Long before I knew anything about God, during my prime days of atheism, I learned how to empty myself in ways that would one day open me up for being filled by God through infused contemplation. What caused this learning to happen? Migraines! Seriously!
In 1980, I broke my back. How that occurred was far from exotic, in fact, about as mundane a happening as it could possibly be: while hurrying to get a pair of socks for my three-year-old son Shane in order to get him dressed and to day care on time, I fell down a flight of stairs. The drama of getting to the hospital instead of going to work that day would take an entire post or maybe even more than one installment so I shall leave that information for another day and another venue. Instead, I will explain what happened afterward.
Once I was out of the body brace and back to work, I found myself plagued my migraines. Debilitating headaches, usually preceded by an aura of approaching illness that I could not avoid, they forced me into bed sometimes for more than a day. With four children, a job, and graduate school, not to mention my volunteer activities as an outdoors counselor for the Girl Scouts, I simply could not afford this much time away from life. Yet, the more I forced myself to move beyond them, the more they pulled me back.
I sought help from a doctor who was surprised, given my history of motion sickness stemming from infancy, that I had not experienced migraines much earlier. The onset of the migraines at this time he considered to be post-traumatic; they were intensified, I found through monitoring my daily behavior, by one of my favorite self-rewards, a chocolate bar. I gave up chocolate, which would nearly immediately produce a migraine and still does, but the migraines continued to plague me. Chocolate simply made them appear for certain. The doctor came up with some medicine that was supposed to be effective post-aura. However, I suddenly did not need it.
Before taking in the prescription, I had a few more mirgraines and noticed something peculiar about them. The more I tried to ignore them, the stronger they became. The more I thought about them, the stronger they became. The more I tried to work through and past them, the stronger they became. On the other hand, the more I gave in to them, embraced them, accepted them, and stopped thinking about anything at all, just relaxing into the migraine, the weaker they became. Perhaps “relaxing” is not the precise word any more than it is the most appropriate word to describe “relaxing” into labor pains or the pain that accompanies root canals without anesthesia. But you get the picture – one goes with the pain in these cases, not against it.
As one migraine came after another, the time I needed to give in to each became shorter. I noticed that as I was giving into the pain, I was not thinking about much of anything. I was simply in a state of being; the pain was around me, I was in it and part of it but not doing much about it. Eventually, quickly actually, I learned how to put myself into that being, not-doing, not-thinking state instantly upon the first threat of an aura; I did not have to wait for the migraine to appear. Within seconds, the aura would disappear and the migraine would not come. The doctor called it biofeedback. I called it emptying my mind. Shutting down my thinking and just being in the moment has given me 30 migraine-free years. The momentary shutdown is never noticed by anyone I am with at the time because it literally requires less than two seconds to rebalance my system – I am no doctor but I have studied the research available on migraines and believe that what is happening is that normal blood flow is restored by my autonomous system during those couple seconds.
Similarly, I stumbled upon a wonderful application of this ability to empty my mind to contemplation. When my mind is empty, there is room for God to enter completely, fully, infusively. I cannot meditate; I have tried. Meditation fills my mind, and no sooner than I start trying to fill it than I feel removed from God. So, my soul, which seems at times to operate independently of my brain, takes over and shuts down my mind, allowing me to enter that non-thinking, non-acting, just-being state where I can simply “relax” into God and God can “relax” into me. There is no pain in this kind of relaxing into another state, just peace and comfort. I think this is what the mystics have labeled contemplation. At least, it is what happens when I take time out for contemplation.
Contemplation is a special kind of mind emptying for me. I suppose it is nigh onto sacrilegious to compare contemplation with migraine-reduction, but the experience of one did give me an understanding of the experience of the other. For that reason, I hope God will forgive me my dollop of sacrilege. With the migraine-related mind emptying, I experience only emptiness and after a few seconds re-emerge into a state of action, i.e. my daily life, which is more attractive than the empty state. In periods of contemplation, I experience fullness and even after many minutes, and, where I have the luxury of time, an hour or more, I avoid re-emergence into a state of action, which is less attractive than the empty-but-filled-and-fulfilled state. The first kind of emptying brings me relief, and every experience is reliably the same; the second kind of emptying brings bliss and its nature (and even sometimes its occurrence) is dependent on God and not upon me and differs each time.
I feel the insufficiency of my words to concretize the attributes of an extraordinary state that defies ordinary description. The mystics have tried and have certainly done a better job than I, but still when one talks with friends ab out contemplation, those who set aside daily time for contemplation, there is something so unique about each incident that the telling of it is different.
Jesus told his disciples not to tell of some of the out-of-the-ordinary things they experienced. I think the agreement by Biblical scholars is that if they told, they would not be understood and moreover they might misinterpret the experience. I worry about that whenever I write down the word, contemplation, whenever I consider preparing a post on that topic. I am past the point of concern that others might consider me insane, but I doubt that I will ever be past the point of concern that writing down my experience somehow vulgarizes and trivializes it. I write for my own sanity and recall and because, like David, I simply must sing God's praises in the only way I know how, using the gift He has given me: the written word.
Julian of Norwich’s Timeless Message
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