I just finished reading My Stroke of Insight by brain neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.
Jill had a life threatening stroke to the left hemisphere of her brain. The blood clot that formed was the size of a golf ball.
The book covers several topics: her experience during the stroke and the long road to recovery; the best ways to treat and interact with stroke victims; how the brain works and it’s anatomy; the differences between the left and right brain hemispheres, including different personality traits; the spiritual insight she gained from the stroke.
I am most interested in the last topic.
Bolte Taylor states that with the silencing of her dominant right brain hemisphere — the side that produces linear thinking, verbal acuity, and constant internal monologue — she experienced Nirvana:
As the hemorrhaging blood interrupted the normal functioning of my left mind, my perception was released from its attachment to categorization and detail. As the dominating fibers of my left hemisphere shut down, they no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly similar to my experience in Thetaville. I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana.
The message she wants to share with the world is this:
“I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment, we can choose to hook into that part of our brain… Peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.”
I’ve read that enlightenment can come either suddenly or slowly, if at all.
Perhaps sudden enlightenments are simply the sudden shift in dominance from the left brain to the right?
Here is Eckhart Tolle’s recounting of his moment of enlightenment:
“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe”, I thought, “only one of them is real.” I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.
Tolle’s experience is strikingly similar to Bolte Taylors — first the internal dialogue stopped cold, then came a jarring realization, followed by surrender to the silent “void.” Severe mental stress and anguish brought to the point of near suicide, triggered Tolle’s brain hemisphere shift. Perhaps some part or parts of his brain calculated that in order for him survive as a living being, the right brain hemisphere would need to take dominance?
“Slow enlightenment” entails the tedious work of dedicating years to meditation practices, a technique I’ve heard likened to “trying to turn a battleship at sea.”
Most religious traditions value and promote prayer and meditation as paths to spiritual states of being. In light of Bolte Taylor’s experience, what these techniques seem to be doing for all practical purposes, is to train the left brain to become quiet, as the right brain becomes dominant.
Mystical experiences have always been a part of the human condition, but until recently, there has never been an anatomical explanation for them. Bolte Taylor has given us one.
Here is a TED talk Jill Bolte Taylor gave describing her experience. It is a pretty good condensed version of her book. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyyjU8fzEYU