God in a Seizure: Epilepsy & Mysticism

Eddi van W., new vision, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Eddi van W., new vision, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mystics throughout history have claimed to experience visions and trance-like states they say come directly from God. There’s now speculation that these visions may have been hallucinations brought on by epilepsy. Jess Hill writes about her own experiences, and speaks to others who say their seizures come in the form of intensely mystical experiences.

This article and radio podcast originally appeared on ABC Australia Encounter

Normally when we think of epileptic seizures, we think of someone convulsing and losing consciousness. But that’s just one type of seizure—and it’s not even the most common kind. There’s a whole other category of seizures, known as partial seizures, that can cause a kaleidoscope of symptoms, from the sense of oneness, through to déjà vu, complex hallucinations and feelings of fear, depression, and euphoria. Often, these seizures don’t involve any convulsions at all. In some epileptics, a seizure can even invoke the presence of God.

Lucinda [a 31 year old lawyer who lives in Pymble, on Sydney’s north shore] had temporal lobe epilepsy1.

That’s a term you come across a lot when you Google ‘weird seizure experiences’. It [temporal lobe epilepsy] refers to epilepsy that originates in the temporal lobes, the parts of brain on either side of our head, behind our ears. When one or both of the temporal lobes seize, millions of misfiring neurons can wreak havoc on functions like memory, emotional responses, speech, processing sounds and smells—even our feelings of conviction and insight.

This may go some of the way to explaining why temporal lobe epilepsy has become famous for causing mystical or religious seizures.

‘The most striking aspect of these people is that not only during the seizures, but “interictally”— between the seizures—they have tremendous religious experiences and mystical experiences,’ says VS Ramachandran, a renowned Indian neuroscientist who became obsessed with temporal lobe epilepsy in the 1990s.

‘They say things like, “during the seizure, I experience God—I see the meaning of the universe, the true meaning of the universe, for the first time in my life. I understand my place in the cosmic scheme of things.” That’s what they say. Sometimes they’ll actually say, “I’m talking to God”, or “God is talking to me”.’

God didn’t speak to Lucinda—or at least, she doesn’t see it that way—but her seizures are straight out of the mystical visions handbook. I asked her to imagine that she’d been brought up religious.

‘I think it would have been 100 per cent different,’ she says. ‘I probably would have seen it as a sign from God, because it was unlike anything I’d experienced before.’

Why would temporal lobe seizures2 create a sense of universal oneness, of utter contentment, even a sense of God?

Read the original article at Finding God in a seizure: the link between temporal lobe epilepsy and mysticism – Encounter – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Listen to the podcast God in a seizure Encounter ABC Radio

Notes

1 A typical story: “I get the strangest feeling—most of it can’t be put into words. The whole world suddenly seems more real at first. It’s as though everything becomes crystal clear. Then I feel as if I’m here but not here, kind of like being in a dream. It’s as if I’ve lived through this exact moment many times before. I hear what people say, but they don’t make sense. I know not to talk during the episode, since I just say foolish things. Sometimes I think I’m talking but later people tell me that I didn’t say anything. The whole thing lasts a minute or two.” —Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Epilepsy Foundation

2  Temporal Lobe Seizure, Mayo Clinic–definition, symptoms, medical care

4 comments

  1. Pingback: Re-Interpreting Mystical Experience | Skeptic Meditations
  2. SkepticMeditations

    The comment below was emailed to me by reader Naty. I’ve copied and pasted her message below as it relates to my blog post, God in a Seizure: Epilepsy & Mysticism. The comments below are the opinion of Naty’s and may not, in whole or parts, reflect my personal opinion or my individual research findings.


    “Hello Scott, I enclose below an explanation of epilepsy from Bihar Yoga School, another school that teaches another kriya yoga.
    I have practiced Reiki and opening chakras, I guess it´s pranotthana what is awakening. Reiki helps to have more energy and health. But there are some cases of side effects similar to kundalini after opening chakras, after initiations.
    In zazen meditation there are not these troubles but there is not increase in vitality, there is no work over etheric body.
    I have the kriya yoga lessons complete, it works opening chakras. You have mentioned that in your personal experience you have crises after meditation. You have mentioned also that it is intensive meditation dangerous.

    I do still believe conversion is real because I met one Buddhist nun some years ago who worked almost twenty years to pass from suffering to inner peace and wisdom. She does not have super powers, jeje, but she was a real complete human being.

    Epilepsy – a premature awakening?
    http://www.yogamag.net
    “I am about to discuss the disease called ‘sacred’ (epilepsy). It is not in my opinion, any more divine or more sacred than any other diseases, but has a natural cause, and its supposed divine origin is due to men’s inexperience and to their wonder at its peculiar character… It is also curable, no less than other illnesses, unless by long lapse of time it be so ingrained as to be more powerful than the remedies that are applied. Its origin, like that of other diseases, lies in heredity… that it attacks the naturally phlegmatic, but does not attack the bilious… The fact is that the cause of this affection, as of the more serious diseases generally, is the brain.” Hippocrates of Cos, 500 B.C.
    What the epileptic actually experiences and what we imagine the process to be, are two distinct things. What we call ‘fitting’ may not be so difficult to understand when we view it in the light of yoga. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a famous Russian writer, has this to say about fits in his book ‘The Idiot’:
    “For a few minutes before the fit… I experience a feeling of happiness such as it is quite impossible to imagine in a normal state and which other people have no idea of. I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up ten years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life.”
    Dostoyevsky’s description of fitting is not what medical science and our eyes have led us to believe.
    Medical science states that the majority of fits are caused by unknown factors, and only a small percentage are caused by intracranial (brain) diseases such as tumours, head injuries and strokes, or by low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), kidney disease (uremia), heart disease (blocks of conduction), and sudden withdrawal of alcohol or drugs. However, all epilepsies come under the broad definition of short disorders of cerebral (brain) function, usually associated with disturbances of consciousness, and accompanied by a sudden, excessive electrical discharge of cerebral neurones. The EEG records high voltages (relative to the background voltage) and a synchronous discharge of neurones.
    There are many paradoxes existing within the epileptic condition. It is a dual experience with both positive and negative attributes, as some people experience great bliss for a moment before the fit, but this positive experience is followed by a horrendous nightmare of uncontrolled energy. Afterwards a negative mental state that existed before the attack is relieved by a positive one in many epileptics.

    At the physical/pranic level
    Epilepsy is related to the physical body proper and the pranic body, an energy sheath which animates the physical. The nervous system acts as a matrix or framework for energy flowing through the body from a source, exceeding the brain’s ability to handle and channel it.
    A seizure can be induced in anyone by applying an electric current directly into the brain. This is used in electric shock therapy for severely depressed or inhibited patients in psychiatric institutions, with remarkably good relief of symptoms in many cases. Convulsions have also occurred associated with rhythmic drumming and the orgiastic dancing of ancient religious rites as witnessed in African tribes, Voodoo drumming, Brazilian, Balinese, and many other cultural traditions. Hysterical excitement, nervous system collapse and exhaustion lead on to convulsions, crying out, struggling, trembling, quaking, shuddering and other epileptic-type activity. The Christian tradition also has in its midst the same phenomena. Evangelists such as the Quakers, Wesley in the 18th century, and today Billy Graham, all have reported such phenomena occurring in terms of religious conversion, the mechanism being attributed to the Holy Ghost. The common meeting point of all these phenomena is energy in the brain and nervous system going beyond the point of tolerance, exceeding a threshold, and resulting in convulsions, exhaustion of the nervous system and release of tensions and stress.
    Both primitive and modern societies have used the convulsion mechanism to cure disease and raise consciousness, while in epilepsy the same phenomenon is considered as a disease. The difference lies in the fact that in one the energies evoked by dancing, rhythmic drumming, emotive and powerful preaching etc., overcome the power of the nervous system and the willpower to resist, while in the epileptic the nervous system is weakened to normal body energies.
    The pranic body has five subdivisions serving the different body functions in cooperation with the nadi-chakra complex which runs along the spine and out into the peripheral organs. It is this body which is responsible for the proper supply to and maintenance of the motive power in all body cells, organs and function. Any imbalance in this body causes emotional imbalance and physical disease. Imbalance is also probably responsible for the excessive energy in the nervous system.

    Many theories have been put forward.
    1. Excessive unconscious energy from mooladhara chakra is liberated leading to a dual positive/negative experience.
    2. Samana, prana, udana, or one of the other pranic subdivisions moves upward into the brain, triggering a neuronal circuit and overloading the existing mechanisms.
    3. Some type of spiritual awakening takes place, perhaps an awakening of manipura or ajna chakras, but in a body/mind system that is inadequately prepared. Tensions, stress and unhappiness that exist in the body in this normal state may throw the nervous system into chaos when extra energy, made available through spiritual awakening, enters the body.

    That the energies are coming from mooladhara chakra is supported by the following:
    1. The experience is both positive and negative, an attribute of the two lower chakras, mooladhara and swadhisthana.
    2. The individual becomes unconscious during the fit and mooladhara governs the unconscious forces, symbolized by kundalini shakti.
    3. The element of mooladhara is earth, and its sense smell. The aspect of smell ties in with the fact that many ‘old wife’s’ remedies recommend the use of old leather shoes or onions to be passed under the nose of the fitting epileptic in order to bring him out of the fit. The sensation travels along the olfactory nerve to the hippocampus in the brain. This is part of the limbic system, concerned with emotions, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine glands.
    We may hypothesize that this smell mechanism may work to break certain types of epileptic fits by interposing onto the discharging cells a coordinated, rhythmic, normal circuit and function.

    The spiritual level
    Similar phenomena to those observed in epilepsy have been reported in the kundalini yoga tradition where spontaneous ‘kriyas’ or body movements, asanas, pranayamas, mudras, and changes in consciousness take place, contorting the body. The individual usually remains conscious throughout the experience, which is said to represent cleaning of the nadis, though the movements are beyond his control. Occasionally the body may perform movements such as turning somersaults, or contortions, that would have previously been impossible. The energy here is allowed to take over in much the same way as in the epileptic, however, less pathologically and without harm to the body. According to this tradition, the epileptic has to recondition his body and his mind through asanas, pranayama and shatkarmas in order to construct a vehicle capable of handling the energies being let loose. It should be remembered, that the kundalini yoga tradition requires that a guru is present to ensure that such phenomena as epilepsy do not occur because of premature releases of energy, which may result in the following as described by Dostoyevsky in ‘The Idiot’:
    “His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light. All his agitation, all his doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of serene and harmonious joy and hope, full of understanding and the knowledge of the final cause. But those moments, those flashes of intuition, were merely the presentiment of the last second (never more than a second) which preceded the actual fit. This second was, of course, unendurable.”
    Through yoga it is possible to extend this second so as to approach the infinite. By strengthening the nervous system we do not collapse under the strain of the moment but continue to travel upwards with this energy.

    Yogic Treatment
    An 11 year old girl suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy was successfully helped here at BSY to reduce attacks and drug medication through the application of yoga. Her epileptic attacks were more pronounced during times of stress, such as school examinations, and showed typical focal electroencephalographic signs. The attacks continued despite heavy medication using anti-epileptic drugs and tranquilizers. She reported that just before the attack and before losing consciousness she felt a pleasant sensation in the abdomen which she described with a circular motion of the hands. She would then go into a typical psychomotor attack which included bizarre movements, repetitive vocalization, frothing at the mouth, and so on.
    We attempted to strengthen this girl’s nervous system and re-channel her pranic energies using: dynamic asanas such as surya namaskara, brahmari pranayama, variations of kriya yoga and yoga nidra, etc. These practices smooth out the body’s energy, relax the nervous system, and reorganize neural circuits. They directly affect the brain, being designed to reintegrate all aspects of it so that it functions as a whole. This is a natural consequence of concentration of mind.
    Combined with the above practices were the hatha yoga shatkarmas- laghoo shankhaprakshalana, kunjal and neti kriyas. In implementing these techniques we initially found that the number of attacks increased, especially during kunjal which she found distasteful and stressful. However, the moment she started to perform kunjal and neti correctly, the attacks vanished completely. After this time, instead of three to four attacks per day, she experienced none in the time she remained in the ashram. Her medication was then reduced.
    Kunjal was effective because it discharges pent up energy in the nervous system, in the same way as orgasm or sneezing discharge tension. Its voluntary and conscious use makes it a valuable method to reorder and stabilize the neuronal activity by sending into the brain a sphere of energy via the vagus nerve and the pranic channels. This discharges pent up emotions symbolized by the expulsion of unwanted waste products from the stomach. At the same time the nervous system is strengthened in adapting to the stress of daily vomiting, and can be retrained so that it does not spontaneously discharge in an epileptic attack.
    An important point to remember is that the above therapy was given as a specific sadhana for this individual’s problem and was conducted under expert guidance. It is not recommended for all cases of epilepsy unless expert guidance is available.
    By yogic practices the epileptic can stabilize the nervous system, strengthen the mind, increase endurance, and overcome his weaknesses. Through the positive effects of relaxation, he can handle life more effectively, and relax into living. Normal health and peace of mind can be gained through effort and constant practice, leading on into the realms of timeless peace.”

  3. soifrane

    You may watch “Derren Brown – How to convert an atheist ” on YouTube. Here, it is not epilepsy but a “mystical experience of conversion” induced by psychological techniques. A Channel 4 / British TV show.

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