There is a deep relationship between ecstatic states and ritual ordeal. They are often found as a consequence of one another: one seeks ecstasy through ordeal, and the taste of fresh ecstasy leads to desire for a new ordeal.
I once spent a summer camping high in the mountains. A man I met there said, “Sometimes it is good to experience difficulties. It helps us learn how to deal with difficult times.” Coming down to the plain after three months at 11,000 feet (3,600 m), I understood. After a summer in the wilderness at altitude, everything was easy and clear.
Similarly, it is good to seek out difficulty in other ways. A life dedicated to avoiding trouble sooner or later finds it in abundance. It is better to know the taste of difficulty by one’s own choice than to have it forced into one’s awareness.
Initiatory ordeal has been known for centuries. Tapasya in yoga and renunciation for meditation are considered essential. We define ecstasy as “intense feeling leading to self-transcendence. A high-energy experience, beyond pleasure and pain, that overwhelms the feeling of self.”
Notice we say ‘intense feeling’ rather than pleasure or pain. The sensations leading to ecstasy can be of any nature. Pleasurable and displeasurable sensations can be equally effective in helping the adept to attain ecstasy. The Buddha’s father attained enlightenment in the harem through pleasure; others attained through the pain of chronic or terminal illness, or ordeals.
Any strong sensation can be a springboard to ecstasy, if one masters the art of attaining it. Some have experienced illumination while jogging, others through tantric sex. Some experience ecstasy through listening or creating beautiful music; others through sadomasochistic ordeal.
Exactly how one approaches ecstasy depends on one’s taste. The sensations need to be intense, the concentration absolute. Mental interest and pleasure are necessary, but the physical sensations can be almost anything as long as they are intense.
A yogi may hold an asana until it becomes painful, and then continue until the pain is overcome. An athlete may practice a move, working through the pain until it becomes easy and automatic. A monk may sit in lotus posture until he can transcend the pain. A shaman may take a powerful entheogen to experience mind-bending hallucinations. A Maori tribesman man may dance until he collapses from exhaustion. A tantric yogi may practice sexual rituals, including the use of bondage to delay orgasm and prolong sexual pleasure.
All of these practitioners may experience flashes of insight, increased awareness, energy, relief from chronic existential suffering, and other effects from their practice. All of them experience ecstasy, in which the self or ego is overwhelmed by strong sensations, both physical and mental.
Are such extremes really necessary? Enlightenment is found in the middle, but how can we find the middle without exploring the extremes? We should know the extreme pleasure and pain of life. And whatever practice we do should also be done to an extreme, to gain its full effect.
One should do meditation retreats, from a weekend to six months or more. In all of them, the meditation practice should be the main activity, all others being minimized as far as possible. Success in meditation is mainly due to those intensive practices. The key is to maintain the practice until ordinary mental function is superseded and the mind become fully focused on the practice.