The story of her stroke and remarkable recovery are now well-known, through her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, through the remarkable 18-minute video of her TED talk and through multiple interviews and articles in national media. Though Jill Bolte Taylor emphasizes her professional experience as a neuroanatomist, she has become a star not of science but of a kind of humanist spirituality. She passionately pleads for a shift of humanity toward the intuitive side of life and the dwelling in a state of peace achieved by apprehension of the union of all things through a powerful energy or life force. That is the state she came to by the impact of a stroke that stripped away all other mental functioning, including the understanding and speaking of language, as well as the command of her own body.
At one point in the TED video, she refers to the “nirvana” she reached through physical disaster. Her description of this state of oneness with things is remarkable and matches those of others who have achieved such experience through spiritual discipline, mystical encounters or an altered consciousness assisted by hallucinogenic drugs. But this is no momentary vision. It was what she had left of her mind, her awareness, her functional capacities in the aftermath of the stroke. And it is the state she says is accessible to her whenever she becomes oppressed by the tensions and depression that can be brought on by excessive dwelling in the analytic, verbal, organizing part of her mind.
I have been reading recently in the Christian mystical tradition and what strikes me is the parallel between her account of this state of oneness and classical descriptions of the union with God achieved by a human soul through “infused contemplation.”
There are three elements of the experience that help illuminate what she went through.
- There were no boundaries to her body. She couldn’t feel any separation from other things as an individual physical entity. Instead, she felt part of a pure energy that filled the universe. As she said in her TED talk, she became vast in that state and couldn’t imagine being contained again within a small single body.
- Though she had lost her language abilities, memories, analytical functions, and a sense of the linear direction of time, she retained awareness and seemed to apprehend what she was experiencing in a direct way, without the language-oriented consciousness that usually filters and organizes what is happening. She was immersed in the life force she felt and, in a sense, became what she perceived inwardly. There was no complicated chain of perception, interpretation by the brain of external signals and formation of an intellectual concept of what was going on. It was a kind of knowing through pure intuition and feeling.
- Once she got used to this state of existence, she experienced a complete peacefulness and joy that later became a touchstone helping her to measure the quality of her inner condition. With the return of her intellectual faculties and customary consciousness, she felt separated from that pure energy state and deep peacefulness. She associates the negative aspects of living, such as tension, anxiety or depression, with her analytical mind. Remarkably, she is able to pull back from excessive involvement with that linear, symbol-interpreting part of her mind. She can stop herself from going too far in that direction, shift more to her intuitive side and find peace again in the sense of oneness that she first experienced in the immediate aftermath of the stroke. She believes passionately that this ability can be cultivated by everyone.
Thomas Merton quotes several Christian mystical writers in his absorbing book on the experience of contemplation, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. Here are two passages trying to capture an inner state that is beyond human experience and beyond the power of language to portray.
First, the anonymous 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing:
Through grace a man can have great knowledge of all other creatures and their works, and even of the works of God Himself, and he can think of them all; but of God Himself no man can think. I would therefore leave all those things of which I can think and choose for my love that thing of which I cannot think.
And why is this so? He may well be loved, but He may not be thought of. He may be reached and held close by means of love, but by means of thought, never. … You are to strike the thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and you are not to retreat no matter what comes to pass.
In other words, just as Taylor had to leave behind her thinking, analytical brain to reach the state of oneness with all things, this author says that thinking is not the way in which one can reach union with God. It is only by love that this is possible. Language and thought fail, but feeling and love bring what knowledge a human can have of God’s presence. And the contemplative never actually sees God – He is concealed in that cloud of unknowing. Only His presence is sensed. Watch Jill Taylor in her TED video, and you will see through her passion and tears that it is a kind of love that fills her as she recalls/relives the experience of the state of oneness with all things.
Here is another quotation cited in Merton’s book, this from a Flemish mystic of the 14th century. It goes directly to Taylor’s experience of oneness in the moment (Now) where time and distinctions among things fall away, and the connectedness of the universe is what she feels.
This purity is the dwelling place of God within us … it is eternal, and in it is neither time nor place, neither before nor after: but it is ever present, ready and manifest … In it we are all one, living in God and God in us. This simple unity is ever clear and manifest to the intellectual eyes when turned in upon the purity of the mind. It is a pure and serene air, lucent with divine light; and it is given to us to discover, fix and contemplate eternal truth with purified and illuminated eyes. Therein all things are of one form and become a single truth, a single image in the mirror of the wisdom of God: and when we look upon and practice it in the divine light with these same simple and spiritual eyes, then have we attained the contemplative life.
Given the interval of 700 years between the writings of these mystics and Jill Bolte Taylor’s description, it is remarkable to find the similarities. Though she avoids explicit references to God, the key elements of a common quality and intensity of experience come through. The sense of peacefulness and joy, the inner vision, the blending of all things into “one form” that “become a single truth,” the perception of this state with “simple and spiritual eyes,” rather than with the analytical faculties.
I believe it is less relevant to try to explain Taylor’s experience in scientific terms than simply to enter with her into the evocation of a state of universal peace and oneness. She is helping us glimpse an experience that human beings have shared across the ages. And she also dramatizes that this state of being is one in which such problems as depression fall away completely. Her insight that such disorders and tensions are linked with the analytical, planning and linguistic functions of the mind is a powerful one for all of us trying to understand the spiritual ways out of the trap of depression.