Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist – a neuroanatomist — she knows the territory!
She knows that the brain is divided into two halves, also called hemispheres, – the right brain and the left brain. She knows that each hemisphere, and various places within each hemisphere, is assigned very specific and particular tasks, each of which is related to various human body functions.
The left brain is characterized by our logical, analytical or rational thinking; the right brain is associated with intuition and a holistic sense of being ‘connected.’.
The right brain directs the activity of the left side of the body, while the left brain deals with the right side of our body. The bridge that connects the two hemispheres is the corpus callosum – the George Washington Bridge, if you will. Traffic flows in both directions allowing for communication between the two hemispheres.
The term ‘corpus callosum‘ means tough body in Latin. I guess that’s because it has a tough job directing the traffic. Studies show that corpus callosum is actively involved in the movement of eyes…it watches you closely!
Jill Bolte Taylor knew all about it, but it wasn’t until she experienced a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain that she was able to appreciate that knowledge and to better appreciate the under-used right hemisphere of her brain.
In a book she titled, My Stroke of Insight, she wrote about her personal journey into her own brain, explaining how she was forced out of her left-brain hemisphere, so useful to her in earning her Ph.D. and had to move bag and baggage across the bridge, using her corpus collosum. Of course it took its toll, but she says it was worth the price because she experienced a life-changing encounter with her ‘other self.’
The right-brain story is a Valentine’s Day story…a unique kind of love story.
She writes: “I remember the first day of the stroke with terrific bitter-sweetness. In the absence of the normal functioning of my left orientation association area, my perception of my physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air. I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle. The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria…the absence of physical boundary was one of glorious bliss.”
“My escape into bliss was a magnificent alternative to the daunting sense of mourning and devastation I felt every time I was coaxed back into some type of interaction with the percolating world outside of me. I existed in some remote space that seemed to be far away from my normal information processing, and it was clear that the ‘I’ whom I had grown up to be had not survived this neurological catastrophe.
She says, “I understood that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor died that morning, and yet, with that said, who was left? Or, with my left hemisphere destroyed, perhaps I should now say, who was right?”
“Without a language center telling me: ‘I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I am a neuroanatomist. I live at this address and can be reached at this phone number,’ I felt no obligation to being her anymore. It was a bizarre shift in perception, but without the emotional circuitry reminding me of her likes and dislikes, or her ego center reminding me about her patterns of critical judgment, I didn’t think like her anymore.”
“…despite her likable and perhaps even admirable characteristics, in my present form I had not inherited her fundamental hostility…(italics added) I had forgotten about my job and all the things in my life that brought me stress—and with this obliteration of memories, I felt both relief and joy…on this special day, I learned the meaning of simply ‘being.’”
“…I shifted from the doing-consciousness of my left brain to the being consciousness of my right brain. I morphed from feeling small and isolated to feeling enormous and expansive…all I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.”
“Despite my neurological trauma, an unforgettable sense of peace pervaded my entire being and I felt calm.”
“Although I rejoiced in my perception of connection to all that is, I shuddered at the awareness that I was no longer a normal human being. How on earth would I exist as a member of the human race with this heightened perception that we are each a part of it all, and that the life force energy within each of us contains the power of the universe? How could I fit in with our society when I walk the earth with no fear? I was, by anyone’s standards, no longer normal. In my own unique way I had become severely mentally ill. And I must say, there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!”
“I was not only an oddity to those around me, but on the inside, I was an oddity to myself.”
“Wasn’t it interesting that although I could not walk or talk, understand language, read or write…I knew that I was okay?”
“In the absence of my left hemisphere’s negative judgment, I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful just the way I was.”
“For me, hell existed inside the pain of this wounded body as it failed miserably in any attempt to interact with the external world, while heaven existed in a consciousness that soared in eternal bliss. And yet, somewhere deep within me, there was a jubilant being, thrilled that I had survived!”
Jill Bolte Taylor was evicted from the left side of her brain, the area responsible for her Ph. d. From the vantage point of her right brain she looked back to her left brain and saw her ego identity, her critical, negative, judgmental small self that had resided there for her 37 years, and there’s much about that old self that she didn’t like.
She recognized the left side as the place of time-anxiety; she saw with new eyes where her old ego lived, the place where she worried about being accepted or failing to win top honors; it’s the place where she noticed, with anxiety, how fast time goes, where she worried about the effects of her aging, and where she worried about losing out on something – of never having enough, always wanting and demanding more, never fully satisfied with her life or her body or her salary or her relationships.
Her left-hemisphere stroke forced to move into the area of the brain that is non-judgmental, loving and appreciative, where poetry, music, and art live…where a true sense of freedom and expansiveness lives…where a sense of perfection lives…her own perfection; her Valentine palace.
Intellectually she knew the variety of places in the geography of the human brain. She knew as a scientist knows. But her ‘stroke of insight,’ as she calls it, was a thousand light years away from the scientists’ way of knowing – a place of peace, a place of fully feeling her feelings and appreciating those feelings; a place of intuition and insight, which Emerson called ‘transcendentalism.’
Speaking from his right hemisphere Emerson said, “I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine. There is a deep power in which we exist whose beatitude is accessible to us. Every moment when the individual is invaded by it is memorable. It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity and grandeur. The soul’s health consists in the fullness of its reception. Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.
“When it breaks through his intellect it is genius; when it breathes through his will it is virtue; when it flows through his affections, it is love.”
Jill Taylor appreciated the opportunity to experience what goes on in her right brain. It came as insight, as serenity and grandeur. Emerson bridged the gap between the two hemispheres, carving out a spirituality that was not impeded by his very active left hemisphere – religion or spirituality lives in the right hemisphere beside poetry and music.
Jill Bolte Taylor was, as a scientist, very comfortable in her left brain – it’s where she got her identity, how she came to know who she was and her place in the world. She experienced crossing over the boundary line where she had been confined and she carved out a new place for herself.
Then she was evicted from that familiar place, and she got to know a part of herself that was not so judgmental, not so quick to criticize, not so dependent on the usual intellectual ways of knowing, not so driven to prove here worth in order to be accepted.
Emerson knew about that place – that deep power in us what is accessible; Jesus knew, and Gandhi knew, and every wise soul that ever lived knows.
As I read her description of the right-brain territory lots of my poet-friends came marching to the front of my mind, each trying to grasp my attention first, like school children eagerly raising their hands to get the teacher’s attention.
Whitman, Cummings, Gibran and Rumi got in front of the line:
Whitman’s signature poem, Song of Myself, could have been titled ‘song of my right-brain self.’
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms, The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots…
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud…
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God, (No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least…
And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.
(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)
There is that in me–I do not know what it is–but I know it is in me.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death–it is form, union, plan–it is eternal
life–it is Happiness.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
In an earlier sermon (October 13, 2002) titled, ‘Why God Won’t Go Away,’ I reported on the work of a group of scientists who have located God—they found God in the posterior superior parietal lobe—a bundle of neurons nestled in the top, rear section of the brain.
They call the science of locating God in the brain neurotheology. God, along with every other concept, is in the mind, in the brain: in the posterior superior parietal lobe. This is in not a denial of God, or of God’s existence, nor is it an attempt to promote a particular theology, or way of thinking about God. Neurotheologians simply say that the concept we call God is located in a particular, identifiable section of the brain.
Neuroscientists like Jill Bolte Taylor have been mapping the brain for years, and it’s quite fascinating – it’s important on many levels, not the least of which is that it helps us understand ourselves and one another. It helps us to understand our forebears, the Unitarians, who were so left-brained – rational, analytical and critical; it helps us to appreciate the Universalists who were right brained – too compassionate to believe in a god who would condemn most of ‘His children’ to hell, thus they proposed the concept of universal salvation, positing a God of Love.
The poet Kahlil Gibran’s response to Jill Bolte Taylor’s story is captured in his poem, The Madman:
You ask me how I became a madman. It
happened thus: One day, long before
many gods were born, I woke from a deep
sleep and found all my masks were stolen,
–the seven masks I have fashioned and
worn in seven lives,–I ran maskless
through the crowded streets shouting,
“Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”
Men and women laughed at me and
some ran to their houses in fear of me.
And when I reached the market place, a
youth standing on a house-top cried, “He
is a madman.” I looked up to behold
him; the sun kissed my own naked face for
the first time. For the first time the sun
kissed my own naked face and my soul was
inflamed with love for the sun, and I
wanted my masks no more. And as if in a
trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the
thieves who stole my masks.”
Thus I became a madman.
And I have found both freedom and
safety in my madness; the freedom of lone-
liness and the safety from being under-
stood, for those who understand us enslave
something in us.
But let me not be too proud of my
safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe
from another thief.
Referring to her ‘stroke of insight,’ Jill Bolte Taylor said, “I understood that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor died that morning”
Cummings wrote: “i thank You God for most this amazing day…i who have died am alive again…now the ears of my ears awake, now the eyes of my eyes are opened…”
The eyes and ears take in information and process it – left brain work; the ears of the ears and eyes of the eyes live in the right side of the brain.
There is, of course, a danger of over-simplifying the left-right brain, but we’ll risk that to make a point: we must not allow the left hemisphere to dictate – we need a faith system that works for us, that sustains us in times of trouble, and for that we need the right hemisphere which allows us ‘to live and to love.’
Talking about her old left-hemisphere self Jill Taylor said she had been “judgmental and overly critical.’
Rumi’s hand was raised and he wanted to offer his poem from the right hemisphere
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.
The field he mentioned is the right hemisphere which has no place for the criticizing, competitive, analyzing self. In that field the sense of separation between me and you disappears…’ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.
Religion, at its best, comes from the right hemisphere.
Of course we need to have easy access to both halves of the brain, but the left brain deprives us of a spirituality we need, a faith we can rely on, and a loving sense of compassion that makes us human.
The left side asks, ‘Why are we here? Does God exist? Is there a purpose to life, what’s the meaning of it all?’
The right side simply and humbly feels at home in this Grand Creation in which we live, and move, and love and have our being.
Introduction of closing song: Now, with help from Irving Berlin’s right hemisphere, and Ed Thompson’s corpus callosum, and your corpus callosum, we’ll venture over from the left, paying-attention-to-a-sermon hemisphere to the right side where unconditional love lives freely and openly, and writes mushy Valentine’s Day songs: How Much Do I Love You?
Footnote: lines from the right hemisphere in world religions:
Hindu: I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature; I am the beginning, the life span and the end of all…
Taoist: The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
Hebrew: In the beginning the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep and God said, ‘Let there be light…’
Moses: I am that I am…
Jesus: I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
Biblical myths…Noah’s ark; Jonah in the whale; Lazarus rising from the dead…
Astrology: I am a Virgo… The Virgo man is known for being a perfectionist and is punctual, and expects the same from others. He likes to see everything in its right place, and a lot of things in the ‘right hemisphere.’