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Religious ecstasy is an altered state of consciousness characterized by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness which is frequently accompanied by visions and emotional/intuitive (and sometimes physical) euphoria. Although the experience is usually brief in physical time, there are records of such experiences lasting several days or even more, and of recurring experiences of ecstasy during one's lifetime. Subjective perception of time, space and/or self may strongly change or disappear during ecstasy.
The adjective "religious" means that the experience occurs in connection with religious activities or is interpreted in context of a religion. Religious ecstasy can be distinguished from spirit possession and hypnosis in that ecstasy is not accompanied by a loss of interior consciousness or will on the part of the subject experiencing it. Rather, the person experiencing ecstasy notices a dramatic heightening of awareness of the spiritual, and a total concentration of the will on it. If the ecstatic state comes about slowly, the subject may notice changes in his or her physiological responses. But, once brought into complete ecstasy, there is ordinarily no or very little external awareness of the physical state of the subject or the surroundings. Some external awareness remains in a partial religious ecstasy. Intense fear may accompany the initial stage of being drawn into ecstasy. Different religious teachings distinguish and describe several stages or forms of ecstasy.
Some religious people hold the view that true religious ecstasy occurs only in context of their religion (e.g. as a gift from the supernatural being whom they worship) and it cannot be induced by natural means (human activities). Nevertheless, trance-like states which are often interpreted as religious ecstasy can be deliberately induced using a variety of techniques, including prayer, religious rituals, meditation, breathing exercises, physical exercise, sex, music, dancing, sweating, fasting, thirsting, and the consumption of psychotropic drugs. Sometimes an ecstatic experience takes place in occasion of contact with something or somebody perceived as extremely beautiful or holy. It may also happen without any known reason. The particular technique that an individual uses to induce ecstasy is usually one that is associated with that individual's particular religious and cultural traditions. As a result, an ecstatic experience is usually interpreted within the context of a particular individual's religious and cultural traditions. These interpretations often include statements about contact with supernatural or spiritual beings, about receiving new information as a revelation, also religion-related explanations of subsequent change of values, attitudes and behaviour (e.g. in case of religious conversion).
Achieving ecstatic trances is a major activity of shamans, who use ecstasy for such purposes as traveling to heaven or the underworld, guiding or otherwise interacting with spirits, clairvoyance, and healing. Some shamans use drugs from such plants as peyote and cannabis (also see cannabis (drug)) or certain mushrooms in their attempts to reach ecstasy, while others rely on such non-chemical means as ritual, music, dance, ascetic practices, or visual designs as aids to mental discipline. The rituals followed by some athletes in preparing for contests are dismissed as superstition, but this is a device of sports psychologists to help them to attain an ecstasy-like state.
Kriya yoga, a type of yoga popularized in the West by Paramahansa Yogananda, provides techniques to attain a state of ecstasy called Samadhi. According to practitioners, there are various stages of ecstasy, the highest of which is called Nirvikalpa Samadhi.
In Buddhism, especially in the Pali Canon, there are 8 states of trance also called absorption. The first four of these states are called Rupa or materially oriented. The next four are called Arupa or non-material. These eight states are preliminary trances which lead up to final saturation which upon return to the phenomenal world manifests as enlightenment. It takes great effort and years of sustained meditation to reach even the first absorption, when the meditator characteristically notices the sustained lucidity of a non-material light enveloping him/her.
In the monotheistic tradition, ecstasy is usually associated with communion and oneness with God. Indeed, ecstasy is the primary vehicle for the type of prophetic visions and revelations found in the Bible. However, such experiences can also be personal mystical experiences with no significance to anyone but the person experiencing them.
Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam) has theoretical and metaphoric texts regarding ecstasy as a state of connection with Allah. Sufis practice rituals (dhikr,sema) using body movement and music to achieve the state.
Some charismatic christians practice ecstatic states (called e.g. "being slain in the Spirit") and interpret these as given by Holy Spirit.
In hagiography (writings on the subject of Christian saints) many instances are recorded in which saints are granted ecstasies. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, religious ecstasy (called supernatural ecstasy) includes two elements: one, interior and invisible, in which the mind rivets its attention on a religious subject, and another, corporeal and visible, in which the activity of the senses is suspended, reducing the effect of external sensations upon the subject and rendering him or her resistant to awakening.
- Marghanita Laski, "Ecstasy. A Study of some Secular and Religious Experiences." The Cresset Press, London, 1961. p.57
- Religious experience
- Altered state of consciousness
- Oneness (concept)
- Enlightenment (concept)
- Ecstasy (philosophy)
- Ecstasy (emotion)
Notable individuals or movements
- St. Teresa of Avila, Roman Catholic mystic, first entered states of ecstasy while studying religious texts when taken ill in a Carmelite cloister.
- St. Thomas Aquinas experienced an ecstasy during a church service towards the end of his life that caused him to stop writing.
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