Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Closer Look at Ecstasy

I’ve touched on this subject in the last post and in an earlier one, under the heading of Mystical Experiences, here. My view of the so-called unitive experience is unorthodox, hence additional development of my take on ecstasy may be justified.

The term arises because in the Christian tradition it is usually described as union with God, hence ecstasies experienced on earth are seen as a preview of the ultimate experience after we depart. In the eastern traditions—and in the west also in pre-Christian Neoplatoism (i.e., in Plotinus)—the term does not carry the connotation of union with a person. In all other respects, however, the experience is described in the same way. The names—Satori, Samadhi, Enlightenment, Nirvana, Cosmic Consciousness—all clearly describe the identical experience. The reason why the feeling is associated with God is because the experience produces exaltation, a sense of total understanding of everything, a feeling of cosmic expansion, indeed of infinite power. But those returning from such experiences cannot describe what it is that they understand; they don’t gain specific knowledge. True, after such experiences some among them manifest psychic gifts in one or several categories.

As reported by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her book My Stroke of Insight (on which I expect to comment more in the future), this unitive state may manifest in some survivors of strokes—as it did in hers. This suggests that abrupt physical changes can bring it about; but, however caused, the effect on the individual of such an event is the same and leads to a much more intense spiritual life whether or not the experiencer is a deist.

A very complete modern account of this experience is recorded by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, a mathematician. The account dates to the 1930s and is told in Pathways Through to Space. Merrell-Wolff’s story is of great value because we learn in an unambiguous way that an energetic flow is involved—a spiritual sort of energy, not anything measurable like electromagnetism. Merrell-Wolff describes it as a current. This same energy may also be the agency that produces miraculous cures. I’ve had a mild experience of this sort myself, described in the post already quoted above. It took place in my late teens, before I’d ever heard of Merrell-Wolff’s book, yet I also experienced and clearly remember the energetic, vibratory aspects of it. And, yes! It was exalting, all-powerful, but carried no content beyond the ecstatic feeling. I’d never had any experience so powerful before—and haven’t had one since.

I am personally fairly sure that the belief in an ultimate union with God in heaven developed from such experiences by saints and seers of the Christian era. They reported their experience and made them credible because some of them gained miraculous powers in the wake of these internal events. But the experience may be interpreted in another way as well, and for several reasons, I think that the alternative interpretation is more plausible; hence my unorthodox stance.

I think that the ecstatic or unitive experience is an intense exposure to the life energy, the very flow that keeps us alive, day in, day out. Under normal circumstances we perceive it mildly, thus simply as life; but it is obviously possible to experience this flow at its strongest, thus before it is diffused by the body or veiled and muted by the brain; and the brain may be designed to do just that. An interesting observation Merrell-Wolff made was that at the time this flow was most intense, his bodily functions visibly weakened.

Now I believe in God and hence believe that all of reality ultimately comes from the Ultimate—the life force no less than anything else. But I think that the unitive state is caused by a powerful primitive form of the spiritual energy—whereas in the mystical traditions, the experience is viewed as the very peak of being. The very fact that damages to the brain—or willfully produced practices of fasting, intense meditation combined with fierce concentration, and other similar unusual methods—can bring about such states suggests to me that we are either passively subject to this experience or can sometimes willfully bring it about. But neither of these possibilities appears to me to be part of a grand design.

That this experience should powerfully stimulate our spiritual life does not surprise me. The life force itself, it seems to me, is a transcendental phenomenon, above the inorganic energetics. Modern thought assigns life to chemical energy, but one can legitimately wonder about that. I have another, broader reason for maintaining my alternative view of this experience. I don’t think that we are here on earth, undergoing all manner of experiences that increase our understanding and hone our will merely to experience, at life’s conclusion, a kind of spiritual electrocution which leaves us blissful but without any choice or knowledge of anything beyond a sense of vastness, an illusion of omniscience, and a sense of infinite power. No. Life, I think, is preparing us for an order of much greater complexity.

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