21 March 2008

An Experience of Awakening?

A friend sent me this today, and I was so struck by it that I thought I'd make it the basis of my rave today. It's billed as "what it feels like to have a stroke", which it does describe. Because of her ability to observe and articulate her observations (the benefits of a scientific training!) we get an incredibly detailed account of the progress of Jill's stroke. She notices a lot more than the average person might, and her neuroscience training gives her a vocabulary and a conceptual framework to understand and communicate her experience. However it goes well beyond the what happens when parts of her brain start shutting down. Perhaps it is best to watch the video clip and then read my comments.

I'll just summarise what Jill says about the hemispheres.

Left: linear/methodical, interested in past and future, interested in details. The left hemisphere categorises, associates, and makes projections and predictions about the future. It thinks in language and is responsible for our internal chatter. Source of the though "I am" - separate individual.

Right: interested in here and now. Thinks in pictures and kinesthetics. Information as a flow of energy, experiences as a collage. Interested in how here and now looks, sounds, smells etc. Knows that we are all one, perfect, whole and beautiful.

Once Jill's stroke is underway it suppresses the activity in her left hemisphere. She describes the experience in terms of losing a sense of the distinction between the atoms of her arm and the atoms of the wall, and not being able to define the boundaries of her body. There is just energy and she is captivated by this. At the same time her "internal brain chatter" falls silent. She has an expansive feeling, and feels "at one with all the energy" and "it's beautiful there". When her recollection of her past falls away it is a profound relief - imagine losing 37 years of emotional baggage! It was euphoric. All job stress was gone, all stress of any kind was gone, and there was an experience of profound peacefulness.

What Jill is using a language that anyone familiar with Buddhism should be acquainted with. She talks about losing a sense of being a limited and isolated self, of losing the "I am" (ahaṇkāra). The immersion in right-brain consciousness gave her a sense of unboundedness (aparimāna) associated with euphoria (sukha, pamojja, piti), and sense of unbounded love for and solidarity with everyone (mettañca sabbalokasmiṃ mānasam bhāvaye aparimānaṃ - Metta Sutta). She repeats the word "peace" (śanti). She gestures and describes a sense of liberation (vimutti). The falling silent of internal chatter sounds very much like entering the second dhyana. However she does not describe things in terms of dependent arising, and I can't help wondering what she would make of the teaching on this.

Jill is describing a classic mystical experience which is familiar to those described in many religious traditions. What is interesting is how closely her explanation follows the conceptual landscape of Buddhism. She doesn't say whether she follows any particular tradition.There ar of course resonances with other traditions. At times she appears to be describing the insight that is summarised as "I am brahman" in the Upaniṣads, for instance. Interestingly Jill does not meet God, or interpret her experience in theistic terms. What makes Jills story profound is that she retains the ability to experience that kind of consciousness, more or less at will (is what she implies anyway). This resonates very powerfully with my own spiritual aspirations.

It seems very likely that Jill's stroke affected that part of her brain that has been dubbed the "God Spot". More recent research has shown that it is more of a network of a dozen or so regions than a spot, but the name is evocative. Stimulation of the brain, whether by epileptic seizure or electrodes applied to the scalp, has been able to reproduce the kinds of feelings that mystics and Jill are talking about. Atheists have taken this as proof of the non-existence of God, but that is to suggest that they understand the effect which is claiming too much. How could, for instance mediation - intense samādhi - produce a vision or an experience of unboundedness? No one knows. No one really understands the relationship between the brain and consciousness except to say that we do know there is one.

Of course what is missing from Jill's presentation is any kind of method. Jill says that anyone can choose what kind of consciousness they dwell in from moment to moment. But we can't follow Jill because she achieved this Awakening via a life threatening (random?) blood clot. And actually although it sounds it, in practice changing our level of consciousness is not that easy. Fortunately the Buddha has described a method which is reported to produce just these kinds of experiences, especially the experience of blissful unbounded consciousness which sees things in terms of energy (ie process) and which makes no distinction between self and other.

Dr Jill Bolte Taylor also has a book out called My Stroke of Insight, and an interesting website.
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