Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A neurologist finds Nirvana

This is quite an astonishing film clip and Jill Bolte Taylor's exuberance could lead to accusations of flakiness in some quarters were she not a neuranatomist.

I'll note some of my immediate thoughts, reading the transcript, though I'll have to take time to reflect on what is some of the richest material I've come across. I've no idea of any religious convictions Dr. Taylor might have but her insights are very closely related to Buddhism, almost spookily.
Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It's all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. ...
My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it's all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. Associates it with everything in the past we've ever learned and projects into the future all of our possibilities.

Buddhist thought long ago came to an understanding of the human mind in many ways, one of which is the '9 Consciousnesses'. The first 6 of these are the senses and their integration into a whole, which it seems is the work of the right hemisphere. The seventh is about making value judgments and decisions, left hemisphere stuff. There are two further consciousnesses that don't fit in with this model in any obvious way, the alaya consciousness, the karmic storehouse, and the Buddha consciousness. This is, possibly to be expected though as they're not simply within this individual physical setup, the 8th extending over multiple lifetimes and the ninth being in some ways 'ours' but also part of the entire universe.
And I look down at my arm and I realize that 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 molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy.

Not Buddhism, but this reminds me so much of the world of physics. With Einstein's Special Relativity and it's famous equation, E=mc2, solidity dropped out the picture, particles becoming patterns of energy. When you touch a tabletop, say, it feels solid enough yet the atoms of your fingertips and the atoms of the table are for the most part space - the solidity is an illusion created by the mutual repellence of the electron shells of those atoms. To go further, the physicist's view of the universe I would summarise as a thin skein of energy stretched across the hugeness of space-time, not spread evenly, but rather patterned so as to form wave-particles, and they themselves working within larger agglomerations, perhaps patterns upon patterns. The currently (I'm not a physicist; as an outsider this one seems to be forever in and out of fashion :)) most promising front on finding a "theory of everything" is string theory, which sees fundamental particles as tiny vibrating energy patterns snaking through 11 dimensions.
The right hemisphere's view might seem illusory but in fact it's the opposite - it's closer to the true reality. The peculiar thing here is that while it's always been believed we could never perceive this reality, this experience indicates we're feeling it all the time but it gets filtered out by our left brain.

And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and -- total silence.

And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of 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.

Within our version of Buddhism we don't meditate, but the similarity here to the claims of meditators is astonishing, that it's an exercise to do precisely that, to silence the mind's chatter to see what's beyond.
Euphoria was beautiful -- and then my left hemisphere comes online and it says "Hey! you've got to pay attention, we've got to get help," and I'm thinking, "I got to get help, I gotta focus."

The drawback - without the left brain we simply can't survive. It's vital to everyday functioning, the most basic things such as getting food. This is the problem to my mind with Theravada Buddhism, that you can't achieve Nirvana without extinguishing earthly life. Mahayana Buddhism, by contrast, aims not for extinction but to become boddhisatvas, ones who choose instead to remain in the world, to use enlightenment to help oneself and others.
Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expensive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Nirvana, I found Nirvana. I remember thinking there's no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.

One's Buddha nature is often described as enormous, in fact universe-sized.
"And if I have found Nirvana and I'm still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana." I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives.

Our belief, that differs from the Theravada Buddhist view of enlightenment, is that one's Buddha nature is something that everyone posesses and has posessed from the beginning of time, rather than something to be attained over many, many lifetimes. Moreover that if a huge number of people changed their lives thus then the whole of our society would be changed enormously for the better, an aim we refer to as kosen rufu. Regrettably, it's not that easy to tap into our bigger selves, for most people it takes many years of practice and the overcoming of a lot of suffering, but still something we're capable of reaching within one single lifetime (and, hey, what better things have you got to do with this life?).
Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you.

This comes back to the heart of the matter, two realities, in Nichiren's Buddhism called myo and ho. Myo is the mystical, transcendent reality in which everything is possible, and ho the physical manifestation. Whereas most religions take the idealist view that only the spiritual world matters and materialism only the material world, Buddhism defines life as precisely the point at which these two come together.


At 27/3/08 06:06, Blogger Stuart said...

I just blogged my reaction to viewing this video... from the perspective of my own experience with Zen, psychoactives, and the big questions of life. It's here:



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