by Matthew Remski, with staying-on-message help from Scott Petrie
(Thanks to Carol Horton for her insightful introduction to right and left-brain themes in her excellent post of last week. If you’re unfamiliar with the territory, her piece breaks excellent ground for the following notes.)
No one who has practiced yoga and reads Jill Bolte Taylor’s extraordinary account of her massive left-brain hemorrhage will miss the verbatim similarity between her experience of the morning of her stroke and the various narratives of mystical revelation that yogis have described for millennia.
As her congenital AVM ruptures one morning, flooding her left brain with blood that is toxic to the neurons, she feels the gradual but dramatic loss of time, storyline, spatial distinction, strategic faculty, and compulsion. It begins with bodily dissociation that proceeds from noticing her most granular autonomic functions as sensations in breathtaking detail. She sees every iota of sensory potential with painful acuity, and zero filtering. The world becomes blinding. Her body is suddenly unfamiliar. She describes complete alienation from her hands: they look like primitive claws.
Finally, her consciousness resounds with the blessed silence of cognitive shutdown. She is in euphoria, wonderment, oneness-with-things, and she doesn’t want to come back. Her consciousness is running on one cylinder: the right-brain palette of presence, sensory exuberance, absence of will, the consciousness of being, rather than doing.
Years later, as she gradually regained left-brain function, she often regretted coming back. She experienced pangs of misanthropy towards critical human faculties, and often considered returning to her isolated ocean of bliss. It’s very hard to blame her. But there was something about her need to understand and communicate her experience that resisted a permanent retreat. There was something about the extraordinary tenderness that she felt pouring through her right brain that forced her to return. She became an exemplar of what the Buddhists call a bodhisattva, someone torn between the path of solitary revelation and the love of connecting with others.
Her story may have wonderful implications for yoga. Through contemporary neuroscience, Taylor’s extraordinary circumstance, and her perseverance during her recovery, there is now the opportunity to see that what we call spiritual experience may not be the product of metaphysical conviction or the blessing of unseen forces or beings. Taylor’s stroke might be showing us that samadhi might be a natural experience that occurs when simple changes in brain circulation and attention are invoked by the will of the practitioner. No longer does samadhi need to be wrapped up in dogma. The mechanism might be very natural, owned by no one, and accessible to all who are willing to explore right/left brain dynamism.
For a total of six years, I sat at the feet of two spiritual teachers who described something arrestingly congruent with Taylor’s experience. Their crises of awakening happened early in their seeking, and they both went on to find blueprints to overlay it, explain it, and make it teachable. One found his explanation in Tantric Buddhism. The other found his explanation in A Course in Miracles. For many years, I thought that their dogmas had provoked their insights. But now I wonder if it was the other way around: if a naturally-occuring experience had prompted them to find mystical descriptions to communicate it. I wonder if I was sitting with two accidental explorers of the right brain, teachers who captivated students with their gorgeous reveries, but also tortured us with a mixture of apocalyptic anxiety, hatred for conventional thought, and their desperate need to escape from the world. I wonder if they both suffered from (or enjoyed) decreased left-brain function. I wonder if their spiritual practices encouraged this.
I met Michael Roach (aka Geshe-la, and more recently Reverend) in November of 1997. He shook me out of a depression with a direct pitch: “You’re going to die. Do you realize that? Now what are you going to do about that problem? Buddhism wants you to fix it.” (How ironic that my existential despair was consoled by someone claiming that I could reverse my mortality! But this is for another post.)
I remember several details about my first personal meeting with Michael. Firstly, his brilliant blue eyes seemed to stream with light, but also seemed vacant. He never met my gaze, nor did it seem that he had any pupillary action. He held his robes closed with his left hand and offered me his right hand to shake. It was limp and cold. I remember also that he often held his right arm crooked at his side, with his fingers pinched together, in what appeared to be esoteric mudras. I took his stoop and shuffling gait as signs of humility and deference, the habitual gestures of a man who felt an exquisite pressure of grace pouring down upon him. Now I am wondering if his right side carries the neurological echo of trained right-brain emphasis.
I followed Michael for the next three years – across the U.S., and twice to India. I was initially inspired by the charisma with which he communicated one particular claim: there was an experience to be had of absolute communion, and it happens in a very particular way. Almost every time he spoke, he proposed a hypothetical scene in which it might play out. We hung on his every word, because we knew the story wasn’t hypothetical at all: it was a thinly-veiled autobiographical anecdote, which the tradition couldn’t allow him to declare openly.
He told the story in the second person, which preserved his veneer of anonymity, but also functioned to possess many of us with the captivating suggestion: this could happen to me.
The story went like this:
You’ve been studying for months with your Lama, staying up all night to memorize texts, working all day to raise money for his temple. You make his food, and give him his medicine. One morning, you are standing at the stove, stirring his pot of butter tea as it begins to boil. Suddenly, you look down at the saucepan, and realize you’re not looking at a “saucepan”, but rather a collection of parts: a bit of silver, a glint of shininess, a curve, a black thing connected to your hand, a surface you would have called tea but is now just ripples and swirls. The object becomes blinding in its sensual detail and utterly absent in its definition…
…and you take the tea which is now not-tea off the stove which is not the stove and make your disoriented way to the temple, and sit down and perceive emptiness directly. There are no words to describe it. You know you’re in it because all of your words stop. After 20 minutes, you begin to come “down” out of “everywhere”, and you realize the Four Noble Truths, not like you’re reading them in book, but as experiences you can name for yourself, as the first words begin to come back to you. You realize that life is suffering, and that there is an answer, and you’ve just seen it. And then you come down even further, back into normal life. But you are forever changed. You will never see things as being real again. Or if you do, you know that you are insane. For the rest of your life, you walk around knowing that you’re insane. Everyone else is crazy too, but at least you know it.
Let’s scan this against Taylor’s experience. They see the identity of objects lose their definition and meaning. (She has marvellous description of trying to discern the shape, meaning, and function of her telephone, as her left brain slowly starves.) They feel dissociated from their bodies. They understand that the very fabric of reality is a tenuous fiction of perceptions that can be undone at any moment. They watch time stop. They hear the internal monologue go blissfully silent.
Upon returning, they both have the overwhelming sense that life has changed irrevocably, and that they cannot return to previous perceptions and prior obligations, and that the world as they see it return is hollow, cheap, mean, illusory, and anxiety-ridden. The world is at best a place to leave. Unless you are scientist, and are deeply convinced you have nowhere else to go, and no greater calling than to make ecstasy intelligible.
Michael basically had two teachings. First: do whatever you can to have this experience, using whatever conventional and non-conventional Buddhist methods I can teach you – and spare no expense, because your life depends on it. Second – teach others how to have it. It will save lives because it will eliminate the perception of time and the anxiety of death. It will save your life because it will erase the facts of your condition.
This now sounds to me a lot like someone with a very contentious relationship with the left-brain world of identities and stories, time and details, objects and tasks. He would openly weep through twitching eyes and small spasms of what seemed to be pain whenever he spoke about the existential realities that he found so abhorrent: people dying, global inequality, his students in ignorant sorrow. His left brain seemed to be a minefield of terror and disgust.
The day came when I was done with Michael. There were many reasons, but the main one was that I realized that whatever his experience had been, it seemed to have closed him off to every other perspective, every other desire. Any interest he might have had in the consideration of other points of view seemed amputated. I sat with him one day and realized that his 1000-yard stare wasn’t seeing through me. It simply wasn’t seeing me. I realized he could only see me if I reflected his own desires perfectly. I realized that that wasn’t a relationship. So I went looking for guru #2.
Charles Buell Anderson, the late founder of Endeavor Academy, introduced himself to me by getting right in my face and yelling “Buddhists are full of shit!” His eyes seemed to flash, and I started to laugh uncontrollably, and felt a spike of kundalini jag upwards from my sacrum. The back of my neck got very hot, my eyes became light-sensitive. My spine began to quiver and my breath shortened. He watched me jitterbug with his shaktipat for a bit, and then said: “Study that, smart-ass!”
He was a piece of work, for sure. He taught me an enormous amount about freedom, responsibility, and spontaneous, terrible joy. He did this while perched on the edge of total madness. Once, he literally beat me over the head with his socks, which he used to peel off during teaching sessions. In the moment I remembered that Marpa had initiated Milarepa by beating him over the head with his sandals. Charles seemed to read my mind. He yelled: “If you give up on Buddhism, you’ll finally give up on yourself – and then you can go home to God! Don’t worry – He’ll still take you!”
I felt what he meant deeply, especially when I couldn’t understand it. He was speaking from another place. We used to imagine he had some wireless connection to god. But it seems he had a fire-wire between his mouth and his right brain. He made great emotional and even kinetic sense by actively destroying left-brain logic and grammar.
He died almost three years ago. Of a massive stroke.
Charles spoke in jazz riffs, quoting at will and loosely the Heart Sutra, the Course, the New Testament, Broadway tunes, Jesus, and his own raging dreams. His grammar was circular, his sentences were like Jackson Pollock paintings, and his paragraphs were epic. He often abandoned words altogether and simply scatted. We went into ecstasy as he jabbered and literally foamed at the mouth. Our mirror neurons picked up on his vocal patterns: in any given minute, one of the surrounding bliss-ninnies would speak in tongues. His left-brain speech centres governing syntax and linear meaning were either suppressed, ignored, or damaged.
There was a lot of mirroring going on. One of the most distinctive gestures of a Charles devotee was the head-shake-and-bobble of burbling kundalini. The Old Man himself did this constantly, as though his head were the cap on a pressure-steamer. Through the crowd, heads were always bobbing, sometimes violently. Or shaking side to side as if in some improvised kriya. There was constant and spontaneous huffing and puffing – the whole room sometimes breaking out into wild, undisciplined kapalabhati or rebirthing-type breathing. Everybody complained of pressure in their heads. Charles did as well, and would often massage his own temples or rub the top of his head to release steam, laughing as he did, very pleased to be fully possessed, yet clearly laboring under the burden of continual and intense upward circulatory flow. (Big-time udana imbalance, for Ayurveda fans.)
There was also a lot of bodily dissociation. Almost all of us spoke of the sensation of being “not here”, or “out of the body”, or “gone”. Often, we spoke of feeling “fried”, which was probably an accurate description of what we were doing to our neurology. But the “gone” feeling also merged with a feeling of “everywhere-ness”, as though our bodies were continually melding with space, becoming fluid, pouring outwards, pouring upwards. Sometimes it produced tactile numbness, and at others, acute tactile sensitivity. What was consistent was that the principle of bodily differentiation in space – a key left-brain function – was in total disarray. Like a drug, it felt wonderful, until it didn’t.
The last year that I spent with Charles and the group, his ecstasies seemed to break him apart. Sometimes he would fall catatonic in the middle of a sentence. At times his speech would elide from scat into literal slur. (We’d known he’d been an alcoholic, and some of us speculated on whether he was relapsing, but we ruled it out, because the slurring would happen one or two hours into any given talk, and we only saw him drink Coke from a can we watched him open.) Sometimes his right hand would seem to flop aimlessly. He would often drool a little from the right corner of his mouth. Evidently, there wasn’t a single trained medical professional amongst us – or if there was, they were too invested in his shamanism to see and act on what might well have been happening: the man was having minor left-brain strokes regularly, perhaps hourly. It is a morbid memory for me: we watched it, and we loved it. We wanted to feel our own cognitive function self-destruct, because we thought it held our bliss for ransom. We were watching his brain fry, and we thought we longed for the same.
And it happened to some of us. I watched one woman collapse in front of me. We all kept dancing with our arms in the air, celebrating our right-brain vision. Some of us even began to dance ritually around her twitching body, rejoicing in her “breakthrough”. She had a breakthrough, all right. She died of a stroke. I wonder if the rupture was in her left brain.
Two personal anecdotes about crazy wisdom gurus do not a theory make. I’m not diagnosing either of these men, and I don’t intend to neuropathologize my former ashram mates. And I’m not claiming that that a woman died because of a kundalini meditation — there are obviously countless factors. But I’m pretty sure there’s something here – a fruitful set of leads that others can follow, especially neurobiologists and other specialists in the emerging contemplative sciences – that might bring us closer to cracking the mystical nut.
How might this research impact our entire view of yoga and the spiritual aspiration? What if many physical and meditative practices are revealed to specifically limit left-brain blood flow, oxygenation, and activity? What if, ironically, the cognitive meltdown of a peak experience is not about communion, but about the willed obstruction of the corpus callosum – the neuronal spindles that bind the left and right together? What if samadhi is not union at all, but a rupture in the balanced polarity of consciousness? A rupture that removes time, narrative, grammar, linearity, and the strategic internal monologue, granting unmediated access to sensual richness, timelessness, and the silence of contentment?
Is it balanced for us as practitioners that we wish upon wish to trade the former for the latter? Isn’t it strange that we seem to want so desperately to inhabit one phase of our existence only? Isn’t it strange that that phase is coincident with every social value that we’ve come to associate with disciplined practice – internality, anti-social behavior, detachment from action in the bliss-bubble?
I’m not suggesting that meditative peaks are undiagnosed strokes, but what if the conscious manipulation of blood circulation in the brain through breathing patterns or visualizations (we know this is possible through fMRI readings) bring practitioners into similar but non-damaging conditions? What if daily meditation practice is actually “daily feed-the-right-brain-exclusively” practice? And what if some practitioners, through zeal or genetic predisposition, develop highly attuned faculties for left-brain avoidance or even stunting, and through their right-brain concentrations inspire the rest of us with such poetry as we ourselves contain, but almost always suppress, in favour of the prose of survival?
What if the rankings of spiritual practitioners could be positioned along a scale of how much left-brain function was still active, with less function giving a higher ranking? Ramakrishna would top the charts. What if some of our most radiant saints are fully-functional minor-stroke survivors, hobbling through their miraculous recoveries, and naming their experience with the only language available to them – the metaphysical?
Evidence is needed. And it has started to come in. Taylor quotes from the work of Drs. Andrew Newburg and Eugene d’Aquili, who used single photon emission computed tomography to map the spiritual experience. I quote:
Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns were invited to meditate or pay inside the SPECT machine. They were instructed to tug on a cotton twine when they reached either their meditative climax or felt united with God. These experiments identified shifts in neurological activity in very specific regions in the brains. First, there was a decrease in the activity of the left hemisphere language centers resulting in a silencing of their brain chatter. Second, there was a decrease in activity in the orientation association area, located in the posterior parietal gyrus of the left hemisphere. This region of our left brain helps us identify our personal physical boundaries. When this area is inhibited or displays decreased input from our sensory systems, we lose sight of where we begin and where we end relative to the space around us.
If this research is corroborated over time, perhaps we’ll better understand what we’re seeking on the mat and on the cushion. We’ll understand the mechanism available to us. We’ll understand it with the same openness and democracy and no-big-deal-ness as we’ve begun to understand cardio fitness or proper diet.
A positive overtone of this possibility is that it may soothe the primary complaint that religious traditions have had against what they view as the materialist reductionism of states of grace. To reduce ecstatic realization-states to the whim of brain chemistry, they intone, is to collapse heaven into a petri dish, to make human will and the soul’s progress unnecessary. But what do the esoterics want? Do they not want to prove that the ingredients of enlightenment are universal? That everyone contains Buddha-nature, or atman? Would they not jump at the opportunity to share the demystification of these ideas? They would only resist if they were worried about giving power away through the democratization of insight.
Everybody has a right brain. And what if we simply choose to see heaven in a petri dish, as Blake did, in his grain of sand?
What is more reductionist: the material, or the metaphysical? They are both just languages. The question is: which one is an open system that invites dialogue and shared research?
Materialists have insulted the religiously-minded in another key way: Freud claimed that the samadhi experience was a powerful infantile regression-fantasy that sought to recapture body-coherence with the mother. This was intolerable in the view of some, because it pathologized an intensely meaningful event. Freud essentially said that the mystic was intensely neurotic.
The right-brain-emphasis theory I’m dreaming about offers the reverse. It proposes that the practitioner can develop such extraordinary intelligence and dexterity as to be able to manipulate left-hemisphere blood flow to the point of uninhibited right-brain insight. The mystic isn’t crazy – she is a neurological ninja. Now – if she could only come back to her meditation cushion and utilize a reasonable vocabulary for what she experienced, she wouldn’t have to reach for stories about other planes or divine visitations. With good research, we might find something that is actually shareable, something not dependent upon faith statements or the surrender of intellectual honesty. We might have, for the first time in the history of yoga, a freely open, non-proprietary understanding of a recognized natural occurrence.
If there was ever a field for wiki-type collaboration, exploring the relationship between hemispheric polarity and spiritual realization is it. The neurobiologists can provide a left-brain map, the tantrics a right-brain map. Taylor and the mystics can describe what they see. The psychologists and literary theorists can compare their statements. With a good interdisciplinary team that abandons the reactivity of prior beliefs, we might derive something quite healing: an experiential and practicable view of our baffling oscillation between time and the timeless.
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.
yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.
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