Individual consciousness is simultaneously familiar and mysterious. Rene DesCartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain scientist who had a debilitating stroke at the age of thirty-seven. A blood vessel burst in the left side of her brain. Because of her training, she was able to observe her own mind deteriorate as she lost the capacity to think, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life.
But there was a surprise in this—as her left brain shut down, her right brain took over, and she experienced a different form of consciousness—an all-encompassing sense of bliss, a sense of timeless unity with the universe. Years later, after she recovered the skills of the left brain, she wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight, to describe her journey and what she learned. She said:
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.
During her stroke, Taylor lost the sense of herself as a separate being, she lost the memories that identified her self to her self, yet she gained an experience of herself as the whole universe—there were no boundaries that separated her from everything else. What she describes resonates with the Buddhist understanding of enlightenment, or Nirvana, a shift of consciousness from experiencing time, to experiencing “all is now,” from experiencing space, to experiencing “all is one.”
When I was growing up, eternity was described as what happened to us after we died. But Taylor speaks of eternity as something that can be experienced right now within our own minds. The experience of total peace and total connection is available at any moment. She writes:
The first thing I do to experience my inner peace is to remember that I am part of a greater structure, an eternal flow of energy and molecules from which I cannot be separated. Knowing that I am a part of the cosmic flow makes me feel innately safe and experience my life as heaven on earth. How can I feel vulnerable when I cannot be separated from the greater whole? My left mind thinks of me as a fragile individual capable of losing my life. My right mind realizes that the essence of my being has eternal life.
Since Taylor is a scientist, she brings a different perspective to what is usually perceived as the mystical. She can help our left brain understand and make sense out of the right brain. She can help us to rationally comprehend what the mystics speak of when they talk of being one with the universe, or finding eternity in the present moment. And so perhaps we must reshape our understanding of the spiritual journey. It may be not so much a journey through time, as a journey out of time, from one form of consciousness to another.
Quotes from Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, p. 30 &160.