We urgently need to improve western culture’s ecstatic literacy
Western culture urgently needs to improve its cultural resources to help people make sense of ecstatic experiences. Evidence suggests that more and more people in western culture are having and seeking ecstatic experiences, because of the growing popularity of psychedelics and contemplative practices like meditation and yoga. However, we have scant cultural resources for making sense of such experiences.
Ordinary people who have ecstatic experiences have very few places to go for information about them. This means they will turn to secular psychiatrists, who may pathologize their experience, or to religious or spiritual influencers, who often have self-serving or conspiritualist agendas. Ecstatic experiences can be healthy and healing, but they can also be dangerous both for individuals and their societies. We urgently need a more mature cultural understanding of ecstatic experiences, to support individuals and the health of the body politic.
1) Ecstatic experiences are common and normal
An ecstatic experience is a moment where the mind goes into an altered state of consciousness and one’s ordinary sense of self and reality changes. Historically, such experiences tended to involve a feeling of ego-dissolution (ecstasis literally means ‘standing outside’ your usual self) and a feeling of ‘enthusiasm’ — a god or spirit enters you. The anthropologist Erika Bourguignon found that 90% of human societies had institutionalized rituals for the attainment of altered states of consciousness. Humans seek ecstatic experiences for meaning, healing, religious worship, creativity, social connection, and fun.
Most cultures have seen ecstatic experiences as potentially dangerous and disruptive, hence they devised rules and rituals to manage them for the good of individuals and society. Modern western culture, unusually, sought to marginalize and pathologize ecstatic experiences entirely. They were associated with…