Mystical Experiences and Respect for the Whole Brain (Ian Mavor)

  (08 March 13)

Mystical Experiences and Respect
for the Whole Brain


 

 

By Rev. Dr Ian Mavor OAM, Executive Director Hopewell Hospice and Paradise Kids

 

 

I have recently been reading in the area of brain functioning, and am interested to seek reactions from others in regard to some insights and puzzles. I’d heard of the experience of Jill Bolte Taylor and have now read her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (Hodder, 2008). Jill is a neurophysiologist, formerly working at the Harvard Brain Laboratory, who had a major stroke when a brain vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. The other book on brain functioning that provides valuable insights is The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge MD (Scribe, 2008), with its many examples of brain plasticity. Both these books powerfully affirm the complex processes of which the brain is capable.

 

From that initial life-threatening situation and throughout the 8 years of her recovery, Jill Bolte Taylor was able to reflect on the experience for a better understanding of brain functioning. She was also able to gather valuable insights that have relevance to rehabilitation processes for stroke survivors, and the book is valuable for this purpose. The issue that I found particularly interesting, however, was her “discovery” of the operation of the right hemisphere of her brain when the left hemisphere was incapacitated. The parallels between her experience and those described by the mystics seem to me to raise significant questions about the ways in which brain processes are understood in relation to spiritual experiences.

 

The following quotes summarise the altered state of awareness that Jill experienced following her stroke:

 

… although I could not decipher the words my colleagues softly shared, their body language communicated the gravity of the situation. It didn’t take someone with a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy to figure out that the huge white hole in the middle of the brain scan didn’t belong there! My left hemisphere was swimming in a pool of blood and my entire brain was swollen in response to the trauma.

 

In silent prayer, I reflected, I am not supposed to be here anymore! I let go! My energy shifted and the essence of my being escaped. This is not right. I don’t belong here anymore! Great Spirit, I mused, I am now at one with the universe. I have blended into the eternal flow and am beyond returning to this plane of life - yet I remain tethered here. The fragile mind of this organic container has shut down and is no longer amenable for intelligent occupancy! I don’t belong here anymore! Unencumbered by any emotional connection to anyone or anything outside of myself, my spirit was free to catch a wave in the river of blissful flow. Let me out! I hollered within my mind, I let go! I let go! ...

 

I felt as if I was an electrical being; an apparition of energy smouldering around an organic lump. I had become a pile of waste, leftovers, but I still retained a consciousness. A consciousness that was different from the one I had known before, however, because my left hemisphere had been packed with details about how to make sense of the external world... These details had been organized and ingrained as neuronal circuits in my brain. Here, in the absence of that circuitry, I felt inanimate and awkward. My consciousness had shifted. I was still in here - I was still me, but without the richness of the emotional and cognitive connections my life had known…

 

I remember that 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. Finer than the finest of pleasures we can experience as physical beings, this absence of physical boundary was one of glorious bliss. As my consciousness dwelled in a flow of sweet tranquillity, it was obvious to me that I would never be able to squeeze the enormousness of my spirit back inside this tiny cellular matrix…

 

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. I had spent a lifetime of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to “do-do-doing” lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply “being.”…

 

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 those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful…

 

My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea… For many of us, thinking about ourselves as fluid, or with souls as big as the universe, connected to the energy flow of all that is, slips us out just beyond our comfort zone. But without the judgment of my left brain saying that I am a solid, my perception of myself returned to this natural state of fluidity…

 

Prior to this morning, when I had experienced myself as a solid, I had possessed the ability to experience loss - either physical loss via death or injury, or emotional loss through heartache. But in this shifted perception, it was impossible for me to perceive either physical or emotional loss because I was not capable of experiencing separation or individuality. 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 standard, 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…

 

As my perception of time shifted, I fell out of sync with the beehive that bustled around me. My consciousness drifted into a time warp, rendering me incapable of communicating or functioning at either the accustomed or acceptable pace of social exchange. I now existed in a world between worlds. I could no longer relate to people outside of me, and yet my life had not been extinguished. I was not only an oddity to those around me, but on the inside, I was an oddity to myself…

 

The now off-line 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 life 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…

 

You may be wondering how it is that I still remember everything that happened. I remind you that although I was mentally disabled, I was not unconscious. Our consciousness is created by numerous programs that are running at the same time. Each program adds a new dimension to our ability to perceive things in the three-dimensional world. Although I had lost my left hemisphere consciousness containing my ego centre and ability to see myself as a single and solid entity separate from you, I retained both the consciousness of my right mind and the consciousness of the cells making up my body...

 

Having studied the transformative experience of Byron Katie, and having completed a training program with her in what she calls “The Work,” it seems to me that Jill’s experience is closely similar. The writings of Eckhart Tolle, such as The Power of NOW, also describe a similar state of consciousness. Together, these writings and many others from a wide range of traditions suggest additional insights into how we think of mystical experiences, of mind-body connections, of the relationship between ‘mind’ and ‘heart’ and between thinking and feeling. It also questions the tendency to regard the rational consciousness of the left hemisphere as the essence or totality of personal consciousness and decision-making.

 

As a result of their transformative experiences, Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle and others have suggested techniques and spiritual disciplines designed to question the dominating thought patterns of the left hemisphere of the brain, and to allow greater access to the expansive awareness of right brain functioning. As Byron Katie has affirmed, you can’t stop the mind from thinking but you can question those thoughts and the stories they tell.

 

In developmental terms, early cultural stages are marked by magical and mythical states of consciousness, with no distinction made between thinking and feeling (i.e. left and right brain functioning.) With the emergence of modernism, often linked with the statement of Renee Descartes, usually translated as “I think therefore I am,” a distinction was made between mind and body. The power of the left hemisphere, however, became dominant and differentiation became dissociation, with rational thought given priority.

 

Postmodernism, in contrast, has given recognition to collective consciousness and worldviews as shaping individual thought but has still not given full recognition to the role of the right hemisphere’s contribution in individual consciousness.

 

All the assumptions of these developmental stages have been challenged at various times in history by individuals whose mystical experiences and insights have brought unique perspectives to the collective. Those insights have usually been linked to metaphysical understandings, e.g. as inspired by Yahweh, God or Allah, or channelled from the spiritual realms or Ascended Masters. Whatever one thinks of these metaphysical perspectives, however, if a person is to have an awareness of mystical experiences and to interpret or make sense of them, any such experiences must be located somewhere in the brain.

 

In discussions of spirituality among groups such as SoFiA that are seeking to incorporate modern and postmodern insights, there has been a tendency to focus on left brain consciousness and to be less accepting of the right brain insights. This is often because of difficulty with the metaphysical assumptions with which those insights are associated. If the mystical insights can instead be regarded as reclaiming the potential of the right hemisphere of the brain to provide an integral consciousness, the discussion can be much more holistic and have greater respect for the capacity of our wonderful brain in both hemispheres.

 

The trap to avoid, of course, is the tendency to dismiss mystical and spiritual experiences as being nothing more that neuronal discharges and to negate their possible connection with something beyond myself.       

 

  

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