Recently, a friend published this quote on FB: "Chronic ecstasy is a learnable skill."
Chronic. Ecstasy. A strange juxtaposition. Chronic, often associated with a less healthy form of constancy—as in chronic pain. And ecstasy, often associated with a less healthy form of drug-induced high—as in rave culture drug of choice.
My initial response was one of both affirmation and caution. Yes, chronic ecstasy is indeed a learnable, even valuable, skill, and yet, chronic ecstasy without discerning engagement is simply self-indulgent escapism.
This is especially true with regards to meditation. If you’re a meditator, then you probably already know that ecstasy is a pleasant part of the territory. At some point in a meditation practice, we usually experience some extraordinary states of bliss—natural highs beyond any drug-induced ecstasy.
And if you’re not yet a meditator, you’re probably thinking, drug-free ecstasy? Yes, please, I likes me some drug-free ecstasy. After all, who doesn’t want some ecstasy?
The trouble is that the drug-free ecstasy can be just as addictive as the drug-induced kind, leading to more escapist than enlightening meditation, causing us to seek out a particular euphoric experience instead of embracing the whole truth of what is. It’s kind of like a meditative drug-induced stupor. It can feel good, but we’re not really all there. It can become an addictive form of spiritual bypassing.
After such ecstatic experiences, we often find ourselves mistakenly judging the quality of our meditation by how we feel during our practice. We get attached to “achieving” ecstatic states, becoming disappointed when we don’t “achieve” particular ecstatic states during or beyond our meditation, as if ecstasy (or achievement) paves the path to enlightenment.
Yet, if we habitually seek out, or simply slip into ecstatic states readily and repeatedly without full awareness, our meditation practice begins to look more like blissing out than blissfully being with the truth of experience. We begin to inhabit the murky territory of good sits as good trips. In so doing, we mistake the transient effects (ecstasy, discomfort, restlessness, etc.), for the practice (sitting and being with what is, focusing attention on the breath, etc.), and the long-term results of practice (greater awareness, equanimity, contentment).
Lacking discernment or more discriminating awareness, some meditators even conflate the repeated experience of ecstasy with enlightenment. Unfortunately, as long as there is an “I” getting high, there’s only false en-lie-tenment rather than any genuine awakening. Chronic ecstasy, thus, becomes merely blissful ignorance rather than the eternal bliss of being fully present and alive with the nature of who you really are and what is.
After all, just because you can access a light show in your mind doesn’t mean that you’re enlightened. It just means that you’re enjoying some good trips along the way. The purpose of meditation is to realize who you are and what is. Genuine bliss arrives when we learn to be just as we are beyond our conceptions of who we think we should be.
If you meditate merely to take the bliss-trip, you just end up in Lala Land, chronically ecstatic without a care or a clue.