Mircea Eliade: on inner ecstatic experience

Sioux Chief Black Hawk c.1880-1881 . US public domain.
“Dream or vision of himself changed to a destroyer and riding a buffalo eagle” by Sioux Chief Black Hawk c.1880-1881 . US public domain via wikimedia

Eliade’s (1950) research found that Visionary states appear as a cross-cultural manifestation in shamans (Eliade, 1950). What differentiates the shaman from other individuals in the tribe “is his ecstatic experience” (p.107).  The shamanic vision is an “inner, ecstatic experience” (Eliade, p.65).  The vision transforms the profane individual into a “technician of the sacred” (p. 33).

The vision is a spontaneous experience loaded with universally found symbolism. Eliade found that the most common shamanic experience is “the passage from one cosmic region to another” (p. 259). The vision gives the individual mastery of “break-through in plane” (p. 259). ‘Break-through in plane’ is an experience of moving between the world of the living and the world of spirit. This is most often symbolized as moving from earth to sky and from earth to the underworld.

Update (12-15-1016):

It has been five years since I write this post and all of a sudden a wonderful comment emerged… A reader by the name of Caroline (see below) has suggested a look at the chapter on the ‘Myth of Ecstasy’ in ‘Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit‘.

I briefly looked over the suggested chapter (via Google books). Whitley relates the word ‘ecstasy’ to religious experiences of ‘enlightenment’, ‘heightened consciousness’, ‘unity with the universe’ (p.189). Whitley feels that Eliade’s use of the word ‘ecstasy’ was too impressionistic and misleading, especially when the word ecstasy is used in relation to experiences of ‘terror’ and ‘anguish’ (p.188).

Whitley has offered a good insight. I agree that these dark fantasies are of a different nature than enlightenment and mystic experiences. The word ‘ecstasy’ should be reserved for unitive states and higher consciousness. This important insight adds some clarification to the muddled field of religious experience.

I will add that in the early part of the 20th Century researchers were under the obscuring vale of a scientific materialism, and unable to correctly perceive the true nature of spiritual experience. I am thankful to anyone who is able to clarify the use of misleading words and misguided understandings. This is the work of our era.

For further clarification, I would add that (as a general statement) ‘the shaman’ may be capable of both higher mystic experience as well as the more dark experiences which Whitley speaks of. Enlightenment experiences occur spontaneously within human beings, across cultures and throughout time.  Maybe Whitley said this, I did not read the whole book. Nonetheless, it deserves representing: ecstatic experiences emerge spontaneously across cultures and are associated with light, clarity, peace, integration, love, joy, bliss.

The Upanishads offer some insight on the two poles of religious experience (the light and the dark). Joy and bliss (called ananda) are the result of participation in unitive experience with Ultimate Reality (called Brahman). These experiences emerge spontaneously in mediation and contemplation. The fantasies that are more dark in nature are mere ‘illusion’. The Upanishads teach that such ‘illusions’ are related to asura, meaning the realm of the demons and are images of ‘spiritual ignorance’.

It is important to remember that from a Jungian perspective, the descent into darkness may serve to integrate the shadow elements. In other words, knowledge of the shadow may clarify our spiritual ignorance allowing from further growth and development. In this way, even the shadow may be in service of the ascent to higher consciousness.

In my understanding (and I wrote a dissertation on this subject) the work of the shaman was to heal. In many ways the shaman was more like a psychoanalyst than a spiritual teacher. The shaman was willing to enter into the dark illusion that occur somewhere between self and other, and to heal in that space. In my own experience with a shaman, the aim was not enlightenment. The aim was to enter into the ‘illusion’ and to heal them from within. Again in my own experience, it can be quite healing to have another skilled person enter into these dark fantasies as shared experience, to say “these demons can no longer hurt you.” Carl Jung might say the same thing. The demons are mere illusion, shadowy figures of psychic life. They can only harm us if they are unconscious, if we do not perceive them. If a shaman or a therapist is able to make them conscious then we are freed from their shadowy embrace. As the Upanishads say demons are illusion, they by nature are not real. How can an illusion hurt you, unless you believe it is real?

As we move toward enlightenment, the shadows are bound to rise up. Was Buddha not confronted by Mara, the demon?  For the enlightened individual these illusions naturally dissolve, allowing for the true state of awareness: ecstasy and joy as unity with the eternal truths of being.

Most of us are not enlightened. Sometimes we are overtaken by illusions, such is life. It can be quite helpful to have another skilled practitioner to work in this domain with us. In modern America, the skilled practitioner who works with illusions is the psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist. For the American Indian or Latin American it was and still is in many cases the shaman.


  1. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy– 1950
  2. Image from American Indians: Celebrating the Voices, Traditions & Wisdom of Native Americans, by the National Society for American Indian Elderly, Goldstreet Press, 2008, pg 202

2 thoughts on “Mircea Eliade: on inner ecstatic experience

  1. See chapter on “The Myth of Ecstasy” in David S Whitley’s CAVE PAINTINGS AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT: THE ORIGIN OF CREATIVITY AND BELIEF for a challenge to Eliade’s premise.

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