothing. She wasn’t there and I didn’t see her again.

You could call these experiences moments of love-connection. People feel expanded beyond their individual ego, ecstatically connected to someone, something, all things, in a way that is joyful, blissful, and loving. Ecstasy seems closely connected to empathy – both are a movement beyond the ego, a love-connection.

I asked what triggered such experiences. The most common triggers were nature, the arts (particularly doing or participating in creative practices), and contemplation / meditation. Drugs, romantic love / sex, and proximity to death (yours or someone else’s) were also common triggers. People also gave a lot of their own personal triggers, from cocoa ceremonies to dreams to conversations to dancing the tango.

It’s effing hard to talk about the ineffable

Connecting to God / Cosmos / energy / Logos / higher consciousness...er....what was the question again? Did I already say that? Hello? Echo!
What’s the question again?

How do people make sense of such experiences? It’s complicated! Only two thirds of you answered this question (it required people to think and write rather than just tick a box) and as a rough categorisation, 24% thought it was God or the Logos (though I didn’t ask what exactly people meant by God), 15% thought it was higher consciousness, 11% thought it was a mystery, 10% thought it was the energy of all things, 9% thought it was neural chemistry, and 3% thought all of the above. But these are very rough categorisations – quite often, people used multiple explanations – God, the energy of all things, nature, all life. People who defined themselves as atheists would still speak of ‘a raised state of consciousness…also perhaps some kind of brief connection to nature / logos’, or ‘a complete ecstatic feeling of oneness with the universe and that everything and I were interconnected’ or ‘a very real connection with the Cosmos’ or ‘Logos / chemical reaction’ or ‘all my atoms responding and resonating with a natural frequency’.

How we interpret such experiences may define whether we call ourselves a humanist, or a Christian, or pantheist, or materialist, and so on. But it is quite a fuzzy area – hard to know, hard to conceptualize, hard to explain. Sometimes people’s interpretations have changed over time. If they are ‘peak experiences’, we meet on the peak, but then streams run down and become separate rivers, valleys, landscapes. But up on the peak, the experiences are often quite similar. And it’s apparent, from the survey, that you don’t like labels, you don’t like being boxed into categories like ‘Christian’ or ‘atheist’. Over a quarter of you refused all such labels, including ‘spiritual but not religious’, and wrote your own ‘other’ down, including: Pyrrhonic sceptic, ‘bit of everything with strong Buddhist and shamanic strains’, ‘bit of Buddhist and Christian but not’, Stoic with Christian roots’, ‘pagan atheist’, ‘goddess feminist’, and my favourite: ‘Christian-Buddhist, Neo-Platonic, Universal agnostic even though I’m a traditional Anglo-Catholic Priest’. Surveys are useful but blunt, their categories don’t always capture the fluxiness of spiritual moments and the cultural identities we incorporate them into.

The fruit

OK, so we’re having more and more groovy spiritual experiences, and we’re not entirely sure what they mean. So what? What are the fruits? I asked how these experiences changed you. Of those who responded (226 of you) the most common way it changed you was to make you feel more connected, to feel ‘the world is my home’, ‘I am a grain of sand in the desert’; to feel more connection and empathy to other beings, a greater sense of compassion and love for them, and also to feel more loved yourself. The second most common way it changed you was to make you more open to a ‘wider sense of life’, it ‘made me open to other ways of looking at things’, it ‘opened the door to wider meanings’, it ‘made me less skeptical, less quick to judge, more compassionate’. It made some of you sense that we are not ‘just’ our brains, bodies or egos. Several of you reported feeling calmer, more ‘centred’, more ‘true to myself’, ‘more me’. It made some of you ‘seek more’, deepen your search, and in some cases led to major behaviour change (‘it pushes me to be a better person…to stay away from alcohol, womanizing and lying’) and major emotional change (‘they allow me to relinquish my desperate control over my negative feelings, either physical pain or mental depression or spiritual guilt. It’s like my well has run dry, but the very last bit of digging uncovered the spring that fills and refills the well of my soul.’) For several of you, such experiences strengthened your commitment to a particular practice – going to church, meditating, praying or, in one case, starting your own spiritual movement (the Sunday Assembly).

For me, the survey gives a fascinating snapshot of a culture that may be abandoning traditional religious affiliation but is still deeply interested in spiritual experiences and religious practices. Although 72% of you agree that ‘there is a taboo against talking about such experiences in western culture’, 80% say they’re happy to talk about them to friends and family, and only 2% say they’d be worried people might think they were crazy – the stigma attached to such experiences is much less than it was 50 years ago.

There is a risk, of course, of spirituality and Christianity becoming too obsessed with experiences – we can fetishize them, become thrill seekers, even addicted to them. Philip Pullman says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. Seeking it is far too self-centred. It’s like ‘the pursuit of happiness’, which I’ve always thought an absolutely fatuous idea. Things like my experience (and other similar ones) are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism. YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT, but your work might be.’

Alas, most of us haven’t written His Dark Materials. And surely it’s not all about what we produce, is it? I think these moments of deep connection do something important for us and to us. They point beyond the isolated ego, make us feel ‘at home in the world’, and connect us in empathy and love to other beings – so they’re not just good for us, but also for others. And they are not an alternative to commitment, community and practice – they grow out of commitment, community and practice.

But are they just a feeling, or do such experiences give us insights into an actual physical connection between our minds / souls, other beings and the cosmos? Philip Pullman certainly thinks so – he’s one of a growing number of advocates for ‘pan-psychism’, which is the theory that consciousness is a fundamental feature of matter. At the least, we can say that, given how little we understand the nature of consciousness and matter, it’s possible such moments point to something real about the extended mind and its connection to others and to the cosmos. Meanwhile, the real challenge is to take such unusual experiences, and integrate them into ordinary life. To make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary. In the words of Jack Kornfield, ‘after the ecstasy, the laundry’.