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Stroke of Insight

May 22, 2012

by Stephen Damon

[I realized] I could no longer define the boundaries of my body, of where I begin and where I end. Then the chatter in my brain went silent. For a moment I was shocked to be in total silence… I felt enormous and expansive, and my spirit soared. I remember thinking: “There is no way that I can squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside my tiny body.”

This was not written by an ancient Zen master or someone during a 7-day sesshin (Zen retreat).  No, it is from My Stroke of Insight, written by Jill Taylor, a neuroanatomist to describe her experience during a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Virtually everything she experienced after the left side of her brain went silent sounds very familiar to those of us who have practiced and studied Zen Buddhism.  Here’s another  of her observations: Instead of a continuous flow of experience that could be divided into past, present, and future, every moment seemed to exist in perfect isolation…On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply “being.”

I am used to reading these kinds of statements in regard to what we call our original nature, but I have never read anything like them in a scientific account of the brain.  So, I find myself asking questions about what is to be human in the context of gross anatomy. I wondered if the right brain is the part of our system that can directly perceive things as they are without the interference of our overactive thinking brain. 

Here are a few of her statements about the right brain. To the right mind no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation.  Life or death occurs in the present moment.  The experience of joy happens in the present moment.  Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment.  To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant.  Compare this to Dogen: Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world.  Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment…Time itself is beingYou are time.  Mountains are time. Oceans are time.

She calls the left brain our ego center, which enables you to keep track of who and what you are.  She says that this part of the brain creates our sense of self by saying, “I am.” It is the left part of the brain that thinks and conceptualizes and creates categories by which we view our lives.  It is this part of the brain that distinguishes and names things, and creates things like the past, present, and future.  She stresses, however, that it is ordinarily impossible to separate and distinguish what is going on in the two parts of our brain because our system is very adept at weaving together a single seamless perception of the world. 

Virtually, everything she says about the left brain includes all the things that Zen students are asked to let go of in our practice. We are told that if we let go of all distinctions, all duality, we are left with original nature, which is indistinguishable from all things.  For Dr. Taylor it took a massive stroke in the left side of her brain to unweave her perception of “me-ness” and “otherness.”  For Zen students it takes a disciplined, sustained practice of just sitting

There are intriguing similarities between what she experienced during and immediately after her stroke and what Buddhist practitioners have experienced in meditation. She goes so far as to say that what she was experiencing was the mode of existence they [Buddhists] call Nirvana.  But there are significant differences.  While Dr. Taylor found that without the functioning of the right side of her brain she was virtually incapable of making even the simplest of decisions, Buddhist practitioners find that meditation helps them live their day-to-day lives more fully. 

Besides that, she didn’t have the kind of inner preparation needed to appreciate what she was going through.  She was able to use her scientific knowledge of the brain to understand her situation, but that training didn’t prepare her to see and appreciate the many subtleties of what was going on.  She did not have the inner vocabulary of a spiritual practice to appreciate fully what was going on.  When she describes herself as “tranquil,” “blessed,” and “omniscient” one gets the feeling that she is using the language of one side of the brain to understand the other.  The left part of the brain may call a state “blessed,” but it takes the other side of the brain, or both sides working in harmony, to experience fully the subtleties and nuances of such a state.

Most important, if one is really “blessed,” or if one has reached what Buddhists call Nirvana, one would not want to recover one’s perception of self  as Dr. Taylor did.  She recounts that she did want to recover her sense of “individuality” and “self,” only with certain improvements.  Here she departs from any similarity with Zen, which states over and over again that there is nothing to improve and nothing to gain, because there is nothing substantial that we can call our own. 

After reading this intriguing account of Dr. Taylor’s brain injury I was left with a few questions and observations.  At first, I have to say that I felt that my Zen practice had been “scientifically validated.” I felt that a scientist had discovered material evidence of some of the deepest parts of human experience that I thought couldn’t be put under a microscope.  What I had accepted by a faith of some kind now could be proven as fact.  The left side of my brain was able to relax.

Of course, the only thing her experience proved was that it is possible to experience the truth of the illusory sense of self that drives our day-to-day lives.  To some extent, Zen practitioners do this every time we take our seats.  We understand why Buddha told his disciples not to believe anything he said until they could prove it to themselves. 

The main question I am left with is,  How do I live my life now that I have experienced my sense of self as a delusion.   This question has no easy answer.  Or maybe I should say that the answer changes from moment to moment.  Thomas Merton once said that the scandal of Christianity is :Now that we have been saved, how do we live our lives?  As a Zen student I would say, now that I have seen my delusion of a substantial self, how do I effectively try to free all living beings?



From → Zen Buddhism

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