The elixir of life
My doctoral dissertation is about enthusiasm, a very exciting and previously under-explored topic. As a mental health professional, I am interested in the bright side of the emotional spectrum as well as the dark side. I am interested in potentialities, empowerment, and in what can be, as much as in the challenges and roadblocks confronting my clients, my friends and myself. By delving into enthusiasm at one end of the spectrum of emotions, a great deal can be learned about its opposites (depression, anxiety, etc.) at the other end of the spectrum.
En-thusiasm means “in God” and the “eli” in elixir is an ancient word for God. Thus the title of my dissertation could be simply translated as “God: The God of Life.” In my re-search, I find that virtually every world religion, philosophy and psychology stresses the importance of “having something larger than oneself to identify with”. This larger energy is sometimes called “God”…and sometimes not. Most of these fields also stress the value of balancing this larger energy with one’s own image of one’s self.
A person’s level of enthusiasm is commensurate with their ability to fuse and balance their basic Self with the environment around them. When perfect balance is achieved, the Buddhists call this state “walking on the razor’s edge”, and the Sufis call it “the omega point”…where heaven and earth meet. For the ancient Greeks, this state was symbolized by their myths of Dionysus and Demeter… the fully actualized and enthusiastic male and female.
The ancient Greeks used wine in moderation and also the potion ergot (fermented barley or rye) to experience this state which they called “ekstasis” (now called ecstasy) which means “standing outside of oneself ” or no longer static but rather in an e-motive state. At the Temple of Eleusis near Athens many thousands of ancient pilgrims performed the sacred rituals called “The Mysteries of Eleusis”. The essence of these rituals was to experience being happy rather than “pursuing happiness”. The “pursuit” of happiness essentially kills any possibility of true happiness. Enthusiasm is in a state of presence…not in the future. Perhaps the profound explosion in the culture, architecture, arts, philosophy, etc. of ancient Greece was initiated and/or enhanced by celebrants from Eleusis???
Enthusiasm is not a trait that we are born with. It can be initiated or developed. If one has lost it through bereavement or through life’s challenges and traumas, it can be resurrected.
One of the pitfalls of enthusiasm occurs when it is transformed into a level of intensity that scares or hurts the receiver of the intensity. In the Dionysian myth, Semele, Dionysis’ earth mother asks Zeus, Dionysis’ god father, to show her his thunderbolt. Zeus warns her that she may not be able to withstand the intensity of his god-like enthusiasm. She refuses to heed his warning. She demands to see his thunderbolt. She is singed and turned to charcoal and goes down to hell. Dionysis symbolically goes down to Hades and works out a deal to save his mother with Persephone, the queen of Hades. The meaning of all this is that Dionysis cannot be whole or balance all of his emotions (earthly and heavenly) until he hones and fine tunes his intensity into a form of negotiated enthusiasm.
One technique that a highly enthusiastic person can use to prevent the scorching of his or her friends and family with excessive intensity is to apply the image of an “intensity meter”. This is similar in concept to a Geiger counter that is used to measure radioactivity. The enthusiastic person needs to negotiate their energy level with the other person in order to mitigate any abrasiveness, hurtfullness or insensitivity in the relationship or in any given moment.
Throughout history there have been periods of time and/or particular cultures in which enthusiasm has flourished. In addition to the ancient Greeks mentioned above, other examples include the Gnostics (from about 100 A.D. to 700 A.D.), the Alchemists (from about 100 A.D. to 1200 A.D.), the Troubadours (from about 700 A.D. to 1300 A.D.), the Sufis (from about 600 A.D. to the present) and the New Age movement of this present era. The commonality that seems to run through all of these cultures has been described as “the Golden Thread” which puts the emphasis on personal, sacred spiritual experience rather than on dogma and institutional regulation. The Church killed off and/or destroyed almost all of these cultures and replaced them by linear, hierarchical religious systems.
In 1973 Candice B. Pert and Solomon Snyder discovered endorphins. An endorphin’s main function is to inhibit pain or, conversely, to stimulate pleasure. When a person is very enthusiastic their endorphin level is very high and they can often experience elation and/or mystical experience, etc. The immune system can sometimes translate an emotion like enthusiasm into a state of well-being. The immune system is triggered by the endorphins to “rise to the occasion”.
Dr. Bernie Siegel, the author of “Love, Medicine and Miracles”, has coined the phrase “co-operative non-conformity” to describe the incredible type of enthusiasm exhibited by some exceptional “terminal” cancer patients. Many of these patients survive cancer because they can keep their enthusiasm running in tandem with their impending sense of doom and gloom. In a sense they are able to infuse their material world with their spiritual world.
Enthusiasm may well be the long searched for elixir of life. Perhaps this is what the famous poet, Walt Whitman, was referring to when, in response to someone’s observation that he seemed as though he was almost always joyous, he said, “I am perennially joyous.” He used the word “perennially” because he had learned to channel his continuous, invisible enthusiasm and to time it and to display it only when “the season” was right or when the situation was “ripe” for it. When in relationship with others, he had successfully learned how to factor dysfunctional intensity out of his enthusiasm.
I hope you follow your Bliss……