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date: 28 January 2020

Pain and Ecstatic Religious Experience

Abstract and Keywords

This article considers a broad selection of mystical writings to identify in ecstatic mystical experience two fundamental dimensions: a feeling of self-transcendence and an extremely high level of positive affect. The article argues that pain is instrumental in promoting both experiences and is therefore extremely pervasive among mystics who report ecstatic states of consciousness. A brief critical survey looks at scholarly literature that has touched on the subject of pain in religious experience. A number of neuroscientific theories are examined as ways of explaining the role of pain in the production of transcendent states of consciousness, and a phenomenological approach is used for exploring the role of pain in the production of positive affect. The article argues that the mystics’ use of pain cannot be fully understood without taking into account the scientific and phenomenological terrain of positive affect.

Keywords: affect, self, ecstasy, pain, phenomenology, transcendence, consciousness


Mystical literature, both in the West and Asia, is rich with ecstatic statements in which the highest bliss is mysteriously intertwined with terms that evoke both emotional and physical pain. No mystic has manifested this more clearly, or famously, than the 16th-century Spanish nun St. Teresa of Avila—known as the patron saint of headaches. Her supreme testament to mystical experience—union with the beloved—is often quoted: “The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it.”1 The twentieth century produced a figure who was just as renowned for ecstatic and painful mysticism. Padre Pio, only recently beatified and known for his painful stigmata wounds, was prone to vivid and well-documented ecstasies: “Ah, my Jesus, my sweetness… how can I live without you?”2

Indeed, Christian mysticism, with its Christ-centered states of consciousness (e.g., St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Marguerite, Heinrich Suso, St. Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, and many others), has displayed outstanding creativity in producing a mystical literature where ecstatic terms, often saturated with words of pain, describe both the spiritual path and its final destination. For example, The Way of the Pilgrim prescribes the following: “Practice this [inner prayer] as often as possible, gradually increasing the time, and before long you will experience a kind of pleasant pain in the heart, a warmth and a sense of burning.”3

However, the ecstatic dimension of mystical experience is hardly limited to Christianity. For example, the nineteenth-century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna described several levels and qualities of ecstasy (samadhi): “Sometimes, in Samadhi, the soul swims joyfully in the ocean of divine ecstasy, like a fish.”4 Ramakrishna was extremely fond of watery metaphors: “When the Savior becomes incarnate all are saved through His grace. The Siddhas (perfect ones) only save themselves with much pain and Penance.”5 A longstanding Indian tradition, originating in the early Upanishads, of describing religious experience in ecstatic terms also exists. The Bengali mystic shows how persistent this tradition has been, but the equally notable South Indian mystic Ramana Maharshi is just as clear: “He who dedicates his mind to Thee and, seeing Thee, always beholds the universe as Thy figure… he is the master without rival, being one with Thee, Oh Arunachala! and lost in Thy Bliss.”6

The role of physical pain remains unclear and has not received the systematic attention one might expect to see before the publication of Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul in 2001.7 Earlier works did not focus on pain as a specific and specialized topic, although several did treat superbly and in passing the subject of bodily mortification for furthering religious goals (e.g., Peter Brown, The Body and Society; Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast and Fragmentation and Redemption).8 Asceticism and bodily mortification are of course enormous topics in religious literature, but the topic of pain as a psychodynamic (as opposed to ideological) method has remained relatively untouched. One exceptional work that did attempt to understand the role of pain in relation to spirituality was Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, which saw pain as a tool for erasing the contents of the conscious mind and destroying identity. Maureen Flynn’s “The Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism” is another example of this sort of work. The most significant contribution was Violet MacDermot’s 1971 The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East.9 Another excellent work that covers later and more clearly “mystical” phenomena is Cristina Mazzoni’s Saint Hysteria.10

More recent studies of asceticism and mysticism have paid greater attention to the physical and psychological role of pain. One example is Gavin Flood’s The Ascetic Self.11 Other works have focused on rituals, arts, gender, and other specific areas that are not exclusively mystical but do relate to the culture of pain. These include Reiko Ohnuma’s Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood; Melissa Wilcox’s “Bodily Transgression”; and Kent L. Brintnall’s Ecce Homo. An excellent review on the body in religious experience is Robert C. Fuller’s Spirituality in the Flesh.12

While Christian mystical pain appears to be linked to a theology of the suffering Christ (at least in the mind of practitioners) and the Hindu or Buddhist equivalents situate pain and suffering in the domain of ego and the world (samsara), a more interesting agenda than comparing religious ideologies is possible. Namely, is there any intrinsic connection between mystical states of consciousness and physical pain?13 More specifically, does mystical consciousness sometimes contain painful bodily feelings, or, in a different vein, is mystical experience achieved or enhanced through bodily disciplines that include pain?

This is a scientific question: it can be answered statistically by examining the records of mystics and experimentally by trying to replicate the methods of those mystics who used painful techniques. However, I approach this question in a conceptual manner by laying out the theoretical framework for determining the role of pain. I argue that while not all mystics rely on painful techniques, those who do (in combination with other methods) are replicating conditions that have been studied and explained in neurophysiological terms (meditation and drugs). I also argue, however, that brain theories are insufficient explanations without a careful phenomenology of mystical consciousness, at least as it bears on ecstatic or strongly affective states. Finally, I show that the mystic’s use of pain cannot be fully understood unless we take into account the phenomenology of pleasure (positive affect) and ground it in a scientific understanding that derives from behavioral adaptation. On a final note, Hindu and Buddhist uses of pain require a detailed and different approach and are only briefly touched on in this context.

Overall, I argue that the highly positive mystical states of consciousness described by mystics combine brain events, self-psychology, and hedonic training (modification of positive and negative affects) in a unique and highly specialized manner to produce spiritual ecstasy.

What Is Ecstasy?

Due to the unique nature of mystical experience, scholars of mysticism in recent decades have tended to situate themselves in one of two groups. One is the perennialist or common core group, which includes those who, like Robert Forman, believe in the singularity of the ultimate mystical state of consciousness or, like Ralph W. Hood and Walter Stace, see it as constitutive of no more than two states. The other, currently dominant point of view is a cultural constructivist approach, articulated by Steven T. Katz and his colleagues in a series of influential publications.14

The constructivist insists on taking mystical utterances as expressions of not only different linguistic cultures but distinct experiences. The perennialist, on the other hand, regards language as extraneous to the transcendent state of consciousness reached by mystics—a unitary, ineffable, and featureless state. The latter position is buttressed by recent brain studies, such as those of E. D’Aquili and A. Newberg that point to organic correlates and conditions of mystical states of consciousness. These physiological conditions, argue such researchers and supporters as Carol Albright, support the common core argument and even set up a theology of an Absolute Unitary Being.15

Must we take a position on this familiar philosophical issue in order to determine the role of pain in producing extraordinary states of consciousness? Is pain itself a purely organic event, or is it also a cultural fact? Both of these questions are answered in due course. For now, the following assertions are fairly safe: the term “ecstasy”—so closely associated with mystical experience—is a translation of many distinct terms in other languages: wajd in Arabic, samadhi in Sanskrit, hitlahavut in Hebrew, and so forth. Each carries distinct cultural and linguistic connotations—even traditions that use the Greek or Greek derivatives of ekstasis are extremely diverse—and one begs the question in arguing that they point to a common core.

Thus we must reduce the so-called ecstatic state of consciousness into two rudimentary, almost structural units of meaning. Originating from the Greek ekstasis through Latin and later European languages (French, English), the word means “standing outside oneself” and, later, “in a state of trance” (see Oxford English Dictionary meanings 1, 3, 4). The first meaning, then, is otherness (uncommon, transcendent), but the second, later meaning is delightful affect. The first points to the sense of transcending ordinary states of consciousness (or selfhood); it is rare and limited to a few individuals who work hard to attain it. But this state is also universally described as highly desirable and possessing an affective tone that can only be described in positive terms such as “rapturous”, “blissful,” “joyful,” and so forth. Beginning with the Jewish Philo, the state of transcendence was linked to a strong positive affect:

but escape also from your own self and stand outside of yourself, like persons possessed and corybants seized by Bacchic frenzy and carried away by some form of prophetic inspiration. For it is the mind that is filled with the Deity and no longer in itself, but is agitated and maddened by a heavenly passion, drawn by the truly Existent and attracted upward to it.16

Samadhi, which does not carry any of the same theological assumptions that underlie Philo, Origen, and the many Western mystics who followed, nonetheless is also described as the realization of the state of the self as joyful, pure, and eternal.17 I focus on these two basic features (transcendence and affect) in evaluating the role of pain in producing such extraordinary states.18

Each of the two features imposes a distinct approach. Transcendence is noetic. As the original Greek etymology indicates, it conveys new information relative to the ordinary agent: the self comes to experience itself in a radically new way as “other” than itself. A psychologist may file this as dissociative or depersonalized, and famously William James sought to combine psychological with religious terminology in understanding the concept. The contemporary psychologist would probably abandon religious terminology and stick to clinical methods for understanding the causes that underlie such phenomena and for describing its features. Affect is different; it is an awareness of being in a positive (or negative) state of mind. It is conscious by definition—it can never, in principal, be reduced to any clinical or neurological modes of discourse. This is an unusual point, especially with regard to pleasure, and I spend considerable time explaining it later on. For now I merely indicate that affect requires the tools of phenomenology both in regard to pleasure and pain. The phenomenological similarity of pleasure and pain as conscious experiences is not a trivial point. I shortly show that pain—perhaps only pain—can act as both a causal and an organic factor in the production of transcendence, as well as be a phenomenal feature of the mystic’s ecstatic affect.

The Causes of Transcendence

Like all things neurological, it is difficult to say with confidence what happens in the brain when mystics report transcendent experiences. The literature on the subject has grown, and, as the research has improved, the theories have begun to converge on narrower brain regions and functions. The best-known work on mystical experience and the brain was initiated by Eugene D’Aquili, joined later by Andrew Newberg. The two published The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience and later popularized their findings with Why God Won’t Go Away.19 In their experimental work, D’Aquili and Newberg used single positron emission tomography to measure changes in brain blood flow among meditating Buddhist monks and praying Franciscan nuns. The areas under scrutiny included the limbic system (emotional, motivational), as well as other areas connected with the autonomic nervous system and neocortical areas.

The researchers correlated deep meditative (“transcendent”) states, which the subject reported verbally, with observed brain function and drew the following conclusions:

In meditation or contemplative prayer, powerful quiescent activity can result in sensations of great bliss, but [when] quiescent levels reach maximum, the arousal system can simultaneously erupt, causing an exhilarating rush of energy. Someone who experiences this state while concentrating upon some object—a candle for example, or a cross—may feel as if he were being absorbed into that object. Buddhists call this state of absorption Appana Samadhi.20

The historian of religion must struggle to evaluate the validity of these sorts of clinical observations. It is even more difficult to decide how to “correlate” brain events (which D’Aquili and Newberg describe in detail) with conscious experiences without gross reductionism. After all, the meditating monks and nuns are not reporting conscious experiences of what is going on in their brain but something else altogether—be it God, some spiritual realm, light, and so forth. Newberg and D’Aquili have grappled with this issue, as have their many critics.21 However, this is a philosophical and theological issue that does not occupy us in this article.

Support for the experimental findings has come from other areas of clinical research into mystical experience as well. Ronald R. Griffiths of the Johns Hopkins Medical School has been studying the active chemical psilocybin in mind-altering mushrooms that boost the brain chemical serotonin. 22 He observed, “With careful preparation, you can safely and fairly reliably occasion a mystical experience using psilocybin that may lead to positive changes in a person.”23 Both Griffiths and colleagues and D’Aquili have noted the combination of transcendence with elevated mood, but in Griffiths’ work the subjects had no expertise in reaching deep meditative states on their own. The volunteers in the psilocybin trials reported (like the monks and nuns) a sense of merging with overarching reality, perceiving unity in all things, transcending time and space, basking in overwhelming feelings of love, and so forth. Griffiths concluded, “There’s good reason to believe that similar brain mechanisms are at work during profound religious experiences, whether they’re produced by fasting, meditation, controlled breathing, sleep deprivation, near death experience, infectious disease states, or psychoactive substances.”24

While Newberg controversially argued that the meditator’s brain may be processing sacred realities, Griffiths and colleagues’ neurological work cannot support such a theological hypothesis. Nonetheless, there are reasons to compare these two types of clinical approach—that of the religious expert and that of the average passive volunteer. These reasons include the underlying processes that are observable in the brains of both types of subject.

Following on the heels of Griffiths’ studies came further work with psilocybin that sought to identify—using functional magnetic resource imagery—the brain structures implicated in its reported effects. R. L. Carhart-Harris and colleagues reported very significant decreases in activity in key brain areas, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulated cortex,25 network hubs that help with connectivity between systems that regulate self-awareness. The decreased activity there corresponds, Carhart-Harris reports, with subjects describing states of “ego-transcendence.” This takes place in conjunction with increased stimulation of the limbic or emotion center.26

The psilocybin subjects are relatively passive conduits for the psychoactive work of a natural chemical. The meditators and praying nuns are active, and their ability to overstimulate some brain regions can lead, via cybernetic processes, to the diminishment of activity in other regions. However, the regions that are shut down by either hyperactivation elsewhere or by the ingestion of psilocybin may be the same or closely related regions: those that underlie the experience of agency or selfhood.

Where does pain fit in this picture? D’Aquili and Newberg proposed that overstimulation, such as produced by ritualized dancing, can result in similar mystical phenomena. Griffiths implied the same in reference to infectious disease—although he did not mention pain. Other studies (e.g., Wicker et al.) have suggested similar conclusions. This may be the area in which to situate the hypothesis that self-induced pain (in religious and secular contexts) functions to produce psychological states that closely resemble or are identical to those reported by experts who meditate or pray or by volunteers taking psilocybin. The work that supports the claim that self-induced pain can lead to such states of transcendence has been discussed in some detail in Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul and other publications.27

Ronald Melzack was a pain researcher at McGill University and the author of the McGill Pain Questionnaire, which patients fill out at doctors’ offices around the world. With Patrick D. Wall, he investigated the so-called paradox of pain, the fact that some individuals undergo physical trauma without an accompanying experience of pain while others suffer pain without the physical trauma.28 The latter include sufferers from phantom-limb pain: amputees who experience pain in a limb that is no longer there. This work supports the familiar observation that pain is not a simple biological fact but a complex psychological and even cultural one.

In the 1960s Melzack developed a theory called the Gate Control Mechanism Theory to account for these outstanding facts. In general terms, the theory posits a spinal mechanism that controls the flow of neuronal stimuli from the body’s peripheries to the brain by means of inhibiting signals that “descend” from the brain to the gate. A later theory, developed in the 1990s, modified the physiological elements of the theory and identified central (brain) structures, which Melzack called “the neuromatrix,” that processed input and regulated output by means of characteristic forms called “the neurosignature.”29 The phantom-limb experience results from the cybernetic features of this system: the lack of input from specific peripheral areas results in the neuromatrix increasing outgoing signals via the neurosignature to those very same regions.

According to Melzack, a critical aspect of the neuromatrix is its body-self function: a nonanatomical neurological pattern that coordinates input and output in such a way that we can have the experience of “owning” our body, or of having a concrete, embodied self. The neurosignature is output related to this “body map,” and the pain in one region (e.g., a missing leg) is the enhanced output to a part of the embodied self from which no incoming signal arrives. This is what we experience after a Novocain shot at the dentist—a phantom lip experience due to diminished signal from the region and increased signal to the corresponding region in that neurosignature’s map of the lip in relation to the body-self.30

But what happens when the body is bombarded with incoming signals in the form of overstimulation or self-inflicted pain? Due to the cybernetic nature of this theory (based on input and output regulation), the neuromatrix would shut down output to corresponding regions.31 The more pervasive the painful stimulation, the more thorough the shutdown becomes. The result is that the neurosignature’s map of the body-self will decrease its function, and phenomenally this will result in a diminished sense of self. Of course pain that is involuntary and pervasive can result in psychosis or, less dramatically, dissociative states of consciousness.

Ernst Hilgard was one of the leading experts on states of dissociation and the clinical use of hypnosis to induce controlled dissociative states.32 His work did not focus strictly on pain but on stimulation that results in states of self-diminishment and complements that of Melzack and colleagues in explaining the psychological and systemic underpinning of dissociation. Three principles emerge from this work:

  1. 1. The notion that we consist of totally unified consciousness is attractive but false. Instead, there are subordinate cognitive systems, each with some degree of unity, persistence, and autonomy of function.33

  2. 2. Some sort of “hierarchical control exists that manages the interaction of competition between and among these structures,” that is, functional systems.

  3. 3. There must be some executive, “an overarching monitoring and controlling structure.” In the absence of such organization, the semiautonomous systems would compete for attention, and the most powerful or noisy would overshadow the others.34

Self-induced pain can act like the work of the hypnotizer who creates a block between the executive monitor and the autonomous systems Hilgard describes. This results in a subject who continues to act and undergo experiences but without the awareness that these actions and experiences are self-generated.35

Based on pain research, such as Ronald Melzack’s, or work in hypnosis, such as Ernst Hilgard’s, we can conclude that mystical pain falls under the category of hyperstimulation, with cybernetic consequences involving the shutdown of self-orienting brain regions. This hyperstimulation also results in the experience of radical self-estrangement, conceivably leading to the mystic’s ego transcendence. But why do mystics undergo pain to achieve these effects? Why do they not restrict the stimulation to dancing, drumming, chanting, or praying? The decision to hurt involves a conscious choice or, more precisely, a choice concerning consciousness itself. In the following I show that the affective tone of conscious awareness—and certainly of ecstasy—is far more complex and interesting than is merely the notion of subliminal limbic-system activation. There is something about a choice that involves affect (I take pain as a negative affect) that induces both conscious and organic events resulting in the blissful dimension of spiritual ecstasy.

The Affect of Mystical Ecstasy

What happens if, in studying mystical experience, we bracket transcendence and focus exclusively on the affect instead? Can we study the causes of this affect in the same way we accounted neurodynamically for the feeling of transcendence earlier? After all, affect must surely emerge from the activation of specific brain regions (like the limbic system) and production of specific neurochemicals (dopamine, endorphins, etc.).

While this may be true, it is not the whole story, or even its best part. The feeling we call affect—for example the feeling of pleasure—is too rich and nuanced (and barely explored in religious contexts) to be reduced to brain work. Until a thorough phenomenology of affect is available, what exactly are we correlating with brain function? Is it the goodness of the feeling? Is it its intentionality, in the sense of objects or observed “causes” of the pleasure? Is it the function of such pleasure in our mental or social life? Note also that the conscious experience of affect, and the entire culture surrounding pleasure, is predicated on a grand illusion—a massive attributional error about the true causes of our own good feelings.

In what follows I introduce mystical affect by briefly describing pleasure itself, explaining the attribution error concerning its causes and providing a more precise account of the true types of pleasure and their respective causes. I show that mystical affect is a type of exploratory (or play) pleasure and owes its intensity, among other factors, to self-induced pain.

A careful phenomenological examination of the experience of pleasure reveals that pleasure itself is invisible and therefore extremely easy to confuse with an objective reality that ostensibly causes it. In folk psychology, the pleasure of eating ice cream, for example, inheres in the two “objects”—the ice cream and the eating: both are said to possess good or enjoyable qualities that cause the pleasure via sensory perception. But this confuses the sensations and perceptions of eating ice cream with the object eaten: they are not the same thing. Pleasure (affect) itself is so elusive that some philosophers (and behaviorist psychology as a whole) have tried to wish it away. Gilbert Ryle, for instance, wrote that pleasure is never any episode of conscious experience but a way of attending to certain activities—a form of behavior.36

The way that such theories violate the first rule of phenomenology—that cogent explanations cannot contradict common sense or common experience—makes it unnecessary to spend much time on these theories.37 But the problem of the invisibility of pleasure is real and a far more difficult phenomenon to describe philosophically than to explain neurologically. As a result of this “invisibility” of pleasure, we commonly attribute it to objects in the world or even in our perceived body. This is an error I call “hedonic attribution error,” and it is built into our experience of affect.

Merleau-Ponty, whose ability to describe experience was second to none, analyzed this error:

Even if it is conceded that human affectivity is “shot through with intelligence,” all that is meant is that simple representations can replace the natural stimuli of pleasure and pain according to the laws of association of ideas or those of conditioned reflexes. Moreover, it is meant that these substitutions attach pleasure and pain to circumstances that are naturally indifferent to us and that, through one transfer after another, secondary or tertiary values are constituted that have no apparent relation to our natural pleasures and pain.38

As a result of this error we not only misattribute pleasure to objective causes; we also divide pleasures according to their perceived causes or contexts: sensory, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and so forth. The pleasure of ice cream is “caused” by the sweet, cold, and fatty qualities of the ice cream. The pleasure of reuniting with a relative derives from seeing her face and feeling her arms, from the memories of a shared childhood, the longings now fulfilled. This common-sense approach to pleasure suggests a folk empiricism leading to the simplest view possible (the one both Plato and Aristotle discounted in their own writings): that pleasure is the perception of something that makes us feel good due to its intrinsic qualities.39

Several alternative theories exist. The Greek philosophers, for instance, insisted that a perception of change in body states is necessary and that some sort of evaluative criterion be applied to that change (e.g., as beneficial or as contributing to a set goal).40 Biologists, especially evolutionary biologists and psychologists, now posit that because animals are also able to experience pleasure, the evaluative criterion must be built in and genetically transmittable.41 Based on these biological-functionalist theories, pleasure is not caused by the objects with which it is associated (sensory, emotional, etc.) but with their function in behavioral adaptation. The good feeling we call pleasure arose in evolutionary history in situations where adaptive choices had to be made and subsequently succeeded. When these choices enabled survival and reproduction, the capacity to have these feelings passed on to us, and these arise when similar choices are made. On this view there are three types of pleasure: novelty-replenishment, mastery, and exploration or play.42


Novelty-replenishment pleasures are those derived from responding to novel situations (stressors) and returning to some sort of homeostasis. They are purely biological pleasures and roughly correspond with the affects that some religious ethical systems tend to curtail, that is, enjoyments that individuals find irresistible (sex, food, watching sports). St. Augustine, perhaps most famously, regarded these as highly addictive, and, in another age and location, even the Dalai Lama describes them as obstacles to happiness.43 They represent the “hedonic treadmill,” a term used today to describe addiction to novelty pleasure worn down by habituation.


Mastery pleasure, in contrast, is the satisfaction one obtains from mastering response to the first set of pleasures—these are highly social and prized in religious ethics. Examples include learning to control emotions and desires, mastering the body in ritual or meditation, acquiring difficult skills (learning a sacred language, memorizing scripture and liturgy), becoming altruistic, controlling dietary and sleep habits, and so on.44 Mastery pleasure entails not just accomplishing these but learning to enjoy the achievement.


Finally, exploratory pleasures, such as play or art enjoyment, take mastery for granted, or, more precisely, they represent enjoyments that are untethered from need (or addiction) but also from the constraints of the cultural agendas that underlie mastery pleasure. In religious life these are often associated with mystical states of consciousness, but this is a perfectly natural pleasure. It has been studied in laboratory settings with mice who master a maze (rewarded by food) but then lose interest in the challenge (and the food) in order to explore the environment on their own. This type of pleasure has not been studied as extensively as the other two, though Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow spends a considerable amount of time on it (without using the same terminology) as a sort of process in which intrinsic interest diminishes the distance between an active agent and an objective world.45 The concept of flow in this sense resembles the Zen monk in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery who explains to the author how to release the bowstring, like “snow sliding off the leaf of a bamboo as it bends down.”46 It is spontaneous, unwilled by the archer, a perfect flow. In its purest form exploratory pleasure is playful joy, and it can come in many areas of life ranging from art, sports, and even science, as Richard Feynman shows in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. All of these require mastery but move beyond it—beyond the need for a goal or a method, or overcoming novelty-replenishment pleasure.

Hedonic Training and Phenomenology

Although religion in general and mystical traditions specifically appear to promote wholesale rejection of pleasure because they decry the corrupting effects of sensory pleasures, what they offer instead by way of austerities is, in fact, a sophisticated form of hedonic training. The control of the senses and emotions, the long vigils, the exhausting and even painful labor—all of these often attended by a discourse that is aimed against the body—are rather ways of turning novelty-replenishment pleasure into mastery. For instance, the purpose of the Ignatian retreat or the training of a Buddhist monk is not to eliminate positive feelings but to feel good (empowerment, achievement, balanced, self-possessed, virtuous) about having freed oneself from the tyranny of external stimulation. It is not the mind (or spirit) over the body; it is rather culture over nature. But the overall goal is still supreme joy.47

This is hardly esoteric or limited to religion. Paul Rozin has analyzed the various techniques by which children learn to enjoy the sorts of food that on first sampling are highly aversive, disgusting, frightening, or even painful.48 For example, the first taste of coffee, beer, wine, and perhaps even soda drinks is unpleasant. The first taste of spicy chili is painful. Raw fish may be scary or disgusting for children. Several techniques exist to modify the initial response and help the individual learn to enjoy these foods, including “benign masochism,” “opponent process,” “taste masking,” and others. The former, to give one example, is the realization that one is safe and that pain does not mean damage to the body. This is a cognitive tool: an assessment based on the ability to put the stimulation in a broader intellectual context. To accomplish this, the young eater must be able not to ignore the organism’s sensations but to control his response to them by adopting an evaluative delay in which other—acquired—responses can be inserted. There is something of a risk there (think of a roller-coaster ride), but the affective result is a feeling of empowerment, achievement, and a thrill of overcoming limitations.

Mystical training in its initial stages acts in a similar way. It teaches the practitioner to control the natural-adaptive response to the world’s stimuli and to acquire mastery. The phenomenological description of this process is one of increasing freedom. The untrained subject who merely responds to novel situations (the impression of objects in the world acting and the body reacting) experiences her reality as a given fact. She has no say in how the world is constituted but is a passive observer before she can react. This is the world that phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger claim we encounter in space and time as the product of unregulated subjectivity.49 The mystical training for mastery sets up an intervening telos, a target or a path, between the agent and the “givenness” of the objective world. This telos can be a teaching (e.g., Christian or Buddhist), but it only works when a delay has been established (through discipline) between novelty and response, a delay in which the telos can be inserted. The key is not the religious idea but the strength to delay response and pursue the telos. The illusion of passivity in the face of an objective reality is removed—one can now improvise: set up a target (telos) and direct one’s efforts to move in that direction. The Ignatian practitioner calls this the “removal of sin” and the Buddhist describes it as the “elimination of error”—but in either case one has acquired the capacity to be free of the objective world’s hold.

This dynamic is extremely pervasive. Thomas Merton (“New Seeds of Contemplation”) writes: “We experience God in proportion as we are stripped and emptied of attachment to his creatures. And when we have been delivered of every other desire we shall taste the perfection of incorruptible joy.”50 A similar idea can be found in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in Hymn of the Universe: “I cannot tell which is the more radiant bliss: to have found the Word and so be able to achieve the mastery of matter, or to have mastered matter and so be able to submit to the light of God.”51 In either case mastery over nature (over novelty-replenishment) is not antihedonic but a refinement that leads to far higher joy.

Pain or discomfort acts in a twofold manner within such contexts. First, it is the most effective teacher in learning to overcome novelty-replenishment. If one can control one’s response to pain—the objective world’s most terrifying weapon—then one can delay the response to any novel encounter. Second, self-applied pain is often linked to the telos one has set up as a goal for practice (in developing mastery). This is especially true for Christian mystics for whom the ultimate goal of emulation is Christ on the cross. We see this often in Christian writings. For example Hadewijch of Antwerp writes in Vision VII: “I was so terribly unnerved with passionate love and in such pain that I imagined all my limbs breaking one by one and all my veins were separately in tortuous pain.”52 For the Christian practitioner the pain is always meaningful (pointing to a telos). Heinrich Suso was a great expert on such uses of pain: “He sought all kinds of remedies and practiced rigorous penances to make the flesh subject to the spirit. For a long time he wore a hairshirt and an iron chain until he bled like a fountain and had to give it up.”53 Suso makes it clear that discipline and training, however painful, are about the refinement, not the abolition, of pleasure: “God does not want to rob us of pleasure. He wants to arouse in us the desire for infinity,” that is, a desire for the highest joy possible. Suso adds, “In the most resolute submission one is elevated the most.” The reason for this is no mystery but the “conquest of the self.”54

“Conquest of the self” consists of self-control or self-regulation. It is training, both psychological and spiritual, and dates back, in Christianity at least, to the writings of St. Paul on mortification as a form of training (ascesis): “Every competitor in an athletic contest practices abstemiousness in all directions. They indeed do this for the sake of securing a perishable wreath; but we, for the sake of securing one that will not perish. That is how I run, not being in any doubt as to my goal.”55

As noted earlier, for Buddhists (and Hindus) pain is coupled with pleasure as a pair that one must learn to overcome in order to eliminate error, which is the root of suffering (samsara). Thus, on the path of increasing freedom, which leads to a deeply satisfying feeling of mastery, pain acts as a useful method of practice, but the Buddhist descriptive literature on pain lacks the cultural depth of the Christian.56 For example, in the practice of yoga, mastery (discipline) is not just freedom from misperceived objective reality; it is also the freedom to achieve or gain something: the concrete valued goals of mental practice.

Furthermore, aversion to one’s own body and avoidance of contact with others comes from bodily purification, as well as purity of intelligence, mental satisfaction, psychic focus, victory over the sense organs, and a vision of one’s inner being. Perfect happiness is attained through contentment.57

In the Christian practice of developing hedonic mastery, pain acts by shattering the illusion of the objective world as a given fact. It nurtures an awareness of another dimension: the inner mental life with its addictions and its potential freedom. Pain is thus liberating, and it strengthens a highly valued subjectivity. But this is just half of the story. The final stage, mystical ecstasy, is yet to be had. Indeed, the acquisition of mastery pleasure poses a new obstacle on the path to complete spiritual freedom and ecstatic joy. The advanced practitioner who has broken through the phenomenal illusion of a controlling objective world is still deeply ensnared in other realities. These include monastic rules and values, religious ideology, ideas about virtue, and a deeply embedded sense of agency working toward a prized goal. In other words the practitioner is now the agent of a mystical culture, which has replaced the objective and subjective world of ordinary perception. The new enemy is agency itself. To attain ecstatic experiences (transcendence and exploratory pleasure), the mystic must eliminate subjectivity itself.

As we have seen earlier, in the discussion about Melzack’s theory of pain and Hilgard’s neo-dissociation, agency—the phenomenal experience of being in charge of one’s actions—is a neurological feedback function. We have also seen that pain and other techniques can be used to short-circuit, so to speak, the information flow between the monitoring executive function and the semiautonomous systems that perform specific tasks. The consequent experience of dissociation can become manifest in a variety of ways, from hallucinations or “visions,” to possession, psychotic breakdowns, simple hypnosis, and a feeling of self-transcendence.

An individual (e.g., monk or nun) who gradually cultivates mastery affect via austerities and continues to carry out practices (often painful) that eliminate the perception of agency will experience intense and elevated (ecstatic) states of joy. Loss of self is key here. Bernard of Clairvaux (On Loving God) appears to have been referring to such a condition when he wrote the following:

When a movement of love (affectus) of this sort is experienced so that the intellectual soul is drunk with love and forgets itself, becoming almost an empty vessel to itself, it marches right into God, and adhering to him, becomes one spirit with him… I would call a person blessed or holy to whom anything such as this very occasionally, or even just once, was granted as an experience while still in this mortal life—and that is a rapture of scarce a moment’s duration.58

This is exploratory pleasure, completely free of the constraints of the objective world of objects and the subjective hold of culture on the self, inasmuch as agency has been diminished or has momentarily disappeared altogether. Rare as the experience may be, it is easy to find in the rich mystical literature of the West. Catherine of Genoa described it in spatial terms: “In this way she was drawn forth out of the senses and rapt above herself in ecstasy.”59

Note that pain, at this level, does not eradicate experience—it makes the experiences transparent. It weakens the most basic level of the body-self as an agent who “owns” every experience from pain itself to beliefs about God.60 This resembles, on an experiential level, the description provided by Ramana Maharshi for the advanced states of meditation: “If in this manner the mind becomes absorbed in the Heart, the ego or ‘I,’ which is the centre of the multitude of thoughts, finally vanishes and pure Consciousness or Self, which subsists during all states of the mind, alone remains resplendent.”61 Called Atman, this is a supremely blissful state of being. D’Aquili and Newberg have demonstrated that such states, which can be reached via painless meditation, resemble the neurodynamic patterns of self-applied pain or irritation (hyperstimulation). The two methods lead to the same, or related, experiences of ecstasy. Why a given practitioner (Christian, Muslim, Hindu) utilizes pain as opposed to just meditation and meditative prayer (or psychotropic drugs) is a complex cultural and psychological issue that cannot be discussed in the present context. What is important to remember, however, is that the pain is not punitive or aversive. Rather, it acts as a tool of hedonic control that transforms simple pleasure into the highest form of bliss. The pleasure itself, the affective dimension of ecstasy, develops regardless of the specific theology that defines the cultural context.


(1) Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle (New York: Image Books, 1961). The erotic imagery is far older than the Spanish mystic. It traces back, perhaps to Origen of Alexandria who spoke of “the wound of love,” the “kiss of lovers,” and others. The language is biblical, of course, but the experience, the ecstasy, was his own. See Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (New York: Crossroads, 1995), 118. The sexual dimension of mystical language has been widely discussed—the insistence on refereeing between the sexual and the spiritual “meaning” of pleasure. Freud led the charge on one side, whereas Lacan (to some extent, on jouissance) was in defense of the mystical. I show in this article that the distinction in pleasure between spiritual and sexual (or other types) is unscientific.

(2) Francis Mary Kalvelage, ed., Father Padre Pio: The Wonder Worker (Fall River, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 1999), 170.

(3) Quoted from Helen Bacovcin, trans., The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues (New York: Random House, 1985), 76.

(4) Swami Nikhilanand, trans., Selections of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Mumbai: Jaico, 2005), ch. 21.

(5) Ibid, 108.

(6) Arthur Osborne, ed., The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1997), 69–70. See also p. 90 and passim.

(7) Ariel Glucklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(8) Maureen Flynn, “The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64.2 (Summer 1996): 257–278; Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkley: University of California Press, 1987) and Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

(9) Violet MacDermot, The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East: A Contribution to Research on Hallucinations Drawn from Coptic and Other Texts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

(10) Cristina Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism and Gender in European Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).

(11) Gavin Flood, The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

(12) Reiko Ohnuma, Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Melissa Wilcox, “Bodily Transgression: Ritual and Agency in Self Injury,” S&F Online, 9.3 (Summer 2011); Kent L. Brintnall, Ecce Homo: The Male Body in Pain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Robert C. Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sciences of Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(13) Both Hindu and Buddhist literature are clear in their evaluation of birth in this life (samsara) as painful and sorrowful. Maharshi writes: “At least on one’s birthday one should mourn one’s entry into this world” (Osborne, The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, 91). The Tibetan collection, Mind Training: The Great Collection, ed. Shonu Gyolchock and Kanchock Gyaltsen (Summerville, MA: Wisdom Publication, 2006) quotes “Stages of the Heroic Mind” attributed to Serlingpa: “In samsara’s realms you endure the hardships” and “Your pain and suffering are greater than everyone’s, the torment of piercing wounds and agony is intense indeed” (passages 1 and 59). The reference to pain (especially heat and cold) is closely reminiscent of the Bhagavad Gita (e.g., ch. 2) and the Yoga Sutras where duality is attributed to the senses leading to false knowledge of the world and specifically affect (sukha/dukha).

(14) Robert K. Forman, The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Walter Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 1987); Steven T. Katz, ed., Mysticism and Religious Traditions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) and Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Ralph W. Hood, Dimensions of Mystical Experiences: Empirical Studies and Psychological Links (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001).

(15) See n. 18.

(16) Quoted in David Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology in Philo of Alexandria (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), 169.

(17) Yoga Sutra, 2.5.

(18) The subject of ecstasy in mystical experience has fascinated modern researchers for well over a century. It has been a vast topic of scientific research beginning with William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, 1901–1902); James H. Leuba, The Psychology of Religious Mysticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925); and Evelyn Underhill’s less systematic but more comprehensive treatment in Mysticism (London: Meuthen, 1911). All three, incidentally, continue to be reissued in new editions. Due to the narrow focus and limited scope of my thesis, I do not attempt to even touch, let alone survey, this literature.

(19) Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999) and Why God Won’t Go Away (New York: Random House, 2001). See also Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, “The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual and Mystical States,” Zygon 35.1 (March 2000): 39–51.

(21) Carol Rausch Albright, “Neuroscience in Pursuit of the Holy: Mysticism, the Brain, and Ultimate Reality,” Zygon 36.3 (September 2001): 485–492; Ilia Delio, “Brain Science and the Biology of Belief: A Theological Response,” Zygon 38.3 (September 2003): 573–585.

(22) R. R. Griffiths, W. A. Richards, U. McCann, and R. Jesse, “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance,” Psychopharmacology 187 (August 2006): 268–283. See Bruce Bower, “Chemical Enlightenment: Line Up for the Scientific, Psychedelic Mystical Tour,” Science News 170.14 (September 2006): 216–220.

(24) Ibid., 217.

(25) R. L. Carhart-Harris et al., “Neural Correlates of the Psychedelic State as Determined by fMRI Studies With Psilocybin,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 10.1073 (2012): 2138–2143.

(26) Similar can apparently be induced by overstimulation (motion, for example). See B. Wicker et al., “A Relation Between Rest and the Self in the Brain?” Brain Research Reviews 43.2 (2003): 224–230.

(27) Glucklich, Sacred Pain. See also Ariel Glucklich, “Self and Sacrifice: A Phenomenological Psychology of Sacred Pain,” Harvard Theological Review 92.4 (October 1999): 479–506 and “Sacred Pain and the Phenomenal Self,” Harvard Theological Review 91.4 (October 1998): 389–412.

(28) Ronald Melzack and Patrick D. Wall, The Challenge of Pain (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

(29) Ronald Melzack, “Phantom-Limb Pain and the Brain,” in Pain and the Brain: From Nociception to Cognition, ed. Burkhart Bromm and John E. Desmedt, Advances in Pain Research and Therapy 22 (New York: Raven Press, 1995). See also, R. Melzack, “Phantom Limbs,” Scientific American 261 (April 1992): 120–126.

(31) Ibid., 58 and n. 54.

(32) Ernst R. Hilgard, Divided Consciousness: Multiple Controls in Human Thought and Action (New York: John Wiley, 1977).

(33) See, for example, Richard A. Shweder, Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 122–123; Charles S. Carver and Michael F. Scheier, “Self-Regulation and the Self,” in The Self: Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. Jaine Strauss and George R. Goethals (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1991), 168–204.

(34) Ernst R. Hilgard, “Neodissociation Theory,” in Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives, ed. Steven J. Lynn and Judith W. Rhue (New York: Guilford Press, 1994), 35–49.

(35) Ernst R. Hilgard and Josephine Hilgard, Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain (Los Altos, CA: William Kaufman, 1975); Ernest R. Hilgard, “Hypnosis and Pain,” in The Psychology of Pain, 2d ed., ed. Richard A. Sternbach (New York: Raven Press, 1986), 197–221.

(36) He repeated this view often. See Gilbert Ryle, Concept of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 109; Gilbert Ryle and W. B. Gallie, “Symposium: Pleasure,” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 28: (1954), 135–164. Ludwig Wittgenstein held a similar view: “Joy surely designates an inward thing. No. Joy designates nothing. Neither any inward or any outward thing”; see Zette (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), no. 487. The behaviorists had a point: There are over seventy pain terms in the McGill Pain Questionnaire (e.g., throbbing, piercing, shooting, etc.) and virtually no words for pleasure. But they were still wrong, of course. See Irwin Goldstein, “Intersubjective Properties by Which We Specify Pain, Pleasure, and Other Kinds of Mental States,” Philosophy 75 (2000): 89–104.

(37) Timothy Schroeder, Three Faces of Desire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83.

(38) M. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 154. A closely related perspective bearing on temporality can be found in Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 134–145.

(39) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1894), 303; Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 11.

(40) Platonic and Aristotelian analysis of pleasure differed significantly, but both insisted on a standard of evaluation that makes the pleasure possible (change in Plato, proper function in Aristotle). Aristotle was the more systematic of the two. See, for example, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1369b–1370al. “Each kind of being again, seems to have its proper pleasure, as it has its proper function.” This top-down position is still common among philosophers. See, for example, Daniel Nettle, Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(41) Victor S. Johnston, “The Origin and Function of Pleasure,” in Pleasure, ed. James A. Russell (East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press, 2003), 167–180; M. Cabanac, C. Pouliot, and J. Everett, “Pleasure as a Sign of Efficacy of Mental Activity,” European Psychologist 2 (1997): 226–234; D. Warburton, “The Function of Pleasure,” in The Function of Pleasure, ed. N. Sherwood Chichester (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 1996), 1–10. See also Michael Kubovy, “On the Pleasures of the Mind,” in Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, eds. Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), 134–154.

(42) For reasons of space I am oversimplifying. In fact, each of these three phases of adaptations can be further subdivided according to a variety of criteria. For one example of such work, see John A. Lambie and Anthony J. Marcel, “Consciousness and the Varieties of Emotion Experience: A Theoretical Framework,” Psychological Review 109.2 (April 2002): 219–259.

(43) Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 10.31.43–10.31.44; Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (New York: Riverhead, 1998), 13.

(44) Psychologists today have studied the effect of what they call religious self-regulation on the promotion of well-being. See, for example, Michael E. McCullough and Brian L.B. Willoughby, “Religion, Self-Control, and Self-Regulation: Associations, Explanations, and Implications,” Psychological Bulletin 135.1 (January 2009): 69–93.

(45) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), especially chapter 3.

(46) Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (New York: Vintage, 1999), 49.

(47) Anthony Mottola, trans., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (New York: Image Books, 1964), 47, 78.

(48) Paul Rozin, “Preadaptation and the Puzzles and Properties of Pleasure,” in Well-Being, ed. Daniel Kahneman et al., 109–133; Paul Rozin and Deborah Schiller, “The Nature and Acquisition of a Preference for Chili Pepper by Humans,” Motivation and Emotion 4 (1980): 77–101.

(49) David Morris, “Diabetes, Chronic Illness and the Bodily Roots of Ecstatic Temporality,” Human Studies 31.4 (December 2008): 399–421.

(50) Quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (New York: Random House, 2006), 549.

(51) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 21.

(52) Quoted in McGinn, The Essential Writings, 103. The suffering described is intimately linked to the pleasure anticipated—of union with Christ.

(53) “Chastisement of the Body” (Part I, ch. 15), in Henry Suso: The Exemplar with Two German Sermons, trans. Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 87.

(54) Ibid., 189.

(55) I Cor. 9:25–27 (Weymouth, trans).

(56) It is difficult to imagine a Hindu or Buddhist monk describing visions such as those of Hildegard of Bingen to express the soul’s captivity by the body: “And stripping me of my garments and dealing me many wounds they sent me to be hunted” (Vision Four); quoted in Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hard and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 110.

(57) Barbara Stoler Miller, trans., Yoga: Discipline of Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), part 2, 40–42.

(58) Quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroads, 1999), 213. Like many other mystics, Bernard was a true connoisseur of (mastery and exploratory) pleasures, which he called raptures, transports, ecstasy, delights, and so forth.

(59) Catherine of Genoa, Purgation and Purgatory: The Spiritual Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 19–25.

(61) Obsborne, The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, 42. In this state, Ramana adds, there is not a trace of the I-thought—his version of what I have called the embodied self or agent.