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As most of you know, I’m working on a book about the place of ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in post-religious / secular / rationalist society.

My broad thesis is that (1) western culture pathologised and marginalized ecstatic experiences from around the 17th century on but (2) humans kept on seeking ecstatic experiences through new and non-orthodox routes – new religious movements like Methodism and Pentecostalism; Romantic poetry and music; and then, from the 1960s on, sex, psychedelic drugs, rock and roll, and Eastern and new age spirituality.

Today I want to talk briefly about perhaps the most unlikely form of ecstasy in our post-religious society – ecstasy through business.

I know, weird right? What could be less likely!

The sociologist Max Weber said that business was part of the iron cage of rationalist bureaucracy in which we’re imprisoned. Europe is disenchanted, the spirit has evaporated, and we’re stuck in our little cubicles of Protestant work ethics, trying to earn the approval of a God we no longer believe in.

I think of the financial publishing company where I began my career, and I can’t think of anywhere less ecstatic – it felt emotionally inhibited, paranoid, meaningless, atomized and amoral. This is one of the reasons I love Fight Club and its ecstatic hatred of the emotional flatness and moral emptiness of corporate – consumer culture. Burn it all down!

And yet….

At some point in the 20th century, for some people, business itself became a means to ecstatic experience.

I think it began in the US, where the line between revivalist preacher and business motivational speaker became blurred. So you find someone like Dale Carnegie preaching in YMCAs about how to be the best salesman, with a strange mixture of Protestant work-ethic and Protestant ecstasy. You get someone like Zig Ziglar, one of the most successful business coaches of the last 50 yars, whose seminars were a mixture of self-help advice and southern Baptist ecstasy – listen to the trembling cadre of his voice, and how it reminds one of the greatest Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King.

Things got weirder in the 1970s, as baby-boomers like Steve Jobs joined the work-force, and brought with them their appetite for mind-altering drugs and altered states of consciousness, for eastern and new age spirituality, for authenticity and expressive individuality.

The baby-boomer ethos blossomed in the Human Potential Movement, inspired by figures like Abraham Maslow and Aldous Huxley, who believed ecstatic experiences needed to be re-integrated into western culture. That idea got mass produced through Large Group Awareness Training programmes like erhard seminars training (est) and Landmark Education. Organizations like est would run ‘mass marathon’ coaching sessions over a weekend, where 100 people would be encouraged to share, open up, break down, and allow themselves to be remade. Watch this clip from Adam Curtis’ century of the Self, 30 minutes in, with some amazing footage from an est seminar.

These sessions were secular versions of 18th or 19th century revival meetings, where people would experience highly emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs. But where in the past converts would surrender to Jesus, at est or Landmark today they surrender to the Leader and to the group, and accept the Landmark dogma that they can do and be anything they want.

0ea590148e19feb31e7d0c10024d93d8The cannier coaches – like Anthony Robbins – soon realized that their customers were seeking a sort of religious substitute, and they thought about how to bring in music, dancing, and rites of passage to symbolize the death of the old self and the birth of the new liberated and authentic Power-Self. Robbins’ seminars, for example, became famous for incorporating fire-walking, which originated as a religious ritual in the Meditarranean. Testimonials are also a powerful ritual for people to share their storis with the group and affirm their incredible breakthroughs – both in church, and in the business coaching seminar.

Then, in the 90s, with the rise of Silicon Valley, things got really weird. Start-up culture embraced the baby-boomer ethos of authenticity and expressive individualism (and a willingness to do ayahuasca every now and then to improve executive insight), and combined it with a techno-evangelical faith that we can change the world. Our app / social network / software design is going to liberate humanity and perhaps help us transcend to the next level of consciousness. Woo hoo!

The long hours, intense corporate loyalty and cult of the leader at tech firms like Microsoft or Google led to weird scenes like the famous clip of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer going ape at a Microsoft employee conference: ‘Give it up for meeeeeee!’ Check out that corporate ego unleashed.

Even the CEO of a shoe company, Zappos, started to get something of a Messiah complex – Tony Hsieh wrote his own comic book to tell the story of his journey and how he helped all his employees find meaning, happiness and transcendence working for his online shoe company. Yeah! You’re amazing Tony! You’re some kind of SUPERMAN!

No he didn’t. He was hired to be CEO at someone else’s company.

Today it’s very common to use the language of spiritual ecstasy when talking about your career – people speak of ‘vocation’, ‘mission’, ‘revolution’, ‘business heretics’, ‘free spirits’, ‘passion projects’, ‘epiphanies’, ‘breakthroughs’ and so on.

Maybe this seems weird to you. I find it a bit weird too. But here’s the thing: people want it. People crave it. People yearn for authenticity, emotional expressiveness, deep sharing and bonding, meaning, and – yes – ecstasy and altered states of consciousness. And most people these days aren’t religious, so some end up getting these things through business and personal development courses both within their companies and outside of them.

And people might be surprised by themselves – they may go in to these sorts of sessions with all their Enlightenment skepticism and emotional inhbition intact, and suddenly find themselves letting go and letting it all hang out…

Some people find real breakthroughs via business coaching or personal development courses. But there are risks too.

Any ecstatic experience can be dangerous, because it involves a move beyond one’s usual ego-constructions to a new form of being. This can involve some form of temporary regression to a childhood state, and it can involve trauma coming up from one’s past – abuse, rape, or just parents who didn’t love us enough. If people already have unstable egos, a challenge to one’s ego might lead to temporary psychosis, like a bad trip. At the least, it involves people suspending their critical faculties and their emotional reserve and moving into a hypnotic state where they’re highly suggestible (and exploitable).

Corporate culture or business-coaching culture is not always a safe vessel for this type of intense experience. Within businesses, it can lead to a cultish absorption in The Company and devotion to the Leader. People within the Company lose critical distance, lose the ability to say ‘this isn’t right’. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street, for example – the charismatic leader inspired his employees, but also led them (and their customers) off an ethical cliff.

Within business coaching seminars, the organization – Landmark or whoever – might not have the training or the willingness to cope with the emotional trauma that might come up in participants. I wrote about this in Philosophy for Life, telling the story of a friend, Adam, who had a psychotic episode during a Landmark course, and didn’t feel he was given any sort of proper care.

People can also get caught up in the emotional contagion of the group dynamic. Within a church context, that might mean they suddenly find themselves converting to Christianity. Wthin a business-coaching context, it might mean they suddenly find themselves quitting their job. Both might not be fully conscious decisions (Christians might say ‘so what, any route to Jesus is good’).

I think the biggest risk is that, in the words of the Vatican, places like Landmark ‘marry counter-cultural values with the mainstream need to succeed’. I would like to believe that God doesn’t need me to be a material success, and the proof of His love for me is not in my earnings. I would like to believe He lets me be broken and lost, while business ecstasy sometimes requires me to be superpowered and superoptimistic. I’d like to believe I can part of His family for free – I don’t need to pay for membership like I would at Landmark.

And can you imagine having an ecstatic experience – a movement beyond your ego – and all you end up reaching is Microsoft? That’s not transcending very far.

Then again, organized religion is not always the safest vessel for ecstatic experience either, and it can be just as corporate and money-grubbing. Think of the massive global popularity of Pentecostalism, with its Gospel of Prosperity and its tele-evangelists with their pay-per-prayer business model. Organized religion can be just as exploitative, just as damaging, just as unregulated, just as willing to promise Incredible Benefits to the faithful. And God doesn’t always seem to be there, while career achievement is more…er….tangible.