An Ecology of Ecstasy

Nicholas Humphrey

  • The Spiritual Nature of Man by Alister Hardy
    Oxford, 162 pp, £6.95, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 824618 8

Suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire, and with an extraordinary momentum his vital forces were strained to the utmost all at once. His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold … His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light. All his agitation, all his doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of serene and harmonious joy and hope, full of understanding and the knowledge of the final cause.

Case 3001, Prince Myshkin, Male, Age 27. Classification of experience: 1(b)(d); 7(a)(b)(f)(g)(i); 8(e); 9(a); 11(n); 12(a).

When Alister Hardy began his career in Zoology at Oxford, the Rev. W.A. Spooner was presiding over New College. Whatever the proclivities of his fellow students, it surely cannot have been Hardy of whom the story is told that he upset the Reverend Doctor by ‘hissing all his mystery lectures, and tasting a whole worm’. I should be surprised if Hardy has ever hissed at anything, let alone mysteries; and I suspect that, if offered a whole worm, his natural tendency would always have been – after duly taking notes – to put it back in the earth where it belonged.

No one could have been better placed than this gracious, boyish, uncompromising scientist to found the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College. ‘The possibility,’ he writes, ‘of investigating man’s transcendental experiences and of building up a body of knowledge about them from first-hand accounts has been a life-long interest which I have always regarded as part of my biological outlook. I began to collect material towards such a study more than fifty years ago: in September 1925 to be exact. I always regarded the planning of my research as an exercise in human ecology, for, to me, one of the greatest contributions biology could make to mankind would be to work out an ecological outlook which took into account not only man’s economic and nutritional needs but also his emotional and spiritual behaviour.’

To this end, beginning in 1969, Hardy launched a major survey of religious experience in contemporary Britain, soliciting through the press and by means of questionnaires personal accounts from ‘all those who feel that they have been conscious of, and perhaps influenced by, some Power, whether they call it God or not, which may either appear to be beyond their individual selves or partly, or even entirely, within their being’. The accounts would be treated in strict confidence, noted, classified and returned. No harassment – no hissing, no dissection ... And the accounts poured in. At the end of eight years he had received over three thousand first-hand descriptions of religious or quasi-religious experiences. A later random sample of the population by National Opinion Polls revealed that more than one in three people own to having been aware of or influenced by some such presence or power.

The present book provides a summary of the Unit’s findings, based on the first 3,000 cases. As Hardy saw it, his first job was to devise a system for classifying and labelling the different kinds of experience. He has devised an elaborate typology which allows any particular experience to be described under a variety of different headings: its sensory quality (visions, voices, out-of-the-body experiences ...), its affective quality (sense of security, awe, ecstasy, sense of timelessness ...), its antecedent cause or setting (prayer, music, natural beauty, despair, child-birth ...), and so on. The greater part of the book is devoted to the explanation and illustration of how ‘typical experiences’ may thus be classified. The first-hand accounts, many of which Hardy quotes at length, are if nothing else remarkably frank, interesting, and very often moving; and the reader is likely to be astonished, as was Hardy himself, not only by the strangeness and richness of the experiences but by the wealth of literary expression which he has mined. The book contains a certain amount of statistical information relating to the relative frequencies of different kinds of experience (much of which appears to be mathematically invalid). And it concludes with an essay entitled ‘What is spirituality?’, in which Hardy signally fails to answer his own question, but makes it clear that whatever spirituality is he is in favour of it.

No hissing, no dissection, no attempt in Gabriel Marcel’s words (which Hardy quotes approvingly) to ‘reduce mysteries to problems’. But why not? Why should we not ask, first, how much of all this stuff is genuine, and second, what does it all mean? If man does, perhaps, have a spiritual nature, he also for sure has a sceptical inquiring nature; and it is not obvious that we should agree to suppress the latter in order to do justice to the former. Hardy describes himself as a Darwinian. A Sunday Darwinian, maybe. From Monday to Saturday Darwin never left off making problems out of mysteries.

Hardy’s defence against any deeper or wider inquiry into the significance of the material he has collected would be that at this, the first stage in developing a ‘natural history of religious experience’, the scientist’s role must remain that of a detached observer. Collect the facts, classify them, and think about them later. Collect the facts, of course: provided they are facts, not fantasies. The facts that Hardy was after were presumably the facts about what people genuinely experienced at the time when the crisis, revelation or whatever came upon them. But what he actually collected were people’s reports of what they remembered of their experiences. And that is a very different thing, especially when the informants were recalling events which occurred as much as half a century ago and when their modal age was between 60 and 69 years (not 50 and 59 years, as Hardy himself states, having miscalculated the numbers in his Table II). Memory plays tricks on people, particularly people who – on the evidence of their own accounts – are many of them of a hysterical disposition. What is more, people play tricks on scientists, especially when they are given such a golden opportunity either for self-glorification or for the glorification of their God. Anonymity, in this context, is no guarantee against a tendency on the part of informants to swank about their supposed religious experiences: God presumably knows the identity of each informant even if we, the readers of Alister Hardy’s book, do not. Too many of the accounts read suspiciously like acts of worship in themselves.

Self-selection by informants is, as all sociologists know (and Hardy himself admits, only to dismiss it), a risky way of collecting information which is either honest or representative. As a basis for statistical analysis it is worthless. And yet, whatever reservations we may have about Hardy’s method, we cannot dismiss his findings out of hand. Amid the more pompous and pious rubbish, there is unquestionably a good deal of material which does have the ring of truth to it. My real quarrel is with Hardy’s failure to subject his strange material to any sort of constructive criticism. Having described and classified his 3,000 accounts he does little more than leave it at that, with a ‘God bless’ and an ‘Isn’t the world wonderful.’

Reverence for Nature’s works, although an admirable quality, is ultimately unenlightening. As William Empson wrote on the subject of aesthetics, ‘critics are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second of these classes: unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me.’ Would that Hardy showed a trace of irritation, that he tried – if not to uproot religious experience – at least to scratch around a little. But he does not. And the sceptical, problem-oriented reader is left to do it for himself.

When the gloss is removed, the most remarkable feature of these accounts of religious experience is their resemblance to pathological phenomena. As the book proceeds with its accounts of illuminations, guiding voices, senses of presence, depersonalisations, anyone with even a passing knowledge of medical case-histories is bound to recognise the tell-tale signs of epilepsy, migraine, schizophrenia, parietal lobe brain damage and so on. Indeed, anyone familiar with certain classic works of literary fiction is bound to do the same. I have quoted at the head of this review a passage from Dostoevsky’s Idiot, where the author describes Prince Myshkin’s feelings just before the onset of an epileptic fit (a passage for which there is an almost exact parallel in Dostoevsky’s description of his own experience of epilepsy). For comparison let me quote one of Hardy’s cases of religious experience:

The phenomenon ... is generally prefaced by a general feeling of gladness to be alive. I am never aware of how long this feeling persists but after a period I am conscious of an awakening of my senses. Everything becomes suddenly more clearly defined, sights, sounds and smells take on a whole new meaning. I become aware of the goodness of everything. Then, as though a light were switched off, everything becomes still, and I actually feel as though I were part of the scene around me.

Here is another case of Hardy’s, for which the obvious parallel is the ‘aura’ of classical migraine:

The experience lasted, I should say, about thirty seconds and seemed to come out of the sky in which were resounding harmonies. The thought: ‘That is the music of the spheres’ was immediately followed by a glimpse of luminous bodies – meteors or stars – circulating in predestined courses emitting both light and music. I stood still on the tow-path and wondered if I was going to fall down.

Here a case similar to what neurologists recognise as kalopsia (a sense of everything being beautiful and comforting), associated with lesions in the right parietal cortex of the brain:

For a few seconds only, the whole compartment [of the train] was filled with light ... I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. I felt that all was well for mankind. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love immeasurable and a glory unspeakable, all this they would inherit.

Here is a case of out-of-the-body experience, in all respects like the doppelgänger experience which is relatively common in epileptics, in patients suffering acute delirium or in those with damage to the parietooccipital cortex:

Later, when in my early twenties, as a lay preacher, I was taking a service in a tiny village chapel, I had another experience that remains both unusual and unique. Quite without any unusual context as I carried on the worship I ceased to be aware of my taking any active part. My only experience was that of sitting behind myself in the pulpit whilst I wondered how it came about that I was watching myself conducting the service.

I do not mean to imply that Hardy’s informants were themselves seriously sick people. But it does seem likely that many of them at the time of their ‘religious experience’ were on the edge of sickness. Given, however, that the symptoms did not prove incapacitating, given that there was no one to tell them they were sick, the interpretation they put on their experience was religious. Better by far – within the context of our culture – to be inspired than to be insane.

In the 11th century Hildegard of Bingen experienced a series of migraine-like attacks, associated with dramatic visual auras. One such vision she described as follows: ‘I saw a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars which with the star followed southwards ... And suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned into black coals ... and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more.’ As Oliver Sacks writes in his book on Migraine, ‘our literal interpretation would be that she experienced a shower of phosphenes in transit across the visual field, their passage being succeeded by a negative scotoma.’ But for Hildegard: ‘The visions which I saw I beheld neither in sleep, nor in dreams, nor in madness, nor with my carnal eyes, nor with the ears of the flesh, nor in hidden places; but wakeful, alert, and with the eyes of the spirit and the inward ears, I perceived them in open view and according to the will of God.’ And for Hildegard these visions were instrumental in turning her towards a life of holiness and mysticism. Only in recent years have experimental psychologists, drawing on the work of Schachter, begun to understand how physiological states of the body are given meaning and significance in people’s minds by the context in which they arise and are interpreted: thus the very same bodily symptoms may be perceived by the person as fear, sexual love, anger, religious ecstasy, depending on the social and cultural setting.

Hardy must know all this. He must know of the parallels between his cases of ‘religious experience’ and cases of overt illness. He must know of the work of Schachter on the perception of emotions. He has been in the game too long, surrounded at Oxford by too many well-informed colleagues, for him not to know. Why, then, does he keep silent? Why has he written such an intellectually shallow book?

The answer, I suspect, lies in Hardy’s misplaced anxiety not to hiss, not to dissect, never to undermine the illusion – even if it is an illusion – of divine intercession. Hardy knows from his own experience, and has had it confirmed often enough by the testimony of his informants, that those people who do ‘feel that they have been conscious of, and perhaps influenced by, some Power, whether they call it God or not, which appears to be beyond their individual selves’ are by that token happier, more confident, more generous beings. And, whom God – or cerebral physiology – has joined, let no sceptic put asunder.

But the danger is unreal. To turn a mystery into a problem does not reduce it, let alone destroy its value. On this point Dostoevsky’s Idiot, having had the first, may perhaps have the last word:

He arrived at last at the paradoxical conclusion: ‘What if it is a disease? ... What does It matter that it is an abnormal tension, if the result, if the moment of sensation, remembered and analysed in a state of health, turns out to be harmony and beauty brought to their highest point of perfection, and gives a feeling, undivined and undreamt of till then, of completeness, proportion, reconciliation, and an ecstatic and prayerful fusion in the highest synthesis of life?’... If in that second – that is to say, at the last conscious moment before the fit – he had time to say to himself, consciously and clearly, ‘Yes, I could give my whole life for this moment,’ then this moment by itself was, of course, worth the whole of life.