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The Art of Losing Control: The Power of Ecstatic Experience

“To be modern is to let imagination and invention do a lot of the work once done by tradition and ritual.” ~ Adam Gopnik

Some people might think that losing control in an ecstatic experience is the opposite of being rational. But if we consider the fact that we don’t even know what consciousness is, or why we dream, or what happens after we die, or even what it means to be rational, we might become so humbled by “not knowing” that we free ourselves into falling into it.

Falling into “not knowing”:

“’I don’t know’ is an unparalleled source of power, a declaration of independence from the pressure to have an opinion about every single subject. It’s fun to say. Try it: ‘I don’t know.’ Let go of the drive to have it all figured out: ‘I don’t know.’ Proclaim the only truth you can be totally sure of: ‘I don’t know.’ Empty your mind and lift your heart: ‘I don’t know.’ Use it as a battle cry, a joyous affirmation of your oneness with the Great Mystery: ‘I don’t know.’” ~ Rob Brezsny

Losing control within the irrational is actually a radical and counter-intuitive way of bolstering our rationality. To the extent that we can know the truth about anything is directly proportional to the extent that we can correctly interpret the universal laws unfolding around us.

Sometimes this might mean getting out of our own way. Sometimes it is the ignorant self, the uninitiated and culturally-conditioned ego, that prevents us from forming a valid opinion about the way the world is interconnected and interdependent.

In such cases – if we are truly allowing the obstacle to be the path – ecstatic experience can be used as a tool to dissolve the unconscious “wall” that has been erected between Self and Cosmos. Ecstatic experience becomes the psychological leveling mechanism that gets us out of our own way, so that we can have authentic experiences as interconnected beings in an interdependent cosmos.

Think: the old Zen Proverb about the empty cup. The ecstatic experience empties our cup. It allows us to “not know” so that we are “empty” enough to renew our knowledge. “I don’t know” frees us into a state of prepared learning. Education by perpetual astonishment is the thing. “I don’t know” in order that I may be astonished by knowing something new.

From loggerhead to fountainhead:

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.” ~ Patti Smith

Ecstatic experience has gotten a bad rap because people are afraid of losing control, or losing their minds, or being considered crazy, or being ostracized by the “tribe,” or any number of limiting psycho-social rationalizations. As Iris Murdoch said, “We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil, which partially conceals our world.”

Introducing ecstatic experience into our lives helps to reveal the concealed world. Whether it’s through deep solitude and meditation while fasting, or through tribal ritual dance, or having an out-of-body experience, or using mind-altering entheogens, the experience has a decalcifying effect.

Something undefinable peels off the surface of reality, taking with it meaning, labels, and words. It’s a kind of eco-ego-melting, where spontaneous “I” melts into improvisational “Not-I” and the numinous third-eye opens.

Granted, there is a fine line between ecstatic experience and extremism. All things in moderation, of course. But more importantly, all things in moderation to include moderation. That’s the trick of ecstatic experience. It’s both the gold in the poison and the fly in the ointment. It churns settled dust into dusty jouissance. It transforms our comfort zone into a rubber band that flexibly expands for a time before it snaps back to “reality.”

Ecstatic experience gets us off the hook of self-seriousness and cultural-seriousness for a while, so that we can experience sincere authenticity before returning to the daily grind. Indeed, it has the power to unmask the animal inside us, revealing all the howls and toothy menace, all the feral hungers and orgiastic passions, as a reminder that life can be lived on purpose and with purpose as opposed to the mundane, robot-like, cog-bop-cog daily grind, grinding our lives into apathetic indifference.

Chop wood, carry water –with zest:

“After the ecstasy, the laundry.” ~ Jack Kornfield

However, having a self-shattering experience is only half the battle. One must express the experience somehow in a cathartic reconciliation, otherwise it becomes repressed and calcified, a useless organ.

But if it is self-actualized it has the potential to create continual magic, whether in the form of elixir for the tribe or in the form of art, music, poetry, and dance for the overall culture. It stands to reason, a gift given gives more than a gift ungiven.

It is in this sense that numinous experience begets numinous experience. Art inspired by ecstatic experience begets more ecstatic experience. The wild and vulnerable open heart of the person who dared to lose control and experience the extraordinary within the ordinary, begets the fountainhead-like overflow of creative cultural cohesion (art). The seed of the extraordinary is planted in the settled loam of the ordinary, and the formally dearth and banal texture of the human condition becomes ripe with flourishing and Eudaimonia.

The power of ecstatic experience is found both within the dissolving of stuffy and outdated cultural patterns and in the planting of imaginative and creative seeds that have the potential to update and empower the cultural dynamic.

In the end, the art of losing control helps us realize how little control we have to begin with, and how taking our limited control too seriously can have stifling, creativity-killing, imagination-wilting effects on our lives. Allowing ourselves to lose control every now and then helps us put things into proper perspective.

That which is healthy and that which is unhealthy becomes vividly contrasted, and we are better able to decipher the underlying patterns of the Great Mystery. This makes us more adept at adopting valid opinions that are based upon healthy universal laws rather than strictly base our opinions on outdated man-made laws that tend to be unhealthy.

Like the great Hunter S. Thompson said, “Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a God, and the only living thing that behaves like it doesn’t have one.”

Image source:

Painting by Lorenzo Cosay Sr.

Apache Crown Dancer photo by MJ Anderson

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  • Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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