The Psychology of Ecstasy
Einstein called ecstasy 'the finest emotion of which we are capable'.
Posted January 19, 2015
[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]
Euphoria [Greek, ‘to bear well’] has come to refer to marked elation, especially with an expansive quality. Such intense elation is uncommon in the normal course of life but can be induced by certain substances and, of course, certain experiences such as beauty, art, music, love, orgasm, exercise, and triumph. It can also stem from a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders, most notably bipolar affective disorder (manic-depressive illness).
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 is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein himself called it 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’.
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 bring about religious ecstasy or ‘enlightenment’ by one or more methods, including meditation, intoxication, and ritual dancing. Examples from antiquity include the Egyptian Festival of Drunkenness, the Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, and the Roman Bacchanalia and later Liberalia.
Of course, people with no religion can also experience ecstasy, today most often ‘by accident’ or maybe at a nightclub or rave—enabling atheists and agnostics to experience the deepest religion without getting too caught up in the trivia and trappings of any one particular religion.
Ecstasy is difficult to describe, in part because it is uncommon. Unless it is induced, it is most likely to supervene in a period of inactivity, particularly a period of non-routine inactivity, or else in a novel, unfamiliar, or unusual setting or set of circumstances. The experience is typically described as delightful beyond expression, and the first episode as life changing. During an episode, the person enters into a trans-like state that typically lasts from minutes to hours. In that interval, he or she feels a great sense of calm and quiescence, and might become tearful and unresponsive up to the point of unconsciousness.
A friend first experienced ecstasy on a flight to the Maldives, as the sung Koran streamed through his earphones and the sun rose above the Indian Ocean, flooding the sleepy cabin with light.
He described the experience thus:
It felt like the fulfilment of my life, but, more than that, the fulfilment 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 I do—and, more importantly, don’t do—is grounded in that vision, grounded in that reality… It’s as if a channel of light and life had opened up in my mind. I feel more alert and alive, and often experience aftershocks of the original experience. These can be set off 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 suddenly reminds me that, yes, I am alive!
Ecstasy can lead to one or more epiphanies. An epiphany, or ‘eureka moment’, can be defined as a sudden and striking insight or realization, especially one that is both original and profound. For instance, my friend told me that he had torn up his CV [résumé] after realizing that whatever he could get with a CV was not worth having. In Sanskrit, ‘epiphany’ is rendered as bodhodaya, which derives from bodha [wisdom] and udaya [rising], and so literally means ‘a rising of wisdom’. Some years later, an impresario emailed my friend to ask for a copy of his CV. When he replied that he did not have one, the impresario wrote back: ‘That’s very impressive!’
The defining feature of ecstasy is perhaps the dissolution of boundaries, with the ego merging into all of being. More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and so the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go, and, indeed, may no longer even recognize the possibility, leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience.
True, letting go of the ego can threaten the life that we have built and even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world.
Men, said Balzac, die in despair, while spirits die in ecstasy.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.