Happiness, Ecstasy, and Threading the Needle

I stumbled out from the trees atop the mountain, Matagalls—the second-highest in Catalonia.

I was teaching at a children’s language camp, and at the end of the camp we had taken a day to lead the students on an expedition to climb the peak. Cold weather had moved in and many of them had remained in a meadow at lower elevation with the rest of the adults. But I and a handful of kids pressed on.

It was steep at the end, and my legs were burning as I climbed the forested trail to the summit. The scent of rain-dampened earth filled my nostrils, the cool air pumped smoothly in and out of my lungs, my heart beat in my temples and chest. I was alive.

I could feel that something was happening. Something was opening within me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my long time in Spain was coming to a close: that soon I would hit the road again, eventually to land back in California. Perhaps it was just that smell, the adrenaline, the gorgeous landscape of Catalonia.

I moved ahead of the children. I knew I’d have only a minute or two atop the summit by myself if I pushed on now, but it would have to be enough. I was swelling with joy; I could feel tears starting.

When I stepped out of the trees to the clearing atop Matagalls, I could see the whole world spread before me: a ragged blanket of clouds far below, peaks emerging like islands, the glint of a river through a hole in the clouds. Everything.

Everything.

And something grew to bursting within me. I began to sob and laugh at the same time. YES. 

YES!

All this, and me alive to experience it, in this little moment I am given. The blessed, Sacred world.


Recently, Rua Lupa and John Halstead have written about the ecstatic religious experience. John has written about its value; Rua cautions about pleasure-seeking for its own sake, warning of hedonism and suggesting that pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is wrong.

The thing is, they’re both right to a degree. Pleasure-seeking without regard to consequences is clearly unhealthy and destructive. And seeking the ecstatic religious experience is moving, transformative, and deeply pleasurable.

I disagree with Rua when she suggests that pleasure-seeking for its own sake is somehow wrong. There are plenty of pleasurable experiences that can be had which cause no harm to anyone else, nor to the Earth. What’s wrong with those? Why must pleasure-seeking have a “purpose”?

That said, I’d say that Rua puts her finger on one of the two major points to religion when she speaks of  contentment. Contentment is a baseline of happiness: a satisfactory level of felt wellbeing that leads to a sense of living as worthwhile and fulfilling. That baseline, however, is only a mean–in order for life to feel lived, you need some lows and highs by way of contrast. And among the highest of those highs are the experiences of religious ecstasy John cites.

Which brings me back to the basic question:  “why Atheopaganism?” The answer being, because it can help us to be happier, and because it provides a framework of values within which life can be meaningful and service to the Sacred may be inspired.

Do I think people who are constantly chasing the high of a peak experience are ungrounded and lost? Yes, I do.

Do I think that people who never seek such experiences are muted and kind of sad? Yes, that, too.

Mainstream values in the Pagan community tend towards the hedonistic. We value pleasure as a good in and of itself, so long as none are harmed. And while I think a bit more self-reflection would be a positive addition to that cheerful pleasure-seeking, at root I agree. I have no use for Calvinistic, greyfaced disapproval of fun and enjoyment. I want to grab life with both hands. I want the story of my having been here to be one filled with color.

That said, I’m not just here for me. My peak spiritual experiences have led me to deepen my commitment to the biosphere of the Earth and to redouble my efforts on its behalf. The two are not at loggerheads; they compliment and reinforce one another.

I understand John’s point about religious ecstasy reinforcing a sense of connection with and commitment to That Which Is Larger Than The Self: The Earth, the Cosmos. And I understand Rua’s point about the kinds of practical religious experiences which can bring us more into harmony with reality, such as the fact that we are going to die.

But must pleasure always serve a purpose? Is there something wrong with pleasure that’s just…pleasurable?

I say there is not. If no one is harmed, if the Earth itself is not harmed, I say pursue happiness. Seek joy.

As Rua puts it, pleasure should not be the pinnacle, the sum total goal of religious experience. But that doesn’t mean that pleasure can’t be one of the goals thereof.

Pleasure is great, and I recommend you find as much as you can, within the constraints of care for others and for the Earth. And of the pleasures there are, few are greater than religious ecstasy, for it is not merely a cascade of serotonin and dopamine: it is a moment of profound understanding of life’s purposes, of what is important, of what is Sacred.

Which is what I found, weeping atop a mountain in Spain, with children coming up the trail behind me.

Shown: Matagalls, Catalunya.

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7 thoughts on “Happiness, Ecstasy, and Threading the Needle

  1. I have to say that I am in complete agreement with your statement. I certainly am not opposed to pleasure seeking for its own sake, just putting out a caution in making sure you do not end up down the rabbit hole that can lead to harm. Pleasure IS fun – I just want people to be safe and satisfied while they are at it 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Quite the contrary. The reason people pursue particular experiences is to stimulate the pleasure centers in their brains. Pretty much all human behavior IS pleasure seeking per se.

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      • Look at the experience machine thought experiment. Say you want to climb Mount Everest. What you want is not the simple subjective pleasure of climbing it but the knowledge and awareness of actually having done it. Merely having the experience is not enough. If it was we would be happy to live in virtual reality. It’s what the coloured pills is all about in the Matrix. What you should be thinking about is what is worthwhile and valuable in your life regardless or whether it gives you pleasure. Sometimes it will give you pleasure, sometimes it won’t and that’s ok. No one would have children if all they were interested in were pleasure as most of the time they cause you pain. Read the Wikipedia article on the experience machine and you will see that it the value of things that matter and not the pleasure they bring. The problem is that you are American and have inherited a puritanical culture which you are reacting against. Your hedonism is inverted Puritanism and is just as mistaken as what you are reacting against.

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      • The point you seem to miss is that the knowledge and awareness of having done something are themselves stimulatory of the pleasure centers of the brain. Still pleasure-seeking.

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