In search of ecstasy...or not
A woman in my therapy group last week started talking about her new meditation practice – she’s recently gotten some sort of spiritual director, started meditating an hour a day (an hour!!??) and it’s been awesome, unbelievable. I don’t think she’s astral projecting or speaking in tongues or anything yet, but something is clearly going on…something that was making her, while she was speaking about it in group, practically ecstatic.
She also happened to mention, as part of the whole deal, she’s experiencing a sense of God’s love as never before.
Ok, clearly she has more time than I do. I’ve been working 60-80 hour work weeks. Stressed out. Not sleeping much. And consequently eating way too much. I’m not feeling too spiritual, or looking much at all like one of those ascetic ecstatic types you see in the books on Saints, that beatific “I’m living simply on God and prayer and air” look.
(Have you noticed, by the way, how in photos, saints are always looking blissfully heavenward or demurely downward? I just tried a couple selfies like that and let me tell you…neither was a good look for me. In the downward facing pose I look asleep versus demure. In the heaven-gazing, not only does this accentuate my neck wrinkles, it mostly looks like I’m just waiting on a plane to land. )
But honestly, even if I had the time, even if I thought I could pull off a semi-saintly selfie, I’m not sure I’d want to be doing what my friend is doing.
Beyond just the idea of meditating for an hour a day, which I can only imagine would feel like an hour of me sitting in a traffic jam, saying, “Are we there yet?” the thought of getting all blissy, and experiencing God’s love as never before frankly scares the shit out of me.
We started talking about this a little in my therapy group. Does it scare me because allowing myself to experience ecstasy, to be filled with pure love and joy and what-not, just feels weird, other worldly, total La-La-Land….as if I might suddenly be taken over by something huge and uncontrollable, lose myself, and just, I don’t know… burst into flames.
I probably got that whole spontaneous combustion idea from hearing this story from the Desert Fathers, Christian ascetics who lived in the desert of Egypt, Palestine and Syria in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.
Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?
Why not become fire? Well, probably because it’s not way up there on my list of things I want to do before I die.
And of course I feel a little bad about this. That I don’t long to go for the whole full metal “become fire” thing. For a nice big taste of transcendence.
I think it might be that I’m not a “lose myself” kind of gal.
The one time in my life I took a “lose yourself” kind of drug it was by accident. Someone gave it to me without really telling me what it was…I was young, quite naïve about such things, and I honestly thought it was just a “mushroom” – and I was about to have a gourmet taste treat. For the next several hours I wandered around at a party, not seeing visions or reaching some sort of nirvana-esque state filled with colors and lights and peace…no, I felt the whole time like I was peeing my pants and kept going to the bathroom to make sure I hadn’t wet myself. And also asking everyone, “Will I ever be myself again? When will I be me again?” like a panicked three year old who’s lost her parents at the circus.
However, getting to an ecstatic experience is a central quest in many different religions. People meditate to get to them. They fast, sweat, sing, dance, have sex, handle snakes, binge watch “19 Kids And Counting”…ok, maybe I made that last one up.
Ecstasy for many religious/spiritual folks is a destination. The Las Vegas of spiritual journeys. A shot of other-worldly, super-powered Ecstasy with a capital E.
I’m not so interested in capital E Ecstasy. What gets me going, I realized this morning, and keeps me going, what I get excited about and where I experience God’s love most, are in little every day doses of “small e” ecstasy.
Ecstasy is when I lay down next to my husband in bed and he pulls me in close next to him. This person who knows me inside out and loves me inside out.
Ecstasy is when I sit next to my kids in church and rub their backs (something I started when they were little because they had a hard time sitting still for an hour, but now, at 19 and 21, they still seem to appreciate). Or just get to sit next to them on the couch, or in a movie theater, at a dinner table, in a car, when we’re laughing together, or not saying a word, or when we are finally saying what we’ve been needing to say but have been afraid to
Ecstasy is when I hear music that breaks me open. When I read wonderful books that grab me and don’t let go. Or read beautiful and true words wherever I find them, from poets I love, and bloggers I find painfully honest and lyrical and challenging , even in...gulp...words of advertising. I work with some amazing writers who, on a daily basis, craft words, shape them, refine them, work on them long and hard to wring out the most from each and every one.
I find ecstasy in the tears of friends, when they miraculously peel off a layer of protection, and let me see what’s underneath.
Or when strangers are unexpectedly kind to me, or when I’m unexpectedly kind to anyone, when I get jarred out of my self-absorption for a moment, my quest to get things done, check things off my list, and look up and realize, Oh wait, there’s another being here, like me, who is going through their day, head down, just trying to get it all done, not explode, or implode, and who maybe has forgotten that they are a human and not a machine, and I can remind them of that. By letting them get in front of me in line, or offering to get them a cup or water or by leaving the saltine crackers I didn’t finish from my lunch in their office for them, because they happened to mention they really love saltine crackers.
I sometimes even find it in church. I think it’s why I go most Sundays, sit myself down in the middle of a progressive, social-justicey, gay-friendly non-denominational little group of folks for an hour or two.
Even though church is not perfect, it’s so not perfect, there are moments, here and there, sometimes, of something, something that is more than meets the eye. I get it often in the music, and in just being with the people, these broken, longing, kindness-bestowing seekers. I experience tiny tastes of ecstasy when I watch everyone walk to the front for communion, when they take bread and dip it in wine and look into the eyes of the people serving them, not priests or pastors or people paid to be there, just other people like them who are hungry for hope. It almost makes me go all weak in the knees, at the sweet tenderness of it all.
Little tastes of ecstasy. There for the taking, whenever I open my eyes and pay attention. No bright lights, nothing over the top. But there. Maybe that's the kind of ecstasy the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn was referring to in his song, Wondering where the lions are. "Sun's up, uh huh, looks okay. The world survives into another day. And I'm thinking about eternity. Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me."
I’m happy for my friend in therapy group, though. Really happy. And I admire her. Her recently adopted meditation practice has been a part of a long process for her, recovering from many years of horrific child sexual abuse, and the resultant alcoholism, and from a day to day existence too acutely tuned to other’s needs rather than her own.
And by some miracle, she is healing, she’s losing herself, and in the process finding herself. And she’s feeling God’s love more than ever before. You really can’t argue with that.
I don’t argue with that. In fact, sitting next to her in therapy group week after week, and with my other fellow head-shrink-ees, watching what is torn in all of us get mended, smells like ecstasy to me.
And someday, when I’m ready for more, I might even join her on the meditation pillow.
If I do, you’ll probably know. I’ll be the one lighting candles all over town. With just my fingertips.