Humans have always sought ecstatic experiences – moments where they go beyond their ordinary self and feel connected to something greater than them. Such moments are fundamental to human flourishing, but they can also be dangerous.

Beginning around the Enlightenment, western intellectual culture has written off ecstasy as ignorance or delusion. But philosopher Jules Evans argues that this diminishes our reality and denies us the healing, connection and meaning that ecstasy can bring.

He sets out to discover how people find ecstasy in a post-religious culture, how it can be good for us, and also harmful. Along the way, he explores the growing science of ecstasy, to help the reader – and himself – learn the art of losing control.

Jules’ exploration of ecstasy is an intellectual and emotional odyssey balancing personal experience, interviews and readings from ancient and modern philosophers that will change the way you think about how you feel. From Aristotle and Plato, via the Bishop of London and Sister Bliss, radical jihadis and Silicon Valley transhumanists, The Art of Losing Control is a funny and life-enhancing journey through under-explored terrain.

You can buy the book here.

‘A captivating exploration of humanity’s journey to self-transcendence’. Prospect magazine

‘A wild, wondrous, wide-eyed journey.’ The Psychologist magazine

‘An original and outstanding investigation into a poorly understood but central experience in all our lives. Jules Evans is brave, honest and wise – a great companion and guide on a fascinating journey.’ Caspar Henderson, author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Here’s a good intro piece, on why getting out of our heads is good for us.

Here are the full versions of some of the interviews I’ve done that feature in the book:

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi on flow and ecstasy.

Philosopher Roger Scruton on whether high culture is a substitute for religion.

Author Philip Pullman on transcendent experience (also features the spiritual experiences survey I did).

Musician and artist Brian Eno on surrender in art and religion.

Musician and artist David Byrne on ecstasy and catharsis in rock & roll.

Musician Sister Bliss on house music as a church for the unchurched.

Stage illusionist Derren Brown on hypnosis and spiritual healing.

Alpha evangelist Nicky Gumbel on encounters with the Holy Spirit.

The former Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, on Christian contemplation and ecstasy.

Psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris on psychedelics and the unconscious.

Poet and priest Malcolm Guite on poetry as a door into the dark.

An interview with religious scholar Ann Taves on the history of ecstasy in western culture.

Here’s a survey I did on people’s dreams, which found that most people reported occasionally having ‘big dreams’ which helped them adapt to life-crises.

Here’s a survey I did into sex and spiritual experiences, which found most people reported experiences of ego-dissolution during sex.

Here’s a podcast I did on non-verbal ecstasy in rock & roll.

Here’s a podcast I did with the author Geoff Dyer about peak experiences.

Here’s a talk I did on Radio 3 way back in 2013 about how a near-death experience prompted my interest in the ecstatic.

 

Further reading

Here are some of the books I found particularly useful while researching this, for those who want to explore more.

Ann Taves, Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience From Wesley to James

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Street: A History of Collective Joy

Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship to God

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience 

Frederic Myers, Human Personality and its Survival After Death

Marganita Laski, Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences

Charles Tart, Altered States of Consciousness

Charles Ferneyough, The Voices Within

Abraham Maslow, Religions, Values and Peak Experiences

IM Lewis, Ecstatic Religion

Cardena and Winkelman (eds), Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness

ER Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational

Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

Sam Harris, Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion

Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music

Judith Becker, Deep Listeners: Music, Emotions and Trancing

Bernard McGinn, Essential Writings of the Christian Mystics

Aldous Huxley, Moksha

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Marianne Rankin, An Introduction to Spiritual and Religious Experience

DJ Moores, The Ecstatic Poetic Tradition

Jeffrey Kripal, Authors of the Impossible

Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry

Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Erik Davis, Tech-Gnosis

And finally Hugh Urban‘s books on Osho and on sex magic were very useful for the sex and ecstasy chapter.

There were many other books that were very helpful, those are just an assortment!