What do skydivers and mystics, for example, have in common?
Their thrilling payoffs are completely psychological and almost identical.
This fascinating nexus between fear and faith—and their close cousin, pain—is investigated in a thoughtful recent essay by Guy Claxton in the e-zine Aeon, which calls itself an online “sanctuary for serious thinking.”
The gist of the essay is that skydivers, self-harming teens, people paralyzed with depression, deeply religious folks and countless other searchers are all after exactly the same thing. They seek release—from the dispiriting agonies of boredom, psychic pain and existential confusion.
Take Jez, for instance, a 25-year-old from Plymouth Hoe in coastal southern England. In his teens, he and his mates routinely jumped off the local 65-foot sea wall into what is appropriately known as “Dead Man’s Cove.” It’s called “tombstoning,” and in the past nine years 20 British kids have died and 70 more were paralyzed for life in the practice, whose primary nemeses are submerged rocks and wrenching currents.
So, why do these kids do it at all, much less with such mindless enthusiasm? Claxton contends they are motivated, naturally, by primal adolescent peer pressure, but also the hope to experience “strong—if ephemeral—feelings of solidarity, closeness and respect” that the group activity bestows on participants. But there’s something else: they also want to “go clear.”
Interviewed by The Guardian newspaper in 2006 when he was 16 and deep into tombstoning, Jez explained the appeal:
“You spend the whole day in school doing boring stuff … you still want to do something that will give you a rush … Jumping does that. Just for a second you forget all the boring bits of your day and feel free.”
A fellow tombstoner, Steve, then 18, told The Guardian:
This is the same private experience people of faith and spirituality long for, especially mystics, who have a strong desire to psychically, even physically, achieve a divine connection. Devoted transcendental meditation practitioners call it nirvana, Buddhism’s final beatitude, a realm beyond pain, care or even the reality outside self.
“It’s a way of getting out of your mind for a moment or two without taking drugs or drinking alcohol. When you are out there in mid-air, you don’t think of anything—your head goes clear.”
It’s “runner’s high,” the supercharged bliss of a young snowboarder flying down the slopes, the instant relief felt by a despondent person cutting his own flesh, a teen girl seeking love in recklessly random sex, and Mother Theresa sensing God talking directly to her. All comprise the same phenomenon of existential release from life’s unrewarding tediums, terrors and inflictions.
A young girl told the Guardian piece in another 2006 article:
“I was 12 years old when I began, and pretty depressed, angry and isolated. One day, I accidentally hit my hand really hard against my bed and experienced this sudden feeling of relief. Then for some reason I decided to cut myself, to see if I could make the good feelings last longer.”
Claxton writes that feelings of bliss are not only sought by the young, but everyone, and that they sometimes occur in utterly spontaneous ways seemingly disconnected from everything. He told of a London commuter one day 50 years ago who—out of the blue—experienced a powerful, epiphany-like emotion while he sat quietly in a train compartment. The commuter wrote later:
“I cannot remember any particular thought processes which may have led up to the great moment. For a few seconds only (I suppose) the whole compartment was filled with light. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose … In a few moments the glory had departed—all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment.”
Of relevance here, drugs and mental illness can produce the same sensations.
The point is that these otherworldly feelings manifestly appear to be very worldly in nature, exclusively residing in the folds of our brains, not netherworlds. They are the same when we do things, and when we do nothing, artifacts of human cognition.
True believers like to think these soaring episodes are proof of the divine, but skeptics are convinced they are just a function of our human DNA, firing exactly as the imperatives of our evolution intend or misfiring in error.
So what skydivers and mystics have in common is their humanity, their deep longing—as we all have—to transcend life’s often agonizing trials and tribulations. Nothing mystical about it.