Secular Ecstasy: Mystical States Without the Supernatural

secular ecstasy and mystical states

It is possible for anyone, regardless of his or her religious or metaphysical beliefs, to have a mystical experience. These mystical states of consciousness have been accessible since time immemorial. You can find accounts of profound altered states in ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and in the descriptions of the Eleusinian Mysteries, those secret rituals held in ancient Greece that involved the consumption of kykeon, a beverage that some authors purport contained psychoactive ergot alkaloids. Mystical states can feature a range of intriguing elements, including ecstasy and the experience of the ‘divine’, ‘sacred’, or ‘holy’.

This subjective meeting with the divine is often experienced in an ecstatic state, which in a religious context is known as religious ecstasy. During such an experience, one’s awareness of the external world is greatly reduced and the focus is centred on the interior and spiritual awareness of a divine presence, interpreted as God in the monotheistic traditions. The experiences are ecstatic because they are accompanied by euphoria, which can be both emotional and physical. It is curious, indeed, that the experience of the divine is intimately tied to overwhelming feelings of happiness and delight. Of course, states of ecstasy can occur without the divine element, but when that element is there, an individual will feel ecstasy in the presence of this divine ‘other’. The presence of the divine – or one’s contact or unification with it – causes one to feel exalted and joyous. This can be due to the ineffable, heightened qualities of love, comfort, and beauty commonly associated with the divine.

Such experiences can be felt by many to be confirmation of a supernatural reality, the existence of God, spirits, heaven, or a transcendent reality. A 2019 Johns Hopkins study, for instance, found that half of the participants who had previously self-identified as atheists (28% of the sample) said that they believed in God or a higher power after encountering a “benevolent deity” upon using the psychedelic DMT. Mystical psychedelic states, then, can – after a single experience – completely dismantle people’s metaphysical beliefs, converting people from naturalism to supernaturalism. Yet it is worth emphasising that not everyone will eschew atheism after a ‘God encounter’ (half of the participants in the Johns Hopkins study didn’t, after all). There are probably many reasons why some people reject atheism after a mystical experience but not others.

One person may view the verisimilitude (having the appearance of being real) of the experience as all the verification they need that a divine reality exists, which continues to exist after the mystical experience is over. Conversely, atheists who remain atheists following an encounter with a ‘divine presence’ might retain scepticism about the subjective experience of verisimilitude, questioning whether something appearing real – or ‘more real than real’, as mystical states often feel – is sufficient for radical belief change.

I do not wish to evaluate what interpretation is the most sensible or likely to be true. What interests me is this idea of secular ecstasy, an ecstatic experience of the ‘divine’ without a belief in a mind-independent divinity – a meeting with God who exists only subjectively, in an altered state, and who ceases to exist when the experience is finished. Indeed, one can experience the qualities of religious ecstasy – as described in the poetry of Rumi, for instance – without the religious or supernatural element. This marrying of a secular or atheistic worldview with mystical states is in no way contradictory.

The propensity to hold supernatural beliefs makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, so it is not unreasonable to imagine that, in an altered state, the evolved tendency to have supernatural experiences could be stimulated. However, this says nothing about why psychedelics or near-death experiences induce encounters with a divine reality. Given that these encounters are often highly meaningful and transformative, is it just accidental and lucky that we benefit so greatly from these experiences? If mystical states have adaptive value, then why are they often difficult to access (e.g. requiring prolonged meditation or high doses of nauseating psychedelics) or serendipitous (e.g. occurring through near-death experiences or the accidental discovery of psychedelics)?

Nonetheless, researchers have proffered explanations for the evolution of shamanism and mystical states, positing that even our hominid ancestor Homo erectus, who lived between 1.89 million and 110,000 years ago, was capable of having mystical experiences. An encounter with something greater than one’s self (God or the divine) could be adaptive or non-adaptive, but either way, the experience is still a product of evolution. As Gregory Gorelik underlines in his article ‘The Evolution of Transcendence’:

Even if such experiences are aberrations of normal psychological functioning, there have to be normally functioning neural structures in place that such states are aberrations of—structures with a long history of evolution by natural and sexual selection. This point highlights one of the basic tenets of evolutionary biology—namely, that phenotypic traits need not be wholly adaptive in an evolutionary sense (in that they always contribute to successful survival and reproduction), but may consist of non-adaptive by-products of adaptations. There could be much within the transcendent experience that is associated with such non-adaptive by-products, including the belief in gods and disembodied spirits. Nevertheless…some transcendent experiences may carry survival and reproductive value.

In spite of the explanatory gaps that exist relating to mystical states, it is still true that an experience of what we can term the ‘divine’ does not logically commit someone to a belief in a literal divinity. As Gorelik notes, “a naturalistic explanation is fully compatible with the spiritual dimension of life,” adding that “certain aspects of the transcendent experience can be explained in naturalistic terms.” It is understandable that a direct, meaningful, and verisimilar experience of the divine would lead to an enduring belief in a divine reality, yet I am interested in the mysteries that remain when divine ecstasy is secularised. One such mystery is what the experience of the divine means for a secular naturalist who does not subscribe to a religion or to any supernatural beliefs. How would such a person conceptualise a ‘presence’ that one automatically feels to be divine, and higher and greater than oneself?

The philosopher Chris Letheby argued in a piece for Psyche that “spirituality can be naturalized,” in line with Gorelik’s point. Lethby refers to a conception of naturalised spirituality formulated by the philosopher Jerome Stone, in his article ‘Spirituality for Naturalists’ (2012):

We are spiritual … when our sense of connection is enlarged … when we aspire to greater things … [and] when we ask the big questions. Note that these three – connection, aspiration and reflection on profound questions – are all forms of enlarging our selves, of breaking through the narrow walls of the ego.

This description, I believe, can serve as a useful way to naturalise the divine. We can interpret the divine as our aspiration for greater things; it exists as the purest and highest exemplar of virtues we wish to possess, namely unconditional love and the unwavering gaze of compassion and kindness. The divine can connect us to these positive emotions in a new and extraordinary way, and the ecstasy of the experience can likewise match the intense force of the divine’s qualities. This can enlarge the self, signalling to us that, while we may not reach these experiential heights in everyday life, we can nonetheless aspire to the divine, to bring virtue and a joyous mode of being back to the ordinary world.

In states of secular ecstasy, the divine reveals not some ‘other’ being who is separate from us but another aspect of ourselves, previously unrealised. In this way, the divine is an enlargement of the self. It is the experience of breaking through the narrow walls of the ego and perceiving a greater possibility. I have previously written on how atheism can be reconciled with an encounter with the divine during a psychedelic experience. This involves viewing this presence or quality as human and interior, rather than otherworldly and exterior. The experience of the divine does not have to presuppose the existence of a supernatural, independent entity.

If we take naturalised spirituality to (partly) centre on connection, as Stone does, then we can think of secular ecstasy as connecting us to other facets of the self and human experience. During or after a mystical state, the divine may be experienced as a distinct ‘other’ if it has not been integrated into the whole self. Unification with the divine – or a later identification with it when the mystical experience is over – may, on the other hand, represent a form of integration. This would constitute the Jungian process of individuation. Furthermore, the experience of the divine can lead to a reflection of profound questions, such as what fundamental values should be prioritised. When encountering the divine, an untold, exceptional beauty is felt, which accompanies the ecstasy; indeed, the two seem connected. Following such an experience, a secular individual may reflect on the fulfilling nature of beauty and seek to prioritise that value from then onwards.

Perhaps the divine possesses positive qualities to such an extreme degree because our psyche is trying to drive home the message that it is these qualities we need to focus on. From a therapeutic standpoint, if the ecstatic state is healthy and aims for wholeness, the divine’s attributes could be a way of compensating for a deficiency of these attributes in an individual. The experience can serve as a powerful reminder of one’s inner resources. Integration, meanwhile, would involve tapping into these resources when relating to oneself, others, and the world at large.

Sacredness is another quality of mystical states. And this quality can likewise be secularised and naturalised. The sense of the sacred for a secular person can refer to an experience – an ecstatic state, in this case – that is special and devoid of the ego. It is an experience that reaches a height or apex in terms of contentment, bliss, and joy. Indeed, an ecstatic state of the kind described here is rare and totally unlike what is experienced in normal consciousness.

Secular ecstasy is sacred because of the specialness, preciousness, potency, and transformative potential of the experience. This can lead to a veneration of the experience, in much the same way that a religious person will have deep respect for an experience that they deem related to the supernatural. To both the secular and the religious, the sacred can be differentiated from the quotidian nature of ordinary life. The sacred is that which causes an interruption or break in homogeneity, and which allows us to re-enter the world with a rejuvenated and positive outlook. This aligns with Mircea Eliade’s conception of the sacred, which he juxtaposes with the ‘profane’ (ordinary life); and thus formulated, the sacred is available to those who don’t consider themselves religious. However, the secular person or naturalist does not see the sacred – this break in homogeneity – as an ontological break, as a move from the natural to the supernatural, as the religious person does.

There is no reason for sacredness to lose its meaning if it can be naturalised. After all, the subjective sense of the sacred remains the same. This point applies to mystical states more generally. Even if the brain is responsible for producing them, these experiences are still deeply meaningful and positive for the secular person, and so they should not be discounted. On this point, Gorelik draws a parallel with romantic love, which can “be traced to such physiological processes as the firing of dopamine and oxytocin and the immunohistocompatibility of lovers…yet love is made no less real or meaningful thereby.” Marghanita Laski, an avowed atheist who studied religion, also makes this argument in her influential work Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences (1961):

I do not think it sensible to ignore, as most rationalists have done, ecstatic experiences and the emotions and ideas to which they give rise. To ignore or deny the importance of ecstatic experiences is to leave to the irrational the interpretation of what many people believe to be of supreme value… I do not believe that to seek a rational explanation of these experiences is in any way to denigrate them, but rather that a rational explanation may prove at least as awe-inspiring as earlier interpretations.

As we can see, the concept of secular ecstasy is by no means a new one. In an article for The Psychologist, Ray McBride states:

Ecstasy is not divine, but nor is it grotesque. It is a human experience. A moment in which consensual reality is overwhelmed by an unusual but rewarding sense of connection – between you and the world, your brain and your body, stimulus and stimulated. Such profound moments may be rare across a lifetime, but they may also be known by degree. And the meanings we attach depend on the lives we live. In other words, these peculiar joys are a facet of our biologies rather than our belief systems.

In line with Walter Stace’s taxonomy of the mystical experience, McBride believes that secular ecstasy involves a “surrendering to an unusual experience”, and features one or more of the following qualities:

  • Intense joyful sensations, euphoria, rapture, elation
  • Feelings of unity and oneness with one’s environment
  • Altered or detached perception of space and time
  • A sense of profundity and release from mundane reality
  • An ineffable yet rational experience

He also notes that secular ecstasy is “virtually synonymous” with the ‘peak experiences’ identified by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. These are experiences that contain a high level of joy, and which foster a feeling of fusion and the loss of one’s sense of self and time. Nevertheless, we do not need to exclude the divine and the sacred from secular ecstasy as McBride does. In fact, to Stace, these qualities are fundamental to the mystical experience, and they are available to the religious as much as the non-religious. The experience of these qualities precedes – and is independent of – religion. Moreover, these qualities can accompany mystical states without being supernatural in nature. And as I have argued here, by respecting and integrating these aspects of secular ecstasy, an individual can deepen the sense of well-being they feel in everyday life.

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