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Are we ecstasy deprived?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

There are many aspects of the ancient world that I’m happy to do without: the danger of infection in an era before antibiotics; the difficulty of communicating over long distances at anything other than a snail’s pace; the lack of sanitation and running water in many places (though the cities of ancient Crete did have well-planned sewer systems). So yes, it’s good that we have left some things behind. But in our progress, we have also left behind something beneficial, something the human spirit needs: ecstasy.

I’ve recently been reading Belinda Gore’s book Ecstatic Body Postures and working with some of the postures she describes. This is an extension of the trancework I’ve done for years, and it relates to my activities with the Minoan salute and other gestures the Minoans used in ritual to induce trance states. (And yes, I recommend the book.) One thing that struck me as I was reading Ms. Gore’s book was her comment that the modern world is in a state of what she calls ‘ecstasy deprivation.’ If that’s true, it would explain an awful lot.

The ancient world was full of opportunities for what we would call altered states. And no, I’m not talking about drug dealers in the local marketplace. I mean ecstatic and trance experiences based largely in religious activities. If you were present at any of the public mystery plays at the temple complexes in ancient Crete, you would likely have slipped into a light trance state along with the rest of the crowd thanks to the drumming and the sense of mystery within the ritual. In the same way, if you were a part of the ancient Celtic world, sitting around a fire and listening to a bard weave his magic with words and music, you would also probably have experienced a light trance state without having to do anything except just sit there. Rituals such as the Eleusinian Mysteries (which may have originated on Crete) offered participants the opportunity for even deeper ecstatic states and more profound experiences. And of course, some members of the priesthood underwent even more intense trance for ritual and divination purposes, often using drugs of some sort as an aid.

So what’s the purpose of this kind of ecstasy and why might we need it? Ms. Gore suggests the need is a biological one, built into our DNA. For me, the most important aspect of an ecstatic state, even a mild one, is the feeling of being at one with everything. The ego sort of melts away and a marvelous sense of connection emerges. I’m no longer alone; I’m a part of something immense and beautiful.

What happens when we can’t reach that state of connection, of belonging, at least every now and then? Maybe that’s part of what drives some of us to addictive behaviors, from drugs to food to online activities. I suspect it plays a role in issues such as depression and anxiety, though obviously those are complex medical conditions with more than just one aspect. And I’m sure it’s a motivating factor in many people’s drive to experience ecstatic states through the indigenous traditions that use hallucinogens such as ayahuasca. Most conventional religious practice no longer provides an ecstatic experience; the few exceptions include Christian denominations such as the Pentecostals, whose church services induce trance states in the congregation, and specialty sects such as the Whirling Dervishes among the practitioners of Sufi.

So where are the opportunities for ecstasy in the modern world, outside of illegal drugs and ayahuasca trips to South America? Some modern Pagan practices include ecstasy and trance states. The oracular practice of seidhr involves the induction of trance in the clergy, the African syncretic religions such as Vodou and Santeria can involve trance possession, and modern spiritwork practices that fall roughly under the label of shamanism also bring on states of ecstasy. But these are specialties for people who are willing to devote great amounts of time and effort towards learning the techniques. What about us ordinary mortals? When I think back, I’m pretty sure the first time I experienced a trance state was at a rock concert. Sure, there was probably a little green smoke floating around, but the energy of the crowd combined with the strong beat was likely the key to that altered state. I’ve seen people slip into trance while dancing at nightclubs, sans drugs of any kind. Over the years I’ve gone into a light trance, along with the people around me, at particularly moving rituals during Pagan festivals. But the easiest method I’ve found? Recordings of drumming. Yes, really.

I’ll quote Belinda Gore from the book I mentioned above: “Multiple sound frequencies recurring at an even, steady rate are believed to block the left-hemisphere processing of the cerebral cortex and simultaneously to stimulate the peripheral nervous system.” In other words, drumming turns off the chatter-brain and lets you be more fully in your body, more fully present, a condition which, oddly enough, feels freeing rather than constrictive. I’ve taken to turning on a drumming CD while I’m doing ‘mindless’ activities such as ironing (yes, I’m one of those weirdos who still iron their clothes!) or housecleaning. I’ve found that the more often I allow myself to ‘ride the drums,’ the easier it gets to slip into that state and feel expansive and connected. I especially recommend the drumming recordings by the late Layne Redmond, but most any kind of drumming will work.

We may not have big public rituals or mystery plays to attend or bards to sing us stories by firelight (unless we go to an awful lot of Pagan gatherings) but we still have ways to reach those ecstatic states that we apparently need very badly. I think that’s one aspect of the ancient world that we need to hold onto, since it’s an experience that feeds the soul.

In the name of the Bee -

And of the Butterfly -

And of the Breeze - Amen!

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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