"Artist, Artifact, and Aberration" - Meditation and Epilepsy
"Artist, Artifact and Aberration," is the title of one of my journal entries dated 1984. It shows the direction that my mind took in the years after the Silence swept through me in 1975. I held a job three days a week as housekeeper for a family with two boys and two Dobermans. The routine kept life structured yet undemanding enough for a mind that was often barely under my control. On my days off I read and studied. I was still trying to figure out how consciousness escaped its biological confines. Sometimes I taught meditation and often I wrote essays and poetry.
My prose was getting published. The poetry was not. Neither did “Artist, Artifact, and Aberration,” which I share here as an example of the energy that was flowing through the cognitive and linguistic centers of my brain.
• • • •
Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they will do
other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke
each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their happiness.
They have love but they also have typewriters. That is interesting.
From The Policemans' Beard is Half Constructed, purported first book of prose and poetry ever written by a computer (1984).
Can you find me a home.
We can all find you a hole. I hope not.
Then keep warm. I cannot have that announcement.
Very well then elect him. We can be suggestive.
From a poem by Gertrude Stein (1917).
No, I haven't had any dreams. They took the Ladies Home Journal
out of my room and I haven't had any dreams. I seem to have become
so to speak the property of other people.
From an interview with a schizophrenic patient (1961).
These quotes exemplify how my mind goes out of control, when I sit without speaking, almost in tears, trying to keep the jabber from escaping from my mouth, knowing the alarm the phrases would create in others. It's all poetry and prose. Writing spews forth with this outpouring from somewhere other than me, linking divergent ideas via imaging. The line between creative and crazy is at times a dangerous tightrope.
Think of it. A computer programmed to create strictly from rules in the absence of divine spark. Structural grammarians posit a hierarchy in the making of a sentence. Rules for making words with only certain letter combinations: thistle, grissle but no crissle; “pn,” “kn,” but no “xn” (at least not in English). Secondly, rules for categories: all nouns, all verbs, all adverbs, etcetera, and categories within each of these, and more rules for selection. Steve, Phil, Frank, Hank: one you loved, one you played with, one you married, one took off with someone else. Let your Freudian slips slide loose. In speaking you have an entire pool and slips of the tongue can be revealing, but that's not craziness.
The schizophrenic also has his categories. One fellow was convinced that Jesus, cigars and sex were identical because they all shared the element of being encircled: Jesus encircled by the halo of the saint, a package of cigars by a tax band, and a woman by the sex glance of a man. The schizophrenic can logically say, "the house burnt the cow horrendously," because his categories are more unique than yours and mine. But are they so different from computer’s or poet’s?
I cannot control the electrifying nature of the vision: left sided linear, linear, linear, until bang the integration. Right side of brain kicks in and sees all those little pieces simultaneously. The bright idea consumes in flame and becomes electric storm. So, I basket weave. No more verbalizing to set things off. The essayist in me must rest, as did Virginia Woolf. Her husband, Leopold, knew just how to manage her, resting now or busy. He piloted her to productivity until she jumped off of a bridge with stones stuffed into her pockets, convinced the Nazis were about to invade.
The first sign that my mind is going is when everything appears stunningly significant. Scientific American reports our solar system has two suns, Sol, and now a dark dwarf, perhaps "George." Orbiting through the planets every 24 million years, it causes mass extinction of the species. Now, why was I not informed!
Harpers reports the Soviet Government's restrictions on artistic expression, a list 8-10 points long, all of which I'd urged upon an aspiring writer recently. Now, I am horrified.
Nutrition Today reports that in the last twenty years birth intervals between Eskimo siblings shrank in direct relation to parents' mileage from trading posts. The shorter the distance, the more frequent the births. Switching from breast to bottle-feeding precipitated a population explosion. Now what, I have to ask.
I discover that the word "Hippy" derives from the west African Wolof word, "hipi", which means to open ones eyes. I find it ludicrous.
Yet, I cannot stop, and start composing paragraphs, an outpouring so profuse a dozen ideas come and go while standing in the shower. After a week of this I am ready to collapse. I sit twisted in my chair, trying to ignore the shadows in the corners whispering in low tones, clutching at my mangled body parts- illusions both real and imagined. Real illusions, yes. And it’s all imagination. The crazy cannot think straight. Perhaps he's right in that. So I write in that. See. I could drive you crazy too. But forgive me, I'm just a little schizo and it’s getting on my nerves.
I was speaking of computer choosing- the damn phones at work are programmed now, the software’s in the closet with the furnace. Is normality simply choosing the 50th percentile rather than the 1st or 95th? Decide this, not that. The crazy cannot think straight. Choices cause a panic, seeing life as labyrinth, endless banquet forks there in the road. Linear thought, the logical, left side of verbal delineation cannot handle deciding, in part because the terrain is too grand. But, we were meant to eat it all. "Neti, Neti," the mystic says in the context of enlightenment, "Not this. Not that." I hold my head and cringe. The crazy cannot think straight, nor does mystic, nor the poet.
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is Richard Hofstader's "metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll." His final chapter, XX (like some cartoonist’s starry eyed knockout punch) is called "Strange Loops and Tangled Hierarchies," "a grand windup of ideas about the snarls that arise when systems turn back on themselves." You might call it a retrospective on introspection, or how a computer scientist deals with the mind's transcending. Expansive collapse. Yes, English let's you say that and label life. So let me end by adding- punning is a play on words, the joke rests on the words themselves, actually a self referral logic loop, as is all of literature and life. Thus, the end of this and any essay is never really that, which is why I cannot sleep. Creativity is self-propelling until you simply burn out. More like that final luminescent blue-white spot in the middle of your TV tube, sitting there a dying glow, in the middle of the cathode ray tube. Boink.
Or as Gertrude Stein has said:
The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the
living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition
that at the time they are living is the composition of the time...
∙ ∙ ∙ ∙
So ends my journal entry.
I assumed that the word flow I was wrestling with was akin to the hebephrenic schizophrenic babbling I had seen at college in a Psych 100 video. Disturbances in word associations were among the first clinical symptoms reported for schizophrenics. A 1999 report in the journal Biological Psychiatry describes schizophrenic patients as “characterized by a pattern of indiscriminate or random spread of activation in their semantic network.” Or, as I commented above, everything is connected, everything significant. The 1999 report continues, “Schizophrenic patients were characterized by a failure to discriminate between associated and unassociated semantic contexts.” Or, as Becky’s mother, a well-published writer, was to comment later, my writing style was “charmingly loosely associated.”
I simply worried that I was losing my mind. To my fears was added the strongly stated belief of one of my dearest friend’s that I was simply not trying hard enough to control myself. With growing frustration and shame, I pounded on myself to shape up, to just stop and be normal once again. And I could not do it.
It was not until 1995 that a report on National Public Radio alerted Becky to the fact that temporal lobe epilepsy, or TLE, also creates prolific verbage and writing. That was when I started wondering if my heavy “unstressing” was actually something akin to epilepsy. From the beginning there had been these fit-like episodes: the falling to the floor, the stiffening of limbs, the altered consciousness, the difficulty in responding to verbal inquiries.
Once I found myself sitting on the edge of my bed, hands folded in my lap, with no idea of why or even how I had come to be there. It was quiet unnerving. Downstairs I discovered a wastebasket sitting in the middle of the living room and remembered that I had been cleaning house. Apparently I’d simply stopped and gone upstairs. Such behavior I now know can be a little seizure.
The report Becky heard on the radio also spoke of an “interictal personality,” specific traits displayed by many epileptics between seizures. These traits are include 1. Hypergraphia or verbosity. In response to a question, TLE patients write an average ten times more than do normal controls. 2. Great interest in the religious or philosophical. 3. Hyposexuality, a true loss of libido. 4. An increase in irritability, anger and rage. Becky thought this all sounded quite familiar, and I had to agree. Was epilepsy making me write all night or fall upon the floor in flashbacks?
Temporal Lobe Epilepsy
I do not wish to pathologize my history, and I do not believe that I now have epilepsy. But, there are too many parallels between TLE and my experiences to ignore a closer look.
I froze in place when I first read the title, “Transcendental Meditation and general meditation are associated with enhanced complex partial-epileptic like signs- evidence for ‘cognitive’ kindling?” In this article, the Canadian psychologist, M.A. Persinger, argued that meditators show a significantly wider range of complex partial epileptic-like signs than non-meditators. His study was based upon a written questionnaire, the Personal Philosophy Inventories. Persinger considered reports of feeling vibrations, hearing one’s name called, paranormal phenomena, finding profound meaning in poetry or prose, and religious phenomenology as signs of TLE. Persinger’s theory is that the repetition of the mantra promotes “cognitive kindling” in the brain. Kindling is the increased, rapid firing of neurons in a process that spreads through the brain ultimately resulting in the electrical storm seen in epilepsy. Persinger even had a few EEG studies to back up his argument.
This claim was rebutted immediately by David Orme-Johnson who argued that Persinger’s research shows that people practicing TM do have more spiritual experiences: heightened meaningfulness, expanded sense of self, and a sense of knowing. But, Orme-Johnson faulted Persinger’s conclusion that people experiencing profound meaning in poetry and heightened awareness are actually showing signs of epilepsy and temporal lobe microseizures. Orme-Johnson cites a clinical trial specifically designed to test the effects of TM on epilepsy. The study showed that meditation correlated with less frequent and less severe seizures. Another 5-year study showed that TM meditators had 87% fewer diseases of the nervous system than non-meditators.
Today, this debate continues. The April, 2006 issue of the journal Medical Hypothesis carries an article, Meditation and epilepsy: A still hung jury. I have the feeling that Orme-Johnson would never admit that TM might produce an ill effect. On the other hand, I doubt that Persinger would be happy to credit anything beneficial to meditation. I also know that to this day, there are times when I feel my brain is crackling. I tell myself that no one could possibly feel the electrical discharges in their brain, even as I wish the crackling would stop and rub my knuckles over my head. It feels electrical. But, I do not drop down in seizure, or stumble in my speech, or for that matter enjoy a special relationship with either God or poetry. These days, I simply go to work.
Epilepsy is called the sacred disease because it can make its victims feel as if they have been touched by God. Dostoevsky knew this first hand and put his own experiences into the mouth of Myshkin in The Idiot :
“[He] remembered among other things that he always had one minute just before the epileptic fit (if it came when he was awake), when suddenly in the midst of sadness, spiritual darkness and oppression, there came at moments a flash of light in his brain, and with extraordinary impetus all his vital forces suddenly began to work at their highest tension... His mind and heart were flooded with extraordinary light; all his uneasiness, all his doubts, all his anxieties were relieved at once; they were all merged in a lofty calm, full of serene, harmonious joy and hope. But these moments, these flashes, were only the prelude of that final second (it was never more than a second) with which the fit began. That second was of course unendurable… And yet he came at last to an extremely paradoxical conclusion. ‘What if it is disease?’ he decided at last. ‘What does it matter that it is abnormal intensity, if…remembered and analyzed afterwards in health, turns out to be the acme of harmony and beauty, and gives a feeling, unknown and undivined till then, of completeness, of proportion, of reconciliation and of ecstatic devotional merging in the highest synthesis of life?’ …That it really was ‘beauty and worship,’ that it really was ‘the highest synthesis of life’ he could not doubt…at that very last conscious moment before the fit, he had time to say to himself clearly and consciously, ‘Yes, for this moment one might give one’s whole life!’…
“for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.”
Dostoevsky’s commentary stirs my own regrets. You have to call it disease to fall upon the floor, and yet the price seems inconsequential to the beauty. So, you must go around again and reconcile. You have to choose health and functioning. You have to be practical… when you could have been with God. Having your hands upon Infinity you have to let it go and hold on firmly to the insignificant. It breaks my heart every time I see that I made this choice.
I saw an interview on TV a few years ago. A young man was having seizures. He began with the comment that he had never been religious, not before the seizures. Then, he grew quiet as tears came into his eyes. “I take the medicine for my family, for Dad. It is so hard for them.” Then struggling against what looked to me like loss of hope he added quietly, “…but to have seen and understood… it doesn’t matter. Not to me.” In the end, he made the same choice as I did, and it seems to break ones heart.
The most common experience during an epileptic aura is a feeling of fear and dread. The Merck Manual states that these feelings are often accompanied by discomfort in the epigastric region. So, there I was walking down the hall in South Fallsburg. One moment I was fine and the next my stomach felt weird, and I was asking a stranger to bring help. The parallel continues as the fear and dread are often followed "by an animal-like roar and the falling forward to the ground," which was exactly what I did that night.
Usually, in the actual seizure one loses consciousness. I have always remained aware. Usually a scene and story are played out, as if I dream while remaining awake aware of the room in which I lay. For years I had flashbacks of World War I.
Is this what doctors call "mental diplopia" or double consciousness? The aura creates the experience of remnants of normal consciousness along with a new “parasitic” consciousness consisting of another reality. So, there is a name for it: I was in my hotel room, yet superimposed upon that was the battlefield. I slept upon the floor, even though I knew it was illusion that the bed sheets were covered deep in blood. I avoided part of the room even though I knew there were not the burned out tree trunks and ditchs of the battlefield to trip over.
Based upon the physiology of TLE, near death experiences, and hallucinogen ingestion, UCLA psychiatrists Jeffrey Saver and John Rabin in 1997 constructed a theory of the neural substrates of religious experiences. These brain disorders all produce experiences that may be interpreted as the religiously-numinous. One suddenly sees through the mundane and previously real world into a new and deeper reality. Through a doubling of consciousness one can simultaneously perceive a higher, purer self, and a lower, irreligious self. Saver and Rabin note that the medical literature describes a number of historical religious figures that appear to have had epilepsy. These include: St. Paul, father of the Catholic church; Muhammed, the Islamic prophet; Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers; Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism; Emanuel Swedenborg, scientist and founder of the New Jerusalem Church; Joan of Arc and no less than four female Catholic saints.
Saver and Rabin also point out that religious emotions are like the ordinary emotions of joy, love, awe, fear except that they are now directed towards a religious object. Similarly, religious thinking or Talmudic reasoning, is ordinary logic applied to the religious. Religious language depends upon the language cortex. Prosody and other emotional contributions to religious discourse arise in the right hemisphere. Thus, it appears that most of the brain is involved in one aspect or another of religious feeling and thought.
What appears unique about religious experience is a direct sensory awareness of God. Perception of the divine occurs and all else in life is changed. However, there is no identifiable region of the brain specifically responsible for divine perception. Thus, Saver and Rabin propose that apprehension of the divine occurs in part through the ordinary systems of sensory perception (tactile, visual, auditory, and olfactory perception) upon which other signals are superimposed. They hypothesize that the temporalimbic system tags external and internal stimuli with greater meaningfulness.
Persinger found that poetry seemed more significant. I once directly perceived that Elton John’s Crocodile Rock was a gift from God. In “Artist, Artifact, and Aberration” everything was stunningly significant. If Saver and Rabin are right, my temporalimbic system was simply “adding” importance and meaning to ordinary perception. In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Alice Weaver Flahert, MD and an instructor of neurology at Harvard Medical School writes of her experience with hypergraphia triggered by postpartum mood disorder following the death of her premature twins.
It seems a brain-based shift in information processing can put the sacred into the everyday. It’s as if one part of the brain becomes more active, and new circuits are created, no different really from the amplifier on the guitar adding a reverb to the sound. This is not necessarily disease nor even hallucination. On the contrary, it could be called the pathway to sainthood.
During my early struggles to stabilize and understand what was going on in my mind and body, I found only one book documenting similar experiences. Kundalini, the evolutionary energy in man is the autobiography of Gopi Krishna.
One day, I was telling Andy about the book and he asked, “Well what happened to him?”
“He became a saint,” was my reply.
“So what’s your problem?” end of discussion and sibling sympathy.
Now, as I flip through the pages, I find that I underlined these words:
…the fear of impending madness never left me completely.
The magnitude of the risk that one has to run in the event of a powerful awakening all of a sudden, can be gauged from the fact that simultaneously with the release of the new energy, profound functional and structural changes begin to occur in the delicate fabric of the nervous system with such a rapidity and violence as to be sufficient to cause unhinging of the brain instantaneously if the organism as a whole does not possess enough power of adjustment to bear the tremendous strain…