“God is a DJ, life is a dance floor, love is the rhythm, and you are the music.” — Pink, “God is a DJ” Try This (2003)
My first experience with ecstasy was on the dance floor, under the pulsating lights. No, I’m not talking about the infamous club drug of the same name, I’m talking about ecstasy in terms of spiritual experience, its original meaning: ex stasis, to be outside of one’s self, in that eternal moment where time seems to stand still, the mind is quiet, and separation seems to dissolve.
I’m likely not alone in the experience, either, as one of the first ways I heard the ecstatic experience explained to a group of gay men was: “It’s like when you’re dancing and you really get into it…” with various nods of understanding from the audience.
Of course, this experience is not even limited to the queer community: in the book Trance Formation, author and researcher Robin Sylvan looks at the global rave culture and finds numerous examples of experiences we might call “ecstatic” or “shamanistic,” such as feelings of ego dissolution, oneness with everything, distortions in time, spiritual presences, or unexplainable joy and feelings of wholeness or intense meaningfulness. No surprise, really, since dancing to exhaustion following a driving beat in flickering half-light is one of the oldest ecstatic techniques known to humanity. Why, particularly, is it a queer mystery?
Perhaps because of the long association of nightclubs and dance with queer culture. One of the nicknames of the gay dance club is “gay church.” Ecstasy on the dance floor has for some time been the most accessible and affirming form of the practice available to the queer community. Additionally, there is a freeing quality to ecstatic practices that appeals strongly to oppressed or marginalized peoples. The hit song “Let It Go” from the Disney film Frozen is seen by many as an anthem of the kind of oppression queer people (as well as women and other marginalized groups) feel, and the exaltation of being free to express one’s true self. Other dance anthems, from “Born This Way” to “I Will Survive,” express a similar sentiment: there is joy to be found in letting it all go, dancing like nobody is watching (or like everybody is) and being fully, freely, who you really are.
This freedom is the first step to the even greater ecstasy of letting go of even who you “really” are, releasing all preconceptions of self to simply be in the eternal moment where the dichotomy between self and other seems to fall away and the question “who am I?” gives way to the experience of “I AM,” perhaps in the divine sense of “I am that I am,” as the burning bush spoke to Moses.
It’s one thing to unintentionally dance yourself into ecstasy and another to seek that experience within a sacred context. Indeed, sometimes the initial unexpected experience leads to seeking, trying to understand the process and deliberately recreate it, as it did for me. Dancing to driving drumbeats around a sacred bonfire under the stars has proven just as effective as “the most magical gay nightclub in the world” (as the mid-festival celebration of the Between the Worlds queer pagan men’s festival has been called). Indeed, I’ve experienced both modes in the course of the same night.
The process of seeking ecstasy follows on the Mystery of Emergence from Ostara: Having had the strength to step out into the light and claim identity, the seeker now moves closer towards union with that light, shedding and leaving even that hard-won identity behind as part of the journey. It takes the same strength, the same daring, and also a paradoxical willingness to surrender, to stop fighting, and allow things to unfold of their own accord. One of our greatest barriers to ecstatic union is literally our-selves, the conscious parts of our identity that question, nag, or even fear the experience.
Of course, just as letting go of our-selves is vital to achieve ecstasy, so is letting go of the experience itself. Although the moment can seem timeless, we exist in time and so, therefore, it cannot last. We return from the ecstatic experience, a re-enactment of the divine Fall into space, time, and material existence, which may be gentle or harsh, not unlike our first transition from the ecstatic union of the womb to birth and independent existence. In the journey of the Tarot, we have ecstatically cast off the chains of the Devil, recognizing the illusions that imprison us, and experienced the fall of the Tower, plummeting from the heights of our experience. Ideally, we emerge from that into the Star: new hope, new potential, a new balance between elements of the self, a new openness to grow, change, and progress.
As Christopher Penczak outlines in his book The Gates of Witchcraft, ecstasy has a “dark side,” that of addiction. Sometimes the way people look to “let go” is through chemical means, whether it is an excess of alcohol, marijuana, or ecstasy (the drug) or even harder drugs like cocaine or crystal meth. Sacred use of intoxicants has a long history in the quest for ecstasy, but their use, and abuse, in a party culture is generally anything but sacred (although there are exceptions, as Sylvan’s Trance Formation points out). These substances are how some of the queer community try to achieve or enhance the ecstatic experience, or prolong it, so they never have to let go of that incredible, transformative feeling of oneness.
The power of ecstasy is not in remaining in that timeless, transcendent moment. If you could do so, and never return, how would that be any different from death? For all we know, death is another ecstatic transformation that moves us on, either to change and progress beyond this world or to exist in that timelessness and oneness forever (or both, but that paradox is another topic of discussion). Those who seek merely the ecstasy, and not the ways in which it can transform them upon their return, are chasing the end of their existence, whether they know it or not; an endless string of “ecstatic experiences” with no real growth or development afterwards is a sure sign of a spiritual thrill-seeker who has confused the experience with its purpose.
The power of ecstasy is that of creative destruction: It is the psychic blast that reveals the ego as nothing more than a sometimes useful illusion. It is the shamanic initiation of being torn apart, so the spirits can rebuild you more able to work with them. It is the paradox of letting go of everything you have, everything you think of as yourself, in order to make the leap across the Abyss and find your Higher Self waiting for you on the other side, because you are the one you have been waiting for.
Ecstasy is our birthright as spirits-made-flesh, living in space and time, to touch the timeless, eternal source. It is particularly the undeniable birthright of all people who have been maligned, marginalized, persecuted, or mistreated, because it is an experience that shows all those things for the wrongs that they are and reminds us of the sacred maxim we recite in the Temple: “There is no part of me that is not of the gods.”
Steve Kenson is a Temple founder and Gemini lead minister, making the Queer Mysteries a part of his ministry work. See his Ministerial Profile for more information. He is teaching and facilitating ritual at the Coph Nia festival for Men Who Love Men at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, PA, August 6–10.