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The spiritual aspect of rave culture

The Jesuit founder, Ignatius de Loyola, had a mystical experience brought on by wound fever. It is now commonly accepted that wounds and physical hardship can cause similar effects to psychedelic drugs. Whether the body actually produces psychedelic substances or the effect is due to the release of neurotransmitters in the brain is arguable, but either theory would imply that enlightenment can be chemically induced under certain conditions. LSD is probably used by far more people today than in the sixties, although in smaller doses, mainly because of its low price, while the ravers' drug of choice is the more expensive Ecstasy. Psychedelic drugs alter the useršs state of consciousness, often providing dramatic insights which may be profound but are hard to describe in words or to assimilate into normal life. Ecstasy, by contrast, allows the user to remain in their normal, but enhanced, state of consciousness, and this enables experiences and insights to be remembered later when they can be soberly considered and assessed.

The fundamental effect of Ecstasy is to remove fear. Although we may not be normally conscious of it, fear is the main controlling influence on our behaviour. Fear makes us censor our words and even thoughts, protecting us from being hurt or making fools of ourselves. Fear makes us hold back emotions, and even manifests in our physical behaviour so that we can avoid revealing our vulnerability ­ a useful protector in a harsh world. But fearful behaviour becomes a habit that cannot be dropped at will, inhibiting our enjoyment and preventing us from having meaningful experiences such as expressing nonsexual love. Ecstasy is called the love drug in the sense that 'love is letting go of fear'.

This freedom to give and accept without barriers provides a sense of empathy with others around, and allows for indulgence in hedonistic activities such as dancing, listening to music and sensuous skin contact. But the same freedom can lead to very different effects in different circumstances depending on the Œset and settingš ­ the background and intentions of the person taking the drug, and the situation where it is taken. Used in psychotherapy, Ecstasy may help release suppressed emotional traumas, while for someone trying to meditate, Ecstasy may allow them to let go of their internal dialogue. Likewise, the after effects vary, some finding the experience enriches their lives while others find the normal state depressing by comparison.

What fascinates me is that the rave culture, seen as purely hedonistic by the establishment, is frequently regarded as a spiritual event by those involved. Raves are likened to trancelike tribal rituals where ravers celebrate their unity and shared uplifted state, giving and receiving freely from one another.

Dr Russell Newcombe, a Liverpool-based sociologist and researcher specialising in drugs and rave culture, has written a number of papers including Raving and Dance Drugs and The Use of Ecstasy and Dance Drugs. He says that raving is now one of the main reasons for living for a huge group of socially diverse people.

'Raving can be viewed as a transcendental mind altering experience providing psychic relief to alienated people in a secular repressive and materialistic society. Ecstasy and other drugs are the keys that unlock the doors to these desired states of consciousness... a deeply desired escape from the constraints of the self and normal behaviour. To stretch the religious metaphor, DJs are the high priests of the rave ceremony, responding to the mood of the crowd, with their mixing desks symbolising the altar, (the only direction in which the ravers consistently face). Dancing at raves may be construed as the method by which ravers 'worship' the God of altered consciousness. Indeed, the central role of dancing at raves is underlined by the absence of other common social behaviours such as conversing and sexual contact besides the total absence of aggression or disordered behaviour.'

Terence McKenna, author of True Hallucinations, views the rave as an explosive re-emergence of the repressed human drive to free consciousness from its unnatural ego-centred state. He sees the natural state as having been regulated out of existence except in a diluted form in churches, sports stadia and discotheques.

The modern manifestation of this state is the rave, which involves entering an altered state of collective consciousness through the ingestion of drugs, physical activity and sensory bombardment by technological artifacts such as hypnotic, emotional, loud music, light shows and smoke machines.

An American book, The Pursuit of Ecstasy by sociologists Dr Jerry Beck and Dr Marsha Rosenbaum reports that New Agers describe Ecstasy as a sacrament which allows the user to tap into 'Morphic Resonance', a term coined by the English biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake to describe collective consciousness.

Among 137 ravers surveyed by myself concerning the effects of Ecstasy on their lives in general, a significant number reported 'increased spiritual awareness' ­ some adding that they felt closer to nature, calmer and more appreciative of life itself.

Last year I took a 70 year-old Zen monk to a rave party. He was curious enough to overcome his dislike of the music until his face lit up with a revelation. 'This is meditation!', he shouted above the noise. Later he explained that the walking meditation he taught involved being fully aware 'in the moment' without any internal dialogue separating actions from intentions, and that the same definition applied to the dancers all around him. His branch of Buddhism had been brought from Japan where there was emphasis on the need to develop and balance the complementary qualities of contraction and expansion, akin to extrovert and introvert states of mind. His school of Zen had concentrated on contraction with the idea that Westerners were too outgoing, but he now realised that those Westerners who were drawn to his school were introverts, and their need was for free expression in the way he had witnessed at the rave.

The spiritual aspect of the dance culture is acknowledged by a few avant garde organisers. Last Saturday I was invited to a private party which started with a group meditation. It was organised by a group of friends who had come together over the years and credit much of their spiritual development to Ecstasy, although many of them say that they have now learned to get into that state without the need to use drugs.

ŠNicholas Saunders 1995

published in The Guardian on 22/7/95 index

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