Ecstasy – Definition and Meaning

Ecstasy is said to be a psycho-physical condition that accompanies the apprehension of what one personally experiences as the ultimate reality. The perception of this reality may differ though, for example, as between the perceptions of the Indian mystics and the Christian mystics. Psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers expressed a certainty for the sensation of ecstasy: «the evidence for ecstasy is stronger than the evidence for any other religious belief.» (Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, 1903)

Religious ecstasy, such as discussed by mystic-theologians including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart, may be the experience that is thought by faith to be an anticipation of the beatific vision – the ultimate and eternal experience of being in the presence of God. Typically, there is a sudden, heightened inner consciousness of stillness and peace, and identification with God and all things. The mystic poets, exemplified by William Blake, may best describe such ultimate religious experiences. Related to these experiences is also the «quietness of the soul» as described by the Spanish mystic St. John of the CrossSt. Teresa of Avila, and the Italian mystic Catherine of Siena. Also, they spoke of experiencing the «dark night of the soul

The state of ecstasy seems timeless, although the usual experience lasts less than half of an hour. Some recorded instances supposedly lasted several days; the longest recorded instance lasted thirty-five years experienced by a Tyrolean woman, Marie von Moerl (1812-1868).

In her book Mysticism (1955), Evelyn Underhill discusses the three distinct aspects under which the ecstatic state may be studied. They are the physical, the psychological, and the mystical. She explains that many misunderstandings surrounding the topic come from the refusal of experts in one of these areas to consider the results arrived at by the other two.

Physically, ecstasy is a trance, accompanied by lowered breathing and circulation rigidity of the limbs, and even total anesthesia. The onset of the ecstatic state is usually gradual, following a period of contemplation of the Divine. It can occur suddenly and seem to seize a person, a condition some mystics call rapture. Psychologically, all ecstasy is a complete unification of consciousness or what Underhill termed «complete mono-ideaism,» that is, the deliberate focus on one idea. The latter, when an exalted form of contemplation, is related to «centering» advocated by Zen masters. Mystically, ecstasy is an exalted act of perception – «the last term of contemplation,» as described by Underhill: «The word has became a synonym for joyous exaltation, for the inebriation of the Infinite.» (see Mystical experiences)

Ecstasy when taking on the form of rapture is frequently accompanied by a «carrying-away» sensation (related in its concrete form to levitation of the body). Such a sensation has been described by Christian mystics including John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, Marie de Plncarnation, as others. This sensation is distinct from an out-of-the-body experience (OBE).

The Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson has called the study of ecstasy «the psychology of joy», who, in Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy approached the subject in relation to the myth of Dionysus. Johnson described this unique Greek god, being half mortal and half god, as «the personification of divine joy, who can bring transcendent joy or madness.» In the myth, however, one can find also «the capricious, unpredictable thrill of joy» as well as the «personification of wine and its ability to bring either spiritual transcendence or physical addiction.»

Some have placed Abraham H. Maslow’s peak experiences within the realm of ecstasy. In Toward A Psychology of Being (1962), Maslow states that it is the nature of desire to be replaced by another desire as soon as the first one is satisfied. This observation was made during his study of self-actualized people. He discovered that for self-actualization (realizing one’s fullest potential) to be achieved by individuals the lower or basic needs are satisfied first. After these needs are satisfied self-actualized people (individuals who are unusually healthy psychologically) possessed, or seem to possess, intense insight, joy, or awareness that Maslow termed peak experiences.

The popular notion of ecstasy is rapture, where the individual is in an ecstatic state that feels like «heaven on earth.» However, there are other forms of ecstasy too. One such form is the visionary prophesies of the Biblical prophets. Such visions were vehicles through a prophet of revelations intended for faithful humankind, rather than primarily personal ecstatic experiences; and, even some of these Biblical revelations were denouncements.

Ecstasies are said to be distinct from fantasies, which are also pleasant experiences, but are more imagined than real. These fantasies can occur while sleeping, awake, or in a daydream. They can assume an extreme form, such as in hallucinations, in terms of being a false perception than may possess the character of a true sense perception, but without the appropriate physical stimulation.

Much information that surrounds the word ecstasy includes the experiences of the Christian mystics or saints, which frequently gives a false impression that only these people experience ecstasy. Ordinary people can experience ecstasies too. When speaking of mystical experiences it was stated that things can produce such experiences included dreams, words, phrases, music, art, sounds, smells, daydreaming, the play of light upon land and sea, nature, or a near-death experience (NDE). And, when talking about peak experiences Maslow said that all people are capable of having them, those that do not either repress or deny them. It does not seem out of the ordinary that such statements could be made concerning ecstasies.

Writers and poets often produce works after viewing a natural scene such as a sunset, or some other natural phenomena, which was seen as beautiful and inspired their creations. These people do not have to be professional writers or poets to experience ecstasy; although a person with a predilection for writing may be more likely to describe his ecstasy in words, rather than someone else. However, anyone may experience ecstasy just as anyone may experience peak experiences.

Such experiences are not limited to members on the Christian and Eastern religions. Members in neo-Pagan Witchcraft also report having similar experiences. Since everyone can experience ecstasy, members of neo-Paganism and neo-Pagan Witchcraft also would share in such experiences. This would be especially true concerning the high priestesses that participated in the Drawing Down the Moon ceremonies frequently that for days afterwards they still feel the presence of the Goddess.

Such experiences happen in the lives of ordinary people too. For example, the person that has seen a movie or video that he considered very good, the story might remain with him for several days, it seems to spiritually uplift him. Gradually this uplifting vanishes, but, later an incident comes into his life where he must make a decision, which causes him memory to recall the video. He may temporarily regain some of the uplifting feeling, and say, the character (in the video) might do this or that, when making his decision. A.G.H.

Source: 29, 176-178.