This post is the second of three excerpts from my paper “The Experimental Art of Ego Dissolution,” which I presented as part of the Glaukopis Conference at Burning Man in 2008. I’m in the desert again right now, experiencing a little secular ecstasy of my own, so new posts will start up again after Labor Day.
It is understandably hard to know what triggers ecstasy- though stress is certainly a strong candidate, which is why this state often accompanies times of great mental or physical stress: such as torture, vigorous dance or sex, fasting, sleep deprivation and so on. I’ll explore the methods of triggering ecstasy in a just a moment. First, I’d like to discuss the nature of the Ego.
The ego is a term with multiple meanings depending on the context. Here, I use it to mean the context of the subject-object relationship. It is not a “thing” – it is a set of responses based on experience and assumption. It is formed throughout one’s life as an integration of the tenets and expressions of the spheres of influence in which one resides. This sphere can be as small as a tribe in the traditional sense- an interbreeding family that shares a natural environment, resources and traditions- or as large as our globalized society and the tenets and information therein. The ego is what allows humans to understand the passage of time and maintain a sense of identity throughout their lives. It is the story that we tell ourselves about how we get from birth to our present state, despite that we are not at all the same organism we were at the beginning of our lives. The ego allows us to interact with material reality- to construct families, tribes, homes and careers. Ultimately, our ego is constructed by the tribe in which we are invested- a group upon which our existence depends and to whom our reputation is paramount. Not only is this story of self important to our individual existence but the health and expression of one’s ego is also of great importance to the tribe. The better an individual integrates the tenets of the tribe, the more likely he or she is to take responsibility for its survival and strength.
Ecstatic ritual has been used throughout time to strengthen tribal bonds and assure the efficacy of the group. Pleasure itself is a powerful tool of cohesion. Just as the pleasure of sex makes two individuals more likely to keep up the good work and reproduce for the good of their genes- the shared pleasure of a tribe celebrating to ecstatic states will carry through to the survival of their collective genes. A tribe that dances together, or dines together, or has sex together, or plays music together, or otherwise revels together- stays alive. Greater so than the shared experience of pleasure is the experience of collective ecstasy. Rites such as the fervent celebrations of Bacchus in ancient Greece, the dance of the whirling dervish, and the festivals of spectacle spanning from ancient Europe to our current celebration of Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Correfoc, and of course, Burning Man, all have the potential for, and often the intention of, fostering collective ecstasy. To experience simple pleasure within a group is to still maintain one’s ego and therefore one’s sovereignty from the group. The use of collective ecstatic ritual takes this one step further by dissolving the ego and creating intense, lasting bonds between members of the tribe. When the ego is absent, the distance between the self and the other is temporarily obliterated. It is in this decontextualized space that intimacy is fostered- when I lose my ability to understand the boundaries of my body and my soul, I lose my ability to see you as an entity separate from myself. All arbitrary classifications are rendered irrelevant and I see myself in you and you in myself with no delineation. Following the experience, as mundane reality realigns within my brain- I am more likely to sympathize with you and fight on your behalf as if your life were as valuable as my own- which it is- for I have seen the equality myself. This experience can be seen in a myriad of rituals such as ritual dance, drum circles, blood rites, certain rites of passage, group sex, celebrations of drunkenness, peyote ceremonies, and so on. (And at the really good parties- all at once). A couple common elements are the high physical stress (as seen in spiral dances or blood rites), thorough ritualization likely to aid in the “shutting down” of the more complex brain functions, and often nighttime occurrences (when the parasympathetic nervous system is at its peak).
Because ecstasy is also an act of social defiance. It is an attempt to assert one’s personal sovereignty apart from the group- to achieve a unique identity. The strength of a tribe is not only based on sum of the individual strength of its members, but it requires the individuals to be as strong as possible and with the greatest sense of purpose as possible.
Ecstasy, when experienced alone, defies society. It is a deeply personal experience for which even words fail. Ecstasy asserts the respect and love of the self- and one’s simple existence. It is a deliverance from ego which allows one to see the true nature of the personal ego- a unique and deeply intimate expression of one’s self that is ultimately arbitrary and able to be manipulated.
Solitary ecstasy may have the same neurological basis- the dissolving of spatial boundaries and the amplification and declassification of sensory input- but the interpretation is different. Rather than the collective- “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” it is a simultaneous self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating experience. The ecstatic function in solitude again dissolves the ego- thereby the traditional definitions of self-in-context.
The paradox presented by Abraham Maslow explains it thusly- “The greatest attainment of identity, autonomy or selfhood is itself simultaneously a transcending of itself, a going beyond and above selfhood. The person can then become relatively egoless.” Self-knowledge comes when viewing the self through the cracks of a fractured ego. This affirmation of self is undoubtedly important to one’s tribe or culture, as it allows for the individual to examine his or her proclivities as they apply to the tribe, take responsibility for his or her roles within the tribe, and raise self actualized and socially effective children- but it serves a further purpose. When we are delivered momentarily from the context in which we construct our daily existence, we swim in the soup of the infinite. Again, time, classification and identity are utterly arbitrary. And as the pieces of our ego reform into the self we are familiar with- we are given a choice. Seeing the unification of the universe as it is, we experience the infinite possibilities of recombination. Ecstatic experience is a mechanism built into the machinery of our brains that provides us with an opportunity to recreate our perspective and recreate our lives. After such an experience, we can give ourselves permission, if we so desire it, to change our names, assume a new identity, speak to a new set of gods, create a new path, find or create a new tribe, or at the very least, realize that those are all options for us. The ecstatic experience is, in other words, a frameshift. An opportunity that we can choose to ignore or indulge that can allow us the creation of a new life.
Part 3 coming to you on Monday.