Apocalypse and Right Mind Emergency
Yesterday, for the first time in almost a year, I purchased a few books. One of these was by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor entitled My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. I devoured it in one sitting. I regret that I came to it so late, since I knew of the book and the author when it first appeared in 2006. I would not only recommend this book as a companion volume to A.H. Almaas’s Luminous Night’s Journey, but also to anyone who finds the work of Carlos Castaneda riddling or impossible. Dr. Jill’s book does provide fresh insight into the neuorological bases for Castaneda’s own experiences and his “sorcerer’s cognition”.
For those unfamiliar with Jill Bolte Taylor I’ll provide a brief backgrounder before addressing the implications of her experience.
Taylor was a 37 year old neuroanatomist and brain researcher at Harvard Medical School when, in the early morning hours of December 10, 1996, she suffered a disabling hemorrhagic stroke resulting from a rare congenital disorder called arteriovenous malformation (AVM). The hemorrhage gradually disabled the left hemisphere functions of her brain. A large part of Dr. Jill’s book is a neuro-scientist’s own description of herself suffering left-hemisphere degeneration and her resulting condition over four hours until she received help.
Over the course of those four hours, Taylor gradually lost all those functions associated with left-hemispheric brain dominance, although it is more correct to say that what she describes is the process of dying. Given her training, she was able to observe this process dispassionately, lucidly, and with a degree of detachment. As her left mind deteriorated, her “right mind”, usually functioning in the background, came to the fore.
“To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment. To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant…. The present moment is a time when everything and everyone are connected together as one. As a result, our right mind perceives each of us as equal members of the human family. It identifies our similarities and recognizes our relationship with this marvelous planet, which sustains our life. It perceives the big picture, how everything is related, and how we all join together to make up the whole. Our ability to be empathic, to walk in the shoes of another and feel their feelings, is a product of our right frontal cortex.” (pp. 30-1).
As the left mind became increasingly disabled along with the dissolution of ego-function, Taylor experienced the loss of the boundaries of her individuality — of her “self” and even the human form,
“Devoid of language and linear processing, I felt disconnected from the life I had lived, and in the absence of my cognitive pictures and expansive ideas, time escaped me. The memories from my past were no longer available for recollection, leaving me cloaked from the bigger picture of who I was and what I was doing here as a life form. Focused completely in the present moment, my pulsing brain felt like it was gripped in a vice. And here, deep within the absence of earthly temporality, the boundaries of my earthly body dissolved and I melted into the universe.
As the hemorrhaging blood interrupted the normal functioning of my left mind, my perception was released from its attachment to categorization and detail. As the dominating fibers of my left hemisphere shut down, they no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly similar to my experience in Thetaville. I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana.
In the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience. A piece of me yearned to be released completely from the captivity of this human form, which throbbed with pain. But providentially, in spite of the attraction of this unremitting temptation, something inside of me remained committed to the task of orchestrating my rescue, and it persevered to ultimately save my life” (pp. 49 – 50).
If you are familiar with Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, you may recognise the same process Tolle describes in his own life — the loss of boundaries of the self and associated self-limiting constraints on the full awareness. As he described it in the introduction to the book,
“One night not long after my twenty-ninth birthday, I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train – everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.
‘I cannot live with myself any longer.’ This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. ‘Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.’ ‘Maybe,’ I thought, ‘only one of them is real.’
I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words ‘resist nothing,’ as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.”
The principle is the same. To lose the boundaries of the self is death. Yet, at the same time, it is a transformation and a liberation from the iron cage of delusional existence. Rumi has described this in his poetry in exactly the same terms. The exact same process was described to Castaneda by his teacher don Juan.
An important lesson to be drawn from this also is that meditation, properly practiced, is the art of learning to die and is not essentially a substitute for Prozac or other tranquilisers. To die to oneself daily, as the New Testament recommends, is to inhibit and suspend left-hemispheric brain function so that the “You of you” and the core of you, as Taylor also experienced it, can emerge and become realised. This is the full meaning of “self-realisation”. We come into our “right mind”.
“In the wisdom of my dementia, I understood that my body was, by the magnificence of its biological design, a precious and fragile gift. It was clear to me that this body functioned like a portal through which the energy of who I am can be beamed into a three-dimensional external space” (p. 45)
What Taylor describes in her own terms as the process of her dying to herself corresponds to Castaneda’s leap into the abyss — the loss of the human form and the encounter with infinity. What we call “ordinary reality” is only the neurological circuitry of the left-hemispheric brain. In his recollection of his leap into the abyss, Castaneda described his “elastic bounces” between the tonal and the nagual (in other terms, don Juan described these as “teachings for the left side” and “teachings for the right side”). In Taylor’s description, this was the pendulum swinging between her left mind and right mind as her normal, everyday left hemispheric ego-functions became increasingly incapacitated.
“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”.
From this comes her new perception: “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.” This conclusion is the essential basis for don Juan’s insistence that we are not, primarily, rational beings but perceiving beings and that “reality is a feeling we have for it”.
The “new cognition” that Castaneda describes as the goal of his apprenticeship is achieved in the art of “seeing“, particularly when one sees “energy as it flows in the universe” with the accompanying insight that the world is not (nor are we ourselves) solid as we think of it and ourselves. This, also, is perhaps the essential insight resulting from Taylor’s incapacitation of the left mind functioning,
“As information processing machines, our ability to process data about the external world begins at the level of sensory perception. Although most of us are rarely aware of it, our sensory receptors are designed to detect information at the energy level. Because everything around us — the air we breathe, even the materials we use to build with, are composed of spinning and vibrating atomic particles, you and I are literally swimming in a turbulent sea of electromagnetic fields. We are part of it. We are enveloped within it, and through our sensory apparatus we experience what is. ” (p. 20)
With her left mind incapacitated, Taylor “sees” exactly as Castaneda saw energy as it flows in the universe, including the perception of human beings as being essentially luminous beings or energetic configurations. It is the familiarity of one’s own death that brings purity to perception and which “cleanses the doors of perception”
“My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an 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, within us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space…. 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 the left brain saying that I am a solid, my perception of myself returned to this natural state of fluidity…. My eyes could no longer perceive things as things that were separate from one another. Instead, the energy of everything blended together.” .
“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 was simply a being of light radiating life into the world… I experienced people as concentrated packages of energy. Doctors and nurses were massive conglomerations of powerful beams of energy that came and went.”
That description is, of course, identical to Castaneda’s experience of seeing human beings as luminous spheres shooting off energy in all directions, which accomplishment came about in much the same way as Taylor describes in her own terms,
“Imagine, if you will, what it would feel like to have each of your natural faculties systematically peeled away from your consciousness. First, imagine you lose your ability to make sense of sound coming in through your ears. You are not deaf, you simply hear all sound as chaos and noise. Second, remove your ability to see the defined forms of any objects in your space. You are not blind, you simply cannot see three-dimensionally [ie, perspectivally], or identify color. You have no ability to track an object in motion or distinguish clear boundaries between objects….No longer capable of perceiving temperature, vibration, pain or proprioception (position of your limbs), your awareness of your physical boundaries shift. The essence of your energy expands as it blends with the energy around you, and you sense that you are as big as the universe. Those little voices inside your head, reminding you of who you are and where you live, become silent. You lose memory connection to your old emotional self and the richness of this moment, right here, right now, captivates your perception. Everything, including the life force you are, radiates pure energy. With childlike curiosity, your heart soars in peace and your mind explores new ways of swimming in a sea of euphoria. Then ask yourself, how motivated would you be to come back to a highly structured routine?” (p. 78-9)
All the things that Taylor underwent inadvertently to get to her new cognition rooted in a realisation of the greater self which she is beyond ego function were, in Castaneda, deliberately induced by his teacher and by hard work. That is the only difference in how the wings of perception came to be unfolded in both cases, along with the loss of the human form.
“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. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!” (my italics, p. 70)
This realisation that “for all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my imagination” is the description of human narcissism become conscious of itself as such and being then transformed into self-realisation. The escape from this narcissism as human mold was the expansion of consciousness beyond the boundaries of that fictitious self — the ascent beyond human form into formless awareness that was self-identical with “all that is”.
Hundreds and even thousands of books have been written about this possibility, of course. The one difference we have here is that the insights come from a neuroscientist and are given intelligible grounding and corroboration in neuro-anatomical terms. In other words, there is a scientific basis for those experiences as well as for the authenticity of Castaneda’s recorded experiences in heightened or altered states of perception.
What remains to be interpreted is how Taylor’s neurological insights into her own left and right mind functioning relate to Jean Gebser’s “irruption” of the integral consciousness structure, and why perhaps “the deficient rationality” (or nihilism) that characterises the breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness as what we call “post-Enlightenment” or “Late Modernity” may be considered equivalently the growing dysfunctionality and incapacitation of left-hemisphere functioning, historically preparing the way for “right mind” emergence.
Taylor’s own experience (one could even call it “apocalyptic” in the authentic sense) sort of gives some substance to the motto of The Chrysalis: “in the emergency of the day is emergence”.