The roots of ecstasy

Seeking ecstasy in everyday life fuels consumption of drugs, alcohol and food, prompts gambling, high-risk behavior, and sexual adventure. All these things excite and stimulate, prompting the release of endorphins, hormones which lessen pain and produce pleasurable sensations. Yet, even pain is connected to ecstasy.

That connection is explicit in religious practices such as self-flagellation; both Islamic and Christian sects engage in such practices. Similarly, Hindu Holy Men–Sadhus–pierce their bodies, hold themselves in uncomfortable postures, eat glass and otherwise use pain to carry themselves to a higher level of being. Sadomasochistic practices–chains, ropes, whips, and the like–bring ecstasy to some, as do extreme sexual practices such as near-strangulation. But these are all dramatic examples of the ways ecstasy and suffering are connected; more subtle forms of the connection are at work among us in what we might call everyday life.

Perhaps ecstasy begins at our mother’s breast and declines from there. Without doubt life becomes ever more complicated as we age. Social pressures begin in grade school and essentially never give way. To escape them we invent all sorts of techniques and tricks; emotional constructs and psychological complexes can hold the pressures at bay. Marriage itself is often used as an escape, but often means running into the arms of a different social complication. And aging, of course, brings its own challenges and suffering. In the most affluent societies on earth suicide rates are rising and anti-depressants are the most widely prescribed pharmaceuticals in America.

The ecstasy connection might be hardwired. Is ecstasy the ultimate in happiness; or is it something different, yet again? Neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist in “The Master and his Emissary” informs us that the right brain hemisphere operates as the “mind” of connection and relationship and the left brain hemisphere operates as the “mind” of autonomy and fragmentation. He points out that each hemisphere inhibits the other so as to achieve a state of balance or equilibrium. Thus people with temporary left hemisphere damage from a stroke often describe religious-like experiences of ecstatic connection with the universe as the right hemisphere is less inhibited by the under-functioning left. But it is the right hemisphere, McGilchrist advises, that is the master; our longing to stand outside ourselves to connect with something bigger is inborn.

Suffering, taught the Buddha, is caused by desire and the ways we grasp tightly to experiences, things and people; it is through that grasping we create an entire social artifice of self and other, what Buddhists call Samsara, and its six realms of desire. Of those six realms, the human realm, it’s told, provides the teachings and capacity to at minimum understand how and why we propagate Samsara and offers techniques to address our own and others’ suffering.

Few of us will become Buddhist monks or nuns, however; we’re left with the project of how to live our everyday lives. It’s clear that just caring about ourself to escape suffering is hopeless. Ecstasy is notoriously difficult to sustain and there’s no way to get out from under birth, aging, sickness and death. Meaning in life is at the center of the dilemma.

Distraction from suffering is no substitute for finding meaning; to the contrary, it’s a treadmill. Perhaps the best route to lasting “ekstasis”–to stand outside ourselves–is to focus our love and attention upon relieving the suffering of others.

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