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Ecstasy: The Path of Joy

Tiffani performs Tests of Freedom in the California desert. Photo by Jozane Resende

Ecstasy. A skull cup full of nectar dropping into the open mouth of the standing red dakini, who laughs in ecstasy. She intakes, she dances, she transcends. When we open our minds and spirits, we open our mouths to taste the drops of ecstasy. Removing all barriers between spirit and body, one melts in non-duality. There can be no description as words can only go so far. So why do we, as society, hold our mouths and hearts closed to ecstasy? Do we understand what ecstasy is? What do the gods say about it?

It is the great tragedy of contemporary western society that we have virtually lost the ability to experience the transformative power of ecstasy and joy. This loss affects every aspects of our lives. We seek ecstasy everywhere, and for a moment we think we have found it. But, on a very deep level, we remain unfulfilled.

So Robert A. Johnson describes in his book Ecstasy, going on to say:

Our materialist society teaches us that the only reality is the one we can hold onto, the only thing of value what we can “take to the bank.” Our spirits need nourishment as much as ever. But, having excluded the inner experience of divine ecstasy from our lives, we can look only for its physical equivalent. And no matter how hard we look, or how many low-grade ecstatic experiences we accumulate, we crave more.

Tiffani perfoms Tests of Freedom in the California desert. Photo by Jozane Resende

Unfortunately, we see ourselves guided by this wild desire to experience ecstasy, but without opening the mouth of the spirit, and this has led to our whole society engaging in addictive behaviors. We want to transcend thought, concepts, and traumas; we long to be transformed by joy, but we are looking in the wrong direction, tricked by our own distorted understanding of happiness. We want joy without loss, we want applauses without effort, gurus without a pilgrimage, success without work, freedom without surrender, and love without loving. This reminds me of the hungry ghost realm expressed in one of the best known Buddhist images, the Wheel of Life. Hungry ghosts are depicted with huge bellies and mouths as tiny as the head of a needle, nothing can enter, yet they are always so hungry. Everything that they attempt to eat burns their mouths yet they never stop trying. This is addictive behavior. Full but without satisfaction, the hungry ghosts actually burn their bodies with the substances they intake. The joy we experience lasts no longer than the object itself.

Tibetan Buddhism has been sharing this teaching for more than a thousand years. They thought about the hungry ghost realm and also the realm of deities, who live a life of endless comforts that lead away from pristine awareness. The kind of comfort that puts one to sleep. If we have the opportunity to choose to know more about ourselves, to find meaning, to question our impulses and our desires, and to be good observers of all karmic unfolding, we can use our minds as a laboratory: we can understand better what we are looking for and what we truly need. Sometimes what we need is not what we want. Yet with awareness and discipline, we can build a road out of cyclic suffering until our actions are effortless and of real benefit to more than only ourselves.

Vajrayogini. Image courtesy of the author

Tibetan thangkas depict many deities who come to remind us of these truths. Vajrayogini is one such powerful deity, although her image can be shocking for some. Her skin is vivid red and she is naked aside from a garland of human skulls. She drinks blood from a skull cup and wields a sharp curved-bladed knife. Her mouth is open, she laughs and roars. She is sensual but terrifying. Her image shakes the viewer’s primal emotions—desire and aversion—simultaneously. But this is only on the first encounter. Later we learn that her nakedness reminds us to not conceal anything; so that we are able to truly look into the reality of who we are without illusions, without adding judgments such as “this I like about myself and this I don’t—I will not consider it, I will hide, I’ll ignore it, and I’ll cover it. I feel ashamed of certain parts of me, so I will not look at them.” By doing so we are lying to ourselves and lack the capacity to see the wholeness of who we are. That is why she is naked. She wears bones because what we eventually come to realize as truth is impermanent yet eternal. Eternal like the seasons that begin and end each year, but through this constant cycle of death and rebirth they are eternal in the sense of constantly changing. When one part of us feels like dying, it automatically gives space for the new to be born. This is why the fear of death comes from our delusion of an end. Vajrayogini reminds us of this. We should look at our vibrant existence as naked truth, truly and sincerely. 

Yet awareness of the nature of our existence is not about bringing everything to the light of the intellect; this doesn’t bring transformation by the truth. The intellect is merely a language that can only carry us so far. The image of Vajrayogini emphasizes the importance of becoming what you know and dissolving all in bliss. Experiencing and transcending through direct experience. 

We can access Vajrayogini like approaching an archetype. In the old days, people believed in gods and made offerings to them based on devotion. Ceremonies and rites in which they expressed meaning through action, transforming mind and body by the power of the spirit. They allowed the mystical opening between the layers of who we are: body, mind, and soul. In our more scientific society, gods and deities have been relegated to legend, but as Carl Jung once stated: 

We do not believe in the reality of Olympus, so the ancient Greek gods lives in us today as symptoms. We no longer have the thunderbolts of Zeus, we have headaches. We no longer have the arrows of Eros, we have angina pains. We no longer have the divine ecstasy of Dionysus, we have addictive behavior. Even though we no longer recognize the gods, we experience their powerful forces.

Dionysus and Psyche. Image courtesy of the author

Jung called the forces behind these symptoms archetypes, a kind of basic blueprint or structure of all our humane behavior. These patterns are inside all of us. 

Deity or yidam practice in tantric Buddhism offers an interesting and effective way to relate with the unconscious. Unlocking meaning like an open perfume bottle spreading its scent—the nectar that will transform our capacities for wholeness and true ecstasy. This is not related to things, objects, crude sensations, drugs, or sex, but through the bliss of truly and deeply knowing who we are: unlimited, undying, not separated, not split, not rejected; an eternal and vivid life force flowing and changing shape like an aurora borealis dancing in the sky. Once we experience that ecstasy, we are transformed. All objects that we look to as a source of joy and pleasure are revealed as empty, yet also not separate from our being. There will be nothing to obtain and nothing to be rid of—all concepts are beyond words. In the attempt to describe Vajrayogini, many texts say she is indescribable, unthinkable, unborn, intangible, unreachable, incomprehensible, unrecognizable, unlimited.

Returning to the comparison with the gods of Olympus, I came across a description of a Dionysian rite in which they sacrificed a goat and cooked it in its mother’s milk. They (especially women) then danced around the offering in a trance. The attempt was to bring the goat, representing Dionysus, the god of bliss and wine, back to his origins, the milk of its creator. And by eating it, they directly experienced and returned to the source of ecstasy. Today, we have lost almost all types of sacred rites. Although I don’t think we need to kill any goats to experience this bliss, I feel that we have lost a so much by limiting our world to the intellectual. When it comes to using our spiritual muscles, or even emotional muscles, we are weak, fearful, and defensive. We hurt each other with our lack of awareness and our misunderstanding of our true nature, completely blind to our potential and capacity. We miss so much by hiding and by not trusting our capacity to become bliss with all what we label as our faults. We are inseparable from the red, naked, dancing body of Vajrayogini; the ecstasy of Dionysus; the blood of Christ drunk as wine in churches. Theses archetypes I mention all direct us to look nakedly at ourselves; to return to the source, unlocking any sense of separation, and recognizing that we are pure manifestations of bliss. We don’t have to look anywhere else: analyze, be aware, and surrender all to become it.

Tiffani in front of a statue of Vajrayogini at the Rubin Museu.
Photo by Kilian Ganli

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Tiffani Gyatso

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