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Spiritual exercises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torture camp

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending aversion

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

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

The physical unconscious

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

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

Transcending attachment to ecstasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’.