Book Review: Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy

by Robert A. Johnson: published by Harper and Row, 1987.

The Nature of Ecstasy

Ecstasy is one of those things we can’t seem to agree about. While Peak Experiences are healthy, those who can’t seem to get enough of the ecstatic state we label “addicted”. We may regard ecstasy as something that takes us over so that we relinquish control, orgasmic almost. Ecstasy is not rational and that alone is enough to put a lot of people off. D. H. Lawrence warned, “But do, for God’s sake, mistrust and beware of these states of exaltation and ecstasy … there is no real truth in ecstasy … Ecstasy achieves itself by virtue of exclusion; and in making any passionate exclusion, one has already put one’s right hand in the hand of the lie.” Carl Jung calls the ecstatic or trance state an inability to control oneself. Stanislav Grof speaks of “oceanic” or “Appolonian” ecstasy which is characterised by extreme peace, tranquillity, serenity and radiant joy and “volcanic” or “Dionysian” ecstasy which, he feels, is in all its aspects diametrically opposed to oceanic ecstasy. To Grof this type of ecstasy is characterized by “… extreme physical and emotional tension … aggression … destructiveness … powerful driving energies of a sexual nature … a unique mixture of extreme physical and/or emotional pain with wild sensual rapture.” He calls the third type of ecstasy that he distinguishes, “illuminative” or “Promethean” ecstasy. This he says is typically preceded by “a period of emotional and intellectual struggle … agony and longing … [in which] the individual is flooded by light of supernatural beauty and experi­ences a state of divine epiphany [with] a deep sense of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual liberation and gains access to breathtaking realms of cosmic inspiration and insight.”

Dionysian Ecstasy

For Robert Johnson, a Jungian analyst, to seek the ecstasy that Dionysus represents is to seek joy, an exultation of the spirit, gladness, delight, the beatitude of heaven or paradise. He regards the loss of ecstasy and the transformation it brings as one of the greatest tragedies of modem Western culture. We chase after the sensual rather than the sensuous and remain unfulfilled and out of balance. We recreate the process of the Greek god of ecstasy, Dionysus, becoming the debauched and degenerate Roman god, Bacchus.

Myth and the Collective Unconscious

Johnson illustrates the psychology of joy with the myth of Dionysus. Dionysus is an archetypal image, a symbolic expression of a psychological truth. When we behold myth, elements of ourselves resonate with its content, its symbolism and meaning. Dionysus is Everyman and Everywoman repres­enting the continual rebirth of life in the spring, the irrational wisdom of the senses, and the soul’s transcendence … the power of life that flows through all of us. Myth is a product of the Collective Unconscious, (sometimes iron­ically labelled “Universal Consciousness”). Yet Dionysus slid into Bacchus, from the sublime spirit of ecstasy to the compulsive thrill seeker. Bacchus really is a “false god”. Johnson says, “We often bemoan the “loss of intimacy” in our society. We are quick to take a stranger to bed, but we are loathe to be touched emotionally.” He writes of an experience at an air show. “A friend sensed the mood of the crowd and said, “You know, there’s a tremendous amount of collective power in a group like this. They will demand blood, and they’re strong enough to get it.” At that very moment a small plane crashed and burned right in front of us. I could feel the Dionysian energy galvanize the crowd, which was at once thrilled and horrified. It was a terrible form, but nonetheless the god was served.”

Our Projected Shadows

Just as the small plane hit the ground, Johnson’s observations hit the spot. He reminds us of our Shadow, which we often can only recognise through Projection – perceiving our own unconscious process in others. Our excesses, we think, infrequent though they are, are nothing so bad as other people’s addictions, cravings and compulsions. Johnson is American and takes his examples from American society with all its excesses, onto which we can project our Euroshadow. We rationalize that that sort of thing doesn’t go on here. Any of us, individuals, families or groups or nations may not be facing up to our own stuff and projecting it onto scapegoats like paedophile priests, or politicians or travellers or alcoholics or drug pushers or big business or sinners. Joe Wheelwright writes, “Jung once told me that it was his impress­ion that during the gangster era many Americans whitewashed themselves with the morning paper. They would read of the misdoings of Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone, click their tongues, and walk off to the office thinking, “What beastly cruel men!” And of course the unspoken corollary was, “What a fine fellow I am!” It was the scapegoat mechanism in action.”

Integrating Our Shadow

So what’s the cure? To worship the life force, for men to share in the nurturing process and enjoy the sensuous life and for women to lead lives of strength and wisdom. In other words to recognise, take responsibility for, make conscious and assimilate our unrecognised and unlived parts: like Anima or Animus, for example. To integrate our Inferior Functions. For those swayed by logic to appreciate values and vice versa; for those who experience reality concretely and attend to details to develop their capacity of knowing via the unconscious and seeing a global picture and vice versa. To step outside stereotypical ways of being ourselves and experiencing our world. Johnson illustrates these points by analyzing one of his own dreams.

Contacting the Joy Within: Active Imagination, Dreamwork and Ritual

We can contact the ecstasy and joy within ourselves, according to Johnson, in three ways, Active Imagination, Dreamwork and Ritual. In Active Imagination we assimilate unconscious contents such as dreams or fantasies through some form of self expression. We establish a conscious/unconscious dialogue, but, as Marie Louise von Franz warns, always with the Ego in charge. She says Active Imagination should not the be confused with Leuner’s Guided Affective Imagery which is essentially passive imagination. This state of experiencing products of the unconscious while a part of ourselves remains fully conscious is similar to Michael Harner’s, Shamanic State of Consciousness. It is not unlike Robert Boznak’s way of listening to a client’s dream. This will feel familiar to psychotherapists who like Joe Wheelwright, “hook one of my legs very tightly around a leg of my chair, dispatch myself into the skin of my patient, hang around in there for a while, pull myself back out again, and try to figure out what seemed to be going on while I was inside the patient’s skin.”

Johnson’s Dreamwork consists of four stages which I summarize here: (a) making controlled (not free) associations, (b) connecting dream images to inner dynamics, the emotional or spiritual parts of ourselves, (c) interpre­tation and (d) ritualizing the dream to give it reality.

In explaining ritual Johnson makes a simple, yet profound, personal state­ment. “It seems to me that we have two duties in life: We must be responsible members of the culture we are born into, and we must also be everything we arc within our deepest selves.” He says that ritual is the way to achieve these impossible duties. What we have here is, I think, Enactment rather than Acting Out. We are not in the grip of unconscious wishes and fantasies as in Acting Out, but are rather recognising and accepting an archetypal stimulus, interacting with it, while retaining Ego control and thereby allowing its metaphorical meaning to unfold in a personal and individual way as in Enactment. Good ritual gives heightened meaning; in good ritual “it clicks”.


For those who dislike his Jungian predilection for paradox and symbol, Johnson seems woolly. But for those who can see around corners, those with both feet firmly off the ground, this book is a joy. Like Jung, Johnson must catch the reflections of the primeval fire in mirrors I put around it; and of course, the mirrors are not always a perfect fit at the corners. As with all Jungian psychology, it has to be tried, lived and felt. You have to jump in and get wet to get that “Aha!” moment, which will take your breath away. Johnson’s is a book about experiential psychology. It is a book about transformation through coming to terms with unconscious forces within ourselves. It could be a book about your own transformation. I dare you to try it.

Anthony Wilson


1. Lawrence, D. H. Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence.

2. Jung, C. G. Psychological Types, CW6 (Collected Works vol. 6) para 684, Routledge.

3. Grof S (1985), Beyond the Brain, pages 311-314, State University of New York Press.

4. Johnson, R. (1987) Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy, page 14. Harper and Row, San Francisco.

5. Johnson, R., op. cit. page 11.

6. cf. Jung, C. G. (1959) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW9(i) para 287, Routledge.

7. Johnson, R., op. cit. page 20

8. Wheelwright, J (1982) Saint George and the Dandelion: 40 years of practice as a Jungian Analyst, page 22, C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco.

9. Johnson, R., op. cit. page 35

10. Johnson, R., op. cit. page 59

11. Modified from Sharp, D (1991) C. G. Jung Lexicon: a primer of terms and concepts, pages 12-13, Inner City Books, Toronto.

12. see von Franz, M. L. (1983) Supplement: On Active Imagination in Inward Journey: Art as Therapy by Margaret Frings Keyes, pages 125-133, Open Court reprinted from Methods of Treatment in Analytical Psychology, (1980) pp. 88-90, Verlag Adolf Bonz, Stuttgart and published originally as Bemerkungen zur aktiven Imagination, Analytische Psychologie, 9 (1978): 161-71

13. see Leuner, H (1984) Guided Affective Imagery: mental imagery in short-term psychotherapy the basic course, Thieme-Stratton Inc., New York.

14. see Harner, M (1987) The Way of the Shaman.

15. see Bosnak, R (1985) A Little Course on Dreams, Shambhalla. Boston.

16. Wheelwright, J. op. cit. page 28

17. Johnson, R., op. cit. page 82

18. Laptanche, J. and Pontalis J.-B. (1980) The Language of Psychoanalysis, Hogarth Press, London

19. Samuels, A., Shorter, B. and Plaut, F. (1986) A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, pp. 52-53, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

20. Adler, G, (1983) Introduction to, In the wake of Jung pp. 17-18, Couventure Ltd., London.