Ecstasy – Expedition to an Unknown Land

Henrik Jungaberle

2011 Spektrum der Wissenschaft Spezial Rituale Cover Section

Spektrum der Wissenschaft Spezial: Rituale (2011)

Ecstasy – Expedition to an unknown land

Henrik Jungaberle

He trembles all over his body, his pupils are greatly dilated and his gaze is directed into the distance. In rapid alternation, joy, rapture, but also dismay play on his face. Then he relaxes again, takes in the room and those present, only to be soon seized by a new wave of excitement. And it does not remain with the inner experience: Again and again, Roger (name changed) has to throw up, suffers pain, appears completely exhausted. Hours later, which seemed like an eternity to him, he tells us about the daydream-like flow of inner images that he experienced under the effect of the psychoactive plant tea ayahuasca.

He calls these experiences “inner work” and he knows these states – it is already Roger’s 17th trip to the land of ecstasy. He never travels alone, but is part of a ritual community that belongs to the Brazilian church Santo Daime. The plant tea originates from Brazil: its active ingredients harmine, harmaline and dimethyltriptamine come from the liana Banisteriopsis caapi and from leaves of the shrub Psychotria viridis. Among the indigenous peoples and mestizos of Amazonia, for example, the tea is used to meet spirits in shamanistic ceremonies or to cure diseases. In various religions influenced by Christian mythology, such as Santo Daime, ayahuasca is considered a sacrament. Both the preparation of the tea and its ingestion are part of a ritual.

Cultural Psychology at University of Heidelberg: Exploring Ritual Dynamics

Since 2002, we, a group of medical psychologists at Heidelberg University Hospital, have been studying how people deal with psychoactive substances. In the RISA project (Ritual Dynamics and Salutogenesis in the Use and Abuse of Psychoactive Substances), we use questionnaires, interviews and direct observation to study above all the biographical and social factors that determine whether or not drug use causes long-term harm. After all, taking psychoactive substances does not automatically lead to a substance use disorder – which is rare in the case of psychedelics anyway. Moreover, cultural anthropologists have repeatedly reported and continue to report successful “healing rituals” in which a psychoactive substance serves as a vehicle to achieve ecstasy. In this way, social and psychological conflicts are reintensified, enacted, and often resolved. The study is therefore less concerned with the development of substance use disorders or other pathological behaviors. The focus is on health and resilience (psychological resistance) in people who, by consuming alcohol, cannabis or other substances, expose themselves not only to the positively experienced effects but also to their dangers. In fact, after nine years of field study (the project ends in 2012), there are indications that a ritualized context is an important protective factor.

We randomly enrolled more than 300 adolescents from twelve school classes as subjects in the student sample. In the other sample, fifty adults came forward. These adults consume various psychoactive substances; mostly psychedelics. The study is financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and is part of the Collaborative Research Center 619 Ritual Dynamics.

Ritual Transfer: Celebrating South American Ceremonies in the Middle of Europe

Roger was in his early 20s when he joined us. Raised as a strict Catholic, he had developed a pronounced religious skepticism as a teenager, then experimented with cannabis and MDMA (also known as ecstasy) for a while among friends, and traveled to Peru and Brazil on his own after graduating from high school. But unlike some of the people we meet in substance use counseling, Roger managed to give his life a direction, and began to study biology, for example. He believes that he owes a right to make such life decisions to ecstatic experiences in the context of healing rituals, such as the Santo Daime church. In some European countries, such as Spain or the Netherlands, this group is tolerated as a religious community, while in others, such as France or Germany, it is prosecuted for violating narcotics laws – although the legal basis for this practice is shady to say the least.

Such a ceremony sometimes lasts up to ten hours. We have observed dozens of these rituals: About forty people from all walks of life sit in chairs in a hexagon around some musicians and the session leader. The community sings up to 160 hinarios (hymns) during the evening.  One to three times, community members drink ayahuasca while so-called fiscals accompany the session and assist a “traveler” if necessary. No one is looking for banal experiences of happiness. Rather, it is about spiritual development, an existential experience of unity, the search for answers to life’s questions, and the experience of security and community.  In the country of origin of these groups, a melting pot of religious syncretism, there are multiple relationships between Santo Daime groups and the traditional Christian churches – which they often see themselves as renewing.

Ritual and drug use

Ritual research can do much to broaden our view of intoxication and drug use, which has been shaped by the developments of the modern Western world. For rituals in which altered states of consciousness play a role were and are part of religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism (think of the hour-long “chanting” of monotonous songs), of Islam (the spinning dances of Turkish Sufis are well known), and also of Christianity (this includes the ecstatic “speaking in tongues” of evangelical groups such as the Pentecostals). Ecstatic states are part of shamanic healing practices, were part of initiation rituals among many peoples, or were intended to convey visions to either the healer or the afflicted. Among the best-known rituals of the latter kind was the Lakota Indians’ Sun Dance, which is still occasionally performed today: dancers drive stakes through the skin and muscles of the chest and back, attach strings to them, and connect them to a large stake. Then they dance for several hours to days , without taking food or water. The goal of the ordeals was to experience a vision by overcoming pain. The methods to achieve such a trance are legion, from psychoactive substances to rhythmic dance, monochrome music, ritual sweating, staying for days in the darkness of caves (lack of stimuli) to stimulus overload, think of the light and sound storm of today’s techno parties.

In all these examples from different cultures, it becomes clear that ecstasy and intoxication are always embedded in cultural narratives that give them meaning and significance. Whether this is the connection with spirits, as in Siberian, Asian and South American shamanism, or the merging with God, as in Sufi Islamic practices. It is only our Western culture that has broken with this tradition and usually evaluates ecstatic-rapturous experiences as pathological, as an expression of a lack of self-control or even addiction.

The functions of ritual from the viewpoint of participants

For the RISA study, we have adopted a double view: On the one hand, we see rituals as rule-governed social performances in which a group of people communicate with each other by means of language, gestures, facial expressions and other physical forms of expression, as well as by means of symbolic objects. On the other hand, rituals also allow for demonstrations of identity or even protest by showing an otherness to third parties, an own, meaning-bearing relationship to the social environment.

Accordingly, the content analysis of interviews from the environment of ayahuasca churches revealed that RISA study participants experience their rituals as follows:

(1) as a security-providing order (in contrast to an unregulated drug use aimed only at feelings of happiness).

(2) as a community-creating action (in contrast to a linguistic-intellectual isolation in Christian worship).

(3) as a world-view-philosophical framework (in contrast to the thoughtless-egocentric “drugging up” by intoxicants).

(4) as a moral frame of reference (in contrast to the social self-isolation of many youth protest cultures).

(5) as aesthetic enjoyment (as opposed to merely functional consumption).

(6) as a psychological orientation aid (as opposed to aimless drifting in a rapturous-ecstatic state).

Above all, the reassessment of the experiences of intoxication as valuable experiences on a self-chosen “spiritual path” was biographically decisive for these people. Of course, they are aware that they are crossing a social boundary. And no wonder that in the environment of this community one also encounters those phenomena that seem to exist in all religious and spiritual communities: exaggerations, orthodoxy, self-isolation, a certain missionary conviction.

Ecstasy is not alien to Europe

Ecstasy derives from the Greek and means something like “being outside oneself” and “stepping out,” which means a temporary shifting of the personal coordinate system. This holds the chance of a new perspective, but also the danger of losing oneself. The general characteristics of altered states of waking consciousness include changes in self-, world-, and time-perception, especially emotionalization, intensification of visual and auditory experience, bodily perceptions, and intensified experience of meaning. As a rule, in such states the experience shifts away from the ego-like controlled, to the intoxicating being carried in a stream of fragmentary inner events. It is precisely this passive “being carried” that can have a seductive and “habituating” quality for unstable people.

As many ways there are to ecstasy, as many functions it can have. Some people use it to satisfy philosophical curiosity, others want to intensify their lives, still others hope for healing from a serious illness or are looking for a way out of a crisis of meaning. But why does this phenomenon appear so often in the context of rituals and what function does it have in rituals?

There can be no simple answer to this question; rituals are too colorful a phenomenon for that. They range from greetings by handshake to the election of the Pope, from shamanic healing ceremonies to the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. And every ritual can be viewed from a psychological as well as a sociocultural perspective. Rituals are performances and actions that point beyond their obvious function. Thus, brushing one’s teeth can be ritual insofar as it demonstrates a reality beyond the immediately observable. For instance, in the sense of an identity function: “In our family, we attach great importance to hygiene.” Or according to the ritual theories of early psychoanalysis: “I can’t fall asleep without brushing my teeth.” Here, ritual is understood as routine that conveys security.

This function of providing security is also found in rituals of ecstasy – as explained by the example of the ayahuasca church. And this, although it comes at the same time with “routines” in thinking and acting, are broken through ecstasy.

Conversely, ecstasies sometimes increase the credibility of a ritual drama – in the Pentecostal communities mentioned above, for example, they “demonstrate” that the believer is truly filled with the spirit of God. It is the ecstasy itself that the ritual participants regard as proof of the religious authenticity of the event. In the mass of like-minded people, the phenomenon then even has a “contagious” effect.

Rituals as Acts of Communication

Rituals are acts of communication. Through them, people make sure of their socio-cultural realities: What is important, who is important? Often these realities are not communicated linguistically, but are demonstrated and shared in the act of ritual as a common world of experience. And so, in the course of “ecstatic rapture,” extraordinary inner states are revealed to one another and interpreted at the same time.

A frequently used trick in rituals is to treat the invisible as if it were visible to at least some of the participants. When a priest speaks to a deity in front of his congregation, at least he seems to have access to its reality. Our research team observed a case of possession trance in a young woman in an ayahuasca ritual some years ago. During a ritual, she had suddenly thrown herself on the floor, completely “out of her mind,” and with screams and violent hand movements, defended herself against “invisible” beings that seemed to be harassing her. In our opinion, however, she imitated and staged the worldview in this group: that there were “spirits” and “beings without bodies” that came into contact with people. Such ecstasy is then at the same time proof of the correctness of this worldview for the group.

Another ayahuasca ritual in which we observed our study participant Roger is a good example of the enactment of the invisible: During the fifth hour of an ayahuasca session, a violent abdominal pain suddenly appeared. The leader of the ceremony, who had been called by him, fanned fresh air, touched Roger’s forehead, sprayed an invigorating, strong-smelling liquid on the latter’s hands, and then performed movements over the abdomen for several minutes, as if he were taking something out of the tortured body and flinging it away. This was the staging of a “spiritual healing”. The person in trance reacted with violent twitches, but then soon calmed down and the pain disappeared. After this session, Roger reported seeing “black holes” in his abdomen that were sucking up life energy. The leader had “cleansed” these through his movements and then removed them. Roger had thus translated the invisible – feelings and inner states – into images, integrating the leader’s actions as well.

As in Roger’s case, an observing ego part usually remains in the ecstasy, which can tell stories “from the other side” after re-entry into normality: stories of healing voices or guardian angels, of encounters with the deceased, of the temporary dissolution of oppressive self-images in the rush of emotions. Such things can provide healing experience and “cleanse the soul.” In partly randomized controlled therapy studies in the USA, Israel and Switzerland – i.e. not in the context of ritual communities – the therapeutic effects of entactogens (MDMA) and psychedelics (LSD) are currently being re-explored by phycisians and psychologists, without the ideological baggage of the 1960s. Back then, these substances had rapidly moved out of the laboratories and onto the streets only to trigger the so-called “psychedelic revolution”.

Insight, catharsis and a Sense of Coherence through Ritual(ization)

Some therapeutic ecstasies open up new insights, others liberate for a short time from the limitations of culturally prescribed decency and connect with elementary, oozing life forces. Apart from pathological extreme forms, in which the reference to the environment and the “I”-feeling are extinguished, so that the affected person does not save any memory of the experience into the “normal state”, all these experiences offer a chance to redefine one’s own position in the world – but only if suitable patterns of interpretation and social networks are available for this purpose. However, one thing can already be said for the two RISA cases narrated before the study is completed: the so-called “sense of coherence,” which we already measured at the beginning of the study eight years ago, predicted well whether people tended to stick to a controlled, “sensible” use of psychoactive substances or developed less controlled, substance use disorder-related behaviors (Ullrich & Jungaberle 2008). The concept of a sense of coherence had already been developed in the 1970s by the health researcher Aaron Antonovsky and measures the experienced meaningfulness, comprehensibility and manageability of one’s own life . It has been correlated with physical and mental health in numerous studies.  A structured and ritualized context for ecstasy – as is the case with many ayahuasca rituals -provides participants with a wealth of “offers of meaning,” patterns of interpretation and concrete assistance – in contrast to uncontrolled and mainly hedonistically motivated consumption.

That small group of RISA study participants who take part in the rituals of Brazilian ayahuasca communities use a psychoactive substance within the context of a highly ritualized environment. The ritual both enables and limits ecstasy, providing a (relatively) safe setting for extraordinary experiences: “I shook like a dog, cried, and threw up. I had to learn to love and forgive myself anew, and more than anything: to forgive my family. I learned that there is a way to live well.” Time and again in interviews, study participants talk about taking a look outside the box of everyday life and habitual ways of seeing things: “When you see yourself from the inside, you admit to yourself that you have flaws, feel your mortality. More than once I have encountered death. I felt I was dying and saw myself dead. I was fucking terrified. I experienced those sessions as ugly, but also as profound – as if I were entering another, very strange world.”

That such experiences “automatically” have a therapeutic effect in the sense of the ancient concept of catharsis is an outdated and idealizing view. It almost always requires reflective confrontation in order to integrate the experiences of previously unknown parts of the self into the overall personality. The most important function of ritual is to provide the adequate social context for this and to make the dangers of such border crossings socially accessible and manageable. As one study participant described it, “Ritual is a place where you feel healthier, where you get together with others, and that you kind of ‘bless.’ It doesn’t really matter how many things you see in the experience then – as long as you’re in that place where you can say, ‘This is okay. This is where it can happen.’”

For many advocates of sober rationality and normality, such irrational phenomena are difficult to accept. To them, ecstasies are seen as a form of rebellion or escape from an enlightened, rational world. And this is certainly not always unjustified – young people in particular are fascinated by drug-induced ecstasies. But those who categorically brand this as criminal and pathological are blocking access to a traditional system of healing and self-discovery. Then happens what we can observe in many modern societies: The ecstatic falls into the esoteric underground, is abandoned to ritual tourism and ceded to dubious bringers of salvation. Roger, now almost thirty, has drawn the biographical conclusion for himself: “I needed these off times to find myself. But in the groups in which I did that, too much credulity and expectation of salvation lives for me.”

Perhaps the dangers of ecstasy should be seen in the context of what research has been able to describe as resilience for several decades: Some people grow precisely under challenges, under stress.

Henrik Jungaberle studied philosophy and history at the universities of Freiburg and Konstanz, later music psychotherapy at the University of Applied Sciences Heidelberg; he holds a PhD in Medical Psychology from the University Hospital Heidelberg. His work focuses on prevention and drug research. The described project is part of the DFG Collaborative Research Center Ritual Dynamics.

Literature tips

Jungaberle, H., Verres, R., DuBois, F. (2006) Rituale erneuern. Ritualdynamik und Grenzerfahrung. Gießen: Psychosozial Verlag.
Labate, B. et al. (2009) Ayahuasca Religions: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Critical Essays. Sarasota: MAPS.
Scharfetter, C. (2008) Psychopathologie. Sternenfels: Verlag Wissenschaft und Praxis.
Zinberg, N. (1984) Drug, Set and Setting: The basis for controlled intoxicant use. New Haven/London: Yale University Press

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Ecstasy and Rituals

January, 8th, 2011

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Thanks to the teams at the Collaborative Research Area 619 Ritualdynamik and Spektrum der Wissenschaft for making this special issue about Rituals possible.

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The Daimler und Benz Stiftung supported a joint conference of the SFB 619 and the publication of the Spektrum der Wissenschaft Spezial on the topic of rituals as part of its 14th Berlin Colloquium “Rituals – What Holds Our Lives Together” (Scientific Director: Prof. Dr. Alex Michaels).

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