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Start The Week Off “Right”

July 6, 2009

Bonjour, mes amis!  Those of you in the U.S., hope y’all had yourselves a fun Independence Day.

So here I was this morning in Cap Ferret (which, I now realize, is a kind of French version of the way I imagine the Hamptons would be). I’m back up on the blog, organizing my photos and getting ready to publish today’s post.  Then I noticed a new email in my inbox.

At first I almost deleted it.  I didn’t recognize the sender’s name or the names of other recipients, and the text preview showed only French.  Who would send me an email all in French?  But instead of erasing it, I opened it.  Still uncomprehending, I clicked the link.  Where was all this leading?

Watch the video (English with French subtitles), and you’ll hear the story of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and her own “Independence Day.”  From what tryant did she gain independence?  Her own mind.  Her “self.”  Her ego.  Thanks to a brain hemorrhage, the experience of which she describes in vivid and hilarious detail, this neuroscientist experienced what the Buddha called anatta — “no self.”  For one day, in her words, she “found nirvana.”

I remember shelving Dr. Taylor’s memoir when I worked at Harvard Book Store.  I never read it, though.  Never even thumbed through it.  Now I’m thankful to have had another chance to hear her story, which expresses, in essence, the aims of my own meditation practice, travels, blogging, and being.  Thanks, Dr. Taylor.  And to the French Email Angel, whoever you are, Merci Beaucoup. :)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. bohemiankitsch permalink
    July 6, 2009 1:44 pm

    you’re really starting to kill me with your awesomeness!


  2. July 6, 2009 2:13 pm


    takes one to know one, partner.

  3. Momin permalink
    July 6, 2009 9:53 pm

    I saw this video a while ago! and it obsessed me briefly. See, I’m a big fan of philosophical Daoism, especially the 3rd-century BCE text, the Zhuangzi, which this connects to in important ways. The Zhuangzi contains a sort of skepticist-relativist criticism of the categories created by rational thought, and advocates living in a state devoid of all categories. To take a pivotal example, it wants us to see death not simply as a necessary and complimentary opposite of life, but rather to see death as fundamentally indistinguishable from life. So we shouldn’t fear death, we shouldn’t look forward to it, we shouldn’t accept it, but we should cease to comprehend it as anything.

    The main problem with such a suggestion, of course, is that it immediately raises the question, is possible for human beings to live without categories? Is the Zhuangzi simply a skeptical tract that is pointing out the impossibility of objective knowledge using suggestions merely as rhetorical techniques, or is it seriously suggesting that we can and should live without categories? If the latter, what would such an existence look like—and what evidence do we have that such a thing is possible?

    When I came across this video, I was struck by how the experiences Dr. Taylor describes are eerily similar to the view of the world espoused by Daoism. Especially when she feels the boundaries of her self dissolve and she can no longer distinguish where she ends and where other things begin. And when her rationality slips away, she is unable to formulate plans and thus is effectively living totally spontaneously, another Daoist goal/recommendation.

    This made me wonder, perhaps what the Zhuangzi talks about is possible—and that it is nothing less than shutting down the left side of the brain.

    What gives me pause is that the left/right brain divide is suspiciously reductionist, and I doubt that brain functions can be localized that neatly. The original experiments that gave us the theory of the left/right brain were done on epileptics, whose brain connections were really messed up and thus we can’t take them as representative of all human brains. Similarly, the case discussed in this video was a stroke, which represents an abnormal state of the brain. There could have been any number of hallucinations; just because the hallucinations tie up neatly with a physiological model doesn’t mean we should take the hallucinations as evidence for that model.

    Or at least that’s what I tell myself to deal with the fear that my rationality is localized and separable. Otherwise, I am led to wonder, is it that there are two beings living in my brain? And that *I*, as a thing capable of declaring self-awareness, am the left one, with the right one being an utterly unknowable entity? And furthermore, that the consciousness (or lack thereof) of the right side is the superior one?

    For now, I hold that there is no basis solid enough for such a line of questioning. After all, we can’t live with just half our brain. Not to mention that philosophically, splitting our brain into left-rational and right-nonrational is the height of dualistic categorizing.

    But, this is tentative, I need to look into left/right brain theorizing some more. And of course, actually read Dr. Taylor’s memoir.

  4. July 9, 2009 2:44 pm

    Hey Momin! It’s so good to hear from you! :) How’ve you been? Are you still in Cambridge?

    I just want to say that last night I typed out this long comment in conversation with your piece, but it was on a friend’s computer that I’m not used to, and I touched the trackpad wrong and lost the whole thing. But! Tomorrow I’ll use my own laptop and I’m excited to build with all your thoughts! I love that the video “briefly obsessed” you. Hehe. I know that feeling.

    ‘Til tomorrow!

  5. July 13, 2009 3:12 am

    Yo! Hey, sorry it took a while to get back to this. But I’ve been reflecting on it and smiling to myself about it for the last few days.

    The main problem with such a suggestion, of course, is that it immediately raises the question, is possible for human beings to live without categories?

    What is so funny and beautiful about this question, I think, (and I’m totally with you on asking it) is that it’s impossible to answer it using concepts and categories (a.k.a. by “figuring it out”), right? Because that doesn’t get us any closer to a real answer.

    …what would such an existence look like—and what evidence do we have that such a thing is possible?

    I mean, I guess some of the science around transcendental meditation (TM) or direct encounters with people who can reach these states (or who claim to be able to, anyway), could be a sort of evidence. But again, it seems to me that the only way to find out is not to *think* about it or analyze/document it in others, but to *try* it and see for ourselves. Not that we’re going to be able to flip a switch and completely shut down conceptual thinking all at once. But there are many longstanding techniques and traditions that point to a practice of letting go of ‘mind,’ or ‘concepts,’ in favor of pure existence. Not in an irreversible, permanent transcendence sort of way — and to even think about a radical shift like that immediately lands us back in the same realm of speculation and conceptual thinking — but in step-by-step ways that can help us live the kinds of lives we want to live. I mean, that’s what all this is about, isn’t it? Not just a fascinating theoretical game, but an attempt to find better ways of living, here and now.

    That’s why I’m curious about Dr. Taylor’s prescription (heh) at the end of the video — to choose right-brain existence over left-brain thinking. Because of course, sharing your fear and skepticism, Momin, about biological reductionism, I was like, Well is she just gonna tell us we should all undergo, like, neurocircumcisions? To remove or render inert this ego-centered part of the brain? Scary prospects for eugenics projects, no?

    But I think (and I’m with you — gotta read the book, too) — I think she would say that the choice element goes deeper than just minimizing the risk of a botched neurological intervention. (After all, like you say, this was a stroke — an organic, not deliberate, process. Who knows whether surgery would be able to simulate it precisely? — subduing some functions to certain degrees while leaving others intact.) Maybe choice and agency plays an important role here? What do you think?

    Otherwise, I am led to wonder, is it that there are two beings living in my brain? And that *I*, as a thing capable of declaring self-awareness, am the left one, with the right one being an utterly unknowable entity? And furthermore, that the consciousness (or lack thereof) of the right side is the superior one?

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “unknowable” here. It seems like Taylor “knew” herself, as herself, while she was living from her right brain. It’s just that the “self” at that point became much larger and more expansive than “Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor,” her tiny physical form, and life history. Do you mean unknowable in terms of beyond categories or conceptual thinking?

    As far as one consciousness or another being “superior,” I’m not sure whether superiority is the most important question. More like, as Dr. Taylor put it, “Which one do you choose?” A lot of very wise people have said things about a greater indwelling spirit, you know? Something that is inside of them and yet beyond them. Have you ever felt that way?

    And yet, most of us spend our *entire lives* identifying *exclusively* with the consciousness that says “I.” “Me.” “Mine.” The same consciousness that thinks in concepts. Short of a stroke, it is very hard to make the switch, isn’t it? :)

    Oh man. I am happy that people like this woman exist. And that people like you exist! :)

    Sending you lots of unthinking, non-conceptual hugs,

    (or trying my best, anyway ;) ),


  6. Momin permalink
    July 15, 2009 12:32 am

    I’ve been okay. I’m back at home, which is RI. It’s the usual story of unemployed doing some odd things, and vaguely attempting to make plans for something solid. But I would be fine even with something liquid. Amorphous would be nice too. Right now I’ve just got fluff.

    Thank you for being so committed and retyping your thoughts! I’ve taken to typing out things in TextEdit and then copying and pasting them onto websites, because once or twice I lost things I typed in text boxes and that was one or two times too many. I’ve relaxed that a bit with gmail, because it saves things automatically, but I stay wary.

    About the point of how we can’t use categories to discuss how we can live without categories, I’ll give a quote from the Zen monk Dogen.

    One day Dogen said:
    While I was reading the recorded sayings of an ancient master in a monastery in China, a monk from Shu who was practicing the way said, “What’s the use of reading such a book?”
    I said, “I want to study the deeds of ancient masters.”
    He said, “What’s the use of that?”
    I said, “I hope to guide people when I go home.”
    He said, “What’s the use of that?”
    I said, “To benefit beings.”
    He said, “Ultimately, what’s the use of that?”
    Later, I thought about the meaning of his questions. I realized that reading recorded sayings and koans, studying the deeds of ancient masters, and explaining them to the deluded are of no use for one’s own development or in helping others. If you practice just sitting and clarify the great matter–the essential meaning–your understanding becomes unlimited in guiding others, even if you don’t know a single letter. That is why the monk said, “Ultimately, what’s the use of that?”
    Realizing he was right to the point, I stopped reading recorded sayings and other texts. I sat wholeheartedly and clarified the great matter.

    Like many budding intellectual types, I had an attraction to Zen Buddhism since way back in high school, and I came across this opening passage to Dogen’s work while trying to read up on Zen. I was immediately attracted to the sentiment, because a reality where the ‘essential meaning’ is reachable anytime, anyplace, with total universality and egalitarianism makes so much sense.

    The self-contradictory nature of the passage, at that time, I took as a disclaimer and an encouragement that anybody without access to the book was not without access to the ‘essential meaning’ it talks about. So when I didn’t bother finishing reading the book, there was nothing to regret.

    Later on, I realized that my fascination with Zen wasn’t helping me; I somewhat blamed myself for a lack of discipline, but I went and dropped it. In retrospect, I have understood that my attraction to Zen was the exact same as my attraction to Platonism. And Platonism was the great poison of my mind. Since that understanding, my rejection continued and became based on principled grounds.

    More recently, I realized that Dogen offered an idea that was not anti-intellectual, but rather of tremendous sophistication intellectually. See, on the absolute superficial level, he’s saying “don’t bother reading books if you are looking for enlightenment.” One level deeper, we realize that this paradoxically applies to his work as well, but there’s nothing more to glean analytically about the paradox. But peeling away another level, we see that if we learn that we cannot learn from this book, then we have learned from this book. It has, in one swoop, not only undermined itself but also undermined the undermining.

    The lesson? That it is possible to talk in circles and yet be moving forward. Dogen’s paradox seemed like he placed us at an intellectual dead-end and wanted to continue on with other means of perception, but I think that for us discover this additional analytical layer was at least partly his intention.

    Put another way that is somewhat stupid, but hopefully carries the rhetorical force:
    There are no absolutes. Including this statement. Conclusion: there are absolutes!

    The other lesson, at least for me, was to be very careful about drawing dualities between reasoning and intuition, rationality and mysticism. The intellectual experience is a tool that Dogen is using, I think. Certainly, the experience of realizing how he not only undermines himself but then undermined the undermining was a little flower blossom in my mind. Rational thought is not a privileged means of perception, but neither is it unprivileged. One of my recent ideas is that reasoning is a type of intuition, and that rationality is an aesthetic experience and is tremendously important and useful in that capacity.

    So: *thinking* can be a type of *trying.* They are not synonymous, as thinking is a subcategory of trying, but they are not opposites.

    To elaborate on this, I go back to my comment that Platonism is poison. Platonism, which is the idea that there is a pure, eternal, universal and and invariant reality in some sense, is the enemy of the body. It’s an idea that is the refuge for those who hate the body and the world and want to escape it, as I once did. For me, the desire for transcendence was because of a hatred of the body.

    Which is why Zen, and meditation, isn’t for me. At least not yet. Because it’s precisely through thinking that I have been able to undermine categories (including the categories of ‘thinking’ and ‘categories’), and my rational understanding of the world has become much more like a flowing river where everything mixes and blurs.

    Not that I’m enlightened (if such a thing is possible); but I’ve come to a point where I can understand that the only way the world or reality makes sense is if it doesn’t make sense. Rationality has made tangible progress for me in a way that lusting after transcendence through Zen and meditation never did.

    Tangible progress. Ah, to quote the Zhuangzi, “Now I’m going to say something reckless, and I want you to listen to it recklessly.” I’m claiming that I have metamorphicized through discrete mental states, a claim that is bold but unhelpful because it’s an unverifiable personal-experiential claim. It’s difficult for me to think how to say more about it in any way that would be meaningful or relevant. The best I can probably do is share with you the directions of my thinking as I have done here and perhaps you will experience what I have.

    Dr. Taylor’s speech undermined my confidence, though, in whatever mental evolution I have put myself through. It undermined my faith that I really have successfully or genuinely undermined categories, because she suggested an entirely higher level of loosing perceptions of categories. And her claims really do invoke a fear that I’m missing something in rejecting biological reductionism.

    On the two “me’s.” Here goes. If my entire conception of Self is localized in the left brain (as it is by definition, because “my Self” is a category, and the left brain is the only category-making agent), then what is in my right brain is not my Self. Therefore, my Self (which is a creation of my left brain) can only understand the right brain as somebody/something other than my Self. And if that other has agency by the perception of my Self, my Self can only understand it as another Self.

    Hmm, it might help to throw in one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes here. This is from Beyond Good and Evil, §17:

    With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” After all, one has even gone too far with this “it thinks”—even the “it” contains an interpretation of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here according to the grammatical habit: “Thinking is an activity; every activity requires an agent; consequently—”…

    Part of what my rational project entails is finding ways to talk about what I can’t refer to with language. That’s what I’m doing here, I just haven’t succeeded in articulating it (yet). It’s a meta-project (as will be anything that uses language to talk about what you can’t refer to with language).

    Aside: speaking of flipping a switch, I love this little ditty:

    Yes, it is a satire (somewhere between Nova and the Twilight Zone), but it’s not entirely clear what it’s a satire of or what commentary it’s making and that’s what I love about it.

    Back to Dr. Taylor—the comment about choosing between the two sides. That suggestion as well undermines one of my core principle that there is no distinction.

    As for a greater indwelling spirit… I could label some of my experiences as that, but I also suspect that such a conceptualization of those experiences would be projections of my desire for there to be something more than the body, something more than physical reality. Doesn’t mean it’s not ‘true,’ but it’s not helpful to me because I can’t go anywhere with it. It defines itself to be a dead-end of rational perception.

    It’s probably the descriptions of other people’s experiences that is a more relevant piece of information for me, because that’s external information. I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody who can reach (or, as you say, claims to be able to reach) TM. But every so often I come across a particularly convincing narrative and that throws me into chaos and doubt for some time. Those are generally the things with which I become briefly obsessed. Briefly, because so far nothing has managed to be airtight enough to unseat all of my convictions. And obsessed, because I relish the experience of introducing doubt and the challenge of synthesizing or otherwise managing it.

    Have you ever heard of The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castenada? An anthropology student’s descriptions of his encounters with a Mexican medicine man from back in the 60s? That was one of the biggest instigators of doubt in recent memory. That’s something I’ve had to reject outright as fabricated. At least with descriptions of TM-related things, sometimes I can interpret my experiences to be converging with what is described there (like how I manage Dogen above).

    Whew! That’s everything I have to say, I think. What about you? Have you had any personal experiences that you find are able to help you move past perceptions of categories?

    To you too: trans-atlantic hugs! And, happy bastille day!


    (Last time I asked wordpress to “notify me of follow-up comments” but apparently I needed to confirm that and didn’t until after you posted your response… but I will make sure I confirm the notifications right away this time!)

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