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Religious ecstasy

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Spiritual ecstasy is an altered state of consciousness characterized by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness which is frequently accompanied by visions and emotional/intuitive (and sometimes physical) euphoria. Although the experience is usually brief in physical time[1], there are records of such experiences lasting several days or even more, and of recurring experiences of ecstasy during one's lifetime. Subjective perception of time, space and/or self may strongly change or disappear during ecstasy.

Context

The adjective "religious" means that the experience occurs in connection with religious activities or is interpreted in context of a religion. Marghanita Laski writes in her study "Ecstasy in Religious and Secular Experiences," first published in 1961:

"Epithets are very often applied to mystical experiences including ecstasies without, apparently, any clear idea about the distinctions that are being made. Thus we find experiences given such names as nature, religious, aesthetic, neo-platonic, sexual etc. experiences, where in some cases the name seems to derive from trigger, sometimes from the overbelief, sometimes from the known standing and beliefs of the mystic, and sometimes, though rarely, from the nature of the experience.
Ecstasies enjoyed by accepted religious mystics are usually called religious experiences no matter what the nature of the ecstasy or the trigger inducing it."[2]

Distinguishing traits

Spiritual ecstasy can be distinguished from spirit possession and hypnosis in that ecstasy is not accompanied by a loss of interior consciousness or will on the part of the subject experiencing it. Rather, the person experiencing ecstasy notices a dramatic heightening of awareness of the spiritual, and a total concentration of the will on it. If the ecstatic state comes about slowly, the subject may notice changes in his or her physiological responses. But, once brought into complete ecstasy, there is ordinarily no or very little external awareness of the physical state of the subject or the surroundings. Some external awareness remains in a partial religious ecstasy. Intense fear may accompany the initial stage of being drawn into ecstasy. Different religious teachings distinguish and describe several stages or forms of ecstasy.

Exclusive and inclusive views

Some religious people hold the view that true religious ecstasy occurs only in context of their religion (e.g. as a gift from the supernatural being whom they worship) and it cannot be induced by natural means (human activities). Nevertheless, trance-like states which are often interpreted as religious ecstasy can be deliberately induced using a variety of techniques, including prayer, religious rituals, meditation, breathing exercises, physical exercise, sex, music, dancing, sweating, fasting, thirsting, and the consumption of psychotropic drugs. Sometimes an ecstatic experience takes place in occasion of contact with something or somebody perceived as extremely beautiful or holy. It may also happen without any known reason. The particular technique that an individual uses to induce ecstasy is usually one that is associated with that individual's particular religious and cultural traditions. As a result, an ecstatic experience is usually interpreted within the context of a particular individual's religious and cultural traditions. These interpretations often include statements about contact with supernatural or spiritual beings, about receiving new information as a revelation, also religion-related explanations of subsequent change of values, attitudes and behavior (e.g. in case of religious conversion).

Bharatanatyam 14

Classical Indian dancer entering ecstatic trance

Achieving ecstatic trances is a major activity of shamans, who use ecstasy for such purposes as traveling to heaven or the underworld, guiding or otherwise interacting with spirits, clairvoyance, and healing. Some shamans use drugs from such plants as peyote and cannabis (also see cannabis (drug)) or certain mushrooms in their attempts to reach ecstasy, while others rely on such non-chemical means as ritual, music, dance, ascetic practices, or visual designs as aids to mental discipline.

Examples

The rituals followed by some athletes in preparing for contests are dismissed as superstition, but this is a device of sports psychologists to help them to attain an ecstasy-like state.

Yoga provides techniques to attain a state of ecstasy called samādhi. According to practitioners, there are various stages of ecstasy, the highest of which is called Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Bhakti-yoga, especially, places emphasis on ecstasy as being one of the fruits of its practice.

In Buddhism, especially in the Pali Canon, there are 8 states of trance also called absorption. The first four of these states are called Rupa or materially oriented. The next four are called Arupa or non-material. These eight states are preliminary trances which lead up to final saturation. It is said in the Visuddhimagga that it takes great effort and years of sustained meditation to reach even the first absorption, and that not all individuals are able to accomplish it at all. However, modern day experiences of meditators in the Thai Forest Tradition, as well as other Theravadin traditions, demonstrates that this effort and rarity is necessary only to become completely immersed in the absorptions and experience no other sensations. It is possible to experience the absorptions in a less intense state with much less practice.

Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam) has theoretical and metaphoric texts regarding ecstasy as a state of connection with Allah. Sufis practice rituals (dhikr,sema) using body movement and music to achieve the state.

In the monotheistic tradition, ecstasy is usually associated with communion and oneness with God. However, such experiences can also be personal mystical experiences with no significance to anyone but the person experiencing them. Some charismatic Christians practice ecstatic states (called e.g. "being slain in the Spirit") and interpret these as given by the Holy Spirit. The firewalkers of Greece dance themselves into a state of ecstasy at the annual Anastenaria, when they believe themselves under the influence of Saint Constantine.[3]

In hagiography (writings on the subject of Christian saints) many instances are recorded in which saints are granted ecstasies. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia[4] religious ecstasy (called supernatural ecstasy) includes two elements: one, interior and invisible, in which the mind rivets its attention on a religious subject, and another, corporeal and visible, in which the activity of the senses is suspended, reducing the effect of external sensations upon the subject and rendering him or her resistant to awakening.

Some Modern Witchcraft traditions define themselves as "ecstatic traditions," and focus on reaching ecstatic states in their rituals. The Reclaiming Tradition and the Feri Tradition are two examples of modern ecstatic Witchcraft. [5][6]

References

  1. Marghanita Laski, "Ecstasy. A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences." The Cresset Press, London, 1961. p.57
  2. Marghanita Laski, "Ecstasy in Religious and Secular Experiences." Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1990, ISBN 0-87477-574-4 p.171
  3. Tomkinson, John L., Anastenaria, Anagnosis, Athens, 2003 ISBN 960-87186-7-8 pp90-99
  4. Ecstasy
  5. M Macha Nightmare, Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft, Witchvox, 2001. Retrieved on 2008-01-13.
  6. Cholla and Gabriel, Ecstasy and Transgression in the Faery Tradition, Witch Eye, 2000. Retrieved on 2008-01-13.

See also

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