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Holly Erskine

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

I felt obligated to have a Profound Spiritual Experience when I was young. I learned about them from my mom. She sustained a lifelong fascination for Profound Spiritual Experiences. She was always reading about other people having them. From what she told me, there seemed to be a lot of these people. She didn't expect to have Profound Spiritual Experiences herself, but she revered those who did. With an embarrassed chuckle, she would would explain to her friends that this was her "favorite subject".


My mom's art therapy work for dementia


She has dementia now, barely able to read or write. Witnessing her delightful identity deteriorate into a vulnerable person who needs assistance with basic living functions spurs me to do everything I can protect my own aging brain. She may have, in my formative years, unwittingly handed to me a powerful tool for protecting my brain–contemplation and meditation. She didn't meditate herself. She just loved to read about people who did. They were always having Profound Spiritual Experiences.


Nostalgia. My mom subscribed to these and I read them breathlessly as a kid.

It says "true stories" right there on the cover!


After only a few years of regular meditating, I feel I'm a wee beginner, just scratching the surface. But I am convinced this practice has profoundly changed my life and my thinking for the better. Still, I have not had any Profound Spiritual Experiences. I would be surprised if I did.


How to not get dementia
Regular aerobic exercise is probably your most potent tool against acquiring dementia, and mental exercise probably helps too. According to the medical research that I enjoy keeping up on, both regular physical exercise and mental exercise appear to protect against brain aging and even dementia.

I wrote a large reference book on plant-derived supplements in 2005. And I get this question all the time. But I am sorry, but I don't know of any pill or supplement that will guarantee better results for protecting against dementia than physical exercise and some form of contemplative practice. If I knew what pill to take, I would take it. I just eat lots of plants. I do both physical and mental "workouts". They have a lot in common.


Accessories are nice
Physical exercise and contemplative practice are both habits that require some work to develop. Just as I like cushy running shoes, I like a comfy chair to meditate on, which in my case comes complete with a cat that purrs on the arm rest.


Cross training keeps it fresh
To prevent my physical workouts from getting boring, and to keep from injuring myself, I mix it up. On any given day I might use a lateral slide board, or ski machine, or run, or jump around like a nut and hope no one sees me. And like physical cross training, I have a variety of different mental exercises to experiment with on my own brain. Besides flexing different "muscles", it keeps me from getting in a rut, keeps me on my toes. I might focus on a positive emotion, or focus on one or two meaningful words that I pick randomly, or compassion training, or commune with a dream figure, or attend to my sensations like touch, smell or satiety . I am always discovering new "exercises".


Don't judge yourself.
No one expects to be 100% focused during the entire period of contemplative exercise. That will never happen. When your attention wanders, and it WILL, you bring it back without judging yourself. Just as you would flex your arm to perform a bicep curl repeatedly, you bring your focus back repeatedly. It would quickly become tedious if you scolded yourself up every time you lowered your arm doing a bicep curl. You could instead think, Hey! I refocused! Good job!


It is normal to have distracting thoughts. (Artist Gustav Dore)



Some meditation sessions will just suck.
I have good days and bad days "sitting". Running is my favorite physical exercise, but even so, it can either be exhilarating or a slog where my legs feel like they are made out of lead. Sometimes I have terrible, unfocused, irritable, distracted meditation sessions, too. That's normal. I have even wondered if, like physical workouts, the hardest times sitting might be where more meaningful "exercise" is done. It is hard to say because it is hard to quantify.


Positive effects are obvious but appear gradually, not all at once
As with lifting weights and running, I don't notice the effects immediately, but I do notice them over time. Somehow over the years my abdomen has transformed from possessing the customary layer of subcutaneous padding I grew used to most of my life, to, well, not six pack abs, but perhaps something approximating two-and-a-half pack abs. Strange. How did that happen? Similarly, I am less emotionally reactive and I'm making wiser choices! Smart choices that used to be such a struggle for me are easier. How did that happen? Neither practice is turning me into a superwoman, and I don't expect to become one. (My husband can tell you how grumpy and anxious I am capable of being.) Both forms of exercise help me function better, and I am happier when I do them.


"Always Climbing." More art therapy for dementia from my mom


Grand revelations are optional.
I remain grateful that my mom inspired me with an ongoing curiosity and, I hope, an open minded, yet scientific mind. Yet an unfortunate, and I am sure, unintended consequence of her constant quest for the mystical was that my young self gathered that having Profound Spiritual Experiences was just what people needed to do if they were to get any sort of respect in this world. Imagine my frustration that I couldn't manage this at will. Here it seemed everyone else was speaking to angels and aliens in my mom's world. Oh sure, I had the occasional extraordinary dream or insight, but nothing that I could sustain at will.


It came as a relief to relieve myself of this burden.


I can remember the exact moment. I was in my late teens, trying to express to a therapist how I felt like I had to figure it all out. A Profound Spiritual Experience could provide some helpful pointers. I was so frustrated! The therapist leaned over and peered at me over his wire-rimmed glasses. "Why?" he asked me. "Don't you think that's a lot to ask of yourself?" A shock of relief startled me as the light went on. "You mean...I don't have to figure it all out?" This had not occurred to me.


I have been relieved ever since.


Prior to my science career, I so often beat mentally myself up for my stubborn incapacity to transcend. I never tried drugs, and I won't judge people who do, but the idea of using them still makes my inherently fussy puritanical senses shudder (which is sort of funny given that I eventually got a PhD in the science of drug design, medicinal chemistry.) No, any mystical experience in my book had to be natural, endogenous, no cheating. I do like biofeedback devices, though, and often use either a galvanic skin response monitor or a crude EEG headband to monitor my physiology. I like data. But biofeedback is output, not input, and biofeedback is the topic of another article.


"Reaching the Temple", more art therapy for dementia from my mom




Language 2.0, for humans.

I don't belittle my cats for not understanding the regular speeches that I deliver to them while attending to their cat needs. They would need language, for one. In analogy, maybe humans could use something beyond language to grasp what is going on around here. Maybe we could wire ourselves together to form a super-consciousness. I'm digressing, but it is an interesting point. Researchers are wiring rat brains together so that the rats can share sensory-motor information. Researchers are also enabling monkeys to share mental links to problem solve as a group. It's all very science-fictiony with head-scratching pros and cons. What's next?


“We may be in the Universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the
meaning of it all.”

–William James


Forgiving my former presumptuous self

I see my teenage self as embarrassingly arrogant in retrospect, up to the task of "figuring it all out". I had poured through quite a variety of different perspectives, from conventional religious to those that raised a lot of eyebrows, the latter being far more entertaining, I must say. Perhaps I shouldn't be too scornful of my teenage ambitions. I know other people who admit they also once felt the same youthful obligation and frustration with "figuring it all out". Maybe that is a normal part of what young adults go through.


Science humbled me further

Working in a lab, I learned that my wishful thinking never made my experiments run the way I thought they should. It wasn't that I sometimes didn't get the results I expected. I was more that I usually did not get the results I expected. This messes with your head. Even my best logic could not predict the outcome. I had to do experiments. I learned gratitude for the explanatory power of science, and awe for surprising results that I would never have predicted on my own. I have learned to back off of what I expect the truth to be because it might be even more interesting than I imagined. It is a difficult reflex to learn.


Me playing with the Clark refractor at Lowell Observatory


Probing reality with the scientific method provides the most reliable, reproducible models of the physical universe in my book, yet our probes–telescopes and microscopes and particle accelerators and so on–remain crude and perhaps will never be fully adequate. Science requires we question everything, yet people who don't understand science believe that science actually "proves" ideas. It does not. Science simply comes ever asymptotically closer to modeling reality. Our models of how nature works are continually being course-corrected by data from experiment.


I'm convinced only of my own ignorance. My favorite go-to source of inspiration is my observation that humans and  non-human animals can at times show extraordinary kindness toward one another. The evidence that consciousness and kindness can evolve out of quarks and energy is a continual source of hope for me that I will cling to.


"I Lean on My Children", more art therapy for dementia from my mom


My mom's influence
Guided visualization cassette tapes cluttered the bookshelves of our home in the early 70's in Los Angeles. My mom enjoyed paging through the Sounds True mail order catalog. She often let me circle tapes that struck my fancy, and ordered these along with her own selections.


For example, I remember requesting Stephen Hill's tape, recorded right inside the Great Pyramid of Giza! Hill is still highly regarded in the world of contemplative music, and responsible for broadcasting this awesomely spacey electronic music via a program called Music From the Hearts of Space into our California home every week. I loved his show and thought Hill was on to something. Maybe, my ten-year-old self thought, maybe the vibrations of his recordings will catapult me into some amazing epiphany! Ancient voices will speak wisdom to me! I will have visions!


This did not happen. It was really nice music, though. I still like it.


Usually my mom's tapes were guided positive affirmations. After these arrived in our mailbox, mom and I would chunk them in our big black Radio Shack cassette player which itself was the size of a mailbox, press the play button, and dutifully lie on our backs on our living room's green shag rug carpet. We would close our eyes, and listen.


With ambient music droning, a disembodied voice would intone positive affirmations: We were not shy after all! We were great at making new friends! We were more creative! We had better diets and better habits! Our thighs were thinner! And if they weren't thinner we loved our big fat goddessy thighs! We loved ourselves and others! We were spiritually connected! And so on.


Each time I closed my eyes, I secretly hoped for some astounding magical revelation. Something. Anything. With that to brag about, people would regard me with a degree of awe! My mother clearly had a lot of respect for people with astounding epiphanies and I wanted to be one of these people. But that never happened.


Well, not never, but rarely, and never consistently. For example, I had a fascinating ecstatic experience, which I'm tempted to chalk up as a physiological response to accidentally engaging in a peculiar breathing pattern. I would love to reproduce it, I have tried a few times, and failed. I just must not be getting it right.


I was living in Western Pennsylvania by the time I was in high school, and one evening my mom suggested we go to something she read about in the Pittsburgh paper called a Satsang. I was always game to try one of her spiritual adventures.


It was pretty simple. One evening we joined a normal-looking handful of adults who all sat around in what might have been a therapist's office, comfortably, on cushions. Someone played a cassette tape of a very simple two-line melody where the only word was RAM. And we just sang along. It was explained that the word "Ram" opened up the heart, and Rama was an important Hindu deity. OK, I thought, warm heart Hindu deity Ram, whatever. So mom and I sang, at first self-consciously, but then playfully and easily. Ram-a-ram-a-ram-a ram! Ram-a-ram-a-ram-a ram! I can still remember the melody.


I don't know how much time went by, but I remember that for once I wasn't preoccupied with my usual Need to Have a Profound Spiritual Experience. We were just people singing together. It was just...nice! Everyone was singing and smiling together. When we finished singing I was soaring! My heart felt like a cozy warm blanket was wrapped around it. Something about the vibration of my voice in my chest created a sense of incredible warmth in my chest. I felt ecstatic. I wrote a poem about the experience the next day. The poem seems somewhat childish and inadequate in retrospect but I was obviously deeply moved by my experience.


Curiously, my mom had the same response. We looked at each other with amazement as she drove us home afterwards. I remember our trying to figure it out. I had not consumed anything, no food or drink was offered. I didn't feel drugged anyway, just utterly joyous and full of love. I was astonished to find this warm, loving sensation in my chest lasted the entire next day at high school. Not many days in high school were like that, so that was memorable. My mom reported with a sense of awe that she was experiencing the same thing. It took a day to wear off.


I think it was, at least in part, a breathing thing. There are many religious rituals around the world that employ chanting or breathing differently. I know someone who reports a similar ecstatic experience when they pray out loud saying the name of Jesus repeatedly in a rhythmic way. I don't want to tell him, I think I had the same experience! Only I was using a different word! These experiences are deeply personal and one danger with analyzing them is that we may diminish what they mean to the person who experienced them. We can never fully understand what another person has experienced and it might be offensive to try.


Respect for my mom endures as I move into a different world

I must have become tired of all this striving for the sublime. In my first year of college I aborted my music scholarship to double major in chemistry and biology. I had little time and patience for the hairy fairy, but kept up a deep friendship with my mom. I would gently tease her, "I see you've been talking to too many dolphins again."


A few times each year I'd get into pointless snits with her about how ridiculous I thought some of her beliefs were. I mean, twelve-stranded alien DNA from the Pleiades! Here I was sequencing actual DNA and I would be sputtering with frustration over the phone at her conviction that we would all evolve twelve stranded DNA based on her channeled alien readings. We would then go without speaking to each other for a few weeks, until I felt badly, and I would call her to apologize for my intolerance. "I'm sorry too!" she would say tearfully. We always made up.


There was a lot that she was into that a part of me quietly felt was downright silly, but there was another a part of me that marveled to see how she clearly got something powerful out of it. How could I take that away from her? She had, and still has, the wonder of a child. She would mail me photocopies channeled readings from Sedona Magazine that I would dutifully try to read but I'd have to give up in frustration after just a few paragraphs because it all seemed like gobbledygook to me. "I just can't understand this," I would politely apologize to her.


My mom's favorite magazine.


She tried repeatedly to explain what it meant to her.

"It's just like your science fiction stories", she often tried to explain. She knew I loved science fiction. I believe she was trying to tell me the value of stories, of metaphor, of symbol. Symbols are the only bridge we have to reach the unconscious. We need the language of dreams to speak what is unspeakable. Eventually I could see that she was doing something that really felt right for her. She loved it. I stopped criticizing what seemed incomprehensible to me. I wouldn't dream of taking this away from her.


The priceless value of human stories

And speaking of science fiction, Carl Sagan's book Contact, which is one of my top favorites, posed the question: what would advanced aliens would find most precious in human society? What would they want to save?


According to Sagan, it was not our technology. If you think about it, the highest technology that we know of in the universe is not human technology. It is seen in the biology of living things, the mechanisms that have evolved over billions of year to perfection inside a single cell. You can find the highest technology in the universe, that we know of, inside an amoeba. Humans are not required. No, in Sagan's Contact, what advanced aliens found so valuable on Earth was our human stories. Our myths, our dreams, are what makes us unique.


More recent art therapy for dementia from my mom


So twelve-stranded DNA from the Pleiades aside, I learned to respect my mom's experiments. She taught me how to close my eyes and explore my consciousness. I learned that, even if I didn't have instantaneous or amazing results, the guided visualizations and affirmations that we tried together felt good. Like physical exercise, the results were not instantaneous. You noticed the positive effects creeping up on you over time.


Just another form of exercise

Years later I just realized that her guided visualization tapes were simply another form of brain exercise. Epiphanies are not required. Exercise tones your inner and outer organs, including your brain. The more you practice, the more you see results, and brain exercise is no exception to this rule. Just because you can't see your own moving parts, which in this case may be your neurotransmitters, doesn't mean it isn't an exercise.


No magic pills either

There is an interesting parallel here with my experience researching antioxidants. When I was in grad school, our lab received a NASA grant for developing antioxidant prophylactics to protect astronauts from the real dangers of radiation. Antioxidants were hot in the 90's. People are still selling them with eyebrow-raising claims, of course. If you read about antioxidant theory, on paper, it seemed to our lab and many other labs, that you ought to be able to extract these molecules from plants, put them in pills, pop megadoses of them, and expect amazing, instant results. A biological epiphany! On paper, the mechanisms looked sound.


Study after study on antioxidants were terribly disappointing to the research community. I must have read thousands of research papers. The current data continues this trend. Unless someone has a frank deficiency in the first place, which is unusual, the effects of antioxidant supplements were negligible at best, at at worst, toxic, damaging livers. I was really rooting for antioxidant pills too. Who wouldn't? We learned that large-dose antioxidants could turn into damaging pro-oxidants via mechanisms that in retrospect seem obvious to me now, so megadoses sometimes even had toxic side effects. Not surprising; large doses of anything are toxic, that is the first lesson of toxicology. The dose makes the medicine and the dose makes the poison.


Slow and steady wins the race
Now it seems clear that the best way to get your antioxidants is from eating unprocessed plant foods, not necessarily from pills. Slow and steady, like regular exercise, eat your vegetables every day. "Eat lots of plants," says Micheal Pollen. He is right, and just as I am grateful his message has resonated at last with the public, a small part of me is secretly irritated that he was able to state in just four words what took me years to figure out reading way too many words in research papers. I would add, Don't eat all plants. Don't eat poison ivy. Be sensible. He says that too.


The effects of a plant-rich diet are not instantaneously superduper, but more subtle and long term. Fiber remodels your gut bacteria over time, (plants have fiber, animals do not) and gut bugs' byproducts from digesting fiber, short chain fatty acids, may even signal stem cell neurogenesis in the brain's hippocampus, for example. In other words plant fiber might help our memory thanks to gut bacterial byproducts. This is not the sort of effect you would notice overnight. There are many other examples but I don't want to digress too much.


There's some interesting exceptions to supplemental antioxidants, I don't mean to dismiss them all, and some people act like I am roughing up their children when I speak discouragingly of their favorites. To these people I will say I take a small number every other day, including turmeric and fish oil, because they probably don't hurt and they might help. Again, I don't expect instant acute effects but more food-like, subtle ones. But other than that, the story of antioxidants mirrors the story of exercise. We don't have a magic bullet, you just have to work a little bit at it every day. Eat your vegetables every day and you are less likely to get cancer and heart disease and diabetes and dementia and so on.


Anyway, the point I am making is that it is human nature  to want instant results, be it from diet, exercise, or meditation. When we don't get instant results we get discouraged. It doesn't have to be that way.


Maybe some day I will have a Profound Spiritual Experience. But if I don't, I am fine with that too. At last.