The Draining of My Brain

NOTE: I’ve not written many posts lately. I got sidetracked dealing with other aspects of my life. But also I haven’t been clear enough about what I think to try writing it down. The following post is probably too long, but let’s just say I’m making up for lost time. (Hah! Try telling that to any editor.) (Oh, well….)

Something is happening to my brain, and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it is good or bad or if it’s the consequence of my qigong practice, of ordinary aging or even of some sort of disease process.

Well, some of it for sure is aging. Anybody who claims that age only matters if you’re a bottle of wine or a wheel of cheese has not sat with a group of people my age—73—who are trying to remember the name of a mutual friend, or a flower, or a movie or a book. We all hate it when that happens….

But there are other things—in particular, my “spells.”

I’ve never thought of myself as the sort of woman who’d have spells, but the word is there, in the report from the neurologist to whom I was sent after I’d had two of them.

They frighten me—but they also intrigue me. I want to know what they are, and what they portend, but I don’t know and haven’t figured out how to find out.

From a western medical point of view, my spells may have been cardiovascular events or, as I think more likely, they may have been neurological events, perhaps some sort of seizure. Neither of these alternatives is cheering.

On the other hand, as you will see when I describe my spells, they were also energy events, because, of course, everything is an energy event, but they were energy events with features akin to what I experience when I practice qigong. My qigong teacher, Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun, has said they indicate progress in my qigong practice, and perhaps he is right. Maybe after a certain amount of energetic development, one’s brain must reboot.

I will start by describing the event that got my attention in a really big way.

It happened on Aug. 15, 2015, at the end of a period of significant stress. I’d felt I was handling everything well, and was enjoying that feeling, but in retrospect, perhaps I was not.

The day before the incident, I’d been working at my computer when I learned that I needed to assemble a group of people to meet in 20 minutes—not a big deal, really, but as soon as I started scurrying around to do what needed to be done, I felt like I was working through some sort of roiling mental and physical fog, and it was difficult to keep focused on what I was saying and doing. It was not a new feeling—for months I’d been experiencing a variety of odd sensations that I wrote off as energy things, or blood sugar things, or balance mechanism things, or digestive things—but it was more extreme and not at all pleasant.

However, the next morning, I felt fine. I went to a friend’s apartment for brunch and ended up staying five hours, talking about issues in the community in which we both live.

By the end of that time, I was sitting on my friend’s sofa, slumped down with my neck arched over the top edge. I was looking up and talking to her when I realized that I was having difficulty expressing myself because I couldn’t call forth names and facts that I knew I should remember. I got up and left, just wanting to go home, and walked through her building and another building feeling just a bit strange. I knew something wasn’t right. I stepped out into the sunlight to cross the parking lot in front of my building, and the back of my neck seized up.

My neck didn’t hurt. It just felt very long and firmly, elegantly erect, like Nefertiti’s neck. My mind seemed unfocused and unfocusable, although I knew what I was doing and was able to think about what I should do about my situation.

Because it was a Saturday, I called the Group Health Consulting Nurse and ended up getting a friend to take me to Urgent Care.

A very patient Physician Assistant ordered various tests, including a CT-scan, and he listened as I tearfully explained how confused I was about what was happening, because maybe it was just a qi thing—my friend said I repeated this story several times—but since the tests showed nothing, he concluded that I had a neck ache and discharged me with a sheet of neck exercise instructions. By the time I got home, I felt fine.

However, while I was in Urgent Care, my blood pressure had been quite high; at discharge, it was 172/99, with a pulse of 58, although I recall that at one point the systolic was in the 180s. Although I had assured the PA that I did not normally have high blood pressure, the next day I got out my mother’s old blood pressure machine and began taking blood pressure readings.

My blood pressure was never that high again, but the numbers were generally in red, for too high, instead of green, for OK. I was sure these readings were a mistake, the result of the machine being old, so I bought a new blood pressure machine. The readings were the same. When I went to see my general practitioner, she put me on a low dose of blood pressure medication.

Sigh. Another dent in my fantasy of being immune to the afflictions of old age, another sign that I won’t live forever, another pill to have to pack whenever I go on vacation.

Three weeks later, on my third day of blood pressure medication, I drove up to British Columbia to visit my son and his family. On the way up, I had a few minutes of feeling odd and thinking maybe I should pull off the freeway. But it passed, and I forgot about it.

A couple of hours later, after lunch, I was standing, talking with my son, when I started feeling a little strange. I felt a rush of energy up my back and it landed at the top of my head where it took hold like a clamp. The feeling was similar to what I’d experienced at the back of my neck. I called the Consulting Nurse again, who told me to go to an ER. No, I shouldn’t have my son drive me back to the States; I should go directly to the nearest hospital.

The Canadian ER physician did pretty much the same tests I’d had done the first time, including another CT-scan, and decided I had a headache, even though I kept trying to explain to her that I could not give my head pain a number between 1 and 10 because what I was feeling was not pain.

But here’s the interesting part, at least to me. At one point when I was sitting by myself on the exam table, I did a little qigong, specifically the Yi Ren Qigong exercise to move energy through the Small Universe, or Microcosmic Orbit, meridians. I also energized my hands and held them to my face. Both times, the quality of the energy I felt was the same as what was gripping the top of my head, although it was less intense. I thought maybe if I did more qigong I might be able to get the head thing to go away.

However, I was afraid to, as Dr. Sun had once said that you probably shouldn’t be moving energy into your head if you’d recently had a stroke, and I really didn’t know if I’d had one or not.

Time passed. I saw my doctor again, then the neurologist, then another doctor who also couldn’t explain my spells but who convinced me that my blood pressure was now under sufficient control. (It seems you can’t just plop yourself down in a chair, put on a blood pressure cuff and get an accurate reading, as I had been doing.)

But just as I was thinking my two “spells” had been transient phenomena, like my bout of vertigo following an energy rush 18 months ago, like hearing my heartbeat in my left ear for several months, I had another one.

It happened on Dec. 7, more than three months after the second spell (but, interestingly, at about the same time of day as the other incidents, 2 p.m.).

I had come home from working out and had 25 minutes to eat, make a couple of phone calls and walk to another building to sign some papers as secretary of my living community’s board. I began feeling out of focus, like I was functioning on half power. I made the phone calls and was grateful neither party was home so I could just leave a message. I ate. I walked to the other building, signed the papers and chatted a bit with the other two people present, feeling grateful that I wasn’t asked to do anything that required much thinking. Nobody asked me then or later if there was anything wrong.

I returned to my apartment and sat on the sofa with my cat, taking my blood pressure occasionally—it was higher than usual but not hugely high—and occasionally writing how I felt in a notebook beside me. My head briefly felt gripped at the back of the neck and then at the crown, as had happened during the first two events, but that passed. I wrote that my mind felt empty. I didn’t call my doctor or the Consulting Nurse because there didn’t seem to be any reason to. I just sat there. It was not unpleasant. After about 30 minutes, I decided that I might as well get up and see if I could do what I was needing to do on the computer. That went well, I called and talked with a friend to see if she thought my mind was working properly, and then I left for a qigong class and felt fine the rest of the evening.

After this third spell, I became convinced that although my blood pressure might be a bit too high, my cardiovascular system was not the source of my “spells.” I started googling terms like “seizure” and “seizure and qigong” and even “kundalini seizure.” (And here, my editor tells me I need to define kundalini, and I’m thinking dang, if I could have, I would have, so I’ll just borrow from Simple English Wikipedia and say that Hindus believe that a strong spirit energy called kundalini lies dormant near the base of the spine. If it wakes, it climbs the spine and fills the person with energy and understanding—and so people strive to awaken it through various spiritual practices. But I’ve also heard that kundalini energy can wreck havoc with the body if it rises prematurely, whatever prematurely means.)

At any rate, the seizure possibility interested me, because in his 70s, my father began having what I believe would be called absence seizures. I saw one once, as I was standing with him and my mother outside a restaurant. His face went slack and his eyes became vacant—and then, in a few moments, he was back.

Reading about seizures, I learned that not all seizures are epilepsy, that they take many different forms and don’t necessarily recur, and that their cause is often not known.

I followed an interesting thread on an epilepsy support site that had been initiated by someone who’d had distressing experiences over an extended period of time, experiences that reminded me of my own.  He wanted to know if he had been having kundalini seizures, but while the people on the site knew about seizures, they viewed kundalini sorts of things as way too woo-woo to merit discussion. Neither qi nor qigong was brought up by anyone.

Meanwhile I continued reading Norman Doidge’s second book, “The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.”

In his first book, “The Brain That Changes Itself,” Doidge had traced the evolution in our understanding of the brain from the belief that once adulthood is reached, the only significant thing that happens in the brain is death of cells and loss of function, to the fairly recent recognition that the brain is constantly changing and can heal from many assaults given the right input.

In his second book he talks about some unlikely therapies that can help heal major brain dysfunction, whether it was present from birth or occurred as the result of physical illness or accident.

“The Brain’s Way of Healing” is an amazing book that I believe anyone who has any interest in what goes on inside the human head will appreciate. One chapter on “A Device That Resets the Brain” deals with brain healings effected through use of a device that sits in the mouth and electrically stimulates nerves in the tongue, nerves which are part of the cranial nerve system which connects to the brain stem. Another chapter has to do with using modified Mozart and other types of sound to stimulate sub-cortical areas of the brain and get them to function more effectively.

My own brain now feels like a roiling pot full of things that I don’t quite understand—things I’ve read, things I’ve been told, things I’ve experienced.

When I talked with Dr. Sun after my first two experiences, he told me that the energy that got stuck at the back of my neck the first time, and at the top of my head the second time, was someone else’s energy that I needed to shake off as not mine.

“Someone else’s” could mean that someone somewhere has a voodoo doll in their heart with my name on it—but it could also refer to something more subtle, something about my DNA or some sort of epigenetic factor from my family. I’ve thought about this—that perhaps my brain has a tendency to seizures because my father’s brain did.

If that’s the case, if I am seizure-prone, could my qigong practice aggravate the situation—or might it be smoothing things out, untangling whatever is tangled, getting the electrical energy in my brain to travel in more appropriate patterns than it might otherwise do?

I have no idea whether the energy I experience in my head when I practice qigong is the same as the energy of seizures or whether it’s altogether different—although even if it’s altogether different and I have both, it’s hard to imagine that the two wouldn’t interact in some way. And, of course, I don’t even know whether what I have experienced would qualify as seizures.

It’s all very confusing. When I practice qigong, I regularly feel a certain density or pressure moving through my head. I have also felt spacey and had difficulty tracking linear details—for example, I’ve lost my place doing taiji and haven’t been able to figure out how to get back to where I should be in the form.

But somehow my “spells” were different than this. In terms of the energy in my head, the difference was that during the first two spells, it got stuck. In terms of cognitive function, during my spells I felt I was beyond spacey—although maybe it only seemed I was beyond spacey because I wasn’t doing taiji or qigong when the spells hit me; I was engaged in ordinary activities when suddenly I couldn’t quite focus on what I was supposed to be doing.

I have thought that perhaps since I do not understand what is happening to me, I ought not be teaching qigong to other people, since what is happening to me might be related to qigong and might happen to them.

But then I decide that doing and teaching qigong feels so good, so right, so whole, even so holy, that it can’t be wrong. Certainly I do not intend to abandon my own practice, and I will always be grateful to the people who have taught me, no matter what happens.

I began writing this post hoping that that the writing would help me clarify my thinking about all of this. I don’t know if that has happened—but perhaps it is good to have gotten my thinking condensed to 3,000 words. After all, that is how I clean up my kitchen after a dinner party: I work in from the edges so that instead of a large mess, I have a small, concentrated, but somehow more approachable mess.

As my friend Betty Jo would say, more will be revealed.

I will have another “spell,” or I won’t. If I do, it will be the same, or different, perhaps more extreme, perhaps less. The spells are not unpleasant, but they are worrisome, as in, “What is happening to me?” “Is my brain turning to mush?” “Is this old age or spiritual growth?” “Will I ever be able to think again?”

During my last spell I felt empty for a time. I wrote that down but I also remember it. My mind or whatever it is that is me felt empty, and it was OK.

And I have noticed of late, that sometimes I feel empty absent any of the other sensations of my spells. I will be sitting on the sofa with my cat, and I am just sitting on the sofa with my cat, and it is OK…. for a few minutes anyway, and then I’ll start thinking that maybe I should remove one of the sections of the sofa and turn the coffee table around and buy some new pillows and…..

Other times there is a vague feeling hovering over my shoulder that if I could just stop, there would be something I could touch into, something, something, just barely out of reach…..

That might be nice, no matter what its cause….


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2 responses to “The Draining of My Brain

  1. Pingback: Yang Circles, Yin Circles and Spells… | Qi Frontier

  2. Patricia Johnson

    Barbara Wow! How are you now? I have thought of you often.
    Sorry to hear about all that you have gone through. It is very difficult
    to handle health issues or events that have never happened before.
    Perhaps Dr. Sun is correct and it is related to your practice. Qigong is very
    emotionally moving as well as physical .
    I will continue to think of you and hope we have a chance to talk when
    we next see each other at the Senior Center.

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