Shadow Visitor and an Addiction • 6 September 2007

A migraine woke me at four in the morning last Saturday, three days into silence. The headaches started two years ago and I take them like the scrappy little RockyMountain pioneer my dad raised, but this time the entire tone of the thing was different. Intense. Hard-edged.

Guess that’s what it feels when you have zero options for migraine-distraction. Not even mental options.

I could feel the thing’s specific location in the physical brain, and the pain was both more intense and less horrible—the latter because this time I wasn’t angry at it for interrupting my day. What did I have to interrupt?

I usually take control by creating distraction. It’s a competition for which one of us—me or it—will determine the day’s activity. I win if I get on with it, even if I move around like the hunchback of Notre Dame and have to call my brother for sympathy. When I start losing, I fortify my position with Excedrin. Other women in my family bypass this stupid struggle and automatically drug up the first day of the month. They’re smart. But it was the men who taught me how to relate to my body, so I’m stubborn.

By 9 am, I had spent five hours in the fetal position, exploring the sharp edges of the pain but afraid to just go into it and know it fully. Hello, fear. That resistance was building up all over my body. The sensation was coming in waves, but the fear just kept getting harder and thicker brick by brick. No way was I going to sit my body upright and take my attention to the center of that space behind my right eye.

Admitting that, I hunchbacked down the hill to the kitchen, and asked if there were any caffeine on the premises. Yes, contraband was available, said the big angelic chef, but would I like to try some ginger tea first?

Here is what I thought: I want DRUGS, not SYMPATHY! Said: Thank you. I will sit over there.

She cut up a whole root and boiled it. A half hour later, still hunched over a table, I told her that I was probably hallucinating, but I could feel a blood vessel in the front of my head dilate and move the pain around. She said I wasn’t hallucinating.

I still didn’t have much awareness of anything except the place behind my eye, but after the ginger took the fear out of the pain, I felt interested in checking it out. So I went back to the cushion and mildly hallucinated for the rest of the day.

God it was trippy. Enough physical “pain” to keep me oblivious to the outside world, and so much inner entertainment that I got lost in it. For hours.

When I’m quiet enough not to need the anchors of breath or mantra to keep my insane mind from writing novels, I like to watch the light play on the backs of my eyelids. But this time it was a whole show. A little hawk or comet or dandelion fuzz—some kind of flying shadow—appeared and swooped all over. A shadow dervish. I had wild dreams that night—so much for Patanjali’s dreamless sleep—and then the dervish came back the next day and stayed until evening.

Sitting there out of time, watching it, had nothing to do with nothingness. There was a stable emotional tone of absorbed amusement. It didn’t feel profound or important: it just felt fun, like an innocuous game.

I didn’t want it to end.

Which must have been obvious, because on Sunday night an instructor climbed on the dais, before the pair of Buddhas (a dark male one and light female one) and said teasingly, “Well aren’t you good meditators! Let go of the sitting posture. Let go of the activity of medititating. Just be mindful. Just get up and leave.”

I went to bed scheming about how I have to do a month-long or more. And laughing at myself for the reaching: literally, this time, a reaching for nothingness. Is that why we invest all this time in sitting practice, for the bliss payoff? Maybe we’re just addicted to a mental state—and contemplation is just our method for getting there.

I don’t know. If my deepest motives are just so much spiritual materialism, though, I’m not ready to dismiss them as bad unholy desire. I am hungry for insight and pleasure. In love with the journey, seduced by the grail quest. All of it. Badly.

So I get attached to mental sates. If I didn’t, I’d have quit the astanga practice years ago. At least you can’t make too much trouble when you’re in a trance.