Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Nirvana Discovered

When I was fourteen, I had what I would call an enlightening experience. It was mid-July, warm and humid, just before a summer thunderstorm. I was sitting under a maple tree at my grandmother's house, looking out over the valley behind her yard. From there, you could see for a long way, up to the center of town, where the steeple of the church rose starkly over the trees. The light was eerie and the whole sky seemed to glow. A breeze ruffled the foliage, and sitting there, I had the feeling of intense calm. At any other point in my life, the impulse would be to go inside, as it was about to pour. But not then; there was no impulse. I was feeling the bark of the tree against my back, the grass under my legs, and the air seemed to breathe through me.

If I concentrate, sometimes I can still grasp a wisp of the feeling of being completely absorbed into my surroundings. I have a meditation practice, but I've never reached any point in meditation where I have been able to let go of my consciousness in the same way. I think of that day as my mystical experience, and I'm grateful to have had it, even if I can't duplicate it.

But could it be duplicated?

For Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the experience of bliss came not from sitting under a tree, or meditating, but as the result of a stroke.

On Dec. 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor, then 37, woke up in her apartment near Boston with a piercing pain behind her eye. A blood vessel in her brain had popped. Within minutes, her left lobe — the source of ego, analysis, judgment and context — began to fail her. Oddly, it felt great.

The incessant chatter that normally filled her mind disappeared. Her everyday worries — about a brother with schizophrenia and her high-powered job — untethered themselves from her and slid away.

Her perceptions changed, too. She could see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.

“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,” she has written in her memoir, “My Stroke of Insight,” which was just published by Viking.

After experiencing intense pain, she said, her body disconnected from her mind. “I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle,” she wrote in her book. “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.”

While her spirit soared, her body struggled to live. She had a clot the size of a golf ball in her head, and without the use of her left hemisphere she lost basic analytical functions like her ability to speak, to understand numbers or letters, and even, at first, to recognize her mother. A friend took her to the hospital. Surgery and eight years of recovery followed.

Dr. Taylor's story is incredible. But what I find more interesting is that she has chosen to return to research, to look at examining the brain to discover how to tap into the center of this emotional high. Is it possible that thirteen years ago, I somehow accessed a piece of my right brain that caused the sensations that I felt? Could I do it again, guided by Dr. Taylor's research?

I am always interested in events that involve the intersection of the mystic and the scientific. One reason that I am drawn to Buddhism is that the Buddha actively encouraged his followers not to believe anything without questioning it for themselves. It is much easier to understand Dr. Taylor's experience from a vantage point of scientific inquiry.

As I write this, I'm looking out of the window on a gorgeous late spring day, and wondering if it would be possible to recapture my moment in the sunshine.

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