Thursday, March 4, 2010

An Experience of Nirvana

It is fascinating to follow the thoughts of a modern scientist as she skates on the strange border between physical reality and something transcendental. Such is the case when we read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. She is a neuroscientists of the first rank. At age 37 she suffered a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. The book is an account of this event which she underwent more or less consciously until, some seven years later, she recovered her health and her faculties in full. Her viewpoint is, as it were, from the bottom upward. Her cosmology—at least as I perceive it reading this book—is evolutionary through and through, meaning that consciousness is a product of brain function. But her experiences cause her, seemingly, to invert that view. The evolutionary view asserts that life is a function of matter at certain stages of extraordinary complexity. But the following passage appears to reverse that view. She says, reflecting on her state during the earliest stages of her stroke:

I felt so detached from my ability to move my body with any oomph that I truly believed I would never be able to get this collection of cells to perform again. Wasn’t it interesting that although I could not walk or talk, understand language, read or write, or even roll my body over, I knew that I was okay? The now offline intellectual mind of my left hemisphere no longer inhibited my innate awareness that I was the miraculous power of life. I knew I was different now—but never once did my right mind indicate that I was “less than” what I had been before. I was simply a being of light radiating into the world. Regardless of whether or not I had a body or brain that could connect me to the world of others, I saw myself as a cellular masterpiece. In the absence of my left hemisphere’s negative judgment, I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful just the way I was. [p. 73-74; the emphasis is mine]
Several aspects of Dr. Taylor’s invaluable account strike me most forcefully. One is the occasional emergence in her writings of the suggestion that she is one with a cosmic energy stream that is somehow compressed and captured in what she calls “the intricate networks of my body’s cellular and molecular tapestry.” While in her detached and expanded state, she says that “I sincerely believed I would never be able to fit the energy back inside this skin.” At the same time she is firmly persuaded that the very consciousness which she now recalls and then experienced, was yet produced entirely by the functioning of her still intact brain mechanisms. Her view thus straddles in an interesting way the incompatible divides between being genuinely a being of light and yet a consciousness produced by millions and millions of cells.

The other aspect of her account that seems very interesting to me is that, throughout this difficult recovery, even while entirely relying on her still-functioning right brain hemisphere, she never had experiences of the sort reported by sensitives and psychics. Her peak experiences, quite nirvana-like, indeed she so designates them, are feelings of utter peace, a kind of fluidity, omniscience, safety, and well-being. Throughout this experience, she is quite alone inside herself.

This, it seems to me, is the normal state of being human. In one direction, of which we are mostly ignorant, is a cosmic bliss. In the other is the incessant noise of physical reality. When the instruments that organize that noise are somehow stopped—by a blood clot as in Dr. Taylor’s case or by various practices and disciplines, as in the case of the Buddha and others—the cosmic bliss becomes a central experience. But whose experience is it? Is it that of a being of light or of vast networks of neurons? In these cases—in normal and in mystical states, however induced—the individual is still entirely captured and held within the framework of the body. But what happens after the last knot is loosed and the being of light becomes detached? Some individuals—and these people typically don’t have an experience of cosmic bliss—do manage to detach and communicate with yet another reality behind, beyond, or interpenetrating both the noise and the nirvana. And that state, I would suggests, is what lies beyond the border. All else is still on this side of the divide.

Dr. Taylor book is available on here.

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