PTSD Spirituality: Shaman’s Call: Ecstatic Experience and Feeling Alive

So far we’ve discussed the usefulness of ecstatic and ecstasy terminology to understand the visible body and invisible soul aspects of PTSD Spirituality.  We know that at times of high stress and trauma, people sometimes report watching the action happen as if they were literally beside themselves, or up above looking down on the happenings.  As if they are two people, one to whom things happened, and the other one who observed it to happen.

This model can also help us understand when people speak of feeling more “alive” in the midst of trauma, than they do back home where it is supposedly safe.

The Soul Watching the Body in Trauma: Is this a Flashback?

Watching yourself engaged in trauma at the exact time of the trauma itself is not a flashback.  These are not flashback experiences; they are descriptions of the real-time event, descriptions of what it was like when the trauma happened.  They can form the basis of later flashbacks or recurrent nightmares and persistent memories.  But at the time of event, some people experience them dualistically (body and soul).  That is, they have had an ecstatic experience.

People engaged in PTSD producing events often speak of feeling really “alive” at the time of the event itself.  Please note that this does not mean that they enjoyed being raped, shot, or watching other people be harmed (reality-TV viewers excluded).

But, the ecstatic nature of the traumatic event can bring both the physical and spiritual realities to the forefront.  The event is experienced in an ecstatic way (body and soul) and is thus experienced more fully than if it were just another daily dose of mundane physical life.

In the military context, whether one was in traditional combat or not, the necessity of hyper-alertness to stay alive, keep your troops alive, and to complete the mission, contributes to living and experiencing the present reality in an ecstatic way.  It also contributes to the problem that nearly all trauma survivors/participants share, that of being hyper-vigilant.  The hyper-alertness that kept us alive can be expressed as feeling “…more alive than I ever did back in the States…”  While probably not true in every case, this is an aspect of the ecstatic experience that goes with surviving trauma.

One Iraq veteran’s expression of how he never felt so alive can be found at the PTSD Combat Blog:

This sensation of being so alive is an experience that takes place both physically and spiritually.  And, frankly, not everyone is fully aware of the spiritual dimensions.  Not being able to sense it does not mean it is not there.  If I am color blind, it does not mean that color does not exist.

The hyper-alertness and sense of being truly and fully “alive” in the traumatic environment produces its own set of problems.  One the one hand, being hyper-alert keeps us alive in situations that would otherwise kill us.  Yet, when we return to so-called normal life after being overseas, or surviving an assault in the U.S., we find ourselves alternating between hyper-alertness and sensory deprivation through drugs, alcohol, and depression.  The PTSD afflicted person also seeks to create the sense of aliveness through thrill seeking and risky behavior.  It is always ersatz and saccharine, because it is ultimately not real.  [More on this topic will be discussed in the future section on the second part of PTSD Initiation as Shaman as we discuss illness and dismemberment and death…fun stuff, eh?!] 

Suffice that the aliveness many feel in trauma, even when they are the victim, is an ecstatic experience.  It engages their body and soul.  It has present and future continuing meaning.  All of this also can apply to moments of extreme joy as well as trauma.  Since most of us do not get PTSD from too much joy, I will dwell on the traumatic side.  Hey babe, take a walk on the traumatic side… (with apologies to Lou Reed).

[A discussion of enthusiasm, being infused with the divine or God, will be conducted in when we (eventually) get to the third stage of shamanic formation.]

Our next post will focus on the voluntary call to ecstatic experience as found in traditional shamanism.

 Semper Pax, Dr. Z


  1. […] I mentioned in an earlier post, living through trauma and surviving it can be an ecstatic experience. This does not mean I enjoyed […]

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