The cabin in the woods

I covered a lot of different types of ecstatic experience in my book The Art of Losing Control - spontaneous ecstasy, ecstasy in nature, sexual ecstasy, psychedelic ecstasy, ecstasy through worship, war, sport, even the internet. I think it was one of the most comprehensive books on the subject - what few books there are on the topic tend to only cover positive experiences, and leave out stuff like, say, the ecstasy of mob violence.

But it's such a huge, amorphous, tricksy, fluxy experience, that you can't possibly capture all aspects of it, all the strange forms it takes. There are some big gaps in the book - I didn't talk much about the ecstasy of comedy, for example.

Two big areas I left out were the ecstasy of mediums and psychics, and the ecstasy of alien or UFO encounters. I was conscious that I was already stretching the envelope in terms of bringing the unusual into the mainstream, and I just thought, if I start talking about mediums and psychics, I'd need to inform myself about the whole enormous literature on telepathy, and I'd be taking myself even further from the mainstream. And UFOs? I really would be among the kooks then.

There are some career risks when you write about ecstatic experiences - I mean, not massively for me, because I don't have a normal academic career thank God. But they exist. Those risks are even bigger for UFO studies.

Take the example of John Mack, a senior psychiatrist and Pulitzer-Prize winner from Harvard.He became fascinated by abduction experiences, and wrote a book about them in 1994. Shortly afterwards, he was informed by a colleague that he was under investigation by Harvard. He'd made the mistake, he was told, of not insisting these experiences were symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Instead he'd said he wasn't sure what they were (he later decided they were manifestations of some sort of Greater Mind). He subsequently resigned from Harvard.

I was wary of wading into these waters. Nor did I know much about them. On the last page of my book, however, I nod to this topic. I wrote: 'I have a sense of the universe as a vast ecosystem bringing with intelligences. Yet I wonder, why aren't they more chatty?' This is a reference to something called the 'Fermi paradox', a thought-experiment put forward by the physicist Enrico Fermi: the universe is enormous, there is a high probability of other intelligent life-forms on other planets or dimensions, some of whom are probably superior to us. But where are they? Why aren't they more chatty?

Well…maybe they are! There are several thousand reported sightings of UFOs each year -the National UFO Reporting Centre says they're getting more frequent, from 5000 in 1980 to 45,000 in 2010. A surprising amount of people also say they've encountered aliens.

In 1987, a horror writer called Whitley Strieber claimed he was abducted from his cabin in the woods of upstate New York by little blue men with enormous eyes, who then raped him with a 'rectal probe' and took a sample of his semen (the rape was confirmed by a medical examination). He wrote a book about his experience - Communion - and he and his wife were subsequently inundated with letters from people claiming similar experiences.

They got a lot of letters, several thousand a day at one point. To put this in perspective, Sir Alister Hardy, a biologist who investigated ecstatic experiences in the 1970s,placed adverts in newspapers asking people to send in accounts of their experiences, and he only received around 4000 replies in total. Strieber received over 200,000 letters. 

Strieber's book was a huge hit, but his fame made him a target and he was widely mocked, particularly for the 'rectal probe'.

He says the visits didn't stop - for several years, his cabin was visited by little blue men and other odd phenomena, which he says many others also witnessed. He even claims there's still an implant in his ear (I wish he'd just cut off his ear-lobe for the sake of science…well, at least leave it to science after he dies).

What does this have to do with ecstasy? As the smarter UFO scholars have pointed out, the alien encounter has similarities to descriptions of other ecstatic experiences like near-death experiences, psychedelic trips, and mystical experiences - white light; physical manifestations like shaking, heat or buzzing; emotions of awe, terror and joy; an encounter with a higher intelligence, a sense of being chosen, transformed, sent back with a mission (in UFO abductions, the mission is often ecological - the visitors are worried we're destroying the planet).

As for the erotic aspects, well, older forms of divine encounter are also often erotic - think of all those god-rapes in classical myth, or the sons of God breeding with the daughters of men in Genesis, or God inseminating Mary, or the randy blue divinities of Hinduism, or the sexual rapture of Christian mystics. Rapture, after all, comes from the Latin raptus, meaning 'to be seized, abducted or raped'.

If you look back at some of the revelatory encounters in the Bible, they're really pretty weird - Ezekiel seeing spinning discs in the sky, Moses seeing a burning bush, Daniel seeing a figure in the fire, Abraham seeing God and two angels strolling along for a picnic, Jesus ascends into the sky, Paul gets carried up into the heavens. Later Christian visionaries reported seeing cities in the sky - cities, or UFOs??

What to make of it? Like other ecstatic experiences, there are several interpretative positions one could take. You could say that encounter experiences are the product of the human psyche in extremis - Michael Shermer, the well-known sceptic psychologist, says he had an alien encounter once after bicycling for many miles without water, which he put down to exhaustion. Other experiences seem like sleep paralysis. One notes that some of the most famous encounter experiences happen to fantasy fiction writers - Strieber, Philip K. Dick, L. Ron Hubbard. Perhaps they're carried away not by aliens, but by their imaginations.

Or maybe there really are aliens from other planets visiting us, and humans have mistakenly interpreted it as divine beings. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. An i-phone would seem like a divine talisman to a pygmy. Many science fiction films have riffed off this idea - Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: Space Odyssey, Contact, Arrival and others explore the idea of alien-as-God. Some new religious movements have claimed that the gods are really aliens - Scientology, most obviously, but also the Heaven's Gate cult and the Aetherius Society. Sci-fi also plays with the anxiety that maybe we're slaves, livestock or prey to these superior beings, as in Prometheus, The Matrix or Predator. 

Both these hypotheses take a more or less scientific and materialist interpretation of the phenomena. But there are other possibilities.

WTF experiences

I've just finished a book by Whitley Strieber and a religious scholar called Jeffrey Kripal, called The Supernatural: A New Vision of the Unexplained. Kripal is a professor at Rice University, and one of my favourite scholars of the ecstatic. He's a great writer, and brave in three ways. Firstly, he's very good at tracking contemporary forms of ecstasy, looking at low-brow, pop culture stuff like UFOs and superhero myths. Secondly, he bravely explores the connection between the mystical and the erotic (this led to one of his books being banned in India). Thirdly, he's prepared to include his own ecstatic experiences. And he insists we walk a line between religious reductionism and scientific reductionism, staying open to the weirdness of the ecstatic.

The metaphor I use in my book is of the soul as a cabin in the woods (just like Whitley's cabin). Occasionally, we hear strange noises in the forest, knocks upon the wall, figures appear at the window. It's freaky. How do we interpret those knocks?

Religions, particularly monotheisms, tend to have a very reductive view. It's either God, the Devil or your imagination. Come on, really? That's it? Just look at the revelations in the Bible - Moses is told 'no one may see me and live', while Abraham sees God wander up for a picnic. They're not even called the same names - sometimes it's Jehovah, sometimes Elohim (which means The Blessed Ones). Even Satan morphs from being a sort of worker for God, in the Book of Job, to being the ultimate Bad Guy in the New Testament and later Christian theology.

Science can be equally reductive. It's just your brain buzzing, or your subconscious. There's nothing really 'out there' beyond the human. Why not? Why is that a ridiculous and unacceptable idea?

Strieber and Kripal think it's more complicated than materialism (either brain delusions or aliens from another planet). They suggest that alien encounters are more like encounters with some sort of Greater Mind - what William James called Mind-at-Large - which may be our own Bigger Consciousness, perhaps even our future selves (as in Interstellar). They think these encounters are glimpses of some bigger game that we don't fully understand, to do with our souls, the future of our species, and our existence in this dimension. Strieber's wife noted that many of the alien encounters also involved the appearance of friends or loved ones who had died. 'This seems to be something to do with death', she said.

It also has something to do with owls. Strieber notes that owls often appeared around the alien visits. His work definitely seems an inspiration for the X Files and Twin Peaks - cabins in woods, alien owls, abductions, FBI investigations, small men dancing…His experiences are pure David Lynch, weird, eery, at times ridiculous.

Whatever it is people are encountering, if it is something transpersonal, it takes the forms of existing culture - if you live in the 20th century, it takes the form of our scientific and pop culture. And it plays with those forms, sometimes taking outlandish and cartoonish shape, as if it's lampooning the culture, as if it's…fucking with us. Heraclitus said, 'nature loves to hide'. So does the Whatever. It refuses to be trapped by human categories. It's trickster, mercurial, fluxy. That's frustrating, and scary. But maybe that's the point. It won't be reduced.

I respect Kripal's radical agnosticism, his refusal to get stuck in categories, his epistemological humility, but is it enough? Can it really be the structure for our relationship to the Whatever? What ethics do we take from it? Do we not need some sort of stable cultural myth, some interpretation of the What-The-Fuck, and the ethical prescriptions to be drawn from it?I put this to Kripal in an interview. He thinks the New Age (including UFO-based spirituality) does actually have a strong ethical component - it tends to be strongly environmental, more open to sexual difference than monotheism, and more open to the weirdness and fluxiness of the What-Have-You.

Well, here we are. Knocks on the cabin roof. Muffled messages through the walls. And homo sapiens, semi-intelligent monkeys, scrabbling to make sense of the messages, opening the door, peering out, and wondering.