Ecstasy--taken from the point of view of an intense, euphoric and otherworldly experience -- is commonly understood to be something wonderful; something to be desired, an experience that mightily transcends our ordinary state. If we look back into the history of great religious traditions such as Sufism and Christianity, we encounter numerous references to this rapturous condition, usually as experienced by saints of one kind or another.
Not too many ordinary people encounter the euphoria of religious ecstasy except as a concept, or perhaps stumble across fragments of it in drug-induced states.
Looking back into history, it strikes me that such experiences reached something of a zenith in the middle ages. From the 12th to 13th centuries, the world produced a number of extraordinary masters such as Rumi, Dogen, and Meister Eckhart. Of the three, we can be certain that Rumi experienced religious ecstasy. It seems equally likely that Meister Eckhart was familiar with the phenomenon. In Dogen's case, it is more difficult to say; Zen Buddhism appears to me to have avoided the error of believing in this state as an end in itself. Nonetheless, in Dogen's poetry I think we can find hints of ecstasy, humbly disguised in the subtle hues of mother nature.
In any event, in the religion of the high Middle Ages, we hear stories of a world populated by saints who experienced varieties of religious ecstasy. Not all of them were masters; but there were many who walked the path, men and women both, who were called in ways that seem superstitious, bizarre, or frankly impossible to us today.
And it must be true --something quite extraordinary must have been taking place in the Middle Ages, in this one brief span of about 150 years, to have produced so many blessed devotees, along with great--one might even say unparalleled-- masters whose works resonate down to the present century with voices of authority.
So there were forces at work on the planet then that produced possibilities that may not be as available today.
Sad to say--today's "miracle" consists, perhaps, of a piece of toast that looks like the Virgin Mary, sold on eBay.
The fact that we have, at least in the west, whored out a good deal of our religious tradition doesn't mean that today's world is bereft of ecstatic experience. It is, however, unexpected and maybe even alarming to have such an experience as a 21st-century person in a Western technological culture. Experiences like this strip us of our assumptions; they strip us publicly naked. I say publicly because, no matter where they strip us naked -- maybe even in complete seclusion or privacy--they leave us standing in front of ourselves and our lives with nowhere to hide. And to stand in front of ourselves and what we are-- that is truly public.
To encounter such possibilities, as extraordinary as they may seem, should not be understood as some form of spiritual gift or reward. To experience ecstasy is, rather, to be put under commandment.
I haven't heard it stated in these terms before, and perhaps you haven't either, so I think the term commandment requires some explanation.
When we use the phrase "thy will be done" in the Lord's prayer, we are quite literally requesting that we be put under commandment. That could require almost anything of us-- in reality, as we ask, we don't know even what it means. Subject to the commandments of our own will and our ordinary, everyday existence, we can have no idea whatsoever of what it means for the will of the higher to be done. That will lies outside our understanding. As Eckhart explains, absolutely everything we have within us has to go to make room for the will of God.
Understanding ecstasy as commandment means in essence, that ecstasy -- euphoria -- a leaving behind of what we know -- consists of a burden, something that must be suffered. It is a demand, not a gift.
Now, I'm sure that many of you are sitting there thinking to yourself, "What the heck is he talking about? How can euphoria--pleasure--be a form of suffering?"
In order to understand this better, perhaps we should turn to Gurdjieff's chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" in "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson." In it, those of you who have read it may recall, he describes a planet that is unimaginably beautiful, created expressly to provide its inhabitants with every kind of pleasurable and satisfying impression.
The inhabitants, however, don't take much refuge in this. They have reached a level of self perfection where they see that they are fundamentally deficient in regard to reunification with the prime principle, that is, God. There is something crystallized in them that is terribly flawed and prevents this most urgent desire from being fulfilled. As such, they spend all the moments of their existence in a perpetual anguish, knowing they are separated from the most holy principle they wish to serve, obey, and be one with. So their ecstatic experience of the holy planet Purgatory-- which to an outsider seems infinitely desirable and magnificent -- is actually combined with an infinite anguish.
I am not sure of what the exact imperfection in the beings Mr. Gurdjieff describes is. I can only glean inklings from my own inner experience and the state of my own work today.
It strikes me that the fundamental imperfection is that we do not want to be with God. There is a part of us, a defective fraction of us invested with an enormous amount of power, that prefers to remain separate. It imposes its own egoistic will on everything that we experience and encounter in order to keep us apart from God, and it manipulates us with pleasure and pain and fear, and any other tool in its arsenal, in order to remain separate.
This part that wants to remain separate is in a state of refusal to submit. A state of rejection. This is how I am; this is how I live. So when the bliss, the absolute ecstasy and surrender, of the higher arrives to attempt marry my inner substance to that of God, I am
We are hardly alone in this dilemma. Reading the Bible, even the most holy -- individuals of immense spiritual stature -- are terrified by their encounter with the higher. Moses was continually filled with doubt after God chose him. He didn't feel capable of anything, and even had the whining chutzpah to let God know about it. Mary was afraid of Gabriel. The shepherds with their flocks fell to their knees in terror when the Angels arrived to announce the birth of Christ.
And perhaps this, too, is the dilemma of the beings on Gurdjieff's holy planet Purgatory. They have seen the temple itself; the scaffolding falls away, and it is revealed in a blaze of unbearable glory.
There is the door, right in front of them.
But they dare not go in.
Well, of course, this is a bit of shamelessly melodramatic allegory. Nonetheless, we need a smidgen of theater in our work, as much as any of the other artifices we use to try and help us towards an understanding that we are still, and always, fundamentally incapable of grasping with this thing we call a mind.
may your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.