The occasional ecstasies of Alan Levinovitz
And why he can't talk about them, or not entirely
This week we’re considering how to talk about ecstatic experiences, how to ‘eff the ineffable’, and also the ethics of testimonies. Are there some things you shouldn’t discuss, out of privacy or holy dread? First up is an interview with the brilliant scholar, Alan Levinovitz, opening up - and not opening up - about his religious experiences, and why he doesn’t feel allowed to discuss them totally. Alan is associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University and the author of the award-winning-book, Natural: How Faith in Nature's Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. These are edited highlights of a two-hour conversation, which paid subscribers get full access to this week.
Alan Levinovitz: So I have a question for you which is related to my own spiritual experiences, which is that a lot of people who have had spiritual experiences, whether on psychedelics or more traditional religious experiences, they like to talk about what the experiences showed them. These experiences are seen as disclosures. I don't understand why there aren't more people who feel the way I do, which is that I'm not allowed to talk about what it showed me, or there is no way to talk about it.
This is called apophatic theology and there's a tradition of this where you can't speak about things, you can't predicate the divine because when you do it sort of insults the divine. It is strange to me that there aren't more people having these experiences and then being like, I don't know, I'm not really allowed to talk about that.
Jules Evans: Well, we wouldn't know. I think probably there are lots of people who feel like they don't want to talk about it, partly because maybe it feels too precious to them, you know too sensitive, but also because they don't want someone to mock an experience that means so much to them.
AL: That is actually not what I mean. What I mean is that you're not allowed to. So, when I started talking about my spiritual experiences, yeah, my students would ask me questions about them, and answering honestly, I'd have to say to many of their questions, it's not allowed to answer that. I mean it sounds like a paradox, but one way what was disclosed to me, I guess if you want to call it that, is that you can't...I'm not allowed. It's not about a taboo or embarrassment. It's simply I'm not allowed to.
JE: Well, this is like the Jewish idea of the Holy of Holies. Or the idea in mysticism that there are some things you shouldn’t discuss publicly – in fact the word ‘mystic’ comes from the Greek word muein, for ‘closed eyes and lips’, like, initiates should have closed mouths about what they experience. Initiates at the Eleusinian Mysteries would be put to death if they talked about what happened during the Mysteries…But I think it depends on the tradition. In certain forms of Christianity, if you have an ecstatic experience, a Holy Spirit encounter, probably the next week you're on the stage at church and the vicar says ‘tell us about your Holy Spirit encounter’.
AL: All I can say is that for me, important repeated spiritual experiences came with personal guardrails around them, or rules, or something. One of the things that was impressed upon me by these experiences was just how wary I should be when I'm yakking about them.
JE: Anyway, saying all that, you mentioned you are prepared to tell us a little about your own spiritual experiences?
AL: So there's some things that are very comfortable talking about because they don't touch on the things that I'm not allowed to talk about. So, for example, I can talk about how long it lasted. So these experiences started when I was in college. That was the first one, and it lasted for weeks. I slept for about an hour a night and everything looked beautiful. The first time it happened, I remember I was in the hallway of my dorm and that was maybe a week in or something. I looked at the palm of my hand and felt this incredible sort of tapping into this power around me. And I was like, I could make fire come out of the palm of my hand. I tried, and of course it didn't work because that's not how it works, and that's actually something I am comfortable saying, is that that's not how these things work. This does not give you the power to levitate. It does not give you the power to heal people. It does not give you the power to make fire come out of your hand. That's bullshit.
So this went on for many weeks and it was just incredible. Although I'm not a religious person, I've done lots of psychedelics. And it was a little bit like ecstasy [MDMA], it was a little bit like acid or mushrooms, but also fundamentally different. And it went on for weeks and I felt very clear headed and I could talk with other people and live my life. At night I would just lie in bed awake thinking of wonderful things, you know?
And when it ended, I was really distressed and I wanted it back. And I remember reading something by Thomas Merton [the American Catholic contemplative] where he says the worst way to understand God is to experience God when you're young. Because then you think that that's what religion is about, it’s trying to have this experience again. And I was like, OK, all right. Merton knows. So I just let it go.
I didn't talk about it with anyone. And I tried to do research. Has anyone else had this kind of experience? I read about manic experiences and I was like OK, this sort of sounds like what I had but I don't have depression. I didn't blow all my money on anything. It was sort of related but sort of not.
Long story short, it happened to me again, maybe four years later. I was walking down the street and suddenly, oh my God, it's happening again. It lasted for weeks. But this time when it went away, it didn't hurt quite as much, I guessed these things come and go, and those experiences have come and gone throughout my life. They've happened maybe 9-10 times. Each time they’re different in part just because I've had them before, so I sort of understand what they are. I'm comfortable talking about all of that in part because it doesn't involve pronouncing on any of the things that I'm not allowed to pronounce on.
JE: And how did you know you're not allowed to pronounce on them?
AL: It’s more like I came to understand that if I talk about it, it will no longer be that thing. Imagine someone's like ‘I'm going to tell you a secret but you have to keep it secret’, you know? But it's not a secret anymore if you disclose it.
JE: I literally think you're the first person I met who thinks like that…you're like a vegan who doesn't want to talk about the fact they're vegan. It's a rare thing, you know what I mean? In New Age culture, everyone wants to talk about their incredible experiences.
AL: I am not trying to say others should not talk about their experiences. And I’m interested in others’ experiences. Have you come across similar experiences in your research?
JE: Yes, I've come across people whose experiences have lasted weeks. I’ve also written about ‘spiritual emergencies’ – dark nights of the soul – which can last for weeks or months. The book that I coedited with Tim Read called Breaking Open - one of the chapters in there is by John Ablett, he talks about an awakening experience he had while at university, where all the normal noise in his head goes away and he feels deeply calm and illuminated. And what happened to him was he started talking and teaching. He stopped wearing shoes and he became like the barefoot guru, and he started to get noticed, people came to his talks. His professors and other students as well. And then it passed after a few weeks and he felt, ‘I have a choice here. I'm at a crossroads. I can keep on playing that role, or I can admit that I'm not as permanently enlightened as I thought I was’. And thankfully he chose the second path. But it was very hard and bewildering for him because he thought he was enlightened.
AL: This is so fascinating. I was extremely charismatic during these experiences, I couldn't hold it in. And I remember there was one time where I saw these people waiting for manual labor early in the morning in California. I was wandering around at all times because I didn't sleep. And I was like, I'm gonna go over there and help them. I walked over, and as soon as I greeted them, it just hit me how ludicrous what I was doing was. It was very funny and I withdrew from it. And there was one other experience of potential narcissism, when I'd gone into this cafe, I was able to charm anyone I wanted during this experience and there was this one woman working at the café behind the counter, and I just couldn't charm her. And she started to look like a demon, for lack of a better word. And I got very scared. I was like, OK, I got to get out of here. Later, I was just like, what the hell? She just didn't want to talk with you. She’s not a demon, it's fine. That's narcissism, thinking that someone who can't be charmed is a demon.
JE: Yeah, that makes sense and you dealt with that really well. From what I can see in these very altered states which last for a long time, it's like being on psychedelics. And in that very raw and sensitive state, little things can push people into different states. So for example if you get into a thought process like ‘maybe I'm in a uniquely-special state’ that leads to spiritual inflation, but it also leads to paranoia. If I'm uniquely special maybe people are out to get me. There's also the risk that, if you're in this high state, and someone somehow obstructs you or doesn't join you in it, then they're seen as the enemy of the age of love, they are the forces of darkness. That happens in spiritual communities over and over.
AL: It was a very overall humbling experience for me. I had the experience of everyone else being a sage. Shut up and listen to these people.
JE: Did you look for theological explanations? Do you know about the Buddhist jhanas?
AL: No. What are they?
JE: Well, I don't know much about it. As far as I understand there are the four jhanas in Buddhist psychology, and these are consecutively deeper bliss states one encounters in meditation. And the first jhana spontaneously arose for the Buddha supposedly when he was a boy and he was sitting watching someone plough a field. And he felt so relaxed that this blissful state arose. And later on, when he was looking for enlightenment, he thought, well, maybe it's partly about returning to the natural blissfulness of the mind, that first jhana, and observing it. And then you go deeper, because initially there’s a temptation to get attached to it because it's so blissful. So you have to constantly just observe the arising and passing. And you go up through the jhanas.
AL: Personally I am afraid of hierarchies of any kind, and even words like higher and lower or deeper or less deep.
JE: Yeah, I am also. One of the things that happens with people thinking about ecstatic experiences is people create maps for them. But the maps can be become overly prescriptive. So people love Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey for example. But then what happens is often you go to like psychedelic retreats or spiritual retreats and they say you're on the hero's journey, you must be at this stage or that stage. And it's the same in Buddhism – it’s so systematic and creates these maps of the mind. And some people swear by these maps and say oh, you must be at the stage of passing and arising or you're at the third jhana now. There are also the followers of Ken Wilber, who is the ultimate systematizer and he's all about the maps and the quadrants. And then there's people who try to make maps of maps, like meta maps.
AL: For me, the description I found helpful was this kind of apophatic mysticism, this idea that certain kinds of things like secrets, riddles, mysteries are intrinsically non describable. And so, if the nature of reality is a mystery, then we wouldn't be able to describe it, because as soon as you did, it wouldn't be reality. It has a lot of practical implications about the kinds of things you tell people, and the kinds of certainties you can hold and the kinds of certainties you can't hold. [These experiences] have made it much easier for me to admit I'm wrong about stuff.
There are certain things that I feel more strongly about, so I have really come to detest gurus, especially people who pretend to heal or pretend to have magical powers. And I think that those people are doing something really bad. And so while I've become less comfortable telling my students what to believe about a whole range of stuff, I'm much more comfortable saying to them, look, if someone has come along and told you they have the key to fixing yourself spiritually, or even the key to healing yourself, that is a person you ought to be very, very suspicious of. There’s a passage in Taoism - here, again, I'm paraphrasing - where it says that the true sage moves among the people and things harmonize, but the people believe that they have done it of themselves. In other words, the sage is invisible.
JE: Yeah I like the idea of hidden masters in Taoism. It’s very non-western. There may be really good advanced teachers out there, but they tend to be not the ones who are really active on social media and have a big global following. But to follow up – have you tried to fit your experiences into any particular tradition or community?
AL: I have not felt the need to do that.
JE: So you’re an atheist? A Taoist?
AL: I always tell my students on the last day of class, you can ask me whatever you want and I'll answer as best I can. So they'll always ask ‘are you an atheist?’ I'm in Virginia, so maybe like 2/3 of the students are Christian. I said I don't believe that there is a God that wants stuff and makes lists of rules and talks to people. And if that's what we mean by atheism, then I am an atheist. I don't believe in that kind of God. But I also tell them I don't believe in any revealed texts delivered by a deity that have timeless truths, and there is no deity that talks to people or tells them things. But I'm extremely religious because I believe that there is magic sparkle-dust, or whatever you want to call it, something beyond and before humans, some kind of mystical organizing force, for which I'm grateful. I used to say I was spiritual but not religious, you know? But spiritual has all these weird connotations. So now I say I'm deeply religious. It has very important implications for how I live my life built into it. I think you can harmonize with it, more or less. But it's always mysterious, it doesn't mean that you're going to get what you want…I mean it's…I take it back. I take it all back. There's not a harmony.
JE: But I think sometimes even in awful moments one can feel there’s a higher meaning, a pattern, and that can be consoling.
AL: You use the word pattern, which is something that actually lines up with your maps and hierarchies that you were talking about earlier. It's interesting to me. I believe that there's something about pattern offering comfort that is not compatible with mystery offering comfort. Because pattern is not mystery. Pattern in a certain sense is the opposite of mystery. And if at least a part of reality is intrinsically mysterious, if the only place we can get comfort is from pattern, we're going to be in trouble. I believe there are ways to harmonize with mystery, but they involve being able to not turn mystery into pattern. Often chaos can be scary or dangerous or harmful. But if you keep trying to fit everything into a pattern, that becomes sort of monomaniacal, and I think there will be times when you bump up against stuff that resists it in ways that cause you harm.
After the paywall, a video of the full discussion for paid subscribers, plus a link to a recommended book by Alan Watts that beautifully describes the wisdom of not imposing patterns onto nature. Paid subscribers get access to all posts, the archive and community chat.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Ecstatic Integration to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.