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The Dark Ecstatic and Collective Wisdom

Ecstatic Consciousness

Ecstasy and its experiential mysteries offer the possibility of a special kind of knowledge: raw, unexpected, powerful, coercive, seductive, ineffable, indigestible, “ego-less,” non-rational and other worldly. Wisdom traditions and wisdom seekers have long sought and coveted what can be learned from ecstatic states and most religious traditions, spiritual practices, as well as great artistic and even scientific creations have strong roots in a revelation derived from an ecstatic state. In this discussion I’m interested in the impact of ecstatic experiences on the development of wisdom, here defined as knowledge of truth gained through personal and collective experience emphasizing demonstrated action in the world and modified by an iterative process of reflective consciousness and discerning judgment.

The word ecstasy comes from the combination of the Greek “ec,” (out of) and “histani,” to cause to stand. Ecstasy is literally defined as a state of being or standing outside of one’s self. Because ecstasies are states of union or merger with something other than “I” or ego, they provide messages that go far beyond the familiar in both the personal and collective spheres. These “messages” embody a new (or rediscovered) truth whose power to the receiver is such that it demands their communicating it to others, often at considerable risk. Spiritually gifted individuals and groups often deliberately use techniques—intensive prayer, drugs, meditation, fasting, pain and isolation—to guide them when new visions of the personal and world order are required.

Ecstatic states may provide groundbreaking insights yet these messages and insights are not culture free. Their content reflects the intent, context and former experience of the participants. Through the lens of ecstasy, the Golden Gate Bridge or ones lover’s body may no longer be just a bridge or a body; the Bridge may become a symbol of boundary crossing, the “universal bridge” which spans all differences; the body may become an incarnation of Love’s Body such as a Divine Consort or Holy Mother. But whatever the specific content or feeling, the awe inspiring meta-message of all ecstatic experience is universal; our human potential for extra-ordinary consciousness states and the astonishing nature of these experiences. Ecstatic experiential learning generates abstract knowledge with intense meaning about expanded consciousness and interconnectedness.

What is so unique here is that ecstatic based knowledge is sensed as a whole, undivided by sensation or cognition thereby providing material unavailable to the partial consciousness states of everyday life. Ecstatic consciousness, so different than ordinary consciousness, may be experienced as a destruction of the ego’s familiar relation to normative reality, an “ego death” and a prelude to psychic restructuring or “rebirth.” The old equilibrium is left behind as are the familiar suppositions, customs and relationships which heretofore nourished and defined us. As one participant remembered “your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles, until you fear that you will never recover your equilibrium.”

Inventing the Dark Ecstatic

In ecstatic states familiar “ego oriented” divisions between feelings and thoughts, person and collective, psyche and the world, even dark and light are bypassed in favor of more holistic conceptualizations. What is left out of these states however are complex integrative functions, mainly reflection and judgment, which is why the relationship between ecstasy and wisdom has always been controversial. It is from the tension between the ecstasy and its aftermath that the idea of the “dark ecstatic” evolved. When St Teresa of Avila had her extraordinary ecstatic visions detailed in The Interior Castle, the Church Fathers convened a tribunal to judge their authenticity, to judge whether they came from a place of darkness or light, from hell or heaven. And no wonder. Seized by the uncanny thrall of visionary and somatic revelation, her self descriptions of transcendent love swoons, flights of the soul, conversations with God, and transforming gifts of pain are as consonant with acute psychosis or psychopathic adventurers as spiritual seeker and saint. A quick review of the development of our major religions and other spiritual movements strongly suggests that the revelatory ecstasies are extremely dangerous to existing beliefs and structures. They threaten Peter with Paul, the Church with the radical visionary. How do we learn what is enlightenment and what is madness, which visions are the work of faith and which the byproducts of falseness? I recently learned that local warlords in Uganda almost always begin as Shamans with a strong revelatory vision of how and where to expand the power of their tribe by making war. The truth of their revelation is then measured by victory. This example, multiplied by so many more, stress the difficulty of evaluating the validity and message of ecstatic states. How do we decide when Theresa’s visions, Moses visions, Buddha’s visions, Mohamed’s visions or our own visions belong to the domain of spiritual wisdom and/or are the products of the disordered mind, self serving play and manipulation?

Transforming ecstatic knowledge into individual and collective wisdom is of central concern here. Even those who seek and experience the ecstatic will often, in the evaluative aftermath of their own experience, protect themselves from the psychic and societal risk of difficult and dystonic material as one might interpret a dream, meditation or psychic reading by only validating that content which is most ego agreeable. Other authorities may evaluate content and then filter and delete what is deemed dangerous or revolutionary. The ancient (male) priests who took the authority to interpret the visions of the Sibyls (female) of Delphi, for example, fall into that category as do papal committees who still pass on the legitimacy of spontaneously occurring Miracles and Visions. A related mechanism is to judge the truth of ecstasies by evaluating their triggering source or the character of its human container. Acceptable visions, what might be called ecstasies of the light, might come from God, from Heaven, from people of one or another skin color or gender when political expediency is an issue, from within religious establishments, or from sub-culturally supported “vision quests” with acceptable combinations of drumming, isolation, and fasting. The dark ecstatic on the other hand is seen as the work of the Devil, drugs, political radicals, non believers, witches, the occult. All these distinctions and judgments, both silly and serious define the non-ecstatic consciousness at work; ecstatic experience makes no such distinctions, no separations and divisions into light and dark content or source. There is joy and pain in the blinding obliterating radiance of the light and brilliance and terror and beauty in the impenetrable darkness of the darkest night of the soul.

Honoring the Separating Gods

As we have discussed above the knowledge that ecstatic experience brings to us is about merger, inclusion, and interconnection. From a spiritual perspective, these insights, filtered through ordinary consciousness, tempered and judged by discerning faculties may eventually enter the domain of individual and collective wisdom. Yet the very nature of ego consciousness (as opposed to ecstatic consciousness) emphasizes the tendency to polarize experience. It is very difficult to hold such divergent states in a necessarily expanded consciousness. So the more fragile ecstasies are redefined as “light” or “dark” to use the simplest polarities, thereby entering the ego realm of divided consciousness and fragmenting an experience whose essence is wholeness. The author of the beginning of Genesis led the way. The first line in the Old Testament states: “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” Through the filter of a consciousness that divides, The Lord of Light and the Lord of Darkness become opposites, then enemies. Light stands for heaven, for love and for “enlightenment,” dark is synonymous with evil, hell, and damnation. There is no word “endarkenment” but if there was, it would mean something very bad! Medieval Christian theologians who wrote learned discourses about whether Evil exists apart from Good or whether Evil is simply the absence of Good (or visa versa) exemplify this tendency to lose perspective of the whole through obsessive polarization. So do priestly tribunals who decide whether religious visions are divine or devil inspired, drug aficionados who kick back and reminisce about their “good and bad trips,” lucid dreamers who brag how they turned approaching monsters into angels and visionaries who edit succubus from saint. We fit our new experience to old censors both after the fact and even during the ecstasy itself (though this is done at great cost to consciousness and often ushers in the bad trip.) And because ecstatic knowledge feels true, it produces true believers for whom knowledge itself is final and therefore limited, perhaps the most onerous form of polarization. So we learn to discredit our own experience and honor the separating Gods.

The dark ecstatic, then, is that part of ecstatic experience which is edited, repressed and excluded, then relegated to the unknowable and unredeemable. Reveling in accessing what is eschewed by others; creative artists regularly look toward the ecstatic darkness for inspiration. Consider for example Dante’s Inferno, part one of the Divine Comedy( as compared to the dullness of Paradisio), Sophocles trilogy on Family Murder and Revenge in the Orestia, not to mention all the great epics of War, The Iliad, Handel’s Israel in Egypt, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the Old Testament. And what is “unredeemable” also begets a new set of rites. So in the face of doctrinaire orthodoxy we find the emergence of a midnight “Black Mass” or “Black Sabbath” using forbidden language and occult formulae. Renegade composers re-work pieces based on the tritone, a musical interval once outlawed by the Catholic Church as the sound of the devil! And given time the forbidden remerges more potently than before, so the great twentieth century composer Benjamin Britten deliberately writes his magnificent War Requiem using the tritone as the central device to underline man’s relationship to the evil of war. And Perry Como gives way to sexually ecstatic traditional sounds and rhythms heard once again in rock and roll and changing the behavior of young men and women for generations to come.

In a very real sense, these experiences I have categorized as the dark ecstatic have the most to teach us for they deal with what our conscious culture has thus far excluded, what we edit from our personal and societal consciousness, what is most mysterious and unknown. One beautiful evocation of the dark ecstatic is referred to as “the dark night of the soul” a psychological state of profound suffering familiar to most of us that often brings powerful knowledge. The dark ecstatic like the continent of Antarctica conjures a frozen place, but where else are the stars so much like diamonds and the wilderness so untouched. The realm of the dark ecstatic is also where we encounter the forbidden body pleasures, perverse and sordid, in delirious orgies of all the senses in unendurable excess of unbounded, uninhibited sex. The dark ecstatic may be the embodiment of unendurable loneliness and pain but also the poetry and music so inspired. The dark ecstatic is also the feelings of unrequited love, sadness, betrayal, and the same feelings from which we also learn about love, charity and gratefulness. The dark ecstatic is the experience of compartments that can never be filled, books unread, music unheard, love unfelt and life unlived. The dark ecstatic is also in Kierkegaard’s prayer, “Father in Heaven, longing is thy gift.” And in all of Shakespeare and in Wagner’s Ring and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, written after two young children had died, and in so many Requiem’s composed as an act of mourning and remembrance. The dark ecstatic is always a part of the thunder of war. The dark ecstatic is presided over by War Gods like Mars, the sensual Dionysus, and the erotic destroyer Kali. It is heard in the hypnotic voice of Maria Callas, the black humor of Lenny Bruce, and the world shattering equations of Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. The dark ecstatic is hidden in the suburban parent’s experience of a family with two children under three. The dark ecstatic is what can’t be learned from light, from brilliance, from quiet harmonies and from a gentle child’s voice.

To find such states in ourselves and all around us is horrible, delicious, and profound; but all is an ego illusion, a defense against seeing the unbroken fabric of life, for in the ecstatic moment there is no darkness or light but a larger whole which includes it all.

Wisdom through Darkness

When consulting to organizations and societies in trouble or failing, there is always a place in the group system which holds awful secrets that cannot be shared, an energy sink and moral morass which prevent further creative function. Here we find varying levels of shared responsibility for active and passive violence, betrayal, and scapegoating In our consultations, my colleague Pilar Montero and I have called this place the Pit, a central locus of activity or structure which condenses, symbolizes, and enacts what cannot be spoken. Full consciousness requires a deep appreciation if not a full exploration of the bottom of this Pit. It is a difficult landscape to enter and we understandably shy away - for the link to the dark ecstatic may repel us and provides energy to our ego’s need to divide and exclude experience, to scapegoat parts of our nature. The healing counterbalance to such polarizing repression is our intensely human drive towards integration, towards the deepest consciousness and most profound creativity, which demands transformational input from the dark ecstatic forces on the way to real wisdom.

Most of us wish to be wise. We may feel we see all sides of a question and even be tolerant toward what is unfamiliar and unknown. But truly accepting and wisely integrating the dark ecstasies as part of our being is a gift rarely gained. Polarization begins early in our personal evolution. Children require boundaries and limits; they need to learn what is right and wrong, safe and dangerous and these lessons must be learned well before all these rules and regulations can finally be put aside and recognized for what they are, part of a relativistic continuum. But early ego development thrives on such separations. Culture creates values which assist parents (funneled through particular subcultures) in defining what is acceptable and unacceptable; and what is most unacceptable becomes evil and what is most evil is denied and buried deep in the unconscious, deep in the scapegoats of the collective. Our very nature requires such divisions as every “enlightened” parent discovers when they try to blur these distinctions. Our unconscious is crowded with the cast offs and detritus of well delineated consciousness because we thrive on this clarity, we grow in this light only until we need the darkness to grow. For how can we learn to love, to think, to value new vistas, to create if we shun darkness in the beloved’s otherness and ignore wisdom in what remains unexplored. So we begin to learn from the dark and the dark ecstatic, to mine the lightless hole in the ground filled with what we earlier were taught to leave alone. The dark ecstatic is recognized, the scapegoat prepares to return to the flock.

But the scapegoat is rarely welcomed, even when needed, and for good reason. Better the witch is burned, the prophet crucified, or shot, or imprisoned forever than returned to preach the forbidden message. There was reason for excluding a dark secret, a dark truth, a story untold. The dangers that the dark ecstasies impose - what Whitman calls “the teeming spiritual darkness” - are ubiquitous. A night sky, so beautiful, so vast and open, may also become a place of great fear.

Four Stories about Darkness

For more than 25 years, a group of friends and I have hiked weekly in the mountains after dark. We navigated the fire road by moon or starlight or the reflected light from the thick fog that blanketed the hills; we learned to apprehend scenes far different than what the sun makes visible. There was great mystery in the blue-grey shades of darkness that replaced the color of flowers, grass and reflecting water on a sunlit day. The vague shadow flitting across our path could be an owl or a mountain lion or something more, an unknown dread that we best ignore if we are to keep up our pace. Once I took a high powered flashlight along on our nighttime trek and shined it at the hills as if I were on a game ride in Africa. The first time I did this we all saw many pairs of eyes in the nearby hills, smoldering yellow, unreflective blue, pale red, watching, hiding, stalking. Fewer walkers returned after those sightings but for those who continued, knowing about the exposed eyes and the shapeless forms behind them added excitement and depth. For some the occasional revelations of the flashlight added more darkness to the dark ecstatic of our nighttime experience. For the others what was unseen was far better left alone.


Many years before, when I was eight, just at the end of WW II, I was asked to enter a “post war” essay contest at my elementary school. The general subject was the value of democracy vs. fascism and I started my own essay in the following way. “Down you Jewish Pig. You shall pay for your insolence to the master race. Skin him alive and make the skin into lampshades. He shall learn what it means to challenge the master race.” That’s the part I remember. I’m sure that the remaining part of the essay patriotically extolled my victorious and therefore virtuous government. A week later, I was informed by my teacher that I had won the contest and my essay would be printed in the parent-teacher newsletter. But the next day I was called into the principal’s office. I remember what she said fairly clearly. “The English teachers have agreed that yours was the best essay,” she said, “but it can never be printed. We don’t want anyone to think about such things. Will you accept $5 as a prize but let another essay take its place in the newsletter? And by the way, do your parents know what you wrote? At least with your essay we can be sure that you’ve received no help from them or anyone else.”

Remembering that episode I now see that my interest in the dark ecstatic has been a long term commitment which preceded but was definitely reinforced by that event. I was unceremoniously ferreting out the love hate relationship of Americans with war and the holocaust. My teachers were excited by my daring but the principal represented a larger collective who would take years to confront a horror that was far too near and painful. Even at that young age, I think I instinctively grasped that it is in the unacceptable realms of the ecstatic darkness that we find some of our most profound, if horrible truths and a key to greater wisdom. I have never stopped writing about the darkest most hidden subjects in my field of psychiatry and later on the subject of secrets, nuclear war, pain and particularly scapegoating.


On a trip to Bali, I was able to witness the Balinese tooth filing ceremony which involves unanaesthetized filing of the eye teeth of pubescent girls and boys in order to get rid of their “animal nature.” Here we have a rite of puberty associated with great pain. To the outsider it looks like cruel and inhuman torture and punishment but it takes place in a context of cooperation by both the participants and their families and community. From watching these ceremonies, I can attest to the incredible pain inflicted on these youth. The file was very coarse and the initiator was very strong. The smell of burning flesh filled the air and yet each child demanded more and more filing despite their own tears and cries. They wanted more because they required an ordeal in order to become men and women of standing in their community. This ceremony/ordeal is like so many puberty rites, a form of intentional pain sanctioned and filtered by the community in the hope of providing an experiential form of wisdom to their developing youth. It is also what Musafar, a twentieth century pioneer in the theory and practice of SM defines as “body play, the deliberate, ritualized modification of the human body which is either made a part of a culture or if it is seen as a threat to established social order and institutions, and then forbidden.” To Musafar “body play” is an avenue with which to explore many facets of human nature and spiritual/aesthetic experience: tattoos, piercing, corseting, fasting, isolation, extreme heat and cold, immobilizing in extreme meditation postures, and community bonding ceremonies such as in the Ball Dance, Sun Dance and other gatherings where a variety of these rites of pain are used in a group context.

The use (and abuse) of pain in human experience is second only to war in the transforming armamentarium of the dark ecstatic. Before my own experiences with acute and chronic pain, and despite an affected tolerance and lip service to the sanctity of all behavior, I shared the common taboos about S/M. But in the midst of my own experiences with pain, I lost much of the judgmental part of my reactions completely. With each month and year of chronic pain that I experienced I felt less horror at hearing about and watching piercing, flagellations, body constrictions, and the variety of “humiliations” shared by persons involved in these practices and ceremonies. Rather I felt open, compassionate and even identified with the intent of their practices and love for the people involved and their special form of pleasure, pain--their worship.

I was drawn to enter into these rituals for myself; the possibility of experiencing pain and being able to stop it, an experience that had not been possible for me for seven years, was terribly seductive. So was the possibility of sharing pain with others instead of being so alone with it. Eventually I decided that I could not join their ceremonies of pain and expiation as an active participant though I did participate as a drummer during some of the ceremonies.

In my researches of intentional sadomasochistic activities, I heard about and saw abuse and debasement without any redeeming features I could find. But I also saw many activities of great spiritual power, a group of activities which have been present as part of serious religious practice since time immemorial and I understand why. My researches led me finally to a suffering community of men and women who had witnessed too many friends die and who learned how to invoke “intentional” pain as a doorway to mourning and wisdom enhanced survival. Pain delivered them into sacred space during their ceremony and, for some, into the crucible of their own and their collective individuation.

War is the darkest of ecstasies, an ultimate transcendent experience. A terrible taboo truth of our species history is the role of war as our great teacher. The last dark horseman of the apocalypse and his/her ecstatic engine of war has time and again transformed society and individual with ideas and feelings that are unapproachable in ordinary consciousness and yet, as no other force, transforming of our reality. In every field of human endeavor, science, health, the arts, economics, politics, war has been one of our most potent and enduring engine of change; and without war it is all but certain that many of our most heinous governments, most repressive totalitarian worlds would still stand. We may polarize our historical reality into the popular “war equals bad and peace equals good equation,” but we are left unfinished. We may even add that there must be other less violent and destructive ways to make similar changes, but pragmatically that has rarely been evident in our history as a species.

So much horror has been inflicted by War and so much has been written about its role as a powerful behemoth of transformation. But all of us who have participated in a war, from whatever vantage point, know its power. My own experience was relatively benign.

I was drafted into the Vietnam War as a physician and spent my service time in the comparative ivory tower environment of Walter Reed Army Hospital and Institute of Research. I saw and treated the horrors wreaked on soldiers air evacuated for traumatic psychotic reactions and the physical and psychic torture of wounds and disfigurements. I saw how war creates an ego shattering environment which destroys and recreates its participants, recreates by teaching about profound cooperation, overarching tolerance and love. I also saw and participated in an atmosphere which forced innovation and creativity; it is no secret to the medical profession that many of its major inventions come from the extremities of the battlefield. The time I spent in the military coerced me to be creative in a way I had never envisioned in myself, a strange gift from the heart of the dark ecstatic; my staying out of Vietnam was largely contingent on that creativity, a strong motivation as was the pain of the men I was called upon to help heal. It is hard for civilians to understand the potency of war to change its participants; one reason for the continued bonding I and most former soldiers feel with men and women who shared the experience.

I, along with millions of Americans and others around the world, watched many episodes of war in Iraq. Some of it was live and of course very tame compared to the real thing. Nevertheless the reader might try to remember one of the many live TV spots with a voice over description by a reporter near someone holding a video camera. “Two American soldiers advance on a village. Moments ago an unknown number of Iraqi irregulars emerged from behind the walls waving white hand kerchiefs signaling in surrender...” We wonder about the Iraqis. Are they frightened or a wily suicide squad? The Americans are clad in bulky uniforms with Kevlar jackets, thick helmets, and huge hand guns at the ready. Jet and helicopter air support are shown above. There is a close-up of their faces, young men, well shaven, fairly alert. We viewers fantasize what might be in their minds, fear for their buddies, memories of loved ones, terror at being suddenly fired upon if the surrender is a trick. Potential death is so present and the fear on both sides must be immense. We imagine that the Americans are well trained despite their youth. They continue on their mission. We are amazed at their bravery. Both groups know that massacre is a possibility. The Americans watch as the dispirited Iraqis come closer and closer. The suspense builds and then the screen cuts to an officer describing the state of the campaign. The memory of these men follows us into the night.

Perhaps these soldiers (and the reporter and photographer) will never transcend the negative trauma of these war experiences. But if they do, they have gained the potential for irreplaceable knowledge about themselves and their fellow men by entering into the dark ecstasy of this terrifying encounter. I would hope that there are other ways to gain access to these realms; this is one of the major reasons for pursuing collective wisdom. Still the cure is so often in the disease and here the disease is within our human nature. Real wisdom, wisdom applicable to our actual human condition, will require some means of access to this “teeming spiritual darkness” at its most profound, unalloyed by the delights of the light. Since the Enlightenment, we have tried to find wisdom through the light of reason. The hope was that the irrational monsters of the dark and deep could be expunged or at least contained by newly enlightened souls and societies. If the abysmal failures of this notion in the Twentieth century were not enough, the religious wars of the first decade of the Twenty First plead for a new understanding. Somehow we must learn to tolerate and learn from all our experience, from our whole selves, all human and all potentially transcendent, our heritage and our future.

Copyright © Arthur C. Colman