The Potential Trap of Spiritual Highs

spiritual highs

I’ve been thinking recently about this idea of ‘spiritual highs’ becoming a trap – something that can become one’s focus in life, to the detriment of other areas of life. The result of chasing spiritual highs ultimately becomes a barrier to personal growth, or ‘spiritual development’. 

I came across this Tweet that got me thinking about this subject more. Some of this message I wholeheartedly agreed with; some not entirely. This person talked about being a ‘spiritual bliss junkie’ and how this detracts from overall spiritual life. Becoming obsessed with or addicted to spiritual highs can draw attention away from the things in the everyday that need working on: relationships, difficult social interactions, jobs, finances, developing personal talents, and so on. 

I agree with all this, as well as the general concern about focusing on what one’s baseline state is like (which affects outcomes in everyday life), as opposed to being the hungry ‘I’ that craves and greedily consumes ecstatic states. What I don’t necessarily agree with is the idea that spiritual high states only serve to devalue other moments in life (whether they involve the humdrum or the more emotionally and morally challenging parts). This is certainly a risk of spiritual highs – overly focusing on states of bliss, ecstasy, egolessness, mystical oneness, and the divine can make everyday life seem drab and unimportant in comparison. And Buddhists have long recognised this as a potential pitfall of meditation – practitioners are warned not to get trapped by enticing states of consciousness like the jhānas (or ‘states of absorption’: these are known as states of perfect equanimity and awareness).

But this is not inevitable. If anything, getting trapped by spiritual highs is the opposite of the wisdom contained within them. This response is understandable, of course, because these can be states of unparalleled euphoria, joy, freedom, and peace of mind. But as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass warned, we can get stuck within these experiences (like those induced by psychedelics) because we feel the need to return to those states when we feel overcome by old habitual patterns of thought. The usefulness of these states, as Ram Dass believes, is that they show us a possibility, but they don’t automatically let us become that possibility. 

The (potential) wisdom of the high states lies in the recognition that these states of mind are possible, that these feelings exist within you, and that something of their character or quality can be suffused into everyday life. This is not to say that one should want to feel a deep sense of unity – free of the ego – all the time when sober. That would make functioning impossible. Nor would it be realistic (or desirable) to be overcome by waves of euphoria or the presence of the divine throughout the day. This would likewise make it difficult to function, and it would imply that the high state is better or preferable to sober reality because it is more intense and pleasurable.

One may think it’s uncontroversial to say that a spiritual high is better or preferable, given that it subjectively feels that way in the moment. How can one argue against attaching greater value to these awe-inspiring states of mind? These are states of mind that transform one’s existence into a fully-fledged form of paradise. However, this is where the trap lies.

Again, the wisdom of spiritual highs relates to their potential to inform the everyday. One can bring a semblance or residue of them to all aspects of life. The details of normal life can be a source of joy – from the natural world we perceive to the different beings we are in relation with. The ‘ultimate’ contentment we feel in the mystical unitive state can cross over into sober reality, whereby we strive to achieve equanimity in our own heads, and in the most chaotic and painful situations we have to face. 

The writer Jules Evans came up with a great term for this obsession with spiritual highs: he calls it the theology of ‘Wowism’. As he writes in a piece for Ecstatic Integration, “What I mean by this [the term ‘Wowism’] is an attitude or life philosophy that what really matters is life is Big Wow Moments.” In the psychedelic community, this would involve a deification of the most spiritually intense altered states of consciousness. It’s an attitude that assumes that spirituality is all about big experiences, epiphanies, and peaks.

This ‘valuation’ or ‘rating’ of experience – such as when psilocybin trial participants are asked to rate how spiritually significant their experience was – seems like a strange Western attitude. I would go so far as to call it a neoliberal attitude, an impulse to score our experiences as a way to stand out, compete, and gain status in a culture that treats experience like a form of capital. On the other hand, this ‘spiritual materialism’, as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called it, can exist without influence from political ideology. The ego – and connected feelings of insecurity: the need to be validated – is what ultimately drives the wish to feel, and be seen as, a ‘spiritual’ person.

In any case, Evans argues, it wouldn’t make sense for a Shipibo Indian shaman or Jesus to report what their most spiritually significant experiences in life have been. “The point is, a Christian life certainly has its epiphanies, but these moments only make sense as part of a personal and collective narrative of humans’ journey to God. Otherwise, they’d just be baubles of experience floating in the air without any tree to hang them on,” writes Evans.

In Western, secular society, in contrast, we have turned intense ecstatic experiences into a form of religion – a religion of pure experience – without any scaffolding. We lack the shared beliefs, rituals, and community that religions have traditionally linked to these experiences. It is singular big experiences, then, that become the goal, or even that which should be worshipped and praised above all else. Evans continues, “This is what wellness / New Age culture can sometimes be – the deification of Experience, above everything else – family, nation, planet, God. Just you on your own having your Big Wow Moment.”

He also goes on to echo what I mentioned about the effect of neoliberalism on this attitude: “Capitalism, of course, has very much contributed to this deification of Experience, thanks to the experience economy. As James Wallman tells us, people don’t want to spend money on things now (especially as some things, like houses, are too expensive). They spend their money on experiences.”

Evans ends with a great piece of wisdom: “Love and life are about the quiet times as much as the Big Wow moments, the growing together slowly over the years. It’s not about the occasional firework. It’s about building a steady fire that warms your life for years.” But I do believe the two – the big and the small moments – are intertwined (or at least, they can and should be). Unusually special (or sacred) experiences can make the ordinary more special (or sacred).

The potential trap of spiritual highs, in summary, appears to be twofold: stripping value and sacredness out of the everyday, and becoming obsessed with the highs to the detriment of other dimensions of one’s life. In myself, I’ve noticed the draw of Wowism and spiritual highs, as if having another big spiritual experience will finally cleanse me of mental distress. This can sometimes amount to escapism. However, I don’t think such escapism – seeking highs to feel relief from lows – is necessarily unhealthy. When done intentionally and in moderation, such escapism can offer much-needed relief and fresh perspectives. Conversely, when unconscious and habitual, chasing wow moments can become counterproductive and amount to an unhealthy avoidance of doing the ‘work’. 

The ‘work’ here will differ between people, but it may broadly mean working on the inner and outer aspects of one’s life (for example, one’s attitudes and feelings, and one’s habits and relationships). Spiritual highs can, because of their intensely positive nature, frustrate this work. But this doesn’t have to be the case. To borrow Evans’ analogy, big wow moments can also inspire us to build the steady fire that continuously warms us.

Leave a Reply