During the fifties, Psychologist Abraham Maslow, who developed the concept of "peak human potential," did years of research on what I call "ecstatic states", and which he called peak experiences." His findings may surprise you. "Almost all people have or can have peak experiences," Maslow said. And psychologist Stella Resnik, in her bookThe Pleasure Zone, comments: "Peak experiences are intensely pleasurable times that can last for just a minute or for several weeks or more. They are periods of complete happiness and fulfillment. . . perceived as great moments, as very fine times in a person's life." Maslow found that certain individuals – people he called "self-actualized", enjoyed a much higher frequency of peak experiences than did individuals in the general population... they felt fulfilled in their lives, motivated not by need, but by the desire to grow."
We seek comfort, pleasure, and ecstasy from the moment we are born. Comfort is a natural state of well-being in the absence of pain. Pleasure comes from the gratification of our physical needs and emotional desires. Ecstasy is an experience of intense contentment, inner joy. Like peak experiences, it is, in most cases, a discontinuous state. It happens, it peaks, then it is gone. And now we are back in our ordinary consciousness, left with the intuitive insight of an expanded potential for wholeness. Such moments motivate us to grow. At this juncture, we are drawn to the patient inner work that is needed to recognize and transform the behavior patterns that sabotage our ability to be joyful, contented and "self-actualized.” As we become increasingly aware of this potential, we gradually discover ecstasy as an intense state of stabilized contentment that helps us to choose what is pleasing to ourself and others. Because they are mysterious, ineffable and subjective, such states are uniquely personal, hence difficult to define.
The dictionary defines ecstasy as "A state of exalted delight surpassing normal understanding" and "A state of emotion so intense that rational thought and self-control are obliterated."
Our word ecstasy comes from the Greek ex stasis, to move beyond "stasis," beyond the seemingly solid and fixed, into movement, life. It is liberation from the known. It’s Latin root ex-stare means to stand outside yourself, as in "transcendence," which means to climb, to go beyond. Fundamentally, then, ecstasy means to transcend yourself, to go outside and beyond what you think, know, and believe is possible. It is to feel expanded, deeply connected to all that is around you, infinitely creative and alive. An ecstatic state is a glimpse into the infinite.
We experience such states through music. Love. Religion. Sex. Still, our ecstatic potential goes mostly unfulfilled. Most people are not educated (or trained) to value and recognize life's sacred dimension. And because they are often too busy to notice or value the simple joys of daily life, ecstasy eludes them. They do not recognize thatevery moment is pregnant with ecstasy. For ecstatic states are not separate or opposed to ordinary life.
My experience, working with people has shown me that ecstatic states can happen spontaneously. They are as natural as sleeping and breathing. Zen master Sen T'sen says, "We return to the Origin and remain where we have always been."
We were conceived in the act of pleasure. Ecstasy was programmed into us the moment the sperm met the egg in our mother's wombs. It exists inside us right now as a potentiality. And it is possible to create joy within, to live a life cut like a precious jewel that reflects who we truly are, that radiates an energy that is healing and enchanting. And every step we take carries the possibility of such an awakening.
(Excerpted from The Art of Everyday Ecstasy, by Margot Anand.)