Photograph by Devin Doyle
Can an Ecstatic Practice Create Change in an Instant?
Can an Ecstatic Practice Create
Change in an Instant?
“You couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. You couldn’t watch Netflix or drink soda or mix a martini. You just stared at the wall from morning until night.” The first three days of his first silent retreat, psychologist Alex Belser felt as if he were living in a Buddhist straitjacket. But then: “I broke through into something that was utterly beautiful.”
We spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing for incremental change. We forget, Belser says, that change can happen in an instant.
Belser, a clinical research fellow and therapy supervisor at Yale University and an adjunct instructor of psychology at New York University, works with clients on this kind of change in his private practice. In this work, he’s studied altered states and breakthrough experiences. “It is entirely natural to want to experience nonordinary consciousness,” Belser says. “As natural as when a child spins and spins on the playground until she becomes dizzy and finds her own expanded conscious state.”
When our crutches are removed—through silent meditation, dancing, intensive breathwork, or psychedelics, for example—we’re left to confront who we are, Belser explains, as well as who we believe we are. That can be scary. And it can lead to wonderful new understandings of ourselves and how we exist in the world.
There’s a lot that keeps us from connection in the modern world. It’s time, Belser believes, to reclaim some of the practices that can bring us back together.
A Q&A with Alex Belser, PhD
Apart from mindfulness and meditation, there are sorts of practices that usher along not gradual changes but rather sudden ones. I think of these as “ecstatic practices.” I think we’ve paid too much attention to incremental change. And we have neglected what some people have called “quantum change experiences,” where something happens and things change all at once—not just in degree but in kind entirely.
These phenomena have a long history in psychotherapy, but there’s very little rigorous or discriminating research around these breakthrough experiences. If we look at global cultural practices throughout time, we see that ecstatic practice and quantum change experiences have been intentionally driven by various techniques and technologies, including intensive breathing practices, prolonged dancing, water and juice fasting, sweat lodge work ceremonies, vision quest retreats, body mortification rituals, and endurance challenges, like ultramarathon running, among others.
All of these techniques provoked breakthroughs. And I believe in the power of breakthrough practices—but as clinicians, we’re often afraid of these practices because they can be so powerful and can be potentially difficult for many people. So there’s an important disclaimer here, which is that these practices are powerful and can be destabilizing if they’re not properly facilitated and supported. And I think that’s why it’s critical that these practices should be culturally embedded with preparation, intention, ritual, ongoing facilitation, support, and integration. Especially since we live in an age where we’ve lost contact with many of these rituals. And where it’s hard for us to make our own culturally embedded practices to allow us to have a transcendent experience in this way.
This is what we’ve heard from wisdom teachers from various traditions across the ages: Who we really are is more than just the small ego. And while we identify with the most narrow and minute part of ourselves, our true selfhood is something else entirely and something much greater.
So why do we experience disconnection from that whole self? Our modern age has made connecting more difficult in many ways. First, our human bodies need darkness to sleep, but we light up the night. Our bodies were made for regular physical work, but many of us do not labor or move our bodies on a regular basis. We sit and look at screens. It’s no wonder that so many people can’t deeply rest. We don’t respect the body and the natural circadian rhythms of the day and the night, the lunar cycle, and the annual returns.
Second, why are we disconnected from others? We have lived for millennia in deep relationships with one another in small families and kin networks. But industrialization and our corporate economy separate us into nuclear families, and then into individual consumers. As human beings, we know that we are most deeply regulated—meaning that we feel less anxious and less depressed—when we’re with and among other people in vetted relationships. And it’s no wonder that we are so lonely. We’re starving for human connection.
And then the third thing that ties it all together: We’ve lost our connection with what I think of as our birthright, really, as human beings, which is our ability to experience ecstasy, or what I call “ecstatic experience.” Monday through Friday we live in a humdrum state, and I think the defining character of our age is a sense of ennui. Our fantasy worlds—like all of our top box-office movies—feature superhuman heroes who can pierce through the veil into something transcendent. It’s something we seek but don’t necessarily live.
We’ve built a culture that isn’t human in many ways—one that disrespects the body, separates us from our loving relationships, deprives us of deep and soulful connection, and then teaches us unhealthy ways to cope with the inevitable suffering that comes out of it. What we need to do is reclaim our connection to the ecstatic. To the deepest parts of ourselves. We know that human cultures throughout time have exercised shamanic and ecstatic practices—anthropologist Mircea Eliade calls these “archaic techniques of ecstasy”—but in our age, we’ve basically forgotten them and let them go.
There are at least three things for us to think about here:
One, we need to keep a daily stillness practice. As the earth spins on its axis, we’re constantly spinning on one of our own. This is about slowing down that motion and staying in one place—just being with ourselves in stillness for a few minutes a day. [Editor’s note: We’ll talk about why it’s hard for us to meditate—or just be still—later.]
Two, we need to reclaim our heritage of ecstatic ritual. In our current age, we define ourselves really narrowly and allow the mind to occupy a thin crevice. It’s quite constricting in many ways, and I don’t believe it’s the natural state of the human mind. I recommend a type of lunar practice that happens once every month—something we can do to reclaim the ancient rituals that we see across multiple cultures. These are Dionysian, trance-inducing rituals that can take many forms: Drums and rattles. Dance. Dream work. Soul work. Breathwork. Shamanic—and even psychedelic—work.
And three, we might acknowledge that we’re starved for human connection—and also that we have the power to redesign our lives in rich relationship with our loved ones. Human beings are social animals. We’re not atomized individuals. But it’s not just cultivating relationships with your immediate friends and loved ones. It’s about building networks where the people who care about you also care about one another. And many of us are missing that.
Fifty years ago, nobody but a bunch of hippies and spiritual speakers were into meditation and yoga. But today, mindfulness is blossoming in the Western world. And this is because people like Ellen Langer, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and other leaders—especially Eastern leaders—crossed a threshold to pair these Buddhist, Hindu, and Vedanta practices with mainstream psychology. Because of that reorientation toward Western culture, these Eastern spiritual practices became not just acceptable but mainstream. And they also became secularized and commodified in the process. This presents two problems:
1. Why do so many people find meditation so difficult? I believe it’s because we’ve separated meditation from the context of physical practice. These things are meant to be embedded within each other.
Historically, Buddhist monks were laboring in the rice paddies to make food for themselves before they sat down to meditate. Physical practice was a part of their waking lives, and it allowed them to effectively keep a meditation practice. Many of us don’t do that same kind of physical work today—and I think it’s really hard to go from eighty miles per hour in the mind and then just decide, “I’m going to sit down on this cushion and try to be totally still.”
Another example: The whole point of a yoga practice, traditionally, is to prepare the body to receive meditation. But now, there are à la carte classes where you can do ninety minutes of asanas with no meditation or thirty minutes of meditation with no physical preparation; in either case, there’s a major piece of the practice missing.
2. We imported these stillness practices, or secularized meditation, but we’ve neglected the rest. Mindfulness and meditation are often geared toward subtle or incremental change, but there’s an entire other rich lineage of practices that’s just as important and about the opposite: rapid change and dramatic shifts, which we’ll talk about next.
I think one of our problems with the contemporary state of the mind is that we’ve become too rigid, both individually and as a culture. It’s time to loosen up. So if I asked you, “Where are you?” Often a person will say that they imagine themselves as a point of consciousness somewhere a little back behind the eyes, inside the skull, as though they were being carried around inside their body. I think that’s a pretty narrow way of understanding where we are and who we are. As a psychologist, I’m interested in how we might—just transiently, for a moment in a ceremony or practice—begin to identify with something that’s greater than our typically narrow understanding of what is “me.”
In psychology, we sometimes talk about the ego, or just the idea of the self. And it creates boundaries of three different types: First, it creates and maintains a sense of self by regulating the boundary between self and other, between you and me. The second is the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness. And the third: the boundary between existence and nonexistence, or we might say the boundary between self and no self.
When these boundaries become permeable, we call that “egolytic,” or ego-loosening—meaning we’re less constrained by some hard-nut idea of selfhood.
And these archaic shamanic techniques are really good technologies to help us loosen up those boundaries; they have a way of helping us identify not with our smallest self but with our largest, truest self. They make the boundary more permeable between you and me, between what we’re conscious of and what is unconscious, between self and no self. And they may allow us to experience, for a moment, a sense of oblivion or transcendence or beyondness. Or a reality that feels more real than our daily, waking lives. That’s powerful.
The former US Surgeon General warned us that we’re in the midst of what he called the loneliness epidemic. In 1985, when you asked Americans how many close and confiding friends they had, the most common answer was they had three confidants. But decades later, if you ask the same question, the most common answer is zero. This is not something that can change or be fixed overnight. And that’s why it’s often so difficult for people who are trying to create communities for themselves—it’s a wide-scale cultural issue.
Chronic loneliness and isolation have devastating effects on the mind and body. They shorten our lives. They may be as risky for your health as the effects of obesity and cigarette smoking. So what are we supposed to do?
I think that there are some short-term concrete supports. And we’re seeing niche efforts to build communities: collective ownership of housing, coliving in apartments and in urban spaces, and coraising of children—as well as movement toward things like retreat psychology, or people coming together in meaningful ways for short periods of time. I think that all of these are important and are pieces of the puzzle, but real change has to happen at a higher level.
In the long term, we need to think bigger about how to reorient our culture against loneliness. People want meaningful contact with one another, and there are a lot of barriers in terms of the structure of how we live and how we work and how we commute that keep us apart. And I think it requires real structural change in how we live.
The Happy App
“Because of the loneliness epidemic, I helped cofound a young company called Happy,” says Belser. Happy is an app where you can call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and talk to somebody who provides emotional support. Belser’s team has recruited, vetted, and selected people who demonstrate compassion and good listening skills. And Happy accepts calls about all sorts of everyday experiences: You just select what’s on your mind—the list includes relationships, health issues, career, finances—and you’re matched with someone who provides you space to speak openly, honestly, and anonymously.
Alex Belser, PhD, is a clinical research fellow and therapy supervisor at Yale University and an adjunct instructor of psychology at New York University. His work includes several studies of psychedelic-assisted therapies for OCD, depression, anxiety, and addiction at Yale and NYU, as well as psilocybin therapies for cancer-related distress at MAPS. He also studies mental health interventions, including LGBTQ+ affirmative therapies, for gender and sexual minorities.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.