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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.

Derren Brown on hypnosis, faith-healing and religious experience

22578_fullI’ve been exploring the history of ecstasy in modern culture. One of the ways the Enlightenment tried to naturalize ecstasy was by developing the concept of hypnosis. In the 18th century, Franz Mesmer showed that he could achieve just as miraculous healings as a priest through his own rituals, the success of which he attributed to ‘magnetic fluids’. Then, in the late-19th century, psychologists like Pierre Janet and William James thought that Mesmerism – or hypnosis, as it was then known – tapped into a ‘subconscious’ or ‘subliminal self’ beyond our rational control, the existence of which explained many religious and paranormal phenomena, like faith-healing, visions, and trances. Like Mesmer, they thought that hypnotic states could often be profoundly healing, and could perhaps connect us to God.

Today, few academic psychologists explore this fascinating terrain, but one person who does is Derren Brown, the mentalist and stage-magician. I went to Derren’s extraordinary house, the interior decoration for which includes a stuffed giraffe and a fish-tank with moray eels, to ask him what he thinks is the relationship between hypnosis and religious experience, and how his new show, Miracle, explores faith-healing.

You were Christian when you were a child?

Yes. I went to a Crusaders Class when I was six or seven. A teacher who I really liked said ‘do you want to come along?’, and I was too young to think that was weird, I thought that was what everyone did. My family wasn’t religious, and I had one Christian friend, so there was never any cultural pressure. As a teenager, I went to church called the New Life Christian Centre in Croydon, a big happy-clappy church. I became more skeptical while I was at Bristol University, partly because I became fascinated by hypnosis, which my church friends deeply disapproved of. They thought it was from the Devil. I thought ‘if the human mind is the pinnacle of God’s creation, why is exploring it bad?’ I also became more skeptical of New Age things like Tarot or psychics, which my church literally demonized, so that made me skeptical of the church too. And I went on a ‘Christian gay cure’ course  – sort of a basic psychology course – and it didn’t work. So all this made me more skeptical.

Did you ever have a ‘Holy Spirit encounter’?

A photo from a New Life church service
A Pentecostal church service

No not really. I had a lot of skepticism towards those kinds of charismatic services. I think this is quite common among people who attend those services. Talking in tongues, for example – it was quite evident, if you were at all intelligent and not just hyper-suggestible and caught up in the whole thing, that there was a lot of crowd manipulation going on. There would be a point in the service when the Holy Spirit was moving through everybody, and every week the same woman stood up and talked in tongues. And then someone else stood up and offered an interpretation, which was largely a series of general statements, you know ‘the door is open…revival is coming’. It was always the same people, and the tongues always sounded the same. It became a bit comical. One time, we were told we were all going to be given the gift of tongues, so we all stood up, and the pastor said, ‘just start making a noise. That’s tongues. If a little voice tells you this is stupid, that’s the Devil.’ It seemed so blatantly manipulative.

Do you think charismatic churches are doing some form of hypnotic suggestion?

Channel-4-Upfronts-Conference-2010-Derren-BrownYes, I do. But it’s complicated. It’s difficult to pin down what hypnosis is. In a show, for example, you have a wide range of experiences in the audience. At the end of my shows, I used to make myself invisible [to hypnotized participants on stage], then I’d move a chair through the air. And the participants would all react, jump back, and so on. Later in the show, I’d often get those people back up, and say ‘what were you experiencing?’ And you’d get a range of experiences. Perhaps a third would say ‘I could see you were there, but it was very easy to go along with it and sort of play-act’. Then you’d get a middle third who would say ‘looking back on it, of course you were moving it, but at the time, I really believed you weren’t there, and was just focusing on the chair’. And then you get people at the upper extreme saying ‘no idea what you’re talking about, I assumed you moved the chair with wires’. They couldn’t believe I was there at all. And you never quite know if they’re just saying that, to appear the most hypnotized.

It’s so difficult to tie down what hypnosis is – there’s a lot of work asking if hypnosis is just role-playing. A famous example is that you can hypnotise people to eat an onion as if it was a juicy apple. It looks very impressive. But I was talking about this to Andy, the director of my stage shows, and he said ‘I bet I can do that without being hypnotized’. And he went to a fridge, took out an onion and took a big bite. And all that is, is another motivating factor, another story you’re telling yourself.

He enjoyed it? He didn’t wince?

No, he was fine. He was trying to prove a point, and that gave him a different motivating story. Even the things that look terribly impressive – people being operated on, for example – it looks amazing, but when you break it down to what layer of skin actually feels pain, actually, once you’re removing organs, it’s a bit uncomfortable but not actually painful.

So in a religious meeting, there might be that whole range – people who are completely swept up, and people who are sort of going along with it, ‘as if’ it was true. As a sort of co-created fantasy.

Yes. You’re there, you’re having a really good time, you’re with a bunch of like-minded people…

And the Holy Spirit is after all a sign of God’s love and favour.

Yes, but I think plenty of people are a bit skepticial about some of that. I find that most intelligent people who also happen to be Christian probably sense that a lot of it is a bit of a scam, stage-craft, crowd manipulation. But it’s sort of ingrained and difficult to object to.

Do you think hypnotism or suggestibility plays a big role in religion in general?

Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of 'Beatle-mania'
Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of ‘Beatle-mania’

It depends. There is a range of human experiences clustered around belief, suggestion, the stories we tell ourselves. Those experiences might include hypnosis in alternative therapy, or placebo responses, or religious experiences, or charismatic revivals, or rock concerts – it’s just a range. The trouble with going ‘is that just hypnosis?’ is that it’s difficult to define what hypnosis is. It’s like defining a magic trick. I think of magic as a short-hand for an experience you have, and you know the magician isn’t actually doing magic but the magician gives you an experience, and you know what to call it, and that makes sense and gives him a role. With hypnosis, there’s a similar thing going on – there’s a certain context, with a guy who’s called a hypnotist, and it’s done with the familiar tropes of hypnotism, and it’s recognized as such. But actually it’s a short-hand for quite different things – if you go to a hypnotist to stop smoking, if you’re trying to get on top of your unconscious processes, that’s quite different to going to on stage and being persuaded to dance like a ballerina. If someone’s hyper-suggestible, they may respond to both, but it’s difficult to lump the experiences together.

Can one really provoke a religious experience in an atheist with an NLP session? I mean, can one brainwash people to do or believe things almost against their will?

Well, I did that in a show. I found a highly suggestible person. It’s not like you can just walk down the road and make that happen. A TV show like that is a specific context, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the conditions of real life.

Tell me about your experiences with faith healing in your latest show, Miracle.

In the second half of the show, I say ‘we’re going to do some faith healing, and I will heal you’. This is a skeptical audience, but I say ‘you’ve just got to go with it, you’re obviously not the right audience for this, you’re not primed for it, and it’s OK to be skeptical and even repulsed by it, but beneath all that, there are some aspects that are useful, so if you go with me on this, it has the power to profoundly change how you feel, emotionally and physically’. And the show progresses in the way that those healings do – I offer out the Holy Spirit, as it were, but I don’t talk about it in religious language initially, it starts off secular. So I throw out this adrenalin experience – adrenalin heals pain. That’s why faith-healing only ever heals functional conditions that respond to pain relief, no one’s arm ever grows back.

Does it work?

The first shock was that it worked at all. Not only does the healing work, but I’ve also ‘slayed’ people, so they’re falling down [when people pass out in charismatic churches it’s called being ‘slain in the Holy Spirit’]. Some shows are better than others, but essentially it’s working as a mechanism even with a skeptical audience. It’s difficult to quantify the effect. But I’ve had a couple of tweets, people jokingly saying ‘well, my condition is back again, so much for that haha’. I tell people, this will stick with some of you, and for others it won’t. But also I’ve had letters from people saying ‘I don’t know what you did, I understand it isn’t faith-healing, but this condition is still gone and I feel amazing’. Someone on stage had a series of strokes when she was very young and had never been able to feel the left-side of her body. And now she could. One guy said he had terrible cirrhosis, his arm was covered with it, and within five minutes, that was gone. One of the stage-crew has a teenage daughter who suffered from depression, and she’s been really helped by it. So sometimes it’s been quite transformative.

 

 

You can watch a  clip of Derren ‘curing’ a woman of blindness in the show here.

How does it work?

The way I see it is that William James thing, acting ‘as if’. You give yourself permission to act ‘as if’ a thing isn’t a problem. There’s this story you tell yourself every day – ‘I’ve got a bad back and it’s a thing I live with’. The healing stops that story in its tracks, makes you stop and question it.

Like a religious conversion?

Yeah, a bit. There’s an adrenalin lift as you get on stage, and there are other people around you talking about it. Even if it is only a temporary thing, it’s a glimpse out of that story.

What about people getting ‘slain in the spirit’?

victorian postural sway - CopyIt’s not with quite the vigour and hysteria you see at revival services. Sometimes people are just complying with it. But sometimes their eyes roll back, they start shaking a bit. Sometimes people can’t stop shaking. I always imagine that people are sort of playing along, it’s just a sort of unconscious playing along. But then you see things that people wouldn’t know to play along to do. Sometimes people pass out and are out for the whole of the second half of the show.

Given some of these remarkable results, do you think hypnosis should be used more in the NHS?

I think what we need is a more people-oriented medicine – finding a softer, more caring middle-ground, without endorsing treatments that are claiming to do something they’re not. Let’s say you see your GP for your allocated six minutes, and he says ‘relax and take it easy’, you’ll feel ignored. If you have an hour with an alternative therapist, they’re taking an interest in you, sympathizing with you, there’s a ritual to it. Even if they’re essentially still saying ‘relax and take it easy’, it’s more likely to work. You feel like you’ve had attention paid to you. That’s what’s key: the bed-side manner. I never really recommend people see a hypnotist for smoking. If they are suggestible, it’s amazing, it’s like a magic pill. But for 50% of people it’s a waste of time.

OK, on a different note, how did you get into Stoic philosophy, and how have you found it helpful?

It started with Montaigne, who kept mentioning Stoic writers. So that made me pursue the Stoics, and I discovered a love of the Hellenistic philosophical world, and the Stoics in particular. I realized that it chimed with what I already felt was important and true. For example, when I was at university and afterwards, I had zero ambition. I was doing hypnosis and magic because it was a fun way to spend the day. I had no desire to get on TV or anything. It was a very ‘in the moment’ thing. So that chimed with the Stoic idea of focusing on the present moment and not getting attached to ambition or reputation. Then I gradually discovered new things in Stoicism, and it shaped my character in new ways. That led to me wanting to write a book on these things, it’s such a different voice to mainstream culture. [He’s just finishing a book on happiness, to be published in the next few months].

What’s the best thing you’ve learned about happiness in your research?

I think it’s the clarity of Epictetus’ maxim that you’re only in control of your thoughts and actions, and everything else you can let go. For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief. For example, things that your partner does that annoy you or get under your skin, you realize it’s actually fine, you don’t have to try and change them.

Do fame and wealth really not make you happy?

Well, we know there’s a watershed moment at around £40K where you’re comfortable and money is not a trouble, after that you don’t get much happier with more money. The people who aren’t happy with fame and wealth are the ones who are always chasing the next big thing and who have quite addictive personalities. There’s not a moment when you become successful. And it’s never permanent. Your goal just moves a bit further on. As for the fame thing…everything gets more extreme. The nice things become nicer – you get to travel first class, you can book tables in nice restaurants more easily. But the horrible stuff becomes much worse – you might have stuff about your private life written in newspapers, and you think everyone is thinking about it. You get stalkers, or people who just hate you, or mentally disturbed people who are out to destroy you. So I think it balances out.

You seem to have a very strong work ethic. What motivates you?

I never feel particularly motivated. Motivation is one of those words which people use when they feel they don’t have it and they sense it in others. I’m actually very lazy. I love it when there’s nothing in my diary. I go on tour because I love doing it, and it lets me live like I did in Bristol – I get my days free, so I can sit, read and write in coffee shops, and in the evenings I go out and do a show which makes me feel amazing even if I’ve had a bad day. If I’m sitting and writing, that feels very good to me. And going and doing a show is also hugely enjoyable, and there’s a lot of adrenalin. So all in all, that’s a lovely day, who wouldn’t want to do that.

You can watch the Channel 4 screening of Miracle here.

Here is a link for Derren’s book on happiness.

For an alternative perspective, here’s an interview I did with Nicky Gumbel, head of the evangelical Alpha course, where he gives his take on religious experiences.

Here is another interview about hypnosis, faith and healing, with the medical professor Paul Dieppe

My interview with Derren features in my new book, The Art of Losing Control, which is published by Canongate in May 2017.