Sunday, October 18, 2009

Right Brain

I just finished reading the book My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., a neuroanatomist who suffered a severe stroke that took her eight years to fully recover from. This book describes in great detail her experience as a brain scientist studying her own brain's process of trauma and then recovery, which is fascinating. In much of the book she talks about the different functions and personalities of the right and left hemispheres. The left brain thinks sequentially, rationally, is language based and provides all the brain chatter we constantly hear in our head, whereas the right brain has intuitive powers that allows us to experience the present moment without any awareness of time and allows us to feel the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. Interestingly, the left brain's story teller is the keeper of our identity. Consider this:

"One of the jobs of our left hemisphere language centers is to define our self by saying 'I am.' Through the use of the brain chatter, your brain repeats over and over again the details of your life so you can remember them. It is the home of your ego center, which provides you with an internal awareness of what your name is, what your credentials are, and where you live. Without these cells performing their job, you would forget who you are and lose track of your life and your identity."

Because the author experiences a hemorrhage in her left brain, she lost all of her language and her identity as she knew it. This resulted in her right brain gaining undivided attention, through which she experienced the bliss of feeling the interconnectedness first hand. Here's another passage describing how she perceived this:

"When I lost my left hemisphere and its language centers, I also lost the clock that would break my moments into consecutive brief instances. Instead of having my moments prematurely stunted, they became open-ended, and I felt no rush to do anything. Like walking along the beach, or just hanging in the beauty of nature, 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. I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because these cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.

My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, and entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me. I understood that at the most elementary level, I am a fluid. Of course I am a fluid! Everything around us, about us, among us, withing us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space. Although the ego center of our language center prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity. "

Dr. Taylor's message through out the book is to encourage us to continually "step to the right" and try to nurture and expand our right brain awareness as much as possible. This is such a comforting notion for when we do experience a crisis of identity (and we all do at some point), because as we have to let go of the ego-driven story about ourselves we can have access to this deep wellspring of fluidity, openness, and connectivity to everything else around us. Allowing our identity to encompass the vision of our right brain could bring so many new dimensions to our perception of self.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Last night I was riding BART into San Francisco to attend a modern dance performance, anticipating experiencing a mixture of visual beauty, stimulation and satisfaction and nostalgic sadness. Sadness because I'm no longer participating in the SF dance community, other than as an occasional audience member. As I sat on the train watching the outside whizz by, I remembered the book I was carrying, The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron, and decided to open it at random. On the first page I landed, the word "egolessness" caught my eye. I thought, "what does that mean?" Curious, I read on.

In the words of Pema, "In the most ordinary terms, egolessness is a flexible identity." Ah ha! Now that sounds like a familiar topic, one being explored by this very project - Forms of Identification. She goes on: "The teachings on egolessness points to our dynamic, changing nature. This body has never felt exactly the way it's feeling now. This mind is thinking a thought, that repetitious as it may seem, will never be thought again. I may say 'Isn't that wonderful?" But we don't usually experience it as wonderful, we experience it as unnerving, and we scramble for ground. The Buddha was generous enough to show us an alternative. We are not trapped in the identity of success or failure, or in any identity at all, neither in terms of how others see us nor in how we see ourselves. Every moment is unique, unknown, completely fresh. For a warrior-in-training, egolessness is a cause of joy rather than a cause of fear."

I looked up, observing the blurred trees and buildings out my window, listening to that familiar low pitched squeal of train wheels on train tracks with an overtone of muffled voices. I felt a wave of understanding cover me, like a caring mother's hand stroking my hair, shoulders and back. I took a breath in and out, and noticed how all the sudden I felt more curious and present with myself than defeated and lost, and I thought, "Yes, I want to be a warrior."