Ecstasy, Dying, and Resurrecting in Dickinson’s Shamanic Worldview

The experience of the Divine is at the heart of spirituality and any effort to renew religion itself.  Mystics undergo such experiences and attempt to name them by various terms:  Julian of Norwich invented the word oneing; Meister Eckhart invented the word Breakthrough; Thomas Aquinas (and myself also) use the word ecstasy—as does the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.  Emily Dickinson follows suit. 

Says she:

“Tiny Forest Home” Photo by jarr1520 on Flickr.

Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,
And I am richer then than all my Fellow Men—
Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily
When at my very Door are those possessing more,
In abject poverty—

Just as Eckhart tells us that for the person who is awake breakthrough does not happen once a year or once a month or once a day but many times every day, so too does Dickinson tells us that: “I find ecstasy in living: the mere sense of living is joy enough.”*  And again,

Maurice Denis (1870-1943) “La Solitude du Christ.” Photo by JRP on Flickr.

To live is so startling
It leaves little time for anything else.

Compare Rabbi Heschel, “just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.”  Such an experience flows from an awareness of the sacredness of existence, the sacredness of life.

Emily also endures deep rupture and tasting of ashes, as so many shamans do.  She undergoes death as shamans do, “dismemberment journeys,” Herrmann calls them.  Ecstasy is the result, as Eliade puts it, “the shaman, and he/she alone, is the great master of ecstasy.”  Indeed, he equates shamanism with a 

technique of ecstasy…the shaman specialized in a trance during which his/her soul is believed to leave his/her body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.**

“Shamanic drumming Journey” Image by Karacan Salkuci on Flickr.

Emily speaks of this happening to her:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain…
And when they [the Mourners] all were seated
A Service, like a Drum–
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb—

Is she speaking of a shaman’s drum going on in her brain?  Or the war drums of the civil war that was going on in 1861 when she wrote the poem?  Or both?

Not only was there a funeral in her mind, but a “cleaving” as well.

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence raveled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.

The Crucifixion of St Julia is attributed to Hieronymus Bosch’s middle period, c. 1497. Wikimedia Commons.

She makes clear that Jesus is not the only one who underwent a crucifixion.

One Crucifixion is recorded—only—
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics—
Or History—
Our Lord—indeed—made Compound Witness—
And yet—
There’s newer—nearer Crucifixion
Than That– 

She unites the mingling of joy and grief, via positiva and via negativa. 

I can wade Grief—
Whole Pools of it—
I’m used to that—
But the last push of Joy
Breaks up my feet—

Following dying comes dancing and resurrection. 

*Cited in *Steven Herrmann, Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times, p. 14. 

**Cited in Ibid., pp. 14f.

Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, # 1640, 271, 937, 553, 252.

See Matthew Fox, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times;

See also Matthew Fox, Original Blessing.

Banner Image: Solo dancer, Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival. Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Do you find “ecstasy in living” like Emily did?  What follows from that?  What follows if we don’t?

The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times

A stunning spiritual handbook drawn from the substantive teachings of Aquinas’ mystical/prophetic genius, offering a sublime roadmap for spirituality and action.
Foreword by Ilia Delio.
“What a wonderful book!  Only Matt Fox could bring to life the wisdom and brilliance of Aquinas with so much creativity. The Tao of Thomas Aquinas is a masterpiece.”
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5 thoughts on “Ecstasy, Dying, and Resurrecting in Dickinson’s Shamanic Worldview”

  1. Avatar

    * Oneing = Breakthrough = Ecstasy*
    Jesus’ claim to be One with the Father and that Each and Every One could join their ‘Kingdom’ is
    supported by the underlying mathematics: 1 x 1 = 1 reflects Infinity whereas the linear 1 + 1 = 2 generates duality…..

    I think that Serendipity, the bridge between mind and matter, is a reminder of this dynamic. Those who experience it find that it feels good for the soul, a kind of real time Revelation.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Gwen, Thank you for your comment! You repeat “Oneing = Breakthrough = Ecstasy,” and I would say that each of these together are what most would want to experience. The question is however, “Are you willing to do the work.” I say this not of you, for I know you have done the work, but I say it of those who are not willing to do the work too get there…

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