Moreover, the Gnostic emphasis on inner illumination aroused some discomfort in this nascent ecclesiastical establishment. As the scholar Elaine Pagels has pointed out, “Gnostic teaching… was potentially subversive of this order: it claimed to offer every initiate direct access to God of which the priests and bishops themselves might be ignorant.” This was bound to be irritating to the priests and bishops. Consequently, they launched into a vigorous campaign against Gnosticism. Once they achieved secular power, as they did when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, they were in a position to come down on the Gnostics and other heterodox Christian sects with the might of the state.
Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition
In another article, I mentioned that the notion of a personal God has not made sense to me, despite (or due to) being a preacher’s kid who spent the first 19 years of my life in church.
Even as a small child, however, I knew that Bible stories, prayer, hymns and rituals pointed to “something” that could be touched by humans in a real and profound way. In fact, I had some unitive experiences as a young boy that remain prominent in my worldview to this day. I would complain to my father that there was no “direct experience of God” in our church. He laughed and tussled my hair, and I learned not to talk about it very much as time moved on.
In my mid-30’s, however, ecstatic phenomena that mirrored those of my early life returned with great power. At the time, I was studying various Eastern traditions, none of which spoke to these ecstatic experiences, other than to discourage them as “diversions” from the Goal. I spent about eight years in the desert, so to speak, unable to deny the bliss, joy and ecstasy that had awakened in my being, while at the same time finding very little support from the books and teachers I came across.
As for Christianity… I had a vague notion that, somewhere deep in the past, there were followers of Christ Jesus’ teachings who perhaps had direct experiences of “God,” but when I surveyed current expressions of the Church, I found nothing but fundamentalism, over-intellectualism, “fluff” and social clubs. The very existence of “Christian Rock” music was more than enough to keep my head and nose turned away.
Having accessed — through contact with kindred spirits who exhibit similar “symptoms” to mine — the Buddhadhamma, and having discovered within it a very specific set of meditation and mindfulness instructions that spoke directly to my ecstatic expriences, I rejoiced. I found that the Buddha overtly taught about the ecstasies (which he called jhana or samadhi), and that he placed paramount importance on them.
It’s been about seven years since I made this discovery, and it’s been less than 50 years since the Buddha’s original teachings have been made widely available in English. So, for about 2,400 years, these teachings have been “hidden” deep within Theravada Buddhism, insulated even from most monks. The Buddhist priesthood, like priesthoods from most other religious traditions, became a guardian of orthodoxy — and this orthodoxy not only avoided the direct experiences that formed the core of the original teaching, but actively repressed it down through the years. In many ways, such repression continues to this day.
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I am aware that this is nothing new. Mystics and ecstatics have been oppressed throughout history, having threatened the priestly hierarchy’s authority, since few if any priests exhibit the ecstatic phenomena described, taught and championed by a given religion’s progenitor.
And yet, mystics and ecstatics arise in every generation. Whereas the dominant culture has always pathologized expressions of the ecstatic (which are, at core, feminine in nature — the subject for another article, no doubt), we rarely burn ecstatics at the stake these days.
No, we label ecstatics as “problem children” with ADD/ADHD, and we pump them full of Ritalin. We prescribe exotic cocktails of SSRI drugs, so that children and adults may return to “full productivity” on the treadmill of modern existence.
The fact that so much of modern-day society is either dependent on psychosomatic prescription medication, or has adopted damaging self-medication regimens, suggests to me that human nature is ecstatic at core.
A technological society as removed from the Sacred as ours puts a lot of pressure on individuals to suppress naturally-occurring ecstasy. Many succumb, taking the Pill. Others resist… but without competent teachers of the charismatic, they often turn to mind-altering substances, seeking in various drug or alcohol experiences that which already exists within us — free of charge, free of negative side-effects.
I am a survivor of the second category, and am thankful that I never fell into the trap of the first.
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Now that the Buddha’s original Middle Path (in the form of Suttas or Discourses which purport to preserve Gautama’s teachings first in oral transmission, then written on Papyrus leaves some 2,200 years ago) is widely available in English, it is interesting to note that the Buddha did not hide the “good stuff” from anyone.
Yes, the Suttas are directed to his monks (who were legion at the time), but there was no effort to reserve these teachings for just his most accomplished followers. Gautama went out of his way to state that the Buddhadhamma was of a single cloth — nothing hidden, this is what you get, take it or leave it. It was his gift to a humanity that, like ours, had strayed far from its True Nature.
The Four Noble Truths, the fourth of which is the Noble Eightfold Path, culminating in Right Absorption (Samma-Samadhi)… followed by a life spent saturated in meditative absorption, dissolving the dastardly “fetters” that keep humans on the Wheel of Samsara… this is what Gautama taught, forwards and backwards, saturated always in jhana/samadhi.
Unfortunately, the Theravada priestly hierarchy, within just a couple generations of the Buddha’s passing, turned Buddhism into something completely different than what was originally propounded. The Abhidhamma, for instance, proposed to “add” to what had already been fully given — an entire “secret” psychological system that did not appear in the original discourses, but was added to the Pali Canon nevertheless. A few hundred years later, a series of commentaries was added to the official orthodoxy, the Visuddhimagga being the primary example. These efforts served to entrench the authority of the priesthood, and to obfuscate the ecstatic teachings of Gautama Buddha. For hundreds of years, orthodox teachings of Theravada Buddhism have filtered through these (and other similar) books, relegating the Buddha’s actual teachings to the proverbial dusty monastery basement.
* * *
So, forty-seven years after my birth, I’m “getting it” that this world does not support the ecstatic.
There is no un-broken transmission of Jesus’ ecstatic teachings (which are now coming to light in Gnostic texts being unearthed in the Middle East)… and there is for sure no formal schooling for such teachings within the mainstream Christianity of my upbringing. On the contrary, church as I experienced it was a hollow shell, filled with desperate souls who desired union with God, but who eventually settled for peak experiences (church camp rallies, etc.) and the solace of community.
Something similar has happened to Theravada Buddhism, though the advent of the Sutta Pitaka in English has given rise to a (mostly-misguided) discussion of ecstatic states.
I cannot speak experientially about Islamic Sufism, but my sense is that there is a pure transmission of ecstatic practices that retains Islam’s original ecstatic inspiration. It’s hard to know for certain, since these esoteric teachings are reserved for initiates only. Mainstream Islam, with its five-times-daily prayer and other ritual obligations, is perhaps more conducive to ecstatic experience than most other religious expressions… but, again, there is a long history there of repression of the ecstatic unitive experience, with dire consequences to many devout Sufis.
I am equally devoid of significant experience regarding Tibetan Buddhism and every other esoteric/initiatic tradition that I know of, most of which filter through a living teacher. Judging by the vast number of Eastern Teachings books available these days, there is at least the promise of ecstatic experience available through these systems, hidden as they are. [There is yet another article begging to be written about living teachers offering exclusive curriculums… but we’ll leave it for another time.]
My solution has been to (finally, after much searching) connect with a community of ecstatic contemplatives, to adopt a rigorous and skillful daily contemplative practice, to study ecstatic writings from all traditions, and to wear my ecstatic birthright as a primary element of this particular human identity. In doing so, I find that I am not alone, and that the message of ecstasy resonates deeply in those who have moved beyond unconscious repression/expression of this profound human trait.
My solution is also to recognize that exoteric religion contains Mystery symbols that carry primordial meaning for those whose practice is labeled esoteric and ecstatic — and that, despite the abandonment of ecstasy by mainstream religion, we may connect with mystic saints who’ve left surprisingly similar records within every religion.
Having been raised a Christian, I find that my early-life connection with the Person of Christ is impossible to abandon. Perhaps Jesus IS my guru, and he is speaking to me through Gnostic, Essene and other non-canonical writings represented in findings at Qumran and Nag Hammadi. I pull these ancient writings forward as the Sacred essence of Christianity’s original inspiration… and I allow them to invade my direct experience of that very same Sacred, beyond time and space, straight back to the Source of everything.
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Ultimately, anyone who has given rise to the ecstatic knows that one cannot ask for more in life, no matter what our orthodox institutions say.
The upwelling of charismatic phenomena is, after all, what all the practice is about. Having come into it, our internal navigation system activates, such that it is only a matter of time before we are led all the way Home.