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Hemorrhaging Nirvana

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Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, this is so cool!


You want a guided tour of the human brain? My guess is that you probably can’t do better than “My Stroke of Insight,” Harvard-trained neuroanatomist Jill Taylor’s extraordinary account of the cranial hemorrhage that shut down her left brain when she was 37 years old. But the book’s value — its preciousness — lies less in the plain-language, enthusiastic science it offers us, than in the door it courageously opens to the mystery of the brain’s right hemisphere and beyond . . . to the pulsing miracle of life and the vast universe that is our home.


One morning in late 1996, Taylor, a research scientist who worked at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (a.k.a., the Brain Bank), awoke with a sharp pain behind her left eye, and soon enough — as her speech and motor functions failed her, as she melted into what she called a euphoric stupor and lost all sense of where “Dr. Jill” ended and the rest of the universe began — she realized this was no ordinary headache. It was, she later learned, a blown AVM: the rupture of a congenitally deformed vein-artery connection deep inside her brain. She was in the first stage of a potentially killer stroke — and she was alone in her apartment and had lost the capacity to think or act rationally or even communicate with the outside world.


Part of the joy of this book (to order, visit drjilltaylor.com) is that nothing unfolds the way you’d expect. Taylor’s story at its darkest courses with gratitude and humor and, most of all, amazement, as she recounts what happened to her with Ph.D.-level clarity and awareness of detail combined with childlike exuberance. The sudden loss of her left-brain organizational and self-defining capabilities was not, for instance, terrifying. Life-threatening though her predicament was, Taylor saw her stroke as a gift of unparalleled awareness: the shattering of the self-created box we live in that we call “life.”


“When the shower droplets beat into my chest like little bullets, I was harshly startled back into . . . reality,” she writes of that first morning. “As I held my hands up in front of my face and wiggled my fingers, I was simultaneously perplexed and intrigued.


“Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am. What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life! I am a sea of water bound inside this membranous pouch. Here, in this form, I am a conscious mind and this body is the vehicle through which I am ALIVE! I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept! I am cellular life, no — I am molecular life with manual dexterity and a cognitive mind!”


Taylor’s book accomplishes quite a few important things in a fairly short space. It tells a fascinating story that begins with how she orchestrated her rescue that morning even as “my earthly body dissolved and I melted into the universe,” and proceeds through brain surgery and eight years of slow recovery of her left-brain functions (for instance, she had to learn to read all over again, beginning with the preschool-level “The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy”); it bursts with hope for everyone who is brain-injured (not just stroke patients but accident victims and thousands of Iraq war vets); and it gives medical practitioners clear, no-nonsense information about the shortcomings of conventional treatment and attitudes toward the brain-injured: “I needed people to come close and not be afraid of me.”


But to my mind, what makes “My Stroke of Insight” not just valuable but invaluable — a gift to every spiritual seeker and peace activist — is what I would describe as Taylor’s fearless mapping of the physiology of compassion, the physiology of Nirvana.


This book is about the wonder of being human and as such is a plea and a prayer that we strive to be equal to how big we really are. What a piece of work is man — 5 trillion cells functioning in purposeful harmony. The two hemispheres of our brain are yoked opposites: limit-setting rationality (time, judgment, ego) in perpetual interplay with the eternal and unbounded now. Together, and only together, do these two halves of our awareness make our human destiny.


A healthy person, and a healthy society, honor and live more or less equally out of both halves of the brain. When I asked Taylor how she’d describe our current state of societal balance, she said: 85-15. “We don’t just not engage the skills of the right hemisphere, we mock them!”


That is to say, we live and we strangle each other in our left-brain ego-boxes, refusing to trust or even acknowledge that a different kind of world is possible. Here’s how Taylor puts it: “I realized that the blessing I had received from this experience was the knowledge that deep internal peace is accessible to anyone at any time. . . . My stroke of insight would be: Peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.”


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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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