For many years I suffered from POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), a condition that causes the heart to race on standing up. This in turn results in dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fainting – most common for me was “pre-syncope” (near-faints). Fortunately I am pretty much recovered now and I haven’t experienced any serious symptoms for a very long time. But when my POTS was full-blown, it did give me an interesting perspective on certain spiritual experiences.
Pre-syncope, where you’re on the knife-edge of consciousness, causes the mind to do very strange things. During pre-syncope episodes, I have seen things or heard things that aren’t really there (often other people), seen flashing lights and colours, had spasms, had someone say something to me and having absolutely no comprehension of what they said, uttered meaningless things, made mental associations with things that aren’t associated (for example, looking at an object while thinking about something else and being convinced that the object and the thing I’m thinking about are connected), and had weird senses of megalomania (like being momentarily I’m convinced that I’m the queen of the world. Really).
These episodes only ever lasted a few seconds, thankfully. But they were really very strange and the things I experienced at the time felt real. Additionally, it always felt that what was happening to me was somehow external, like something was wrong with what was around me or what was happening was an exterior force, rather than there being something wrong with me. From these experiences, I can completely understand where all the accounts of “possession” come from; I really did feel like I was somehow being controlled by some kind of supernatural (and malicious) force. This was compounded by the fact that I was often alone when these episodes happened; I lived alone when my POTS was particularly bad and it was usually worse when I returned home from a hard day’s work. It was as if some demonic force knew when I was vulnerable and wanted to torment me only when no-one else was there to see, which made it much harder to convince doctors there was a problem (it was only when my husband saw me collapse and accompanied me to the doctors to tell them what he saw that they started doing more thorough tests and diagnosed me with POTS). I knew there wasn’t really some evil force taking possession of me – but it did feel like there was.
Having experienced all these hallucinations and delusions which I know were the result of illness has naturally made me question the validity of spiritual experiences such as shamanic trances and visions. I know from personal experience that the mind is very powerful yet extremely vulnerable to processing false sensations which make you think you’re hearing voices or seeing frogs on your bed (this has indeed happened to me). So can I also believe that those who experience visions or other forms of direct, personal contact with their deities really are in the presence of the divine, and the experience is not merely just all “made up” in their minds?
I suppose I think that it’s a bit of both. As I described in my post on skull symbolism, the human brain is remarkable and can be considered the means by which the Universe perceives itself – linking us all to the force that some call Gaia. Looking at it this way, we too are part of the divine – meaning that any experience in our minds can be interpreted as a spiritual one. Maybe where the gods come into this is how we interpret that experience. After all the confusion that comes with pre-syncope had passed, I knew really that it was something wrong with me, not a result of some exterior force. I chose not to interpret the experiences as spiritual ones because I was convinced they were not. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had direct personal contact with a deity in the form of a vision or hallucination, or even a dream (although I have definitely had experiences which I would describe as deeply spiritual). Perhaps, if I do ever have such an experience, I will be just as sure that I have been in contact with a deity, just as I was sure that my POTS-related episodes were not the result of the supernatural.