The Psychology of Ecstasy

ecstasy

Men die in despair, while spirits die in ecstasy. —Balzac

Happiness has been deemed so important as to feature as an unalienable human right in the United States Declaration of Independence. It is, however, a fuzzy concept that means different things to different people. On one level, it can be amalgamated with a range of positive or pleasant emotions such as acceptance, contentment, gratitude, gratification, pride, excitement, amusement, and joy. On another level, it can be thought of in terms of human flourishing or the good life. I have discussed happiness at some length in my book The Art of Failure, and I do not intend to revisit the topic here. Instead, I propose to concentrate on euphoria and, in particular, on ecstasy.

Euphoria derives from the Greek eu- (“good”) and pherein (“to bear”), and literally means “to bear well.” The term has come to refer to any form of intense elation or positive feeling, especially that with an abstract or expansive quality. Such intense elation is uncommon in the normal course of human experience but can be sparked by certain substances and experiences, for example, beauty, art, music, love, orgasm, exercise, and triumph. It can also stem from a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders, in particular bipolar affective disorder and cyclothymia.

The pinnacle of euphoria is ecstasy, which literally means “to be or stand outside oneself.” Ecstasy is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object, or objects, is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein called this the “mystic emotion,” and spoke of it as “the finest emotion of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science,” and “the core of the true religious sentiment.”

Like it or not, man is by nature a religious animal, and most, if not all, cultures have interpreted ecstasy in terms of divine possession or revelation, or union with the divine. Many traditions seek to induce religious ecstasy or “enlightenment” by one or several methods, often meditation, intoxication, or ritual dancing. Yet, it is also possible for atheists and agnostics to experience ecstasy “by accident” and to interpret it in other terms, thereby experiencing the deepest religion without getting caught in the trivia and trappings of any one particular religion.

Ecstasy is difficult to describe, in part because its expression is culture-bound. Unless it is induced, it is more likely to supervene in a period of inactivity, particularly a non-routine period of inactivity, or in a novel, unfamiliar, or unusual setting or set of circumstances. The person enters into a trans-like state that typically lasts from minutes to hours, although subjective perception of time and space may be highly distorted. He or she feels a great sense of calm and quiescence and may become tearful and unresponsive up to the point of unconsciousness. The experience is typically described as delightful beyond expression and the first episode as life changing.

One of my friends explained it thus: “It felt like the fulfillment of my life, but, more than that, the fulfillment of all life, of life itself. It put everything into perspective and gave it all unity, purpose, and nobility. It’s completely changed me. Still today, everything that I do—and, perhaps more importantly, do not do—is grounded in that vision, grounded in that reality… It’s as if it’s opened up a channel in my mind. I feel more alert and alive, and often experience small aftershocks of the original experience. These aftershocks can be triggered by the smallest things: the song of a bird, the sun playing into a room, the fleeting expression on the face of a friend, or anything that is slightly heightened or unordinary and in some sense a reminder of the eternal and infinite.”

The friend in question also confided that he had torn up his CV (resume) after realizing that nothing that a CV could get him could be worth having. Ecstasy can lead to one or several such epiphanies. An epiphany, or “eureka moment,” can be defined as the experience of a sudden and striking realization, especially one that is both profound and against the grain (although the term is also used to refer to the manifestation of a divine or supernatural being, and, more specifically, to the revelation of the incarnation of the infant Christ to the Gentiles in the form of the Three Kings). In Sanskrit, “epiphany” is rendered as bodhodaya, which derives from bodha (“wisdom”) and udaya (“rising”), and literally means “a rising of wisdom.”

One of the cardinal features of ecstasy is the dissolution of boundaries, with the individual ego merging into all being. More than at any other time in human history, our society emphasizes the sovereign independence and supremacy of the ego, and the ultimate loneliness and responsibility of each and every individual. From a young age, we are taught to uphold and control the ego, so much so that we have lost the art of letting go. Indeed, we no longer even recognize the possibility of letting go, leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Today, if anyone cannot or will not remain in tight control of his or her ego, the consequences can be utterly devastating. Yet, letting go can free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, returning us to a primordial Eden. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they are brimming with joy and wonder. Ecstasy can make us once again into a little child.

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