Friday, March 28, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor's Vision

"The Great Power is mysterious; it is not for you to know, it is not for me to know, and it is not within our power to know it, but we are parts of it, in common with all things. There are some things you can know about the Great Power because there are things that you can know about the world you live in. What you can know about your world reveals something, however small, about the Great Power, because this world is a part of it.

Most of all, by knowing yourself and your own place in this world, you can know something very special about the Great Power. But no matter how much you gain in wisdom, the Great Power will be vaster still, larger than the wide earth and the night sky. It is enough that you are a part of it; this connection is sacred and unbreakable."

-Owl's Vision

* * *

I got a link to a story today about a neuroanatomist who realized one morning that she was having a stroke. She took this as a golden opportunity to study what happens as the brain is slowly shut down and damaged by this experience, and her story (she has recovered now) is nothing short of amazing, at least to me.

The reason why I find it amazing is because the things she says coincide nicely with many of the theories and beliefs that I hold as my positions about this sacred experience we call "life"- especially some of my ideas on death. Before I write a little about the shamanic and mystical aspects of her experience, here is a link to the story. Please read it in it's entirety; it is a very eye-opening account that will make any thinking person question their beliefs on reality and what it means to be human:

Jill Taylor's account of her stroke

I think that this account reveals the truth known by indigenous peoples all around the world, but which is so startling to many modern people: we have a twin existence. We are not merely bodies, cut off from the world; we are also part of a great power that overflows our boundaries of flesh, of thinking, and of experiencing. Where do these "boundaries" that we live our lives surrounded by come from in the first place?

It is a curious part of our destiny that we should come up from the deep, from the wholeness of things, from that infinity that is our origin, and learn to know ourselves in very limited terms. I believe that it was part of the intentionality of the Great Power that we should exist in this way; but when I speak of "intentionality" on the part of the Great Mystery that is life, bear in mind that I don't mean to compare it to the intentions of humans or animals to find food or mates or anything like that. I'm saying that life's deepest mysteries are just that- mysteries- and I don't believe that we can understand all the powers and conditions that lead up to our emergence as human beings.

But we can see some things about what "being human" entails. It entails the perceptions we have that we are separate, individual, and "cut off". The life-way of animism and mysticism takes us beyond that, to a conscious experience of our origins: of our great participation with the Power that underlies everything. As we will see in Jill's vision, her "leap" into the greater "self" or the greater perspective she felt did not obliterate her, except in one very important way- her sense of "self" was not extinguished but greatly and enormously expanded- so much so that she felt distant and apart from all the petty things she had once considered so important. She had peace. The expansion moved her far beyond the tiny boundaries of ego that she had once thought were so absolute. This is the very core of both the "death" experience, and the genuine shamanic awakening, or the experience of "enlightenment" as it is recorded in many places.

For me, death is a sacred time in which we may rediscover our most authentic being, and our origins. I do not believe that everyone will do so at their death-journey, but I do believe that a chance exists for most. I look to the wisdom of the past for my ideas regarding who will go on to "union" with the Great Power or the Great Mystery of the Wholeness, and who will have to remain in the conditioned, limited state. I do believe that at death, two important things happen- we lose our sense of "distinction" with the world around us (an experience that Jill recounts with much simplicity and beauty) and we lose our sense of "self-governance" or the ego-centered feeling that we are "in control".

If you consider what it would be like to lose these two things- boundaries and self-willed control- you can have, for a moment, a tiny taste of what the "greater self" may be like; to consciously experience the great power that is the world and all things in it, to taste participation in the greater bulk of life. There is no human "control" at this level because the Great Power's motions are massive and universal, and at this point, the "dead" person senses them and experiences them in a more direct, whole way. Life ceases being a personal narrative, and becomes a "world participation narrative", to use a term that I invented a while back.

I think it is important to point out that the "greater self" should not be taken as a self of identity in the same way we consider our "selves" now to be an identity; in no place, either this life or the next, do I necessarily believe in "identity" in some hard, eternal, or unchanging sense. "Identity" for humans is largely a social convention, something we find in the mirror of other people's expectations and reactions to us, and in the things we decide about our bodies and experiences and internalize as the "facts" of our personal narrative.

Jill's experience allowed her to see outside of her personal narrative- and in that freedom, she found a great sense of peace. We don't have to be "someone" in terms of a "hard identity" to exist, to experience things, to feel things, and to operate in this world, either the world we all experience as the "ordinary" world, or the unseen, non-ordinary world. In fact, I have an idea that freedom from "hard identities" greatly expands a person's ability to act and exist in a more free way, a more compassionate way, and makes a person more able to adapt successfully to situations. It also affords them many opportunities for wisdom that people who are obsessed with "hard identities" may miss.

Neither the Great Power nor its parts need "identities" to be what they are; reality goes on, unfolding, sacred and powerful, without the need for such conventions. We humans may have a great need for conventions, as complicated as our world is, and as complex as our interactions through language are, but it is a mystical perspective that all who experience Power must come to internalize that freedom and wisdom, as well as much power, flows from making the leap beyond "hard identity", and after that, "identity" at all.

To consciously stop the ordinary cognition of "me and other" and to enter into the great wholeness is one of the keynotes of shamanic experience that we have encountered worldwide, and it is an integral part of some Dharmic religious expressions in Hinduism and Buddhism. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that there is some "cosmic soup" that we all vanish into on some level. Such an idea would be incoherent; the fact of perception on any level is unchangeable, for the power of us is a power of awareness, of primordial perception.

The point is that many human ideas about things as odd as the "collective mind" or the "over mind" and the "many" and the "one" are all simply matters of perception. They are not eternal, unwavering objective things. Wisdom is found in the journey through perception and the realization of what it really is and what it means, and how it defines our narratives.

I'd like to quote Jill from her account here, and make a few points. The "normalization story" that Jill had internalized all her life- her personal narrative, and all its assumptions about herself and reality, began to fade early on in her experience. In a very powerful yet creepy part of her account, she recounts seeing her own hands and body become "weird looking". How amazing is that? What could be more normal looking to us than our own bodies, which we have experienced every day of our lives?

Jill says:

On the morning of the stroke, I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye. And it was the kind of pain, caustic pain, that you get when you bite into ice cream. And it just gripped me and then it released me. Then it just gripped me and then released me. And it was very unusual for me to experience any kind of pain, so I thought OK, I'll just start my normal routine. So I got up and I jumped onto my cardio glider, which is a full-body exercise machine. And I'm jamming away on this thing, and I'm realizing that my hands looked like primitive claws grasping onto the bar. I thought "that's very peculiar" and I looked down at my body and I thought, "whoa, I'm a weird-looking thing." And it was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality, where I'm the person on the machine having the experience, to some esoteric space where I'm witnessing myself having this experience.

Jill's account of her loss of boundaries between what she once considered "herself" and "her body" and the rest of the world is very intense- she begins to sense things in terms of an undivided field of energy. The fact that her entry into subtle states of awareness marks a crossing "away" into what she terms an "esoteric space" from which she can witness "herself having experience" is telling, as well; the condition of mind that she maintains through this, complete with her own awareness, is not dependent on the brain. The idea that our entire range of cognition and awareness is dependent on the brain is simply not true; only certain portions of the spectrum of cognition or "body-centered awareness" is dependent on the brain's healthy functioning. The "esoteric space" she encounters is the entry-ramp into her greater "body", which is not dependent on a few organs all operating correctly.

Her perceptions were returning to wholeness, as we see here, but to a person caught unawares by such a thing, the experience can be disconcerting. She says:

And I lost my balance and I'm propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can't define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy. And I'm asking myself, "What is wrong with me, what is going on?" And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and -- total silence.

And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

It is important to note here the power of silence to awaken extra-normal perceptions; as anyone who has dealt with trance-work knows, it is either a great silence, or a singular focus on a single, simple stimulus that has the affect of silencing the chatter of the mind, and allows for extraordinary feats of perception. The Eskimo shaman Aua, whose shamanic enlightenment experience occurred in deep silence, tells us the belief among the Eskimo or the Inuit people that experiencing silence is a path to gaining power.

Jill, who is having a spontaneous and trauma-caused shamanic experience or a non-ordinary cognitive episode, is also in danger, owing to the nature of her injury. On some level, she knows she needs help, and so she finds herself making efforts to get it, but in the interim, she is experiencing a freedom from the issues and stressors of her ordinary life. She writes:

Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online and it says to me, "Hey! we got a problem, we got a problem, we gotta get some help." So it's like, OK, OK, I got a problem, but then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness, and I affectionately referred to this space as La La Land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world. So here I am in this space and any stress related to my, to my job, it was gone. And I felt lighter in my body. And imagine all of the relationships in the external world and the many stressors related to any of those, they were gone. I felt a sense of peacefulness. And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria. Euphoria was beautiful -- and then my left hemisphere comes online and it says "Hey! you've got to pay attention, we've got to get help," and I'm thinking, "I got to get help, I gotta focus."

The full power of her experience, along with the wisdom it affords us, comes out after help has reached her and she actually faces the possibility of her own death. She writes:

A little while later, I am riding in an ambulance from one hospital across Boston to Mass General Hospital. And I curl up into a little fetal ball. And just like a balloon with the last bit of air just, just right out of the balloon I felt my energy lift and I felt my spirit surrender. And in that moment I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life. And either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life or this was perhaps my moment of transition.

That she experienced the loss of ego-centered control is clear when she says the profound statement "I felt my spirit surrender... and in that moment I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life". I would submit that even when we are fully involved in our ordinary lives, and living under the sense of "control", we are not ultimately the choreographers of our lives; we may not ordinarily sense the great motions of Power that stand behind causality and event, but we are not the authors of those things, and those things have everything to do with how we think and react. Better than tying up ourselves in ego-reinforcing notions of "control" is the wisdom of letting the world be as the world will be and letting yourself be a part of it all; life is too big for our ordinary sense of self- the self we live most of our lives in- to think it can take it all upon its shoulders.

At any rate, Jill knows- apart from it all- that this may be her end, and she has peace with the fact. It is interesting that she had this peace after a "spiritual surrender"- such a surrender is what Carlos Castaneda meant when he wrote:

"The end result which shamans... sought for their disciples was a realization which, by its simplicity, is so difficult to attain: that we are indeed beings that are going to die. Therefore, the real struggle of man is not strife with his fellow men, but with infinity, and this is not even a struggle; it is, in essence, an acquiescence. We must voluntarily acquiesce to infinity. In the description of sorcerers, our lives originate in infinity, and they end up wherever they originated: infinity."

The center of Jill's experience came later, when she faced death and came out still alive. She says:

When I awoke later that afternoon I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life, and my mind is now suspended between two very opposite planes of reality. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire and sounds were so loud and chaotic that I could not pick a voice out from the background noise and I just wanted to escape. Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expensive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Harmonic. I remember thinking there's no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.

For me, this is the climax of her realizations- what a powerful image, of her truth-body being an enormous and connected power, which could never "squeeze" back into the tiny limitations of the ordinary body. She felt liberated, soaring and free- the true original condition of life, and the condition to which we will be resolved, at some point.

Jill ends with speculations about "who we are". She says:

So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the "we" inside of me.

She says "life force power" of the universe; I simply call this the "Great Power", and I believe that the awareness of this sacred totality-force has informed much human religious and spiritual activity worldwide, leading us even to notions as Fate, Wyrd, the Great Mystery, and the like. In no manner do I consider this reality of power to be a "god" in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word, though many try to make these two concepts fit together by reason of how much they treasure the notion of "God" that they were usually raised with.

I feel that something is lost when people try to insert their particular cultural name for some "supreme being" into the sacred narratives of other people. The real danger of these attempts to homogenize all human spiritual thinking is that we insert our assumptions about things into the beliefs of others, and make it quite possible that we will miss the essence of their message- far better to forget what we think we know and really listen to others, before we decide that we've already got a handle on it.

For me, such experiences as Jill's carry us beyond classical monotheism and into a sacred, interactional, and immediate reality of power that we are all participants in, and which can be called "Great" because it excludes nothing, no force, no person, no phenomenon, no spirit, nothing. This Great Power is no universal demiurge, no cosmic judge or lawmaker standing ready to punish the wicked; this is a more profound reality that collectively and mysteriously stands within everything, and whose workings, when realized, lead to the undying harmony and peace that all people seek, but few find. This is "animistic salvation" if such a phrase may be used- this is the peace and knowledge that delivers us from meaninglessness, fear of death, and from evil. The Great Power belongs to no one and everyone at the same time.

Jill realized the truth about things because of her "wise wound"- a wound inflicted on her, I think, by the powers of the unseen world, so that she could see, and talk to others about it. Some may say that she simply suffered a catastrophic injury, and that her visions and insights were just electricity and chemistry being rattled. And to those types, I say it is very sad that they cannot separate the subtle from the obvious, nor meaning from circumstance. I further imagine that they are the types of people who can't see animals and faces in the clouds, or who can't enjoy a peaceful walk in the forest, but I may be wrong.

Jill had an experience of secret modes of cognition that only the dead or mystics ever really get a chance to experience. I think it is very amazing how well she handled it. I hope that everyone can learn from it.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

I'm not sure if you've seen her video on TED talks, but it is absolutely amazing.