After ecstasy, the laundry. — Zen saying
Philosophers have tended to prefer the gentler arts and pleasures, those tempered by dispassion, detachment, and the yoke of reason. They have been inclined, for example, to sing the praises of contemplative love rather than swoon into the arms of a siren and risk being drawn along in fervor. In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima’s ladder of love and intellectualized vision is favored over Alcibiades’ intoxicated pursuit; friendship is prioritized above erotic embrace.
In traditional Western art and thought, we are likewise generally discouraged from ingesting a drug or, say, spinning as a Sufi dervish or free form break-dancer, perhaps out of concern for surrendering to carnality, danger or the reverie induced by unbridled passion. If happiness arrives, it is usually belated, even deferred until death is close at hand, as the chorus warns us in Oedipus Rex. Or it comes in the guise of measured serenity and stoicism rather than a heightened state of bliss or ecstasy.
Must this scenario or story necessarily be the case? Might there be another perspective or path—a less sober one—worth considering as well?
Ecstasy is a break in the weft of ordinary time—a tearing, a breach, a rift. This rupture might also make room for a form of rapture, a sudden release. Ecstasy yanks us from our seats, our stasis, where most of us spend the prosaic day. What is it to wait for—or work toward—ecstasy? And must we always wait in order to be seized, summoned, or moved from the outside, the exterior? Patience or passion: which way, or which one, to choose?
Before ecstasy, then, the wait. The often unbearable weight.
Wait . . .
Waiting on first blush seems to be the very antithesis of the ecstatic. Waiting’s hallmark is patience and interiority. Ecstasy’s is openness and otherness. The former demands self-control; the latter relinquishes it. But each is an interruption in the flow of familiar time. Waiting tends to arrest motion, change, and the continuous course of things. Ecstasy, by contrast, involves a transfiguration of time that can issue forth in a new sense of fluidity and becoming-other.
Waiting, in fact, may be a kind of en-stasis—a “standing-within-oneself” in the sense of self-contemplation rather than an ek-stasis and an engagement with alterity.
Nevertheless, the ever-small measures involved in the practices and discipline associated with waiting are, it seems, often conducive, even necessary, for the rapid burst of change that arrives with time like an unexpected tsunami, one that builds imperceptibly and in increments in the deep ocean of our lives and then appears like a great watery avalanche, a wave of insight, bliss, or rapture.
Think here of the vaunted “10,000 Hour Rule,” the idea that mastery in a field such as music, athletics, chess, computer programming, or science requires approximately ten thousand hours (roughly 20 hours per week for ten years) of diligent practice. However controversial this claim, the ecstatic performances and achievements that eventually come for great or world-class artists, athletes, writers and scientists are no doubt often the result of long, slow growth periods, serious dedicated focus, and patient maturation processes.
Or consider the famous marshmallow experiment with young children—one that correlates well with predicted success later in life—wherein oral delight is deferred and then doubled by a period of mandated waiting and delayed gratification. Here, the cultivated ability or learned discipline to defer immediate desire for a single donut can signal greater rewards down the road.
Rather than being construed merely as a form of necessary postponement, waiting might also be re-conceived as a type of mindfulness and attentiveness—an awakening to detail, nuance, and depth—a protracted preparation for possible transcendence, and the emotional, epistemic, or spiritual break that may eventually alight. In this sense, waiting is not a recipe for boredom but an opportunity for subtle observation and introspection.
We might recall here the story of the Buddhist monk who was asked to create a Sumi-e ink drawing of bamboo for the king. Curiously, the monk keeps putting off the task for years until by fiat he is forced to perform the work. He then proceeds to produce a beautiful picture with a few quick strokes of the brush. When asked afterward why did not create this image much earlier, he responds that he was living with and learning from the bamboo, studying it, seeking its essence and waiting for the perfect ecstatic moment to express and embody the long preparation and more immediate inspiration.
In Hermann Hesse’s novella, Siddhartha, the protagonist, a young man born into a wealthy Brahmin family in the Hindu tradition, abandons his home to wander the world as a mendicant ascetic for many years. At one point, he announces with bravado to a querulous merchant that he can do three things: he can think; he can wait; and he can fast. With no worldly possessions, he is thereby able to reign in his mind (thinking), command bodily desire (fasting), and fashion a robust and healthy relation to time itself (waiting). Through such self-rule and discipline—what the Greeks called askesis—he is able to attain his enlightenment and his bliss. Through practiced meditation and “waiting,” he achieves an awakening—the becoming of the Buddha—and this serves as the basis for his ecstatic emancipation and release (moksha for the Hindu and Nirvana for the Buddhist) from the normal cycle of time. Within Buddhism, such patience is in fact considered one of the “perfections” toward which we should aim in seeking wisdom. And it appears not only to mean being able to endure difficulties or bear suffering but also a commitment to not returning harm to another.
In the west, Nietzsche—perhaps the greatest thinker of ecstatic states of consciousness—however offers a slightly different vantage on this apparent virtue. “Being able to wait,” he observes, “is so hard that the greatest poets did not disdain to make the inability to wait the theme of their poetry.” He adds: “Passion will not wait” and invokes the instance of duels, in which the “advising friends” must determine whether the parties involved are capable of waiting a little longer. If they are unable to do so, then a duel is justified since to wait would be to cause “suffering the horrible torture of offended honor” to continue.
Modern and conceptual art also tarry with the complexities of focused waiting as preparation for ecstatic discovery:
Performance artist Marina Abramović sits directly across a table from individual visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an indefinite period of time. She and they wait and watch and wait some more for an epiphany to occur, or for tears to flow, or a guffaw of laughter and a mutual recognition to happen, or something else entirely and wholly unexpected to arise in these primal but increasingly uncommon face-to-face encounters with another human being:
Artist Andy Goldsworthy, by contrast, waits patiently through winter for brief moments of ecstasy that might emerge two full seasons hence. During the cold months in Scotland, he creates gigantic one-ton snowballs, which he keeps in refrigerated storage. Months later, on a warm summer night, Goldsworthy transports them quietly into London’s financial district, where he deposits them on the sidewalks. In the dawning day, working Londoners gaze or gawk at these “sculptures” with a mixture of fascination, admiration, and amusement. Pedestrians are provided with a temporary tie to a different place and seasonal time: the outlying countryside and the vanished winter. As the snowballs melt and evaporate, their interiors reveal a smattering of surprises: pinecones, seeds, feathers, branches, barbed wire, stones, or wool. For five more days, the artist and public observe the action of wind, heat, and human hands on the changing size, texture, color, and shape of the snowballs, which themselves are unusual ecstatic objects, standing out as they do serenely against the steamy breath of summer, against the pell-mell movements and busy-ness of the modern city, generating child-like wonder and a playful release.
. . . Ecstasy
Ecstasy no doubt belongs to a continuum of emotional, physical and mental states that encompass pleasure, delight, enthusiasm, elation, exaltation, euphoria, bliss, rapture, joy, catharsis, transcendence, and the like. The etymology of the word is illustrative. Ecstasy, from the Greek ἔκστασις, suggests a displacement, a way of being transported outside oneself (from ek- “out,” and stasis, “a stand”). In this sense, one may be seized, summoned or transformed in relation to the exterior, by the lures, pulls, commands, and imperatives of sensual beauty, intoxicating music, inspired poetry, athletic activity, or even a sense of the divine.
Ecstasy intensifies experience and affirms. It is affective and implies pathos, plenitude, and animal vigor. It generates subjective feelings of passion and exuberance for life, even if its “object” is characteristically elusive and difficult to circumscribe or pinpoint. At the same time, ecstasy may possess “destructive” dimensions. In this regard, it is helpful to recall that the orgasm, a kind of paradigmatic, if short term, ecstatic state, is also known as “the little death.” Ecstasy is simultaneously a liberation from and annihilation of sameness and stasis, and a conduit or movement toward union without necessarily achieving complete unity or a reduction to mere identity since rapture is fundamentally excessive and transgressive.
Here, we can distinguish ordinary and more commonplace kinds of ecstasy from those described and celebrated as unusual and extraordinary. The literature of religious mysticism is especially teeming with accounts of ecstatic union with Brahman, Allah, God, YHWH, and other forms of the numinous. This latter kind of ecstasy is also associated with trances, poetic beauty, and the intoxication experienced or professed by those who commit arson or murder for aesthetic reasons—e.g., the metaphysical ecstasy of some who engage in regicide or terrorism, or perhaps the character of some of Dostoevsky’s anti-heroes, or historical figures like Leopold and Loeb who commit a perceived great homicidal transgression.
Nietzsche’s parable of the madman in the marketplace who announces the death of God, too, seems to engender and express this ecstatic state: “We have killed him—you and I,” he proclaims with verve. This cry of the heart leads into a dizzying, ecstatic fall, a directionless plunging through the gaping abyss of universe.
On a contrapuntal note, the novelist Milan Kundera observes, “We are used to connecting the notion of ecstasy to great mystical moments. But there is such a thing as everyday, ordinary, vulgar ecstasy: the ecstasy of anger, the ecstasy of speed at the wheel, the ecstasy of ear-splitting noise, ecstasy in the soccer stadium.” “Living,” he adds, “is a perpetual heavy effort not to lose sight of ourselves, to stay solidly present in ourselves . . . Step outside ourselves for a mere instant, and we verge on death’s dominion.”
As an illustration of this point, Kundera recalls a day from his youth when we was driving around in a car with a friend. He spots someone whom he does not like crossing the road up ahead and barks to his friend: “Run him over.” Although intended as a joke, his friend is overtaken by euphoria and steps on the gas. The targeted man in the street is frightened; he slips and falls to the ground. The driver breaks and stops in the nick of time. No one is hurt, but a crowd of onlookers threaten to lynch the two in the vehicle. Kundera’s words had sent his friend into a momentary ecstasy, the ecstasy of an offhand joke.
There are, it seems, many other examples of ecstatic states of consciousness, some more everyday, others less common. Below are a few that I’ve had the privilege, pain, and pleasure to experience:
- Waiting at sunset by the ocean to catch that elusive “green flash” generated by the yellow-gold of the sun momentarily meeting the blue of the water and sky as it dips suddenly beneath the outstretched horizon.
- The ecstasy of snorkeling with colorful fishes or sharks . . . or nearly drowning in the undertow but surviving to recall the story.
- Peering into a powerful telescope at the heavenly constellations and peaking through a kaleidoscope or teleidoscope at a mosaic of twinkling hallucinogenic colors.
- Waiting after a long dull period of dormant weather for the first signs of spring and awakening one morning to the shocking burst of pinks, greens, purples or reds in the trees, hedges or flowers in the fields and streets.
- Spotting a rare bird species in the woods, witnessing one die in flight, or (yes!) seeing a red-tailed hawk pluck up a squirrel in my local cemetery and fly off with the creature in his talons, pairing in one instant the daring dream of flight with the drama of unexpected death.
- Holding a free standing handstand for seven seconds during yoga class before releasing it and returning to earth.
- The ecstasy of lying on one’s back and looking into a recessive, seemingly infinite, cloudless sky while hungry vultures circle overhead.
- The sublime euphoria—or “runner’s high”—following on the heels of intense and exquisite pain as one finishes a 26-mile marathon almost three hours after starting it.
There is, then, it seems, often a very somatic and physiological dimension that accompanies certain states of ecstasy. And, in fact, we frequently find a “bliss born of pain” (to invoke Nietzsche’s phrase) associated with Dionysian exultation or delirium.
If waiting is rooted in a drawn out and attenuated experience of time—a spatialized, lengthened, horizontal or linear sense of temporality—ecstasy is more typically a more heightened, vertical and intensified experience. Waiting slows the metabolism of time; ecstasy quickens the heart and threatens to annihilate conventional time, especially when it dances on the edge of death’s dominion.
Another way to put this might be to distinguish the two in terms of the perceived or experiential tempo of time.
The ancient Greeks identified several different kinds of time, including Kairos (καιρός) and Chronos (Χρόνος). Whereas Chronos refers to sequential or chronological time, Kairos signifies a less determinate time, a period or moment in which something unique or special may occur. It is a kind of intermezzo, interstice, or in-between place of time. A temporal opportunity for the making or taking. Time seized. Carpe diem. Chronos is quantitative in nature; Kairos is more qualitative. To this extent, waiting is bound to chronological time, while ecstasy is given to that suggested by Kairos.
Ecstatic time is, in this sense, an intimation or promise of eternity, a “time” out of joint, exterior to normal, mundane time. A contemporaneous experience of past, future, and present. An enlarged or pregnant NOW. Ecstasy seduces and beckons us in such a manner. Or as Nietzsche tersely encapsulates it: “All joy wants eternity, deep, deep eternity.”
To illustrate the tensional relation and difference between these tenses of time and, by extension waiting and ecstasy, we might again refer to Zen Buddhism. Within this philosophical tradition, satori is an ecstatic and sudden insight. It is akin to finding nirvana in the midst of the daily cycling of life, or samsara. It is, for example, the sudden ecstatic release that arrives with the solution or dissolution of a puzzling koan such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” And it stands in contrast to the prolonged waiting practice or weighted patience of zazen, or seated meditation, which can endure for endless hours, months, and even decades before enlightenment is achieved. It is a difference between, on the one hand, polishing a stone for years and years until it becomes like transparent looking glass, thereby enabling one to observe at a great distance—as through the lens of a powerful telescope—far-away galaxies and worlds, and, on the other hand, a direct, intuitive “seeing into”—an immediate in-sight into—the nature of something such as an unpolished, even very blemished and ordinary stone. That is, a “Eureka” moment or an ecstatic “Aha!”
In the contemporary world, speed is quickly becoming our favored form of ecstasy, one that ostensibly counteracts stasis, even if speeding drivers are, ironically, still seated and hence stationary, often going nowhere fast in heavy traffic. We no longer seem to possess the patience or discipline to wait or even just to saunter, stroll or slowly walk. Think of all the frustration generated by waiting for lumbering elevators to arrive or traffic lights to change or webpages to download and appear.
“What will we wait for when we no longer need to wait to arrive?,” the theorist Paul Virilio has inquired. His answer: “We wait for the coming of what abides.” In other words, the ever-present instant. In the technological world, the experience and even reality of duration—of time that tethers and weaves together related and meaningful moments or minutes—is contracting, so that we no longer reside in chronological or linear time, but instead inhabit the “light of speed” (as opposed to the speed of light); that is, the light that speed gives off when, for example, cameras flash or images pass with alacrity across our proliferating electronic screens.
Who knows, perhaps somewhere in that process or the not-so-distant future we might manage to find a fleeting “byte” of incidental pleasure, a greatly diminished and slimmed down second of delight in our technological diets, one appearing and then rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirrors of our accelerating lives.
In any event, and until then, it’s likely we will rediscover ourselves headed back once again to a more reliable and grounded truth:
After ecstasy, the laundry.