Ordinary Ecstasy

Currents and Futures

ORDINARY ECSTASY…One of the things that I love about Christopher Alexander’s book, “The Timeless Way of Building” is the pictures.  The images he selected, all black and white, illustrate perfectly the thing that he calls “the quality without a name”.

I first read the book over 25 years ago.  And now, I’m ready to give that quality a name.

“Ordinary Ecstasy”

This is a term that came to me when I was in Ladakh, watching a very ordinary peasant woman, Tsering Dolma, working in her fields. (Click on her link to learn more about her…)

We generally associate the term “ecstasy” with peak experiences – usually religious or sexual.  That would be a mistake.

What Christopher Alexander shows us in his images, and what many of us can experience in our daily lives, are examples of ecstasy in the everyday, the commonplace.

Sufis in spiritual ecstasy

Ordinary ecstasy is not limited to these examples.  It happens in ongoing situations and circumstances, also.

I think back to the lines of women selling vegetables on the main streets, in the Ladakhi towns of Leh and Diskit.  The tourists take their pictures, because they encompass the “quality without a name”, a timeless, non-self-referent quality…

SONY DSCOrdinary ecstasy happens when we cease our preoccupations with ourselves, with things, with money.  When we FLOW.  When time is suspended and the Eternal is touched.

Ordinary ecstasy happens when we become One with a purpose greater than our own.  That purpose may be exalted or very, very everyday.

When ordinary ecstasy happens, SOMETHING gets triggered.  Something that we don’t have a lot of words for, something that, once we have it, we know we want it AGAIN.

This is the very thing that was kept religions going for ages.  All religions have correctly said that they are a window into a larger Reality.  This is true.  The trouble starts when they claim that to be the ONLY window, or when they make negative inferences about OTHERS windows.

It is the promise of ecstasy, the promise of an experience of transcendence, that keeps religions going, even when the adherents no longer adhere to the tenets of their faith.

People NEED to be in touch with the Transcendent.  It is as important as food, or dreaming, or bonding…

What happens when we DON’T have the experience of Transcendence?  We commit suicide – in greater and greater numbers.  Or, we try to sublimate the need for Transcendence via other experiences, like “extreme” sports and risky social activities.

If we call ecstatic/group/collective experience within a religious context “extraordinary ecstasy” or Transcendent ecstasy” what about “ordinary ecstasy”? 

At the Changi Airport in Singapore, there is an orchid garden, with two full-time orchid gardeners.  They have only one job – to tend to the orchids, to make the orchids happy and beautiful.

When I have time, I meditate in the orchid garden.  I don’t meditate on the flowers. I meditate on the TENDERS.  I look at their faces – the absolute focus they bring to each cut, each prune.  For them, the thousands of travelers simply disappear.  I disappear.  Even the flowers disappear.  The only thing that exists for them is this one ecstatic moment.

And… its their job.  They do it every day.  Its ordinary.

I can tell you about dozens, perhaps hundreds of such moments.

  • The young man in a trance like state, flipping pizzas in a Chicago restaurant window, with dozens of people outside, watching, wondering why the moment was so beautiful.
  • Tsering Dolma, watching the water flowing through her fields of barley, gently changing the course of the flow, when the time is just right.
  • The young woman, standing in an empty pool at Breitenbush Hot Springs, wielding a huge brush, scrubbing algae off the rocks.

And, I can give you many, many more stories, of the opposite of ecstasy, the opposite of the ecstatic moment:

Consider the super hassled video store employee, who, no matter how busy, tired, irritated or overworked, says to each person who enters, “Hello, welcome to Blockbuster.”  He doesn’t do this because he cares, nor because he gives a rip about whether you shop there – he only does it because some person in a corporate office created a mandate to “greet every customer”.  His greeting is dead, and every time he says it, it sucks a little bit of the life out of him.

The most common antonym to “ecstasy” is “misery”.  The video store employee was a miserable person, working in a miserable job…

Many of us understand ordinary ecstasy – when it happens on the individual level – orchid tenders and pizza throwers.  People have shared with me stories about working in their garden, or watching a child play, or simply watching the flight of a butterfly. Moments of ordinary ecstasy..

True.  However, the ecstatic moments I am referring to are BIGGER than the individual, the Solon.  What about ordinary ecstasy in the whole, the aggregate?  What about ordinary ecstasy as a Holon?  How does that work – outside of the religious context?

It does work – and quite by accident, most of the time.

When I lived in Charlotte, NC, I was one of the hundreds attending the outdoor movies on the Art Museum lawn.  Once, when the operator was changing reels, a huge meteor streaked across the sky.  The hundreds of us, all at once, said, “Oooh!”  And then fell silent.

It wasn’t just the beauty of seeing the meteor… it was all of us, having a shared experience of that beauty.  A moment of ecstasy.

So, what are the elements of building a large-scale ecstatic moment?  Here are a few:

  1. A large number of people
  2. an intention(? Not necessary in the case of the meteor.)
  3. A vision or image of the transcendence (?)
  4. An activity that lessens or de-emphasizes the rational mind and strengthens and acknowledges the group/collective/holonic mind.
  5. The absence of a personality upon which to fixate.
  6. Allegiance or perception beyond the individual (self or others).
  7. Persistence… an event that happens over time, on a regular basis.

Let me know if you think of others…




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5 Responses to Ordinary Ecstasy

  1. Anne Sanders says:

    I feel these moments often, during ordinary moments maybe, yet each brings such immense joy/ecstasy like each time young birds leave their nests for the first time. When birds splash around in their bath.
    When watching someone on stage singing and the whole audience joins in, what a feeling and compliment to the singer.
    When you walk into a wood in springtime to be met by a carpet of bluebells with their gentle scent and little heads nodding in the breeze, does it for me every time.

    What an interesting article. Haven’t read so much sense on the subject ever. Brilliant!

  2. Edwin Holloway says:

    It’s so pleasing to read you words on something that’s implicit in our everyday consciousness. The contrast with, well, drudgery strengthens our ability to recognize– the Transcendent Consciousness within all of us. Edwin, hS

  3. Jonathan says:

    Nice article, this…

    Something does come to mind in terms of ecstatic moments I’ve participated in; often it happens when music is shared in the right context. Some years back, for example, at the Oregon Country Fair, my wife and I went to a song set by an amazing trio of women called Rebecca Riots. Not only did the two of us weep though the whole thing, pretty much everyone in my range of vision did, too.

    This is by no means a unique experience- it’s happened with some regularity within my ken. Life being a cosmic balancing act, I find great comfort in the notion that all of the darkness and ignorance so prominently displayed in the world must have it’s equivalent of wisdom and light. These latter elements do not, by their nature, stand up and ask for attention, and so are less apparent to the casual observer. If I look, though, it really is obvious that ecstasy is, indeed, extraordinarily ordinary.

    Keep doing the good work…

    ~ jonathan

  4. held in a moment of blissful beingness

  5. Chuck Willis says:

    A sense of inner stillness and quiet in the moment.

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