A Stroke of Insight


Here’s a very powerful TED Talk by neuro-scientist Jill Taylor about her experience having a stroke and what it revealed to her about our two consciousnesses.  Her conclusion, “which [consciousness] do you choose, and when” is not very satisfactory so I’ve added my thoughts below.

My stroke of insight

We are raised to use our linear conceptual brain because we’d be unable to navigate life without it.  Just think for example, about Jill’s struggle to dial the phone.  But we also have moments of delight, and if we have an activity like painting, we also spend some time in our other consciousness, the one she describes as energy meeting energy, with no boundaries.

Jill suggests the world would be happier if we spent more time in our joyful consciousness.  Meditation practice helps us recognize that we have such a consciousness, something we forget during everyday, moment to moment living.  The amazing joyfulness she experienced in that consciousness is what many devotees of spiritual practice hope to achieve.  Many Western Buddhists think nirvana must be like that.

What I have slowly come to understand through my reading, reflection and practice was made clear by what she says about the structure of our brain.  Happiness and the good behavior resulting naturally from it come when we inhabit both consciousnesses simultaneously

It’s not that we could be happy some of the time by switching out of our conceptual consciousness into the other one and continue being stressed the rest of the time when we’re living in conceptual consciousness.  There’s nothing wrong with linear, conceptual consciousness.  In fact it’s essential as I said before.  The problem is conceptual habits, emotional habits, any kind of habits.

Happiness comes from simultaneous experience of both our consciousness that reveals the world we are in at each moment and of our logical, linear, conceptual consciousness which enables us to navigate that world.

The Tibetan Buddhist practice I do is one of thousands of ways to train oneself to live more of the time in that way.  It aims to disrupt fixed concepts, the ones that make us think situations are what we expect, not what they actually are.  Our ability to conceptualize is an enormous blessing.  Autopilot with the radar shut off is a curse.

A friend who has practiced as I do for many, many years put is this way: “Dharma is malware for conceptual thought”.  He is referring to Tibetan Buddhist practices that disrupt our everyday imagination of how things are.  They linger in our mind and resurface unexpectedly.

I mention this because living in both our consciousnesses is actually very difficult.  We’re greatly over-habituated to living in a world that appears as it does because we conceive it to be that way without noticing the reality.

3 comments on “A Stroke of Insight

  1. From Harold Feinleib:

    I have found that fear, even mild discomfort takes away our ability to be present. Psychotherapy and meditation are ways to become more centered within ourselves. I think it is only when we are centered can we be in both consciousnesses. It is easier to be centered when there is nothing threatening us, for example walking on a beautiful beach. But it is probably most important to be able to be centered when we are in difficult situations that may bring up uncomfortable emotions.

    I heard on a radio program today that the normal state of our brain is when all the neurons are firing messages to each other all the time. As we go under anesthesia a one second brain wave occurs that prevents the neurons from firing at the same time, which in turn prevents messages to be sent to each other. At the moment that happens we lose the state of consciousness.

    • The way my teachers talk about it is, we need to tame our mind. Difficult situations just happen. They’re not under our control. What potentially is under our control, though, is our response to circumstances, our emotions.

      I needed to hear the same words over and over again, set in different contexts, before I began to understand them to have a different meaning in a culture different from the one in which I was raised.

      When my teachers speak of “acceptance”, for example, there is no notion of passivity. They mean we must, in order to be happy and kind, see situations exactly as they are, not generate emotions about them but see clearly how best to respond and do that.

      Attaining equanimity requires practice. It’s not hard to understand intellectually that, for example, getting angry makes it harder to respond well. What’s hard is realizing that we don’t have to get angry and training ourselves out of the habit.

  2. From one who wishes to be anonymous:

    What a wild experience t. I wonder if that’s what happens when you take LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs… I’ve read similar experiences from people who’ve taken drugs as a religious experience. They say things like that we’re all part of a vast consciousness or a cosmic fabric or any number of other things that are similar to her talk. It hadn’t occurred to me before that the drugs could be disrupting the communication between the hemispheres.

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