Saturday, 11:45pm, The Pod nightclub, Dublin. It’s been twenty-five minutes since my boyfriend and I dropped E and washed it down with Bacardi and Coke but now we’re drinking water as we wait for the high to kick in. (As anyone whose done Ecstasy knows, alcohol dilutes the clean high, so once you’ve dropped, water is much better.) We’re standing around waiting to come up, smiling and nodding at the familiar faces starting to fill the club. Later, when we’re all high and open, we’ll hug and hold hands as we dance to uplifting house music, but now I’m a bit tense and vaguely anxious, since waiting to come up is always a bit fraught.
We dance but can’t completely relax into the groove, so we stand off to the side, sip some water and tap our feet. Then the scag hits, the gnarly bit: vague nausea, dry mouth, shakey lower jaw. From here it’s only a few minutes until the high kicks in, and I’m up. Yes! I am UP!
My heart is expanding, my head is clear: I am liquid gold. I’m compelled to dance by a visceral force I don’t need to name. The music is throbbing in my veins, taking over. I am an atom in the music, and my very being is merging with the rhythm. Every part of me is pulsating; the music is inside me, causing me to expand. I am riding a wave of love and bliss. I am connected to everyone around me. There’s only here, only now. I AM LOVE.
The following day’s E-over never felt so good, but the trace of a residual high made it bearable. It got worse over the next couple of days as the come-down blues kicked in and the chemicals continued to wear off. But I was lucky not to succumb to the severe ‘Tuesday downer’ that affected lots of people I knew. For me going clubbing and taking E was a way of joyfully tapping into a very real sense of community. It was beautiful, the closest thing I’d known in my life to being part of a congregation.
But the comedown was a bummer and I was concerned for my brain cells, so I stopped popping pills and chased an intellectual high by pursuing graduate studies in philosophy – not that the open-hearted bliss of an E buzz can exactly be compared with the cerebral stimulation of analytic philosophy!
Although I don’t advocate the use of E, I can’t honestly say that I regret having used it. Under its influence I experienced something previously unavailable to me: the sense of profound connection to others, the feeling that my heart was exploding with love, the music pulsing in my veins. It was undoubtedly spiritual and I transcended the limits of my own hang-ups and self-consciousness to feel part of something much bigger than me.
Several years passed until I experienced my next hit of that same overflowing joy and sense of deep connection to the music and everyone around me. But this time didn’t involve recreational drugs; rather I was at a kirtan at Moksha Yoga Center in Chicago on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I was blown away by the chant. I felt like my heart had been blasted open, and I experienced a profound sense of connection to everyone in the room. Later that night, I lay awake unable to sleep (another side effect of E) and I knew without a doubt that my spirit had come home.
At another Moksha kirtan chanting ‘Ram, Ram, Ram’ I had the visceral realization that chanting Sanskrit mantra to the divine took me to the same place of open-heartedness and connection with something bigger than myself that Ecstasy had taken me so many years before in clubs in Dublin and London. I was once again exploding with love, but this time I was chanting to God in a yoga studio!
Imagine if the most profound spiritual experiences you’ve had could be explained in terms of neurophysiological changes in your body. Those times where you’ve felt like you were expanding into infinity, your heart would explode with love, like you were a throb in the universal pulsation. Occasions when you felt a sense of union with everything and everyone, when your sense of being an individual self was surpassed and dissolved as you merged with Self.
All this could be explained in terms of electro-chemical activity beneath your skin? Surely not this domain of the sacred? Yes. Drugs and nerves: the material source of an ineffable experience. God in the molecules, spirit in soma. Your own body produces drugs that make you feel euphoric. Your brain knows to reduce nerve impulses to different parts of itself in order to decrease your sense of being a separate self and bring about a feeling of union with everything else.
Exquisite intimacy, intense meditations, mind-blowing mystical moments, profound insights, deliverance from longing to belonging. At home in Love itself. Surrounded by beauty, drenched in the nectar of the gods. The dynamic, pulsing, potent terrain of poets, mystics, lovers, seekers and saints; the divine playground. And you dancing in it, at home in your essence as Satchitananda (Being Consciousness Bliss). Echoing many great teachers who had gone before, Jesus told us that the kingdom of God is within. Rumi, Hafiz, Kabir, St Theresa, mystics of all persuasions exhort us to see that we are one with the Beloved, that separation is illusory. The bliss we seek in merging with the divine is within.
And now science corroborates the mystics: you are hardwired for bliss! The drugs you need are inside; the body’s pharmacopeia is diverse and plentiful. Sing hallelujah! Rejoice, rejoice. Ecstasy is your birthright. And you don’t even have to believe in God. Agnostics have access too. It’s all in the molecules baby.
But could spiritual ecstasy really be a function of interactions among different organizing systems in your body? Could the transcendent dancing ground arise from subcutaneous electrical pulses and chemical jolts? Yes, it could. Yes, it does. The movement of bliss molecules throughout your body is a dance of divine proportions.
All of our emotional and physiological states can be explained in terms of different bio-chemical combinations. Taking drugs alters our biochemistry and therefore our feelings and so does chanting kirtan. My ecstatic state was just as drug-induced when I was chanting mantra as when I was high on Ecstasy, but when I was chanting the drugs were my body’s own.
So here’s the science part…drugs produced inside the body are called endogenous drugs, as opposed to exogenous drugs like Ecstasy, cocaine, heroin. Oxytocin is an endogenous drug and its stimulated by taking E. The feelings of empathy, deep connectedness, increased trust and love well known to those of us who’ve been loved up on E are caused by oxytocin.
Endoprhins are a category of endogenous drugs known for their euphoric and pain-relieving effects. Anyone whose ever had the proverbial runner’s high, the non-localized buzz of acupuncture treatment or the blissed-out calmness of pranayama, has been under the spell of endorphins. Same goes for folks who like to hang out in headstand; it turns out that stimulating the pituitary gland releases epic amounts of endorphins into the system. So that’s why headstand feels so good!
But why does pranayama bring on the bliss?
It turns out that there’s a specific region of the brain, the periaqueductal gray (PAG), that‘s stimulated by breathing exercises such as kapalbhati,(rapid rhythmic exhalations through the nose) and kumbhaka (retention at the top of inhale, or the bottom of exhale) and by techniques used by women during childbirth. When stimulated the PAG releases proteins called peptides, chemicals that effect our emotions and our threshold for pain. Some of these peptides are endorphins and serotonin, which is also released under the influence of Ecstasy and is responsible for feelings of joy.
But back to the Moksha bliss-out E flashback: so there I was happily participating in a kirtan when all of a sudden I feel like I’m high on Ecstasy, but this time without the gnarly come-up. At the time I’d no idea why but later I got into the science of it and realized that it’s no wonder that chanting (and yoga practice) results in such heightened feelings of well-being: when we sing we’re breathing rhythmically and deeply, hence affecting the PAG and causing feel-good chemicals to be released from the brain through the cerebrospinal fluid. As these drugs diffuse throughout the system we feel euphoric, blissed out. Taking Ecstasy also stimulates bliss molecules to be released, the endogenous drugs dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.
In both the case of E and chanting similar results accrue. We feel blissed-out, open-hearted, connected to the people around us and a sense of being part of something much bigger. In short, we transcend our limited selves and experience union. In both cases the experience is caused by drugs from body’s pharmacopeia. In the case of Ecstasy the catalyst is a synthetic drug and with chanting and yoga changes in the brain caused by rhythmic breathing initiate the release of neurochemicals. Although the causes are wildly different, both scenarios give rise to similar changes in our emotional landscape. Ultimately both means take us to a place of boundlessness and freedom, even if only for a limited time.
I’ve done plenty of E in my twenties and got hooked on the deliciousness of feeling myself an expanding heart connected to everyone around me. But for now I’ll stick to chanting kirtan and breathing deep. It gets me to the same place.
Parts of this blog appeared in a previous article, “Karma is Chemistry”, LA Yoga, May 2009.