I Love Your Right Hemisphere
Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight
by Jay McDaniel
Fifty Trillion Molecular Geniuses
The video above is a TED talk. In it you receive an invitation to spiritual awakening offered by Harvard-trained brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor following her stroke.
She does not use the word mysticism to name the sense of connectedness and creativity she experienced after her stroke, but I use it to name a kind of mystical sensibility that she shares, and which is completely compatible with a rich and deep materialism, informed by what she calls fifty trillion beautiful molecular geniuses. For more on process and mysticism see Process and Mysticism.
There's much more to be said about mysticism and the brain than is offered here. Perhaps we'll offer some more articles in months to come. In any case the subject is important to us all. If you scroll to the bottom of the article, you'll find another video, offered by the RSA in London, presenting more information on the brain hemispheres.
Quotes from Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk.
“I realized, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!’ The next thing my brain says to me is, ‘Wow! This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?’”
In the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body
“I am the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is.”
“Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information … explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.”
Thinking in Pictures
We Think in Pictures
One time, when I was in graduate school, I went to a party and met a graduate student in neuroscience. She asked what I studied and I said philosophy and theology.
She said, "I love your right hemisphere."
She was teasing. She suspected that people like me are a bit out of touch with kinesthetic, affective, visual-spatial, empathic, and musical forms of intelligence. In fact, she believed that the sciences are much more intuitive and artistic than philosophy and theology. "You philosophers always focus on written texts," she playfully said, "we get to think in pictures."
I was reminded of her when I watched the video above by Jill Bolte Taylor. Jill Bolte Taylor had an experience -- a stroke -- which reminded her just how powerful it can be to think in pictures and feelings, movements and connections. She looks into the brain and finds 50 trillion molecular geniuses that help make it happen.
Taylor's video strikes a deep chord in many people. It has now been seen by more than nine million people in different parts of the world.
Saving Grace of a Stroke
In the talk she tells the story of how a stroke saved awakened her to a togetherness that is everywhere at once and that can be known and felt, to the degree what we are touched by the right hemispheres of our brain. Inasmuch as we are touched by our right hemispheres, she proposes, we can also experience a certain kind of peace for which are hearts so often yearn.
The peace at issue is fixed or rigid. Nor is it anesthetizing. It is a kinesthetic and moving peace: a peace that comes from knowing what the present moment looks like, smells and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.
There's a cosmology in her presentation that rings true to process thinkers like me. Shes doe not picture us as lonely individuals trapped within our bodies, embarked on a purely quiet quest from the alone with the Alone. Rather she pictures us as concrescing subjects, alive to the richly connected universe in which we live and from which we emerge. It is not so much the alone with the Alone as it is the together with the Together.
Together with the Togethering
For Whitehead the word "together" is one of the most important in philosophy. Togetherness is not sameness but it is not isolation, either. It is togetherness-in-difference and difference-in-togetherness. It is connection without conformity, like the boulders in a Thomas Oord photograph.
Along with so many others -- quantum physicists and Buddhists, for example -- Whitehead believes that the universe is a network of inter-becomings or, perhaps better, inter-togetherings in which everything is implicated in the existence of everything else. In his principle of relativity, Whitehead proposes that all things are actually present in everything else, even as they are also distinct from everything else. Here's how he puts it:
In fact if we allow for degrees of relevance, and for negligible relevance, we must say that every actual entity is present in every other actual entity.
Process and Reality, page 50
Recall William Blake's idea that the purpose of life is to see the universe in each grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. Whitehead believes that every moment of human experience is a grain of sand in which the universe is present. He calls it concrescence. Each moment of concrescence is a togethering, a concrescing, of the universe.
The ultimate togetherness of the togethering universe is the adventure of the universe as one. In Process and Reality Whitehead speaks of this as God. It is a Harmony of Harmonies that is both composed of, yet different from, the many entities of the universe. It is the Togethering of the Togethered.
In her talk Jill Bolte Taylor speaks of this Togethering as the life-force and accents its dynamic qualities.
Imagine a mind into which the trillions of synaptic connections in the brain continously feed in a feedback loop. God is the mind of the universe and "love" is a word describing God's feelings of the connections and response to the connections.
God responds by becoming a life-force within the universe, a healing energy aimed at helping all togetherings become more holistically together. Whitehead puts it this way:
What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven and floods back into the world.
Process and Reality, page 351
Of course not all things in the world are loving. The life-force is not all-powerful. Not all togetherness is good. The life-forces about construction connections in which differences flourish.
When we are suffocated by the presence of others, or they by our presence, there is togetherness of an unhealthy kind. There is a denial of different and diversity, a falling into homogenization. The most tragic forms of such smothering are domination and violence. Smothering is unilateral power not relational power. It hurts both parties.
For Whitehead, the life-force is a lure away from such bad togethering toward good togethering. It is an inner beckoning toward togetherness without suffocation, togetherness without smothering. This spirit is similar to that of Jill Bolte Taylor. Her interest is in healthy connectedness: creative, respectful, peaceful, adventurous, musical, kinesthetic, compassionate, and alive -- with no one left behind.
This kind of togethering requires deep listening and respect. It gives others the space to be themselves and does not violate their integrity. Sometimes it hugs and sometimes it bows. It know the peace of embrace and the peace of space.
The Need for Mysticism
Is it possible that, in certain moments of our lives, we can awaken to this more holistic peace? Is it possible that we can awaken to the inter-togethering of all things and also to the love with which it is so deeply tinged?
This is what happened to Jill Bolte Taylor when she had her stroke. Her stroke helped her become a better scientist and a mystic. She proposes that we ourselves can choose to step inside the consciousness of our right hemispheres and, in so doing, awaken to the life-force, too.
Can the world's religions help? After all, they provide practices which, in certain circumstances, help people awaken to what Jill Bolte Taylor would call right-hemisphere wisdom. Meditation, prayer, dance, and, by no means least, concrete acts of love. But the world's religions can also hinder the needed awakenings, when they lapse into left-hemisphere idolatries.
Let's be clear: the left-hemisphere is not evil. It is just not the whole story, and our society has let it dominate. One name for this domination is modernity: the separation of reason from feeling, mind from body, self from other, without knowing the connections.
Typically the world's religions fall into left-hemisphere idolatry, not by absolutizing the individualized self, but rather by absolutizing the individual community of believers.
At their worst they make gods of religion itself: following Christ becomes Christianolatry, following the sunnah of the prophet becomes Islamism, following the dharma become Hindu nationalism. The religions become ideologies.
Given these idolatries it is understandable how so many people who are "spiritually interested but not religiously affiliated" -- that is, spiritual but not religious. And given these idolatries, it is understandable why some of them despise religion.
Still, in the run it is difficult to imagine any realistic transformation into what Jill Bolte Taylor would call right-hemisphere sensibilities without the world's religions.
When it comes to the world's religion, idolatry is not the whole story. At their best they are channels for grace and creativity, tenderness and courage, generosity and beauty.
Strokes of Gratitude
Perhaps what is needed within the religions is a wake up call, a kind of stroke, where left-hemisphere idolatries are seen for what they are, idolatries. Perhaps the strokes can take the form of people rejecting the religions in the same of something deeper, something more inclusive, something more loving, that is difficult to name.
The religions can respond to the critiques, not defensively, but by repenting of their idolatries and recovering the more generous, mystically sensitive dimensions of their practices.
Of course the "religions" can't really do this. They are simply abstractions from the people who claim them. What is really needed, it seems, is for religious people to have strokes, to have changes of heart, to find ways of balancing the two hemispheres in the very ways to which Jill Bolte Taylor points.
As she tells the story of her stroke, Jill Bolte Taylor tells us a story for all of us: religiously-affiliated and spiritual-but-not-religious. Hers is the the story of our brains, too, with their ten trillion molecular geniuses.
Such a deep process. So much motion and movement. So many geniuses. Even the hard times, even the strokes can be occasions for creative transformation, guided but not controlled by the life-force.
It's enough to make a person want give thanks. Thanks to the life-force; thanks to the hemispheres; thanks to the brains that carry the minds.
So many minds, too. People minds, horse minds, owl minds, mountain minds, molecule minds, sky minds. Such a cloud of witnesses. Such a communion of subjects.
Who could ever feel quite alone?