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In this provocative and insightful new book, psychologist Michael Eigen presents a phenomenology of ecstatic states. Ecstasy is a force to be reckoned with — sometimes creative, sometimes destructive. Eigen argues that there is an ecstasy that comes through the ever-necessary confrontation of our psychic cores with suffering and degradation, and he shows that when we can learn to be present with these feelings, they add to the tone and texture of our lives, and help us to feel real.

The author draws heavily on autobiographical material, psychotherapy sessions, case studies and psychoanalytic thinking, along with literary and biblical sources, demonstrating his reputation as one of the leading creative thinkers among psychotherapists in America. The result is an extremely intelligent, lyrical work, which succeeds in being theoretically well-informed without being pedantic. Written as a subjective first-hand account, Ecstasy will appeal to psychotherapists as well as to readers and students interested in spirituality and philosophy.

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What People Are Saying

Mark Epstein
"Ecstasy is an incredible book, thoroughly significant, and marvelously readable. It is rare that psychoanalysts tackle questions of spirituality, and to do so in such a thoughtful, intelligent, fearless, daring and thought-provoking way makes this book seminal."
Mark Epstein, author of Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective
Mark Epstein
"Ecstasy is an incredible book, thoroughly significant, and marvelously readable. It is rare that psychoanalysts tackle questions of spirituality, and to do so in such a thoughtful, intelligent, fearless, daring and thought-provoking way makes this book seminal."
Mark Epstein
An incredible book, thoroughly significant, and marvelously readable. It is rare that psychoanalysts tackle questions of spirituality, and to do so in such a thoughtful, intelligent, fearless, daring and thought-provoking way makes this book seminal.
James S. Grotstein
In this glorious work, Michael Eigen, whom we already know as an analyst and as a mystic, now reveals his Dionysian heritage. This work is an ecstatic prose poem from beginning to end. It is a psychoanalytic invitation to all of us to experience the fullness of being alive - by cutting away what doesn't matter. Eigen convinces us that ecstasy transcends sex and potentially occupies all aspects of our being.
Adam Phillips
The forbidden experience of ecstasy has perhaps, unsurprisingly, become the forbidden subject of psychoanalysis. There is no one writing in psychoanalysis today who can catch the vagrant intensities of our lives like Eigen. In this remarkable new book he reminds us, as psychoanalysis should, we are excessive by nature and that we don't have to quell what we describe.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780819565310
  • Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2001
  • Series: Disseminations: Psychoanalysis in Contexts
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 116
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Eigen is a psychologist and psychoanalyst. He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at New York University, and author of a number of books, including Toxic Nourishment (1999), The Psychoanalytic Mystic (1998), and Psychic Deadness (1996).

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    Ecstasy is the heart's center. The heart of life. It is not reserved for the soul's union with God, although that is where it starts and ends. It pervades the body, the inside and outside of skin, the pulsing of organs. It is in the senses, touching, hearing, seeing. It is in the body's movements, muscles, mucous membranes, flow of breath and blood. In the Bible, Israel is told not to eat the blood of animals because the soul is in the blood. Ecstasy is in the blood.

    Blood ecstasies can be terrible. Not just ecstasies of sex, but ecstasies of murder, ecstasies of fear and rage. There are patients who must cut themselves, see and smear and taste their blood, not only to feel real but to feel ecstatic. There are individuals who must cut others to tap a stream of ecstasy.

    The blood-soul-ecstasy bond is ancient. One senses it in cave paintings between hunter and hunted, exquisite, tantalizing, breathtaking beauty of the hunt. Death-life feed each other, soul of the hunt. Twist the sense of power and you have the frenzy of Nazi calculation, chills of exaltation and stupor, extermination ecstasies. You have blood-soul cementing the United States in civil war, the War between the States—states of mind as well as political-economic geography.

    Seal a contract with blood-soul. God with Abraham: every sexual sensation is a reminder of God. Yes, God is in the soul of the blood, the pulsations. God of sex and murder. God of ecstasy. God beyond ecstasy. D. H. Lawrence's sexual god of the blood. Night gods seeping into day.

   One does not have to maim or kill to find ecstasy. Pascal's famous cup of coffee triggered outpourings of the God of Fire. Not vision so much as upwelling of feeling, transfiguring rapture. God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, espresso genie, lighting the night. All the Hindus, Buddhists, sitting, sitting, sitting. Stillness ecstasies. One needn't lift a finger, scarcely need breathe.

    A group of students talked about God all night, then all day, then all night again. Months passed. Years. Some of these students never made a living. Books and thought and meditation were all. In time, talk and thought faded. They sat all day and night and felt God. They found the ecstasy center. They drew themselves around it. The flame glistened and glowed. There was nothing else. Some of these students starved to death. They became the ecstasy center, nothing else. Some became poets, scientists, businessmen. Some remained students and survived in precarious ways.

* * *

    Human spirit feeds on tiger soul: "Tiger, tiger burning bright." Predator God becomes spiritual prey. We eat God as God devours us. Spiritual cannibals, we take power and virtue from each other. All kinds of spirits in a person touch us. We take in each other's spirits, pick the bones of this trait or ability.

    What do mothers do for babies? Provide feelings, like air, for baby's feeling self. A baby lives in a feeling atmosphere. A smile, a touch, endless streams of feelings. Everything visible is invisible: the baby abides in worlds of infinite invisibility, invisible feelings. A mother's face can infinite.

    Some babies turn into tigers.

    When a tiger reaches old age, soul claps hands and sings.

* * *

    Freud's work is a song to ecstasy, at once ecstatic and anti-ecstatic.

    In the beginning, chaotic sensory streams, pleasure streams, unlocalizeable pain points. In the beginning, a pleasure I, I filled with pleasure, wanting only pleasure. Pleasure always—as Pascal hoped the moment of Fire would never fade. In the beginning, a narcissistic I unifying (in some fashion) sensory streaming. Pleasure I shutting out pain. I-feeling trying to identify only with feeling good, well-being, pleasure, bliss, joy, ecstasy.

    A growing capacity to hallucinate pleasure, to hallucinate wholeness. Freud's hallucinogenic fantasy, imaginative vision: baby hallucinates breast when breast is missing, hallucinates satisfaction where there is pain.

    Great God I—becoming the center of sensory streaming (I sense, I feel, I think)—tries to legislate pain out of existence, place pain outside I, let pain disappear in outer space. Double movement: (1) I spreads and appropriates; (2) I consolidates desired territory (pleasure) and sheds bad (pain). Sensation happens, happens to me: I sense. Feeling happens, happens to me: I feel. Thoughts happen, happen to me: I think. A psychic magnifying machine magnifies I and its contents.

    Hallucination as a first cognition, wish as reality, pleasure over pain — how does th memory for happy times, remembers good feed, magnifies the picture, replaces bad time now with good time then, now forever. I-it is determined that life feels good, feeling is being. Hungry baby hallucinates good feed, a desert soul seeing water. A good memory, infinitized, substitutes for present difficulty, becomes all that is now, an eraser now, a pain eraser. A present that obliterates the present.

    A good feed becomes a perfect feed, a beatific moment. The psychic magnifier-infinitizer translates good to heavenly. Baby learns to make itself happy for a while. All-heavenly cannot be sustained indefinitely, and divine drops into demonic.

    How do we develop antihallucinogenic capacities, perceive reality beyond wishes, undertake to face present difficulties? We do so, partly, by making room for pain.

    Problem: ecstasy is not pleasure magnified, nor is hell merely pain magnified. A baby growing in a field of ecstasy and hell (including ecstatic hell and hellish ecstasy) is not simply a baby growing in fields of pleasure-pain.

* * *

    Everyone is a specialist. One lives out a few of many possibilities of self. However many-sided a person is, one is always less than what one "might" have been. One is never all-sided. One = All is an important moment. Such moments leave residues lasting a lifetime. One is All supports life in the background. But lack is crucial for living. Lack provides some protection against utopianism, if not much.

    If Wilhelm Reich literalizes the psyche, at least for him life energy a Sensory streaming quickens life, and we armor ourselves against the stream of life. There are ways in which character is akin to a tight muscle, a shield against sensory flow. Character is armor. Character armor <—> Body armor. We could not live if we were not shields against life, if we were not shields against ourselves. We cannot live without tightening our characters, tightening our bodies, squeezing ourselves.

    Reich places a lot on orgasm. So much self-tightening defends against orgasm. We tighten in the face of intensity. Armor vs. orgasm. Meanness is inadequate orgasm. Orgasmic fulfillment makes us nicer. And if we were nicer, we might open to more orgasmic fulfillment. The schizophrenic and Nazi share orgasmic inadequacy. They seek alternate orgasms: madness and murder. Mysticism is a kind of orgasm. Character is hostility. Orgasm is love. Orgasmic opening subverts lack.

    I don't think body is up to such responsibility, but to search for an ethics of the body or place ethics in the body makes sense. Ethics and orgasm, body ethics, soul orgasm: variable space-time-infinity combinations.

* * *

    Nevertheless, lack persists. Some search for perfect orgasm, some for perfect lack. Ought one expect orgasm to cure lack as food cures hunger? Hunger is renewable. Orgasm recurs. There may be parallels but no identity between orgasmic capacity and a good meal.

    A good dream sometimes does more than both.

* * *

    Prophets orgasms. They seem to take the latter for granted. They seem to feel opening one's heart is a kind of orgasm or has orgasmic properties. Orgasm is part of opening one's heart.

    Moralists may say orgasm is a by-product of heart's opening, a secondary reward. Opening itself is more important than the orgasmic element. Opening for its own sake is reward enough. Ethical opening, circumcision of the heart. The sacrifice that counts is nor animal—but self-giving, opening to the Other, the poor, the widow, the lacking one. One opens to the lack in the Other. Justice and mercy are compassionate responses to lack.

    Orgasm can be misleading. Power orgasms, billionaire orgasms, getting rich orgasms. Idolatry orgasms. God orgasms. Ambition orgasms. Ecstasy for one is cruelty for another. What would if be like for a whole society to enjoy an analogue to simultaneous orgasm, no one left out? No one left out—such a strange, unnatural idea. No one left out—God message for our time.

* * *

    Have there ever been more rich people in the world than there are today? Are there more rich people in the United States today than there have ever been in the world at one time? Have the poor ever been better off? Is the ship rising? I put quarters and dollar bills into the hands of the poor on the street, rather than pennies, nickels, and dimes. They no longer say "thank you" for less.

* * *

    The ego is the id's first love object, and the ego is its own ideal. What an ama wonder Paul Federn picked up on these Freudian threads and saw the early ego as a cosmic I, boundless. Streams of erotic energy feeding I-feeling. I-feeling feeling ideal. Is everything a comedown after this? The radiant I, pulsating, sun-like, ecstatic in its own existence. Freud tells us the early I's boundaries are coextensive with all that is. One = All.

    One is not surprised to learn that primal, ecstatic, boundless I is on a collision course with the facts of life. Boundless I-feeling contracts in the face of pain. A smaller I forms to negotiate limits. Cosmic I and practical I: what will these twins do together throughout a lifetime?

* * *

    So much emphasis on I. So much going on at once. Freud's work teems with so many currents: blending, warring, uniting, separating, mixing every which way. External World impinges on autistic self-states, on I or self as egg or a self-contained system of energy. The egg is cracked not simply by internal forces pushing out, but also by external impingements pressing in, externality itself, life outside the closed system. There is always life outside a closed system. How many crushing meteors does it take to realize the system isn't entirely closed, even if it isn't entirely open?

    How does I-feeling extend to encompass You-feeling?

    The I becomes aware of a gap between you and me because there is a gap between you and me. If one is hungry and lacks a breast, one can hallucinate a feed only so long. Sooner or later, one must admit a not-me component.

    One may come. At times, not fast enough. Time separates self-other. Once the nipple is in and the milk flows, a sense of wholeness comes back, oneness again, but not the same, not totally. Over time, one appreciates the return of the Other, the one who completes me, who fills me, who is part of me but not me.

    The sense of wholeness or completion now covers or includes a not, a lack. A moment ago not was here — no milk, no mother, no completer, no fulfiller. Now there is All again, yumminess, peacefulness, the Good. You are this All for me. You are It for me.

    I-radiance, You-radiance: competing-complementary radiances.

    I-ecstasies, You-ecstasies: rings or ripples within-outside each other.

* * *

    Everything gets turned upside down over time. In an ancient view, our unconscious is made up of occluded memories of God, the One, the All, and processes of descent. We tend to forget our origins. Our trek through the unconscious is a movement toward God.

    What we have forgotten is not sub but supra. The over-world, over-soul, the All-Soul. We tend to lose contact with the Higher, saturated by Lower. Filled with our ambition, passion, desire, survival care, weakness—God fades from view. The equipment God gave us to contact Him sinks into unconsciousness and is poorly used or misused.

    In an ancient scheme, God is mediated through intellect. There are levels of intellect belonging to God alone, or just below God and just above us, and various levels in us bearing enabling reasoning. Even so, God is not intellect, since the latter presupposes differentiation, even if knower-known are one.

    No need for God to think. God is beyond thinking, beyond differentiation and limitation. Yet intellect and reasoning provide something of a ladder to the Beyond.

    God's intellect, then, is something of a misnomer. But it is associated with a divine plan, providence, self-sufficiency, self-completion. We get a taste of God through our higher function, a meeting of minds. Yet our higher function is mostly unconscious. We make little use of it. We are more given to lower functions. Little by little, we may be able to animate our reason and begin the ascent. Our intellect may make contact with God's intellect, taste the universal plan, or, more accurately, get a glimpse of the reason the intellect below God plants in us, the reason or intellect our nature allows us to see and use.

    The recovery and exercise of Reason jumpstarts the process but does not take us all the way. In the end, what can be known cannot be God, since God, being One, is beyond knowing, which involves duality. It is, finally, a certain ecstasy that brings us to God. We do not know how this happens. We feel our way into it and use suggestive words like "sinking" into God, "merging" being "filled" with God—filled with God, rather than saturated with forgetting. In such moments we forget world, life, lesser passions, ambitions. In such moments there is only God. We turn the unconscious inside out and reach the Fathomless.

    But unconsciousness begins again, replete with passions and drives and lost worlds, higher-lower.

* * *

    How do we get to God through Ecstasy?

    "Cut away everything," says Plotinus.

* * *

    By cutting away everything, Plotinus continues, we discover we are not cut off: "We have not been cut away; we are not separate." We sing our lives, "a choral song full of God."

    Plotinus tells us God is ever unchanging rest, repose, and that we rest in God. Rest in peace, we say. Freud associated Nirvana with death.

    To us restless ones, ever cutting ourselves away—Rest?

    Are "cutters" who cut bodies instead of souls on the wrong track? Their blades want something that can't be touched by metal. Do they feel something ineffable for a moment when they see blood? The soul is in the blood? Or perhaps they angrily insist body is a gateway to ecstasy, the bloody body. No body, no ecstasy.

    Cutters are very stubborn. They stick their body in your face to show you it is real. No leaving it behind, as Plotinus does. They cut themselves to remember body, as Plotinus cuts self to remember God. They show you their bloody shame, marks you can't forget. They show you their bloody dread. They cut themselves to prove they are not bloodless, to prove God is not bloodless. They have gone through bloodcurdling experiences, but their blood is still warm. Must we shed blood to prove we are not bloodless, to make life warm?

  &n warm and flowing again.

    We cut ourselves and each other to gain a moment's peace. We cut away everything to reach a God point. God of Rest, God of Fire. Between-beyond Plotinus-Pascal. Bloody gods, bloody bodies.

* * *

    Plotinus centers thought around a very real core. We can find the point of rest, the Sabbath point of the soul. We can live in God—all good, "soul's peace, outside of evil, refuge taken in the one place clean of wrong."

    We do this through our higher soul, a higher principle. Then cut that away too. Not only vices, but also virtues fall away. Naked soul to naked soul. Until soul, too, is superfluous.

    We can bring the point of rest into daily cares. It can make lives better.

    Too often, trying to bring the point of rest into our lives ignites rages. How many meditators and prayers I've worked with who are ragers! God help those who break into stillness, who disturb peace! Once having tasted peace at the center of being, we find that loved ones are disturbances. Irritants magnify. Kids, mate, co-workers—the contrast between God's peace and actual people seems unbridgeable. Too often, hunger for peace increases violence.

    The forming images at the heart of religions are violent. There is a violent core of imagery in the Prince of Peace. Jesus comes with a spiritual sword and is killed in body. Peace in heaven perhaps, not on earth. On earth, agony. The dying-rising God-man: let life be where death is. Freud's hallucinatory element: let triumph substi for emptiness, good for evil, peace for pain.

    Moses' law links with God's rage, wipes out many. People betray the law, lack faith. They cannot bear the yoke. They lack equipment, ability, will, desire. Still, something in them does have faith, a remnant, a mustard seed. There is desire for God, law, grace, humanity. God is in the melted calf, the anguished bull.

* * *

    There are aspects of Plotinus's thought with fascist possibilities. If there is love for the Higher, what happens to the Lower? Love for the Beautiful, what of the Ugly? Love of the Healthy, what of the Ill?

    The message of the Prophets has another ring. It moves toward the left out (the "left"), the squashed, the victims, the injured, the weak, the ill, the traumatized.

    The ultimate Platonic vision is love of the Good—Vision of the Good. Prophetic goodness includes the excluded, the powerless. Envision Plotinus, like Muhammad Ali, hugging an emaciated, puss-oozing child. Can the God of Repose hug a child abused by life? Prophetic goodness sticks bodies in your face, bloody bodies. Prophetic goodness sticks aloneness, death, suffering in your face. Prophetic goodness puts joy in your heart, surrounded by bitterness.

    The outcome ought to be compassion. Yet righteous rage abounds. Rage—a loose wire—who knows at who it aims next? Cupid's arrows smite with love. There ought to be a similar image for rage.

* * *

    Have I done Plotinus an ugliness. A beautiful body can house an ugly soul, an ugly body a beautiful soul. He means intellectual beauty, beauty of mind. The intellect, gateway to God, mediates beauty.

    Intellect = higher. Sensations, feelings, imaginings = lower. Above-below. Ruling-ruled. The hierarchy easily translates into terms not meant by Plotinus. Those who have-those who have not. Best-worst. Educated-uneducated. Famous-unknown. Celebrated-celebrators. Rich-poor. Successful-unsuccessful.

    The Song of Songs tells us God is found in sex. We didn't need the Song of Songs to tell us that. But it does so beautifully.

    The Prophets tell us God is found in opening our hearts to the poor, the needy, the underside, the lower. Not only opening, actually aiding, doing, lending helping hands. The graceless term "handout" carries the cynical prejudice of the higher, contempt from on high.

    Never lose Plotinus's ecstasy of rest, intellectual ecstasy. Plotinus adds to human possibilities. Why take away from them? Why subtract in order to add?

    One can find God in the heart-mind connection, in the heart-hand connection, in the heart-genital connection. We search for the human. Why so much denigration?

* * *

    Psychoanalysis is a voice for the excluded. It investigates what's left out of the "official" self. Dream-work. Passions. Contradictions, paradoxes, ironies, conflicts.

    Psychoanalysis persecutes God for leaving out too much. Psychoanalysis sniffs the ass of higher philosophy. falling. Dialectical idealism to dialectical materialism. Freud is a psychical materialist with Platonic dements, a sort of materialistic Platonist. The age of incessant recombinations has begun, the age that creates new elements. Everything mates with everything else. Get used to strange births.

    Modernity begins with constructionism. Hobbes tells us the mind knows only what the mind creates. Kant brings out limits of reason against the background of unknowable reality. Whatever we know is mediated by psychophysical apparatuses and operating systems, mind/ brain. We learn what we can about our filtering systems, ways we are given to ourselves.

    Beyond structure, what about energy? What if psychical systems work with a closed, constant amount of energy? What if the energy is basically sexual? What if sexual energy is envisioned as fluid-electrical, taking endless forms, ceaseless condensations-displacements? What if energy creates structure, and the latter channels and reshapes energy? What about rage—death drive mined outward, or part of life drive, allied with sex? Rage—part of life force, a baby's scream, voice of pain, explosive life?

    Platonic white-black horses and charioteer. Id-ego-superego: lower-middle-higher, moving bottom up, bottom repressed-rerouted. Sex everywhere, including God. Sex-rage everywhere, especially God, magnified I, magnified psyche blown up under a microscope. A sexual-raging God everywhere, it-I-superI.

    Ancient trinities reworked, holy taken out of them. Reason still there, but not the reason that leads to God. Practical, social, scientific reason—reasoning about conditions of life and psyche and society and matter. An evolutionary reason, evolutionary I. The Golden Mean is there—compromise, balance, working with conflictual tensions. Biblical outrage over hypocrisy is there, coupled with wry observation. What one presents to the world and oneself is a mostly unconscious compromise made up of complex forces, divisions, splits, linkages, possibilities. We used to think we knew something when we saw passions nesting in ideals or saw reason as a whore of power. Now reason itself is an amalgam of elusive processes we know little about.

    Cultural traditions do headstands, collapse, become ingredients in shifting collages. "Crises" is an apt term to describe the delirium we call our lives. Some ancients compared life to a dream. We feel dream-work plays a role in structuring life as we know it.

    An eye is glued to what is left out. Is this new eye an old eye we notice more, an eye that has grown? An eye on what is left out of the ecstasy of the moment. We are critical of ecstasy because of its exclusions.

    Often our eye for what is left out makes us trivial. We bicker with each other over what we don't say. We fight with each other for coming from someplace else. An unconscious feel for sameness reacts against difference. The Other becomes an enemy because of what he or she doesn't include. The Other excludes our sense of sameness. The Other excludes us. One fights to be included but needs to feel excluded (and vice versa).

    One needs an enemy, enemy as friend. An enemy provides some illusion of psychic safety by defining danger for a time. Enemies fuel ecstasy. Orgies of hate, revenge, me against you, righteous top dog-bottom dog. The excluded enemy is the included core of warrior-victim ecstasies, bondage ecstasies, sadomasochistic ecstasies. We place the outside we fight against at the center of our rageful beings.

    Psychoanalysis says, "What's in this ecstasy?" Psychoanalytic ecstasy says, "I want to see," or maybe, "Let me see you."

    "Where are you?" God asks Adam. "Hiding," Adam says, preserving the illusion of being seen and known.


Excerpted from Ecstasy by Michael Eigen. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Eigen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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