WXTJ Writes! by Sloane Daly: “The Spiritual Experience and Live Music: the Loss of the Self”

The dilapidated 50-something former punk behind me threatened to dump his beer on an unsuspecting young couple making their way to the front of the floor. 30 minutes into the set I was drenched with sweat. I could feel my jeans sticking to my thighs. The heat of the bodies around me only served to amplify the sour mixture of sweat, alcohol, and smoke blanketing the crowd. But, at the time none of that mattered. The only thing that was salient to me in that moment was the togetherness I felt with the hundreds of strangers whose voices and bodies surrounded me. Connection, catharsis, the universal spirit, God, whatever you want to call it: I felt it that night. Seeing Fontaines D.C. live catalyzed a spiritual experience. For me, live music is an essential site of the spiritual experience. 

The number of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious” has skyrocketed over the course of the last five years. As of 2017, 27% of the American public identify with the classification according to the Pew Research Center. While the most popular practices of modern American spirituality tend to be yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Popular notions of what spirituality means and the practices used to induce states of spiritual or religious experience in no way define the bounds of spiritual experience for the individual. Although live music may not be commonly cited as a spiritual technology, 69% of spiritual but not religious Americans reported being “ touched, moved, or inspired within the last week while listening to a song or piece of music” compared to just 43% of non-spiritual Americans according to the Public Religion Research Institute. 

Furthermore, the very nature of what makes something a “spiritual” or religious experience tends to vary by individual. In the context of the Public Religion Research Institute, the spiritual experience was defined as “being connected to something larger than oneself.” The central notion of moving beyond the self lines up with historical conceptions of the characteristics of the spiritual experience. According to the father of the discipline of religious studies, William James, a spiritual experience is defined by four essential qualities: ineffability, a noetic quality (i.e. gaining meaningful insights), transciency, and passivity. For James, the “mystical” experience was an individual one. However, the individual nature of that experience does not necessarily require a focus on the self. The “passivity” characteristic demands just the opposite. In order to “passively” resign oneself to be “held by a superior power” (i.e. the universal spirit, God etc), the individual must let go of the “self.” 

Rainn Wilson’s most profound “spiritual transcendent experience” occurred at a Radiohead show. Co-host of the religious exploration podcast Metaphysical Milkshake and former The Office star, Wilson identifies as spiritual and religious. Despite this, his most meaningful experience of transcendence took place outside of the confines of religious space and practice. His experience seeing Radiohead was spiritual because of the loss of “the self.” He felt “completely out of [his] body. He “didn’t feel like Rainn Wilson. [He] just felt like [he] was in some kind of ocean of bliss.” This loss of the self brought on through the physical and emotional experience of the band’s performance, induced a state of spiritual transcendence which definitely aligns with classic and modern conceptions of what the spiritual experience means. 

This loss of the self not only conceptually defines what it means to have a religious experience, but is objectively essential to the neurological understandings of how the brain behaves during a religious experience. According to research conducted by Andrew Nuremberg, Professor and Director of Research Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, during the religious experience the brain shows decreased activity in the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe is the part of the brain which “helps us to create our sense of self.” 

Whether it’s me finding hope and meaning through Fontaines D.C. or Rainn Wilson losing himself at a Radiohead show in the 90’s, live music can induce a state of spiritual insight. Although the value of live music lies not just in its usefulness as a spiritual technology, it’s role as a site of spiritual experience has shaped my life for the better. Maybe, just maybe, next time you’re at a show you can see your physical, emotional, and neurological experience of the moment in a new light. Maybe, you might even feel connected to something greater than yourself. Maybe, you just might have a spiritual experience too.


By Sloane Daly, host of Sad Girl Sounds every Wednesday from 12pm-2pm. 

WXTJ Writes! is brought to you by a team of 25 wonderful writers. Our mission is to make our website come alive by diving even deeper into some of our favorite music — so get ready to talk music, media, entertainment, the arts, and read special stories told by radio-loving students every week here on wxtj.fm/articles.

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