Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mysticism and Migraines

Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th Century German nun, wrote of her transcendent mystical experiences with such clarity that modern doctors (Oliver Sacks for one) have been able to diagnose them as migraines. Within the last few years I have been getting ocular migraines, whose dominant feature is not the severe pain, so much as the way the vision is disrupted. As with all things migraine, there is a great deal of variation, but those admitted to the order of the migraine understand each other's experiences in a way not available to outsiders.

I had misunderstood what my daughter meant when she said she could not read with a migraine, since I thought it related only to the pain making it too uncomfortable to read. When I had my first ocular migraine, I discovered I could not read because what I looked at on the page made no sense. Print began as squiggles, and as the episode passed, they became individual letters. Then they became individual words that I could not string together into phrases. Within an hour, having worked my way through all the intermediate steps, I found the sense effortlessly flowing from the page again. Once I was diagnosed, I also realized I had been having symptoms for years, instances of disorientation, faintness, and difficulty seeing that had disturbed me but had spontaneously disappeared.

I am not trying to dismiss Hildegard's experience; there is no reason why her god should not use the migraine to communicate with her. Even a mild migraine attack for me has the skeleton of a transcendent experience. As with the letters, I will notice that the world around me is changing. Individual objects seem to glow from within and begin to stand out so that things don't seem to be connected with each other or at least their relationships are slipping. The bathroom disassembles itself into sink, window, toilet. The last square on the toilet paper role attached by its perforated edge hangs down and seems to tremble almost imperceptibly; its irregular stubby fringe, sometimes with a small triangle that did not rip properly, makes it clear that something is gone that was a part of the whole. My life falls apart as each perceivable thing demands center stage. The fabric of interwoven events that make up my day separate into threads, and at some point I realize I am going to die. I too am going to fall apart. Because I am alive, I cannot get out of dying. I begin to feel weird, light-headed, unsteady on my feet. I wonder how I will stay vertical all day, talk to people when they ask me questions.

My response is to do what is in front of me, moment by moment. Considering even a few links in any chain of events that could bind me would be too overwhelming. I stagger along one word at a time, and eventually, I realize connections are reemerging, and I am steady on my feet without thinking about it. My faith grows stronger; though the world is still composed of bits and pieces, the irrational faith that the pieces fit together into something begins to recover. And when I realize that has happened, I feel joy and relief. From the outside I am engaged in routine activities, but on the inside, I have been passing through an ordeal. It is not a realization of something new, but a rebirth of the sense of wonder at the constructive experience of being alive. It would not take much to turn that into a religious experience if the faith that holds life together involves a god.

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