The importance of ecstatic and transcendent experience in western culture––and from my own perspective the importance within Brisbane’s culture––is quite simple: to clear the mind of the overwhelming ‘noise’ (such as those nagging thoughts of bills, exams, medical tests, insults, etc) that is placed inside our heads on a daily basis is the only way a person can ever truly relax. In western culture, just as in shamanic culture, drugs (or in their shamanic context, ‘entheogens’) and music are essential to achieving a trance-state where one can, albeit briefly, free themselves from the sometimes suffocating grip of the physical world.
I can see many parallels between certain shamanic rituals and, frankly, the way some teenagers might spend their free time on the weekends, the key differences being of course the vey sacredness of shamanic rituals; what constitutes as music or dance; and the distinction between drugs and entheogens, the latter being the term for a drug when it is expressly used for religious or spiritual purposes.
Just as the native Huichol people of Mexico travel a great distance to take part in an annual ritual that involves eating peyote and hours of rhythmic dancing, Brisbane suburbanites might, in ritualistic fashion, dress-up and travel into Fortitude Valley every Saturday night to take MDMA (a stimulant known for euphoric effects) and dance to music well into the next day. Acknowledging again the different level these rituals are on, the parallels are nonetheless rather obvious.
Even the purpose and end result of these two rituals are not that far removed. While the former intends to get in touch with their ancestors and themselves, and be forgiven for their past wrongs, the latter can intend to get in touch with themselves, their fellow man and release the bad energy from a stressful week.
The human brain is a powerful thing so naturally it does take a powerful influence to derail it from its usual path of thinking about anything and everything. Drugs are that powerful influence, and they can make our brain do what it needs to do or, for therapeutic purposes, gain a completely different perspective or world-view, or even just switch-off.
Music is intrinsic to rituals, and is a recognised form of therapy in western psychology; interestingly it does not have the stigma attached to it that drug therapy does. In a tribal ritual, the music, and thus its power, comes from everyone: people might clap, stomp, sing, shout or hum and through the twofold effect of cacophonous noise drowning out your thoughts, and the calming and hypnotic effect of the repetition, a trance-state is usually reached.
If we were to go into a popular nightclub in the Valley, we would undoubtedly see many people caught up in this exact same state––and who is to decide it is any less fulfilling? The constant stream of loud music is there to provide a powerful distraction to any thoughts that might dwell in a patrons mind and furthermore render verbal communication practically impossible. There is still the rhythmic dancing; anything from jumping on the spot to head banging to grooving to the beat. This is also likely done in a dense crowd, so there is definitely a sense of community. On the point of community, the effect of drugs becomes apparent again, as many drugs popular with club-goers (like MDMA) produce feelings of empathy and compassion for other people.
I believe that ecstatic and transcendent experiences are important to western culture in the same way they are important to the much more ancient cultures that discovered such experiences. It is a way to release and unwind. I also think that the spirit in which people in the western, urban world go about experiencing them is much akin to the rituals of their originators. I think it also shows that the emotional and mental needs of humanity are unchanging regardless of time or distance.
by Rhys Dwyer