Last night I went to a beautiful concert that consisted mainly of sacred chants. The event was very much participatory — the audience was encouraged to join in.
It was one of those deeply emotional experiences where you feel transported out of yourself. By the time we got to the closing number, with everybody in the audience standing up, linking hands and swaying slowly from side to side while we lost ourselves in the music, the experience was completely heavenly.
And yet part of me resisted. Even though I knew that these were kind folk, who believed in peace and gentleness of people toward each other, a corner of my mind held back.
And that’s because on some level I just don’t trust the transcendent experience of losing oneself in a group, even when I believe in the underlying cause that brought everyone together. There is always a part of my mind that wants to stay awake, so that I can make sure that I have not lost my judgement.
I had something like this experience at the end of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008. Don’t get me wrong — I was very happy that he won the election. Yet at the end of his speech, when he led everyone in a chant, I felt myself pulling away.
The mental state of being lost in a group transcendent experience might be one of the most pleasurable of human emotions. Yet when we are in this state, when we give ourselves over completely to the group identity, we are unable to ask hard questions about what it is, exactly, that we are saying.
Maybe I am just being too cautious in my resistance to enchantment. But then, there is something to be said for erring on the side of caution.