Ecstasis & Catharsis: The Makers of Meaning
The Ancient Greek terms that point the two ways to transformation
Philosophy is born of the marriage of two Greek words, philos- and sophia. Philos is one of Ancient Greek’s many words for love, while sophia is the Greek word for wisdom. And so at its root, philosophy was originally (and for some of us — perennially) about the love of wisdom. In his work Recapture the Rapture, Jamie Wheal identifies two strands of wisdom that pave the way to every living philosophy: ecstasis and catharsis.
The Greek term ecstasis (meaning “to stand outside oneself”) is the etymological mother of our English words ecstasy and ecstatic. Ecstasis (also spelt ekstasis) is a moment of insight; it is a moment of total immersion in being. Your inner critic goes quiet and you are dissolved in a state of awe and wonder when everything seems to click.
It can be fruitfully related to the Greek word kairos. There are two words for time in Greek: kairos and of course, our more familiar chronos from which we get chronology and chronicles. Chronos is about the measure of time by second, days and eras. But the great Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describes kairos as:
“kairos was deep time. It was when you have those moments where you say, “Oh my God, this is it. I get it.” Or, “This is as perfect as it can be.” Or, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Or, “This moment is summing up the last five years of my life” — things like that, where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect.”
Kairos isn’t measured in seconds or minutes but in moments. There is the mundane quotidian chronological time that we commonly live in and then there is kairos — a space in time where all becomes clearer, everything crystallises.
These kairos moments are moments of ecstasis. Another term that brings us closer to the meaning of ecstasis is the idea of “peak experience”. Peak is the correct word because from the vantage point of such experiences, all the world seems clearer. You have a higher perspective looking down on the vastness and the grand scale of things rather than getting lost in the thickets of mundanity as we do in everyday life.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the father of flow state research — has written that:
“There are moments that stand out from the chaos of everyday as shining beacons. In many ways, one might say that the whole effort of humankind through millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them a part of everyday existence”
We seek ecstasis because it is transformative. In our everyday lives we are busy climbing the ladder; in ecstasis we see that despite the great heights we’ve attained, the ladder is up against the wrong wall.
Seeing the whole gives the parts meaning, gives the everyday meaning. It sounds wonderful on paper but as Wasson has explained, it’s not an addictive experience by any means:
As your body lies there in its sleeping bag, your soul is free, loses all sense of time, alert as it never was before, living an eternity in a night, seeing infinity in a grain of sand. What you have seen and heard is cut as with a burin in your memory, never to be effaced. At last you know what the ineffable is, and what ecstasy means. Ecstasy ! […] In common parlance, among the many who have not experienced ecstasy, ecstasy is fun, and I am frequently asked why I do not reach for mushrooms every night. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe, or to float through that door yonder into the Divine Presence? The unknowing vulgar abuse the word, and we must recapture its full and terrifying sense…A few hours later, the next morning, you are fit to go to work. But how unimportant work seems to you, by comparison with the portentous happenings of that night!
This is ecstasis : it is Muhammad on the mountain being overwhelmed with revelations of splendour; it is Job humbled before God’s revelation speaking to him out of a whirlwind.
The origins of ecstasis are many from sexuality and psychedelics, to music, dance, meditation and breathwork. Many things can evoke the experience of ecstasis but the results are the same: the experience of that transcendence changes you. It changes your perspective on life. You can see further; you have seen from a higher vantage point and you cannot go back.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
— William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
If ecstasis is a going up, catharsis is a going down. It is not going to the mountain for higher perspective; it is a descent into the depths of Hell. Catharsis is the way of healing; it is the uncertain process of generating light in the deepest corner of the night.
Catharsis is an Ancient Greek word meaning “purification” or “cleansing”. It was Aristotle in his Poetics that first brought this term into the philosophical domain. For him it was about the power of art (speaking of tragedy in particular) to bring about a purification of our emotions.
What we experience with tragedy is the cleansing of our emotions through their expression. It’s not about becoming happy by watching a comedy; it’s about being cleansed by going on a journey into the heart of darkness — identifying with Oedipus as he uncovers the horrible truth of his life and with Orestes as he murders his own mother in revenge for her murder of his father.
In the sense that we are speaking of here, catharsis is not simple an artistic process but a living transformation. The archetypal pattern of catharsis is captured in Dante’s Divine Comedy and his journey into the depths of Hell — descending its many layers and levels and arriving at its ultimate depths passing every horror of torturous misery and suffering imaginable along the way.
And then, when he reaches the very bottom, Dante leaves Hell. He does not escape Hell by going backwards and taking a different route; this is what we believe when we are still in Hell — that Paradise is an alteration of the past.
Dante’s great revelation was that you don’t escape Hell by going back; at the end of the Inferno, Dante leaves Hell by climbing down the leg of the Devil himself.
Dante has descended to the very core of the earth, and, by climbing down/up this leg of Satan, he begins to rise out the other side and emerge into the dawn of Purgatory and finally the blinding light of Paradise.
The lesson of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the lesson of catharsis itself is that Paradise is not in the opposite direction to Hell but beyond Hell. It is only by going through Hell that we are transformed.
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
— W.B. Yeats, Easter 1916
In deep suffering there is no way back to the original Paradise — to Eden’s innocence. The curtain is rent, the vase is shattered. That pre-tragic Paradise is forever lost; the Paradise is only to be found in transcendence, in the post-tragic. That is what the myths of rebirth are all about from Jesus and Osiris to Dionysus and the Phoenix.
There’s one final story of catharsis that we’ll end on. It’s from the psychologist Viktor Frankl’s account of his time in the Nazi death camps Man’s Search For Meaning:
The story of the young woman whose death I witnessed in a concentration camp. It is a simple story. There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem. This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life.
Ecstasis and catharsis are the two paths to wisdom. It doesn’t take a death camp to reach catharsis any more than it takes psychedelics to reach ecstasis ; these things happen in the course of life, in the moments of insight that crystallise in us, from the breakthroughs and meaning we find in our darkest moments. The history of philosophy draws from both. Plato is perhaps the icon of ecstasis while Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are exemplars of catharsis. Both paths proclaim philosophy’s core etymological concern for loving wisdom.