Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Big Debate

There’s a big debate currently running in the journal Medical Hypotheses regarding whether or not meditating, specifically, Transcendental Meditation (TM), can cause epilepsy. I find this interesting for a number of reasons.

First, it is because in hind-site I recognize a number of the features of the spiritual emergency I went through following my abrupt awakening in 1975 to point to my having episodes of temporal lope epilepsy. I often fell to the floor in seizure-like rigidity (however I never lost consciousness), I would be gripped for hours by the desire to write (hypergraphia). I probably qualified as being hyperreligous. I recall also the day I found myself sitting on my bed with no idea as to how I came to be there or why. When I went downstairs I found a wastebasket sitting in the middle of the living room- oh yes, I was cleaning house. Apparently, I had had a complex partial seizure and had wandered upstairs. To this day, there are times when it feels as if my brain is snapping and popping with electricity. It’s a strange feeling and I don’t understand how one could really perceive such activity. But, I know what I feel and I know I don’t like it.

Secondly, there are the rationales of why meditation may have this effect. In TM EEG coherence and synchrony have been linked to a higher state of consciousness. However, neural hyper-synchrony is also a defining feature of epilepsy. It’s argued that TM could either provoke seizures in meditation or long term as the brain is “chronically kindled” with hyper-activity that develops into epilepsy outside of meditation. Physiologically, TM has been found to enhance glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that an give rise to kindling even in normal brains. TM also increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter with both facilitating and inhibitory effects on seizure.

Finally, it is interesting to watch the scientists who do research on Transcendental Meditation (TM) and who are devoted followers of the TM path. They are not about to admit that TM can do any harm. Yet, they want to argue that the technique has a powerful influence upon the body. To my thinking, anything that can have a powerful influence can also cause an “abnormal” reaction. TM does not have to benefit everyone, every time to qualify as very valuable. But, early on Maharishi made this broad and uncritically examined claim, and so his followers maintain that stance today. That’s disappointing to say the least.

(Please click on the image to read about its commentary. I searched for photos tagged “debate.”)

The Sacred Disease.

Originally uploaded by Chitrakari.

Epilepsy was known in ancient times as “the sacred disease.” In 1997, Savir and Rabin, two psychiatrists at UCLA, explained how temporal lobe epilepsy could help define a neural substrate for religious experience. Now, there are many papers on the subject.
But, I was fascinated to discover what a most ancient medical text, had to say about the disease.

The Ayurvedic Charaka Samhita (400 BC) is the oldest existing Indian medical text and is fascinating for many reasons. For example, there it’s description of how the thirst for understanding was inspired not by the problems of the general Indian populace, but rather due to the needs of the “meditators” of that time.

“When people, who lived their lives for spiritual pursuits and observed austerity, self-analysis, studies, chastity, meditation and other spiritual activities, began to have diseases and disorders that hindered in spiritual pursuits, at that times, the great sages gathered in the Himalayan region motivated by compassion for righteous persons….gathered at this first ancient ayurvedic symposium.”
Charaka Samhita, Sutra Section, Ch 1/v.6-12.

Perhaps because of this origin, the Charaka Samhita takes a somewhat different stance than Ayurvedic texts that came later. It describes Life as fundamentally a field of intelligence. This field is both self-aware and is pure knowledge: both the Knower and the object of perception. It was this most subtle level of life - that is Consciousness itself, which was to be treated by the physician.

The Charaka Samhita contains abundant references to all aspects of epilepsy including symptomatology, etiology, diagnosis and treatment. Epilepsy is described as ‘apasmara’ which means ‘loss of consciousness.’ In Hindu mythology Apasmara is also a dwarf who represents both ignorance (avidya) and epilepsy.

It is Apasmara-Purusha, the dwarf-demon, who is crushed and killed by the right foot of Shiva during His Cosmic dance of creation and destruction. Apasmara was causing lots of problems for people. Apasmara, highly ignorant and a trouble maker, is said to be a symbol of the laziness, dullness, and evil feelings within each of us. It is also said that the people prayed to Shiva to save them from the demon’s bad deeds. Shiva appeared in the world and killed him. It is Shiva Nâtarâja: the divine dancer whose movements creates and destroys worlds. These movements are illustrated as mudras, sacred hand and foot positions. Shiva holds a damaru or small two sided drum which punctuates the rhythm in one hand. In the other hand he holds a flame, the symbol of knowledge. Yet another hand is in the mudra abhava or “lack of fear.”

So now all these little bells are going off inside my head. At least 3000 years ago Ayurvedic medicine was meant to treat the problems of meditators’ progress. Today, there is this debate about one problem cropping up in meditators – epilepsy. Yes, people never meditating get the disease. But, now evidence is accumulating that perhaps the path to enlightenment may involve some increased danger of kindling and seizure. Meditation is so central to the path, as central (one might say) as this image of Shiva and his Cosmic dance is to mythology. And what is this epilepsy ? - a demon, the ignorance (avidya) of our own egos. … Ahh, if only I’d gotten around to writing up my thoughts about laish avidya- the “remains of ignorance” we each retain after enlightenment… then avidya would be ringing a little bell with you too. And finally, how curious a balance Shiva maintains in his dancing. He brings a two-sided drum. Go banging on the old Yin/Yang. It is rhythm, synchrony, coherence that is needed to defeat the demon. And that is just what the meditator’s and epileptic’s EEGs are all about.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Enlightenment: Before, During, and After

Smart But Casual
Originally uploaded by Kenny Maths.
The November/December 2006 issue of Spirituality and Health has an autobiographical essay by a woman entitled Enlightenment: Before, During, and After. In it she describes how through Awareness Intensive retreats where the practice consists of considering “Who am I?” hour after hour. Through the practice she felt she became enlightened. She was filled with joy and peace, could generate an energy that filled the room and had the power to transform the consciousness of others. Students came in greater and greater numbers and she held satsangs. Then she cracked and crashed and burned. The initial blow was the death of her teaching companion, but that was only the first step down. Her original guru was unable to help. She found a new master. He told her to stop teaching. Afraid she needed the money she refused to stop teaching, only to have her students desert her. And her descent continued from there until she was reduced to friends and family supporting her, and then her second teacher went into seclusion- essentially abandoning her. Throughout her story she comments upon the nagging little thoughts like- “Now I never have to worry about money… I have what everyone wants.” “Now I never have to bother with sex and relating…I am beyond all that.” And she noticed how her ego swelled in direct proportion to her students’ adulation and her power to radiate energy. And while not her closing words, this was her greatest lesson to me:

“If we do not have a living teacher at the time of awakening, we are in great trouble. We simply cannot travel alone at this point, precisely because we can hardly see the ego by ourselves.”

This story suddenly put into context some comments of Eckhart Tolle that caught my eye months ago. They’re from an interview by John W. Parker and are excerpted from Dialogues With Emerging Spiritual Teachers.

Parker: Is it possible to be perfectly enlightened and have any remains of an ego?

Tolle: Well, perhaps not perfectly enlightened, but there can be remains of ego still there, because I have seen it in teachers. I have seen the ego return in some teachers.

So the ego can go into almost a "coma," and then wake up out of its coma perhaps due to the projections, ego-projections that the teacher is bombarded with. As the teacher is there, more people appear and gather around the teacher. And they (those who gather around them) all have their own ego-projections. They make the teacher very "special." And special-ness is always ego, whether special in my misery or special because I am the greatest, the ego doesn't really mind. So perhaps in those teachers the ego was not completely gone. It just had been reduced to an extremely weak state, but then gained strength again.

This was a surprise to me, and very interesting. Given my own experience of “I saw God and all Hell broke loose,” and being trained in chemistry, I’d always pictured getting there and then losing it something like Sisyphus pushing his boulder almost to the top of the hill (so he got a glimpse from the top), but then he lost it and the rock rolled back down. He never actually made it over the top and down into paradise. Such a hill, or technically an energy barrier, must be overcome in every single chemical reaction. Two reactants may come together temporarily, bind into an “activated state.” Then they either they fall back to their original state and dissociate, or they make it over to the other side and are permanently altered. Thus, oxygen and hydrogen can either transmute into water or fall back into two separate gases.

Similarly, I thought my body-mind simply couldn’t make it over that energy barrier. I couldn’t maintain that integrated state and hold onto that enlightened vision. I figured my body let me down. But Tolle suggests that the ego, temporarily knocked cold turkey, regains it strength and returns to it’s old tricks of identification. Ego – not so much as physiology appears to be the problem here. And I had tried so hard to rebuild my adrenals, restore depleted minerals and fatty acids, to stop the anxiety and panic attacks, to stop my brain from “crackling” with jolts of electricity.

These were necessary actions at the time. But, was I addressing the deepest roots of my problem? Or are there layers of traps here: body, mind, and ultimately ego?

Then I came across these words of Adyashanti:

After sudden Awakening to the Self, there begins a process of gradual embodiment of the transcendent into the human personality. By gradual I mean the deepening of realization after the experience of enlightenment…This process of embodiment is a continual stripping away of every remnant of attachment and ego…It is a phase of spiritual unfolding fraught with many dangers, self-deceptions, and misunderstandings. It is where many seekers of liberation succumb to fear, doubt , and a lack of conviction…It is an area of incredible subtlety and complexity which few truly understand.

Adyashanti’s warnings seem to hark back directly to Tolle’s words and the woman whose ego re-awoke. This to me seems an “immaterial” realm of psyche rather than substance- be that fatty acids or B vitamins or even crackling electricity for that matter. But, then Adya made further comments:

Embodiment starts with the realization that every manifest thing and non-thing constitutes your true body. You humanness is simply a reflection of the depth of your realization… What’s most important is to perceive your entire body, which is everything… The entire cosmos is your body. Let your humanness reflect and manifest the whole.

This comment brought to mind my own awakening in 1975. After the initial shift in consciousness there was an interior “burning” (which I’ve described elsewhere). This burning seemed to be a purification/transmutation of my flesh and nervous system through the elements: earth to water to air to ether to finally the perception that my body (on one level and Ultimately) was Absolute, totally immaterial, and extended throughout the universe. At the time, content to simply Be, I was barely able to walk or talk or think and it was arranged for me to go stay with my brother for awhile. He took one look at me and pulled out a yellow legal pad. Starting at 9 a.m. he made a “To Do” schedule for me blocked out in 15 minute increments. Things like: load the dirty clothes into the laundry bag. Go to the laundry. Wash the clothes. Come home…

Very human, but not so well embodied I would say. On the other hand, I seemed to have taken the process pretty far and still managed in the end to fall back into an egoic, attached state.

So let me just end with these final comments by Adya:

As the opening [dissolving of the self] begins and deepens, the body may go through a tremendous amount…some people’s bodies experience a real shake-down. This can be quite dramatic because energy that has been trapped on the various levels- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual- is released. This trapped energy is what keeps you off-balance and in a state of suffering. Suddenly all the tension, holding, and knots are released, and the energy goes out in all directions.

This energy has to break loose before it can re-harmonize and get into the proper flow. This bursting can feel exhilarating or terrible… the harmonization may take weeks, months, or years. It may be very strong or imperceptible. Everyone is different; it just depends on how out-of-wack you’ve been.