March 23, 2008

Thoughts about Jill Bolte Taylor and The Work of Byron Katie

What if the truth of who and what we are were already contained in our brain circuitry? In other words, what if "enlightenment" is a function (or dysfunction) of the brain?

Here's a video from the TED website
that's getting a lot of link-love. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor "suffered" a stroke that deteriorated her left brain, the hemisphere that processes information. She says, "I essentially became an infant in a woman's body."

Herewith, a summary of her findings and experience:

The right brain is where the awareness of "unity consciousness" lives. It also witnesses the activity of the left brain. The left hemisphere is linear, methodical, all about the past and future. It takes everything that the past has ever learned and projects it into the future. The left brain relies on language as the connector to "reality." It's the hemisphere that says, "I know" and "I am."

Dr. Bolte Taylor temporarily lost her language center—and her "I am"—as a result of her brain hemorrhage. She felt at one with everything that is, no physical boundaries, no connection to the "story" that creates separation. She calls her experience "a wave of clarity" and "nirvana."

Suddenly the left hemisphere kicked back in, and there was a problem with this! Thirty-seven years of emotional baggage returned in an instant.

We could say that the times her left brain was working were the moments Dr. Bolte Taylor was "functional." She knew she was having a stroke, that she needed to get to a hospital, that she probably couldn't drive. It was the brain's "dysfunction" that let her know she was not the "doer," that the stroke was a "stroke of insight" into the way we live our lives...and this at once allowed her to surrender the fate of her body, and, once she saw she was still alive, motivated her to recover—a process that took eight years.

"Who are we?" Dr. Bolte Taylor asks. "We are the life-force power of the universe...and we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world."

It's a beautiful, life-affirming story...and I am left with questions.

Do we really have that power to choose our reality? I am not convinced; if we're not in charge of this thing called life, how do we have any power to choose anything? Dr. Bolte Taylor seems to contradict herself here. If The Work has taught me anything, it's that everything that can be pointed to by language and reasoning is not "it." "I choose how to show up" and "I show up choicelessly" are both thoughts, nothing more. That takes a lot of pressure off.

Is knowing "the truth" as simple as a matter of biology? Could it be that everyone who has had an experience of awakening had nothing more mystical than a brain dysfunction? (We're never going to get a definitive answer to this one!)

If the right brain is the sole seat of "nirvana," how come all left hemisphere strokes don't produce euphoria and sustained insight into our true nature?

If we are defined by our brains, as Dr. Bolte Taylor suggests, then, assuming we all have brains, how can we ever know the truth of our being?

Are we in fact practicing self-induced brain dysfunction when we strive to understand "nothing?" Those who are skeptical about or condemning of practices that involve suspending or questioning the "I-Know" mind seem to think so. I'm not convinced of this either.

As someone who has never been particularly a left-brain adept (my scores on the logic and math sections of standardized tests have always been so low, I think I received credit only for writing my name), I experience that as long as we collectively agree that we live in a world, it's useful to have some left hemisphere skills. Unless you have people taking care of your every worldly need, you may want to know how to balance a checkbook, be able to use language, see a reason to dial 9-1-1 if you are in or if you witness a car accident. It might be a good idea to heed the left brain and step outside if your house is on fire, if only to save your family the trouble of identifying your charred remains.

It's also wonderful to have the right brain around to let me know that all is not as it seems. It's whimsical, creative, unworried, connnected, loving, unsuspicious, accepting, and it knows how to check in with the left side if it needs some assistance with the business of life.

It appears we need self-awareness in order to develop "Self-awareness." Brain death is not the same thing as awakened awareness. Liberation from stressful thoughts doesn't mean that you're going to stand by and watch a murder, stop eating because you don't believe you "need" to eat, or wear your shoes on your hands because you're so equality-conscious, you can't see a difference.

Balance is good. Through inquiry, I strive to understand and therefore enjoy the best of both worlds...or, perhaps more accurately, the best of both hemispheres.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

When I watched this video I interpreted Jill's experience as the connecting to her actual knowing that
reality is good - and for her that was in the right brain - that the left brain dominance of our society keeps us from that knowing. Katie talks about her experience in a similar fashion - not even knowing that people drink tea and being so appreciative of that act - not knowing what adjective applied to her - he, she, it. Does it matter if the work is a biological act? Something to do the work on!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that. Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight is one of the most incredible stories I've heard in a long time. Her TEDTalk video blew my mind wide open to new possibilities. On the one hand, there's what she went through and how she emerged from it. On the other hand, there's what she can teach all of us.
I saw the 4 part Oprah interview on Oprah dot com Soul Series and I did learn a lot from that, but I'd like to find our more of how to do what Dr. Taylor did, without having a stroke of course!
Thin how many of us are living too much in the head, and not the heart. And of course, you can't get more left brain than a Harvard Brain Scientist. Isn't it ironic that she should be the one to have the stroke and transform from the quintessential left brainer into this ""seen the light"" disciple of finding inner peace?
I hope this movement keeps going. Maybe there will be My Stroke of Insight classes where we can practice what Jill Bolte Taylor is preaching.