In June 2013, I was driving through Snoqualmie Pass, just east of Seattle, Washington, despondent regarding my career. I had finished another year of teaching middle school. The hours were long. I felt intellectually starved. And the authoritarian nature of traditional schooling grated against my reverence for individual autonomy, particularly my students’.
I dreaded the work and questioned my vocational plan. So, on a whim, I hit the highways for a month-long trip along the Cascadian Coast, in my Forester (Subaru, the unofficial vehicle of the Pacific Northwest). I knew that “on the road,” one meets the “lords of the in-between,” as Lewis Hyde refers to the transformative forces which occupy the perilous—or at least they once were—borderlands connecting (and dividing) our many “villages,” scattered across the rugged terrain of the Western US.
Understanding demands border-crossing (geographic or otherwise).
The first 800 hundred miles of high desert and elevated plains were uneventful. Rubber and gravel. Mercurial engine rattling and screaming interstate winds were my main companions—until I reached that gap in the Cascades.
Ghost-kissed peaks, endless dun evergreens, and the rooted stillness of Keechelus Lake overwhelmed me. It exploded within my chest. The earth inhaled me whole. Tears welled up, warming my buoyant smile. My jaw dropped, in the way I’d only ever seen occur in cartoons; I refused to believe the beauty of it all. I pulled my car over to the shoulder of I-90 and dropped to my knees, eager to get ahold of some dirt. I clenched its elemental vitality in my fists. It felt like coming home, to a land I never thought I’d find (or realized I’d been missing). Possibilities felt endless. Potential appeared behind every tinge of moss and coil of deer ferns. I didn’t have to be anywhere else. I didn’t have to be doing anything else. I disappeared.
I hoped for some insight when my coastal ramble began but I wasn’t expecting a revelation like this. This was ecstatic experience.
Ecstatic experience consists of moments wherein we transcend our ordinary selves, connecting to something larger. It isn’t just “getting lost in the moment” or “being in flow,” like when we’re enjoying a hobby or making dinner without full awareness of every familiar step. Ecstatic experiences involve dramatic ego-loss, altered states of consciousness. They surpass the mundane and transform us, awakening us to deeper realities.
Ecstatic Experience in the West
In the Occident, we’ve had numerous movements against ecstasy, most dating back to the Enlightenment (and others tracing beyond to the ancient Stoics). Thinkers like René Descartes, Voltaire, and Adam Smith put their faith in metaphysics and reason, decrying religious fervor and its erratic subjectivity. They dismissed “enthusiasm,” for ecstasy was perceived as a danger to society. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith argues, “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”
Materialist philosophers like Thomas Hobbes believed that all that can be said to exist are matter and physical mechanisms. We are machines (or computers). They championed dispassionate reason and control, of nature and the self. Hobbes asserts, in Leviathan (1651): “The source of every crime, is some defect of the understanding; or some error in reasoning; or some sudden force of the passions.” In such a paradigm, we are to distrust emotions, subordinate sentiments to logic. The materialist worldview allows no space for the Transcendent. To open oneself to ecstasy was to invite lunacy, hysteria, and the type of magical thinking entangled with belief in supernatural beings. (Notably, some French Enlightenment thinkers were quite enthusiastic about the passions and skeptical of abstractions. And even Immanuel Kant held an encouraging, although, tempered view of Transcendent experience—as something to “elevate the strength of our soul,” with one qualifier: “as long as we find ourselves in safety.”)
In his book, The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience (2017), Jules Evans explains this perspective, that “ecstasy is a mental delusion,” according to materialists. “We must learn to govern ourselves and control our impulses, not to placate any supernatural beings, but rather to win the approval of the Public, the new god of the humanist universe. The Public is always observing us, and we must remain polite and self-controlled at all times, lest people think we’re unreliable or crazy…Rational control is the basis of morality, and losing control is shameful.”
Victorian anthropologists associated it with primitive cultures, notes Evans. Ecstatic experience was for savages and the ignorant. In Dancing in the Streets (2007), Barbara Ehrenreich states, “The essence of the Western mind, and particularly the Western male upper-class mind, was its ability to resist the contagious rhythms of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality in the seductive wildness of the world.”
As a corrective to this, 18th-century Romantics invoked the Sublime: the terrifying beauty and awe of nature—reflecting my experience in Snoqualmie. I felt perfectly insignificant, kneeling before those monuments of granite born from thousands of short-lived volcanoes millions of years ago. I envisioned myself atop one of these icy crags in a snowstorm. It frightened me while the sky’s formlessness tempered the dread, lending me a sense of harmony; “a delightful horror” is how Edmund Burke described it in A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756).
Another wave of resistance to materialism came with the spiritual awakening of the 1960’s, espoused by hippies and the Human Potential Movement, which rejected the social alienation and estrangement from nature which they felt came from such reductionism. Resistance to ecstatic experience and stringent conformity mutated into repressed energy, creating a “beat generation.” The antidote to this pathology was to release the madness. Jack Kerouac:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’
Eastern contemplative practices thrived during the counterculture. Figures like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts lectured extensively, introducing the West to Zen Buddhism. Watts remarked, “In a way, ecstasy is the nature of existence—a universe exists for the simple reason that it is ecstatic. What else are these fireworks about? When you know that everything is all right and that the situation is inevitable ecstasy, you won’t make such a fuss about everything.”
The West was liberated from restrictive social norms and religious dogmas surrounding sexuality, gender roles, and rigid social decorum believed to constitute the good life. One didn’t need permission or intermediaries from any particular religious institution to encounter the Divine. Experimentation with psychedelics suggested another possible avenue for ecstatic experience. Rock music proliferated, enveloping thousands of musical acolytes in collective joy, reminiscent of Pentecostal gatherings and ancient Dionysian festivals; Ehrenreich muses, “The urge to transform one’s appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress.”
The Darker Side of Ecstatic Experience
This revival of ecstasy revealed a dark side though, enabling the apostles of logos to clamp down on spiritual excess. Too many aspirants lost themselves in new religious movements prone to cult-like behaviors. Evans explains, “Eastern gurus turned out to have clay feet. The New Age embraced all kinds of nonsense, from horoscopes to crystal skulls. LSD turned out to be less benign than its prophets had predicted—people lost their minds, ended up in psychiatric institutions. The free-love revolution climaxed in an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases.”
Thus, contemporary Western culture reified the border between itself and ecstasy. Enthusiastic exuberance, small-minded materialism, and religious extremism have hardened us against mystery, blockading us from crucial human experience. Evans continues, “We’re fascinated by ecstatic experiences, but terrified of losing our minds. We’re frightened of being brainwashed and ending up in a cult. We dislike the idea of religious authority: we want ecstasy, but on our own terms, preferably without dogma, hierarchies, or long-term contracts.”
Stoicism Just Isn’t Enough
We encounter a deluge of traumas, trials, and tribulations. Existence confounds us. And Western culture is replete with prescriptions for coping with or overcoming our frailties.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has proven incredibly successful at combating many emotional infirmities (and might even improve our political lives). We’ve also observed a recent resurgence in Stoic philosophy. Its rationalistic approach helps counteract news-fatigue in politically uncertain times and reminds us that we can bolster happiness by shifting our focus onto what we can control.
However, many find CBT is too superficial and mechanical. While an advocate of Stoic philosophy—having written a defense of it in Philosophy for Life (2012)—Jules Evans reneges a bit on rational self-analysis. No longer identifying as a Stoic, Evans contends, “There is something to be said for those moments when we lose control, when we surrender to something greater than us, even if it means going beyond critical rationality. The Stoics had little positive to say about romantic love, or intoxication, or music, dancing, and the arts in general.” Each of these attracts flashes of euphoria, often in the context of community. Alternatively, Stoicism is a solitary philosophy. As Evans points out, “[It] lacks rituals, myths, and festivals, which have helped humans find ecstasy over the millennia.”
We are wrong to resist ecstatic experience—for it heals, inspires, and connects us. The reality is we can learn to lose control and flourish in the 21st-century—with a pragmatic, empirical approach toward that which we don’t fully understand but so deeply ache.
Many Pathways Up the Mountain (or Through It)
William James is an intellectual giant renown for his treatise, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902): an investigation into the subjective encounters people have with the Transcendent. In his study, he attended more to the fruits of these experiences than to noxious metaphysical tussles. Like James, I remain agnostic on cosmological claims. It best benefits us to approach these occurrences through their impact on personal life, asking ourselves: does this path lead to healing, inspiration, and connection? Am I living a more flourishing life because of these ecstatic experiences or am I worse off?
Ecstatic experience manifests in many ways and can be accessed through numerous channels.
In The Art of Losing Control, Evans lays out several gateways to ecstatic experience—adjoining his own experimentation with current research. In charismatic Christianity, he finds community and grace. He witnesses religious healings and acknowledges that whether they’re the result of a placebo effect or something Other, it means “people’s expectations, beliefs, and faith can have an extraordinary impact on the body, which can be triggered by ritual and role-play.”
The arts, cinema, and dreams offer meaningful engagement with our psyches. Inspired by Carl Jung, Evans notes, “Most dreams are not very significant, but occasionally, in times of crisis, the subliminal mind sends ‘big dreams,’ which are unusually vivid and numinous, and help us adapt to change, particularly to break-ups, illness, bereavement, and the prospect of death.” Symbols found in film and paintings can shift our minds, providing catharsis or archetypal characters through which we can integrate the conflicting parts of our psyches.
At rock and roll concerts we clap and sing, dancing together like whirling dervishes. Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters: “Music became my religion, the record store my church, the rock stars my saints, and their songs my hymns.” Music bonds us in moments of ego-liberation.
As government restrictions on psychedelics relax again, preliminary research suggests that not only are magic-mushrooms, like psilocybin, effective against depression and anxiety but even against alcohol and heroin addiction. Psychedelics have long been a staple of shamanic or animistic worship throughout the world, used as a vehicle for crossing into the supernatural realm. Whether it is reduced to a material explanation, like simple brain chemistry, or is attributed to something supernatural, contemporary psychedelic practitioners cannot deny its resemblance to other spiritual experiences. On recounting an ayahuasca trip, the musician Sting says, “The normal barriers that separate ‘me’ from everything else have been removed, as if every leaf, every blade of grass, every nodding flower is reaching out, every insect is calling to me…This sensation of connectedness is overwhelming.”
Mindfulness and meditative practices bring us more into our physical bodies, through breathing techniques, paradoxically joining us to the larger cosmos—even restructuring our brains. Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher and researcher, found that 95 percent of his students on a 3-month meditation retreat, and 40 percent on a 2-week excursion, reported experiences of “rapture or bliss.”
Evans also delves into what he calls the “Forest of Wonder,” how I might describe my encounter in Snoqualmie Pass. One can appreciate the wonder of natural landscapes, the wildness of the earth, and still, miss out on ecstatic experience. Ecstatic experience comes as a byproduct of one’s orientation in the world, eluding us the more desperately we try to seek it. We can’t pursue these unique encounters like commodities, which turns the spiritual into a self-centered act. It’s like trying to breathe by holding ones breath or attempting to hold water by grasping after it.
David Abram, philosopher and the author of The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), found that as he spent more time in the shamanistic culture of Bali, he tapped into a deeper ecological domain. He says, “Other animals began to intercept me in my wanderings, as if some quality in my posture or the rhythm of my breathing had disarmed their wariness: I would find myself face-to-face with monkeys, and with large lizards that did not slither way when I spoke.” He felt as if the movement of his body was “motivated by a wisdom older than” his “thinking mind.” These “vital sources of nourishment” faded upon his return to the West for it was difficult to retain the connection as he reacclimated to Western culture.
I’m inclined to think had I not already attuned myself to the natural world, I would not have encountered the Cascade Mountains in the way I did. They otherwise would have remained apathetic toward me. Abram reminds, “To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being.” We are tuned for relations, with other humans and Nature. Our eyes, flesh, tongue, ears, and nostrils are doorways, Abram emplores, “where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.”
Ecstatic experience is essential to human flourishing and we barely understand it—but therein lies its power. Humans have evolved as nodes with infinite connections, designed to sense, experience, and relate to the Other. Empirical inquiry has aided us in that quest, but if we settle for the hollow rationalism or hard materialism of the Enlightenment, resisting the invitations to go beyond the self, then we’ll trap ourselves inside skin-encapsulated egos.
“And so we impose our will upon the world,” warns Alan Watts in Out of Your Mind (2017), “as if it were something completely alien to us—something that exists on the outside.” However, if we open ourselves up to ecstatic experience, we’ll find that we’re “as continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean,” for just as the “ocean waves, the universe peoples.”
(Featured image source: Philippe Siguret/Unplash)