In a recent post entitled, “What American Gods Tells Us About the Need for Religious Ecstasy“, I speculated that one of the reasons Neo-Paganism seems to be on the decline and Devotional Polytheism on the rise, is that the former no longer offers the experience of ecstasy or transcendence to many people, while the latter does. In response, Rua Lupa argued that “the search for transcendence or ecstasy in order to have a ‘deep religious experience’ is frankly hedonistic.”
I am sympathetic to the argument that pursuing “peak experiences” for their own sake can be problematic. At its most benign, “blissing out” may be “purely aesthetic”, but at worst, it can resemble drug seeking behavior. Nevertheless, I believe there are real benefits to seeking out mystical or ecstatic states.
First of all, we should take note of the tendency to talk about religious experiences like they are all the same. Words and phrases like “mystical”, “ecstatic”, “transcendent”, and “peak experiences” get used interchangeably. And yet, I know from both personal experience and from reading the accounts of others’ experiences that there is considerable variation in these kinds of experiences, not just in intensity, but also in character. It’s not even clear whether they are the same kind of experiences.
But for present purposes, I will speak of “transcendent” experiences in general terms. By this I mean any experience of “otherness” or “otherworldliness” which is accompanied by a state of intensified emotion or heightened perception. This includes experiences which are often called “ecstatic” or “mystical”.
In addition, such experiences are deeply meaningful, though their meaning may be difficult to articulate. Those who have experienced transcendent states often will describe them as among the most profound experiences of their lives. Take, for example, this account from the 19th century Unitarian minister John Trevor. According to Trevor, these experiences
“are proved real to their possessor, because they remain with him when brought closest into contact with the objective realities of life. Dreams cannot stand this test. We wake from them to find that they are but dreams. Wanderings of an overwrought brain do not stand this test. These highest experiences that I have had of God’s presence have been rare and brief—flashes of consciousness which have compelled me to exclaim with surprise—God is here!—or conditions of exaltation and insight, less intense, and only gradually passing away. I have severely questioned the worth of these moments. To no soul have I named them, lest I should be building my life and work on mere phantasies of the brain. But I find that, after every questioning and test, they stand out to-day as the most real experiences of my life, and experiences which have explained and justified and unified all past experiences and all past growth.”
1. Transcendent experiences can open our minds.
People can interpret their transcendent experiences differently, but one thing they seem to have in common is that they open people’s minds.
These experiences often raise more questions than they answer. And perhaps that is the point of them. As William James wrote,
“No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”
Such experiences keep us open to the unknown, to the mysterious. They remind us that we don’t know everything. In short, they keep us humble. And that alone is valuable.
2. Transcendent experiences can be transformative.
Criticism of transcendent experiences as “hedonistic” often take for granted that such experiences are an end in themselves. But in fact, many people experience them as transformative. Transcendent experiences often have a real and positive impact on how people think and live thereafter. Let me give you a few examples from my own life. Each of these experiences was unique, but all of had a transformative impact on me…
One such experience happened when I was 19. I was a new Mormon missionary in northeast Brazil, and I was having one of the most difficult times of my life. I felt lost and powerless. For weeks, I prayed intensely for help. Then one Sunday, as we walked to church in the already hot morning sun, I had an experience. I was fully present 20th century Brazil, but at the same time I felt myself to also be present in 1st century Palestine. I remained myself, but also felt that I was someone else, an apostle for the new Christian church. It is difficult to put into words. Though I didn’t see anything different, I felt it. And it felt as “real” as my normal reality. This feeling stayed with me until I took communion at church and broke down in tears.
This was one of the most important experiences of my time in Brazil. It’s no exaggeration to say the experience sustained me for the next two years–though it certainly raised more questions than it answered. Without it, I don’t know if I would have had the strength to complete my service.
Another experience of a very different character happened in Muir Woods. I was a Pagan then. It was my first visit to the place. It is a sacred grove of giant redwoods in a secluded valley across the bay from San Francisco. There is a part of the park that is designated as “the Chapel” and there are signs posted asking visitors to speak in hushed tones. Indeed, it feels like a temple. On my first visit there, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the place. I climbed out of the valley on one of the less trafficked trails and paused to catch my breath. As I did so, I was overcome with what I can only describe as exhilaration and pure joy. I pulled out my camera phone to record a video of myself. Looking at it today, it’s kind of embarrassing, and I’ve never shared it with anyone. I just kept saying, “This is it! This is it! I have to remember this.” Later, it reminded me of the viral video of the “double rainbow guy”, so I’ve come to call it “my double rainbow experience.”
Though I did not know it at the time, this experience was the first step on my path from a Self-centric Paganism which was focused on my personal development to an Earth-centric Paganism which has been focused on activism. Before this experience, I didn’t even recycle. Since then, I have become very focused on environmental activism, including organizing the group that drafted the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, getting arrested as part of an environmental protest and co-founding Indiana’s first chapter of 350.org.
The last example I want to offer happened a couple of years later. Again, it was a different kind of experience. This time it happened in a movie theater, of all places. The movie was Luc Besson’s 2014 film Lucy. The climax of the movie is a montage of images in which the heroine connects with her ancestral primate past and then with the physical universe as whole. It triggered something in me, and as I walked out of the theater, I had an intense feeling of both my infinitesimal insignificance and of my inestimable consequence as a part of the human species. I felt both of radical dissociation from the everyday concerns of my life and of deep responsibility to the Earth and to universe as a whole.
In addition to cementing my commitment to environmental activism, this experience permanently transformed my attitude toward my own death. Before the experience, I had carried around a rarely acknowledge anxiety about my own death. I experienced each moment like a stopwatch running backward. Afterward, my individual death just did not seem to matter that much in the cosmic scheme of things. In place of that ever-present anxiety, I felt a new lightness of being. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am entirely unconcerned about my death, but it no longer hangs over me or clouds my joy.
What I hope these experiences show is that transcendent experiences can be valuable because they are transformative. They can change the way we look at the world, and they can radically change our behavior.
3. Transcendent experiences can feel really good.
Lastly, transcendent experiences are hedonistic, just as Rua says, but I think that’s a good thing. We are Pagan after all! Hedonism and Paganism are almost synonyms. Michael York lists hedonism among the component features of contemporary Paganism, alongside nature “veneration, the this-worldly, corpo-spirituality, enchantment, humanism, … and multiple and gender-differentiated understandings of godhead or the divine.”
One of the things that drew me to Paganism was its unabashed embrace of pleasure and enjoyment for their own sake. As Robert Graves has written, “Religious morals, in a healthy society, are best enforced by drums, moonlight, f[e]asting, dancing, masks, flowers, divine possession.” Eating, drinking, dancing, fucking, and all that other good stuff: for Pagans, these things need no other justification other than they feel good. Of course, this is not the only criteria by which we make our choices, but it is one of them. And, unlike Christians, we don’t apologize for things because they make us feel good.
And one of those things things is transcendent experiences. Whether we’re talking about the experience of mystical unity with something greater than ourselves or the ecstatic bliss of dancing or fucking oneself into oblivion, these experiences usually feel really good. And that is a good enough reason to seek them out.