Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dr. Taylor's Stroke

On the morning of Tuesday, December 10, 1996, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Ph.D. neuroanatomist working with the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry, awoke with a headache--a severe headache, throbbing, behind her left eye. It was the result of a stroke; a blood vessel in her left temporal cortex had ruptured and the expanding blood clot was pressing on her brain.

Her experience of the stroke was remarkable. She found her internal mental business--the ongoing activity we all have that analyzes our incoming flood of sensory data, compares its details with past memories, and makes plans for how to react to it--would shut down for a while, then reawaken, then shut down again. During the periods when that analytical activity (which she came to think of as her left-brain functions) was out of operation, she experienced the flood of incoming sensory data as overwhelming and confusing, but enormously satisfying. She felt she was "in this present moment, right here, right now," "an energy being connected with all the energy of the universe," "perfect, whole, and beautiful." She looked at her arm, and "could no longer define the boundaries of my body"; the "molecules blended with the environment." She felt "enormous," "expansive," "like a genie just liberated from her bottle." Her "spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea." She felt she had "found Nirvana."

This experience of cosmic consciousness (or Nirvana), which is the ultimate goal of meditation--of stilling the mind so that its chatter becomes quiet--has been reported many times. Paramahansa Yogananda wrote, "My body became immovably rooted; breath was drawn out of my lungs as if by some huge magnet. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage and streamed out like a fluid-piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead; yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body but embraced the circumambient atoms. . . . All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master's, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation. An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul."

Probably most people who gain this experience do not have the forum or the verbal skills to communicate it successfully to others. In fact, probably, since such arduous meditative discipline is very difficult, most people who experience this state do so, as Dr. Taylor did, as the result of brain injury or impending death. They die or are rendered mute by the stroke; they never "return" to even try to convey to the rest of us the wonderful magic and mystery they have encountered; we, their forlorn brethren, are left behind.

We are fortunate that some few people have the wisdom, endurance, benevolent hearts, and luck to bring back reports to us. Moreover, I believe we shall all have a chance to experience this soaring, timeless state of oneness with the universe when the time comes for each of us to "shuffle off this mortal coil."