I am an Ecstatic. I often talk about individual aspects of my Ecstatic path, but I rarely sit down and talk at length about my perspective on what Ecstasy is, or what being an Ecstatic means to me.
Today, though, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
What is Ecstasy? This is a question that has been explored by many people throughout the ages. First of all, I’m obviously not talking about MDMA or any other drug, although mind-altering substances do have a place in some ecstatic paths. I’m also not talking about relatively mild and fleeting feelings of excitement or happiness.
Ecstasy is a heightened state of consciousness that is better experienced than explained. Different people experience it and describe it in different ways. For some, it involves focusing on an inner experience of Divinity to the point of temporarily losing all contact with external stimuli. In this state, the Ecstatic is immersed fully in a beatific vision of the Divine and may pass out or become unresponsive. For others, it involves attaining a heightened awareness or appreciation of surroundings in which the Ecstatic experiences the Divine as being physically present within them and around them. Either way, the most common threads among Ecstatic experiences are arguably shifting consciousness into a trance or trance-like state and experiencing a profound sense of the presence of the Divine.
My earliest Ecstastic experiences were in my childhood. Really, I think most people who are new to the concept of an Ecstatic path would do well to look back to experiences in their childhood, even if they didn’t have a happy childhood. Most children haven’t learned yet to suppress and constrain their primal life impulses. Therefore, most of us can remember some point in childhood or young adulthood when we became so swept up in an experience — whether it was a “good” or “bad” one — that everything else faded into the background and we lost ourselves in the intensity of the moment.
I remember experiencing the natural world in this way as a child. I grew up in the Chicago area, so I didn’t have too many opportunities for experiences outside of a human-constructed environment. There were, however, exceptions. Sometimes, my grandfather would take us to a local nature preserve, or my mother would take us to the park near our house. I would inevitably run ahead and climb on any object that was even remotely climbable, whether it was a stone or tree or simply the bars of concrete at the front of parking spaces. When I wasn’t at the park or nature preserve, I would love picking dandelions during the warm seasons because they were really the only brightly colored flower growing in my environment. During the winter, I would play in the snow whenever I had the chance, whether that meant throwing snowballs or making snow angels or simply stomping up snow hills and jumping back down.
I’m sure that many people can identify with these childhood experiences. The point worth noting from an ecstatic perspective, though, is the shift in consciousness that I experienced. I had no words for it, but when I did these things, I felt something shift inside of me. I was seeing more, feeling more, BECOMING more than I had been before or after these moments of unfettered play. Sometimes, my focus on this experience was so strong that I lost all sense of time, or lost my sensitivity to heat and cold and fatigue, or let go of the growing inhibitions that our society was heaping onto my back as I grew into young adulthood.
These experiences were, however, only the beginning of my Ecstatic path.
A child is full of energy and vitality, but there is a certain depth of power and passion and awareness that only develops in adolescence and adulthood. At some point during puberty, my empathic sensitivity, as well as my emotional intensity, seemed to increase tenfold.
Sadly, junior high and high school — especially in a fairly backward and banal suburban environment — is not a friendly environment for an Ecstatic! As I was mocked and bullied for being “different,” I found myself retreating deeper and deeper into my own shell. The Ecstatic impulse was still there — the drive for profound experiences and qualitative shifts in consciousness. But I didn’t know what it was, or what to do with it. So I sought desperately to fulfill it through escapes into fantasy realms by reading and writing fiction and playing computer role-playing games.
It wasn’t until I was well into college that this long-buried aspect of my consciousness was called back to the surface. My favorite fictional reality at the time was the Ultima computer game series — and the Avatar archetype from that series, along with my long-time Superman fandom, had driven me to see what forms of good I could do out in the real world.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this in and of itself was the start of my return to an outwardly Ecstatic spiritual path. I had discovered a heroic archetype that filled me with a profound sense of joy and purpose, and I had learned to invoke that archetype as a powerful way of transforming my consciousness and motivating myself to action. Even though I was still extremely socially anxious and depressive, I found myself stepping out into the world and taking actions for activist causes that even emotionally healthy people find challenging. This was possible because invoking the heroic archetype shifted my consciousness into a profoundly different state than the one I experienced outside of an activist context.
This was a start. However, it wasn’t nearly enough, and in the long run it wasn’t sustainable. I needed to do more than just change my actions. I needed to change my experience of the world.
Luckily, synergy set in. I came across activists who combined their environmental work with a sense of the importance of personal empowerment. They recognized that human minds and hearts were being ravaged and strangled by some of the inhibitions and constraints of our society, just as the forces of consumption and ecocide were ravaging and strangling the creatures and the living land that surround us. My academic studies in environmental philosophy gave me a theoretical framework for understanding their perspectives, and my experiences in ecodefense gave me a taste of what it felt like to live free and wild in defiance of many of society’s constraints and expectations.
Taking these lessons to heart, and learning how to live them in my daily life, is the work of a lifetime. I definitely feel like I’ve reached the stage, though, where an Ecstatic path is no longer an abstract concept and is instead a lived reality.
All of the above still sounds a bit abstract. What does an Ecstatic path really mean in my life? What experiences qualify as Ecstatic, and what do they mean in my life?
One way to really grasp the shift in consciousness that I’ve experienced is to read my poetry:
Prose can only come so far in describing states of consciousness. Poetry uses imagery and narrative to lure the reader or listener into a trance state similar to the one experienced by the poet. I haven’t posted my new poem about ecstasy there yet, but you can read it in my new poetry book, Ecstasy of Liberation, or simply ask me to show you a copy.
Another way is to describe some of the types of experience that I have now that I’ve embraced a fully Ecstatic path.
My experience of physical and emotional reality has forever changed for the better. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was depressed, the world had faded into shades of grey. Colors seemed dull and lifeless, sounds seemed flat and monotone, and the only physical sensation that really had any intensity to it was pain. Emotionally, my favorite movies, books, or TV shows could still at times inspire great joy in me, but my default emotional state was one of sadness and loneliness and sorrow.
But my Ecstatic path changed all of this. I wrote about this in my poem “Cloudbreak.” During the course of my environmental activism, my experiences in the natural world would bring me into a trancelike state — an Ecstatic state — in which colors were brighter, sounds were more crisp, and the world felt more solid and sensual. At first, these were fleeting peak experiences. Over time, they became my default experience of reality. Now, even if I’m just walking a few blocks to run an errand, I may find myself overcome with joy at the sight of a sunset, or the moon rising, or even mountains of grey clouds blanketing the sky and altering the quality of the daylight.
My experience of other people has also undergone a profound positive shift. It used to be intense in a bad way — a sense of mortal terror as I was cast adrift in an overwhelming sea of emotions, expectations, and inhibitions, all of which were a mix of empathic impressions from other people and my own reaction to their presence. But my Ecstatic path allowed me to embrace the power of emotion and passion rather than fearing or suppressing it. I learned to experience and express my own passion more deeply through meditation, poetry, chanting, ritual, ecstatic dance, consuming dark chocolate, and occasionally through drinking significant amounts of alcohol. And now that I’ve embraced my own emotions and passions, I’m almost always comfortable in the presence of other people.
The most profound change in my experience of other people, though, is love. Now that my own fears, jealousies, judgments, and preconceptions have mostly gotten out of the way, I feel a tremendous love for those around me. If someone is cruel, or dull, or banal, or malevolent, I may not LIKE them — but I will feel their humanity while interacting with them. Even if I complain about their behavior, their attitude, their personality, and so on, I will still manage to move past that to experience aspects of their humanity and love them for it.
If I can feel that baseline of love for people who I might openly identify as “villains,” imagine how much love I feel for the people who are near and dear to me!
When I’m in the presence of someone I love deeply, I often experience a shift in consciousness as I feel a sense of awe at being in the presence of incarnate Divinity. When I’m in the more active version of this state, I find myself drawn into excited conversation with the one(s) I love, wanting to share as much back and forth as possible in a reciprocal state of spiritual communion. When I’m in the more receptive version of this state, I love to simply sit in the presence of the one(s) I love and be an active listener. Even if the details of the conversation are nothing new, and even if we’re in the midst of some seemingly banal activity like doing chores or running errands, I find myself shifting into a profound state of happiness and bliss simply to be in the presence of someone who I feel is the Divine incarnate. In that moment, they are Lady or Lord to me, and their presence is a heartfelt blessing.
I’d like to talk about what it’s like to be an Ecstatic in the midst of a romantic relationship. But alas, for whatever reasons, my relationships have been very few and far between. In the end, though, even this has been a blessing in its own strange way.
My Ecstatic path has opened me up to ever-increasing experiences of passionate appreciation of the beauty of the world. This includes my romantic feelings, and my desires for physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual intimacy.
If I had found someone earlier in life, I would have probably just directed all of my attention to them and not changed much in my understanding and experience of love. Instead, I was driven by fate into prolonged periods of solitude where I was forced to face my shadows and evolve as a person.
Before these challenges, my heart and mind were filled with destructive attachments and inhibitions. I was jealous; I was possessive; I was afraid of being alone; I was despondent at the thought that someone who I loved did not love me in return. My Ecstatic experiences filled me with a profound sense of love — but when this love went unrequited, my attachments filled me with a terrible, soul-crushing pain.
Something had to give. Fate, in essence, had presented me with a choice. I couldn’t continue to suffer like this. Would I ease my suffering by letting go of my love, or letting go of my attachments?
For a while, I was stuck. I didn’t fully understand the question being posed to me by fate, and I didn’t know how to let go of my attachments. With time, though, it started to become clear. My love itself wasn’t what was making me suffer. It was the attachments — the jealousy, or the fear of being alone, or my reluctance to accept the sorrow inherent in unrequited love. These attachments not only caused me to suffer, but also caused me to hold back my own capacity to love.
And so, with time, I started to let my experience of love burn these attachments away. It was a painful process — much like being burned alive! But when it was over, I felt reborn, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
There are still, of course, remnants and echoes of the old patterns — and maybe there always will be. But something fundamental has shifted in me. My experience of life, and love, has transformed for the better. I now love people with wild abandon, regardless of what they may feel for me, or what prospects we may have for a romantic relationship. It’s one of the most amazing and liberating feelings in the world, and better experienced than described.
The bad news is that I still find myself without a romantic partner. The good news, though, is that this troubles me a lot less than it used to. I have many friends who I love dearly, and on most days I’m quite happy to share my love with them in whatever ways they want to share it.
Amazingly, and somewhat paradoxically, I’ve found that the more profound and Ecstatic my feelings of romantic love become, the more mellow I feel about any one person ignoring or rejecting me romantically. I think it’s because I no longer see other people as the source of my love, or my romance, or my sex, or my happiness. They are certainly the subjects of my love, and certainly the ones who draw those feelings out in me — but ultimately, my love and passion and joy and bliss emerges from deep inside of me, like a bottomless well or an endless spring. So if one person doesn’t feel the same way about me, I mourn that disparity in my own way and simply move on.
In case I haven’t made this clear, the experiences provided by an Ecstatic path aren’t all “positive” in the conventional sense. They are simply experiences that are profound enough to shift our consciousness from a state of dull sleepwalking to a state of entranced communion with the Divine. On a good day, this may involve an intense appreciation of the beauty of a person, a place, or an experience. On a bad day, though, this may involve intense sorrow, despair, or terror in the presence of a beauty lost, or a love betrayed, or a world full of suffering, or an incarnation of the Divine that is desecrated or twisted beyond all recognition.
The latter form of experience — what some might call the “dark side” of Ecstasy — may sound awful and undesirable to someone who is not an Ecstatic. In fact, these sorts of intense “negative” experiences are why a lot of people like to keep their emotions and passions in check. They’d rather feel flat than feel that level of sorrow. But to an Ecstatic, these experiences are just another way of encountering the Divine as it is embodied in a wild world of flesh, and blood, and bone, and mud, and fire, and ice, and laughter, and tears. Sure, it’s usually preferable if we experience this Ecstasy through trance dancing, or wild romps through the wilderness, or nights of drunken debauchery, or tender acts of lovemaking shared with a soulmate. But our experience of the awesome power of immanent Divinity is just as present in our tears, our clenched fists, our gnashing of teeth, our sobs of despair, our indignant rage at the ravages of death and destruction and travesties of justice.
If it’s intense, and you feel swept up in it, and you find yourself trembling in awe in its presence, it’s probably Ecstasy, regardless of whether the awe is one of joy, or terror, or both. In these moments, you will truly know that you are alive, and you will feel moved in a way that you may never have felt before. If it’s a moment of bliss, embrace it with gratitude and follow your bliss. If it’s a moment of horror or despair, embrace it regardless, and ride it out until you discover the lessons it has come to teach you. Either way, it will take you somewhere incredible.
So, that’s my perspective on Ecstasy and my Ecstatic path. If you like what you see, let me know, and I can share with you some of the works of music, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction that have helped me along the way. In fact, I should probably create a page on my website dedicated to listing such resources. In the meantime, I’m always eager to talk about it, and I wish you well in your own Ecstatic journey.