The merits of acupuncture for pain relief and treatment of other conditions have been well documented, as well as challenged by naysayers. For me, those tiny needles have always hit the right spots. I’ve had close to a dozen acupuncture sessions over the years, and always walked away with my comfort restored.
But during one treatment, I received much more than relief. I was carried off to somewhere I had never visited before, nor have been to since. And it was the best place I have ever been.
I was visiting Heike, a holistic health practitioner, for stomach pain. Heike is a tiny figure of a woman, a dramatic contrast to my hulking 6’4” self. I felt like Gulliver being nailed to the ground by a Lilliputian when she placed the needles into me. During my third session of impalement, pain wasn’t the only sensation that dissipated. Within what seemed only a few minutes—perception of time while needled up can be imprecise—I felt nothing at all. It was as if my body had vanished. I also became “mindless,” but in a good way; no thoughts or even words floated into my consciousness to ripple my aura of pure serenity.
I felt as if my body had radiated outward in all directions, as if I had been woven into the universe. I was the universe. I had become nothing and everything at the same moment.
I briefly considered the possibility that I had died and gone to Heaven. But soon I returned to my standard acupuncture experience: calm, relaxed, but grounded in the real world.
Afterward I excitedly told Heike about my experience. She pulled her head back and eyed me skeptically. “That type of thing can happen,” she said in her slight German accent, clearly not sharing my wonder. It was obvious that she saw acupuncture as a healing art only, not a ticket to the essence of all that is, was, and ever will be. She cut the conversation short and wished me well.
While it was appealing to think I had made a connection to the cosmos in some profound way, my deductive nature craved facts. So I did some research to see whether there might be a scientific explanation for my brush with nirvana.
I learned that some people experience extremes of emotion during acupuncture, even burst into laughter or tears that bear no relation to their conscious thoughts. But this is fairly rare. More common is a state of euphoria, a high similar to being under the influence of alcohol or mood-altering drugs. This elevated state of serenity is experienced in about 30 to 40% of acupuncture cases.
What acupuncture does can sound very mysterious. Traditional practitioners will tell you that it unblocks the flow of a life force known as chi along pathways in the body known as meridians. When your chi is blocked, it can sap your energy and cause other health problems.
The concept of chi is not embraced by everyone in the medical establishment; some consider it a fantasy. There’s also no real consensus on how this invisible energy can be measured. But modern imaging techniques can assess how acupuncture affects the body, the brain in particular. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) suggests that acupuncture activates and deactivates structures of the brain involved in decision making, regulating emotions, perception, self-awareness, and attention. These effects can alter the associations between perception and emotion, which could affect how we feel about a particular sensation.
My own experience may have resulted from the effects of acupuncture on the limbic system in my brain. The limbic system consists of a number of parts that play key roles in how we feel and react. One of its important functions is to trigger a fear response, which helps us take appropriate action during dangerous situations. Acupuncture, which has been shown to inhibit the limbic system, may have put me into a state of “fearlessness” that contributed to my feelings of utter contentment.
It has been theorized that people who have a stronger reaction to acupuncture are more likely to have hallucinations and even out-of-body experiences during a session. Could that explain what happened to me that day? Since no device was monitoring my brain function at the time, it’s impossible to know.
I have received acupuncture a number of times since my extraordinary experience and have eagerly awaited another trip to Eden at every session. No such journey has occurred again. I assume that what happened to me was neurological, but still allow the possibility that I transcended the physical world to a spiritual plane. Whatever the case, I will never forget my moment of oneness with the universe.