To the Right To the Right
Updated: Nov 10
“Our right hemisphere is all about the present moment. It is about right here, right now.”
“I looked down at my arm and realized I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin, and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and the molecules of the wall. And all I can detect was this energy. And I’m asking myself what is wrong with me? What is going on? And in that moment, my left brain chatter went totally silent…And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was and it was beautiful there.”
Jill Bolte Taylor is describing the stroke she experienced in her mid-thirties. Taylor was a Harvard neuroanatomist, or brain scientist, when she suffered a massive stroke that completely shut down the left side of her brain. The left hemisphere is that part of our brain that contains our Motox Cortex (ability to move), Sensory Cortex (ability to sense the world), Broca’s area (ability to create speech), Wernicke’s area (ability to understand speech), and Orientation Association Cortex (ability to sense physical boundaries, time, and space). As the hemorrhage grew, Taylor experienced the shut down, one by one, of each of these areas. However, as these vital left-brain areas shut down, Taylor felt herself engulfed by a feeling of bliss, expansion and oneness with the universe. She calls it nirvana, and locates the origins of this feeling in the right hemisphere of her brain. The claim, stemming from both Taylor’s neuroanatomy background and personal experience, is that through accessing our right brains more fully, we can all experience the type of nirvana she experienced during her stroke. I think she’s right.
I read her book, My Stroke of Insight, a few days ago, as part of my Book a Week challenge. A good friend of mine highly recommended it to me after she read it, telling me that the book had hit such a nerve with her that she felt as though she finally understood herself:
“I have always felt like I am of two minds—a part of me that is indefatigably joyful and open and loving and the other part being calculating, careful and ambitious.”
This is a common phenomenon. Taylor runs through a litany of names we call our two minds: the head, and the heart. The work brain, and the vacation brain. The thinking brain, and the feeling brain. The masculine brain, and the feminine brain. The brain that speaks to us when we are beholding something beautiful for the first time: the night sky, the open ocean, the Grand Canyon, the Himalaya, and the brain that takes over a few moments later when we return to earth, return to school, return to work.
For me, the past year and a half has been a struggle between the law school brain, and the non-law school brain. During this time, I have felt my left (law school) brain become stronger, more capable at performing left-brained tasks like reading cases, taking exams, asking questions, and felt a satisfaction close kin to the kind of physical satisfaction I feel after working out: my muscles feel stronger, leaner, closer to their full potential. At the same time, I have felt a continual hollowness, an aching feeling that I am just not built to enjoy this work, even as I become more efficient at it. Beginning around this time last year, I began to question why I did not seem to be gaining the same whole satisfaction from work that I sense many people gain. I felt a different type of knowledge and being-in-the-worldness tug at me. I wrote, in this blog:
“How do I live with this sense that we are born knowing how to understand the world, just by being in it, just by being a part of it. That knows we don’t have to lift a finger on this earth to be a part of it, to be beautiful in it. To satisfy every part of our reason for being here we just have to be. Just breathe and be and let the broadness of the world pour in. That there are no words, there is no knowledge that can make this purpose more complete. There is nothing that can be said that will put shape to anything. There is no name that can deepen any meaning, that can bring any clarity. That perhaps the most glorious thing we can do is just take each breath with awareness and die knowing we know what existence is.”
I began to seriously question whether I have been living backwards: escaping to my right brain, but living in my right brain. I have been asking these questions for a long time; after reading Taylor’s book, I feel I finally have an answer. I am someone best fulfilled living in my right brain, visiting my left. This is a personal revelation, and is all well and good. But I also believe, as Taylor does, that the right brain is important for everyone to move into more permanently. Maybe this is just a function of right-brainedness: it’s job is to sense unity, connection, oneness. Of course it wants to invite everyone to the party: it’s throwing the party. But I think it’s more than that. I think that the right brain knows that what it senses (unity, connection, oneness) is something deep, powerful, and most importantly, external to itself. The right brain is not just throwing the party, so to speak. The right brain opens the door to the party that was already there. To switch analogies, the right brain may see something much closer to the “raw data” of reality, without the processing and separating functions of the left brain to put it into categories that make sense to us. When Taylor speaks of seeing everything thrumming with energy once her Orientation Association Cortex shuts down, she is seeing the world atom by atom: the world is no longer carefully and meaningfully segregated into that which is me, and that which is not me. She sees clusters of atoms and other clusters of atoms. She is sensing the world from the perspective of atoms looking at other atoms, not a subject looking at objects. Why is it so awesome that Taylor has located this type of being in the world in a function of the brain?
For one thing, it locates something religions have been talking about for ages in the human brain, rather than in a figure in the sky or a statue on a hill. I think if you talked to Jesus or Buddha, they’d probably say this is what they were talking about all along, but Taylor’s is a form I feel might be slightly more digestible to left-brained people. See this paragraph from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Keys:
“The principle of not-self brings to light the gap between things themselves and the concepts we have of them…Look, for example, at a table. We have the impression that the table itself and our concept of it are identical. In reality, what we believe to be a table is only our concept. The table itself is quite different…For example, a nuclear physicist will tell us that the table is a multitude of atoms whose electrons are moving like a swarm of bees, and that if we could put these atoms next to each other, the mass of matter would be smaller than one finger.
The doctrine of not-self aims at bringing to light the interbeing nature of things, and, at the same time, demonstrates to us that the concepts we have of things do not reflect and cannot convey reality. The world of concepts is not the world of reality. Conceptual knowledge is not hte perfect instrument for studying truth. Words are inadequate to express the truth of ultimate reality.”
Zen Keys, Thich Nhat Hanh
Not-self and inter-being is exactly what Taylor is experiencing, because, according to Taylor, this is how we experience the world when our left brain functions shut off. In other words, seeing the world through the principles of not-self and inter-being are not pie-in-the-sky delusions: they are the very real consequences of seeing the world in a “raw data” way. It has nothing to do with God or heaven, and everything to do with physics. We are all, actually, atoms thrumming with energy. That we don’t see ourselves this way is a product of evolution: it’s easier to survive if you have a membrane of protective skin around your cells, and easier to maneuver within that membrane if you can sense the space between your membrane and the membrane of the bear chasing you. And this is highly important. The left brain is awesome at what it does , and I love my left brain. I just don’t want to live in it all of the time. I don’t think anybody should.
Imagine being able to sense, in the background, that everything, actually, is just atoms thrumming with energy. I have experienced the world this way, on one or two occasions. We all have, in some way or another. Sensing the energy of atoms, sensing that we are, on some level, just a part of that energy. It’s humbling, it is in a true sense self-annihilating, but it is beautiful, and it should be experienced.
Why? No answer will likely make perfect sense to the left brain. The left brain needs reason, logic. I can do my best: if you experience oneness, there will be less wars, there will be more money because there is less wars, the economy will recover. Yes! No?
In fact, you can be very successful without your right brain. Wars are more likely to be won with the left brain (if you were to suddenly move into your right brain during a war, you’d probably just sit down and marvel at how beautiful the dirt is.) You can become top partner, you can make a six-figure salary, and you can build a vacation house in which you house your right brain when it decides to come out for a couple of weeks per year. Being in the right brain only would be disorienting, perhaps terrifying to some people. You wouldn’t get anything done. In fact, by being as fully left brained as you can, you will make worldly success much more likely to happen. Moving into your right brain will probably decrease your chances of earning six figures, making partner, building that vacation house. Why? Because it might show that these things are not as important as your left brain thinks they are. Your right brain is interested in the here and now: in experiencing life in this moment – not waiting until its retired to reap the benefits of its years of hard work. That kind of thinking is satisfying to the left brain: the right brain nows that the present is the only moment we truly have, that the only way to be really happy is to be happy right now. The left brain will balk at all this. It will tell itself it doesn’t need the right brain. And to survive, to materially prosper, even, it might not. But to live a full existence, to be a whole human being, to feel true joy, you need both. I guess it’s like Everest: why be right brained? Why choose to, at least some of the time, experience this vastness? Because you, human, can. Because it’s there. Because once you have, you are changed. Because you’ve felt the answer yourself.
This may not be important to you, but it should. Again, there is no left brained answer to this. It should be important because the type of feeling Taylor experienced, I’ve experienced, you’ve experienced is important. It is what makes life worth living; it is what makes it so wondrous and thrilling and amazing and full of joy. It’s easy to discount those things with your left brain. But if you lack them, you will feel it. In that hollowness, that 3AM anxiety, when a loved one dies, when someone gets sick.
The solution I searched for is the one what Taylor found: live in your right brain, use your left brains skills. Too much, we live in our left brains because those are what bring us acknowledgment, success, money. We fully discount our right brains. Because we do not need them to get through our days, we do not need them to survive or to pass our classes, we ignore them. And we lose meaning as a result, we lose truth, we lose beauty. We think that sense of oneness with everything is just a byproduct of seeing something beautiful, something to be sensed during vacations, and then tossed away when we return to “real life”.
Acknowledge that your vacation brain shouldn’t just be relegated to a few weeks out of the year. Why go through life not knowing what else you might experience? Experiencing “right brainedness” is its own answer. When you feel something beautiful, something enchanting and powerful, you don’t have to ask yourself why it’s important that you’re feeling this. You don’t need a left-brain answer for it. Just let yourself feel it, without trying to categorize or easily reference it. And you’ll begin to expand the way you see life, the way you feel life. You’ll begin to be a more whole person.
“Freed from all perception of boundaries, my right mind proclaims, “I am part of it all. We are brothers and sisters on this planet. We are here to help make this world a more peaceful and kinder place. My right mind sees unity among all living entities, and I am hopeful that you are intimately aware of this character within yourself. … Our left brain truly is one of the finest tools in the universe when it comes to organizing information. My left hemisphere personality takes pride in its ability to categorize, organize, describe, judge, and critically analyze everything. It thrives in its constant contemplation and calculation. Regardless of whether or not my mouth is running, my left mind stays theorizing, rationalizing, and memorizing. It is a perfectionist and a perfect housekeeper of corporation or home.”
My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor