Can a brain stroke victim experience Nirvana?

In her 2006 book “My Stroke of Insight”, neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor describes a brain haemorrhage that incapacitated her left brain and induced a feeling of bliss and euphoria, a state she alludes to as being akin to Nirvana. (“I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana“)  This post explores the intriguing possibility whether her experience could resemble the transcendental  moments experienced by yogis.

To put Jill’s experience in perspective, we first need to understand the distinction between left and right brain functions.  Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere of the brain handles local and analytical processing while the right hemisphere does global and holistic processing.  The left brain deals with sequentiality, thrives on details, names objects, dissects space and engages in brain chatter.  The right brain amortizes all the incoming sensory information to create a collage (it operates in the “now” moment), interprets non-verbal cues and empathy, and looks at big picture.  The two hemispheres achieve coherence by synchronizing communication through the corpus callosum.

On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte-Taylor’s left brain began malfunctioning due to a blood leakage stemming from an Arteriovenous malformation.  She began having difficulty with left-brain functions involving sequentiality of time, language understanding, speech and proprioception, but her right brain was still functioning so she had a bare self-awareness (what in scientific circles is called “ipseity“). She felt as if she had no body, and experienced an unconditional joy because her “ego” had disappeared. She was unable to think of the past and the future, and unwittingly began living in the present-moment.  She felt as if she had become a “great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria”.  Unfortunately, there were some adverse side-effects as well; her sensory perceptions became amplified – lights felt brighter than normal, voices seemed louder than usual, etc. [1]

This raises the intriguing question: Is Jill’s experience equivalent to  the peak mystical moments experienced by sages of lore?   If so, can anyone experience Nirvana by numbing the left-brain?  There are some remarks by Sri Aurobindo from a discussion in the 1940s which might throw light on this question, which we present here:

There was a discussion between two disciples — one of them was a doctor. The doctor’s idea was that in Samadhi the physical mind is still, and if we look only to the physical body, then it seems that the venous blood collects in the brain and brings about a sort of anaesthesia of the brain.  When the brain is thus completely quieted down then the mind — the mental consciousness — is released from the entanglement of body. It can then experience more freely the other levels of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo: (after a pause) I was thinking of the “carbon-dioxide” explanation of Samadhi. It may be perfectly true so for as a particular kind of concentration — Samadhi — is concerned. For example, there is a state in which a complete withdrawal into a certain aspect of the Infinite takes place. It is attained by stilling the mind — even the physical mind — altogether. But there are other kinds of concentrations — Samadhis — where that explanation would not apply at all. In such concentrations the mind is quite clear, in fact, the mind can be very active and there is no carbon-dioxide in the brain [2]

Passivity of mind is the first step in Nirvana.  Based on Jill’s description of her experience and Sri Aurobindo’s remarks seen above, it is tempting to conclude that she experienced what could be called the first stage of Nirvana. Her brain stroke had tranquilized the chatter of her thoughts, and allowed her to gain an initial glimpse into the existence of a hidden Self within, creating in her a sense of euphoria.

A quick blurb on the Nirvana-Cosmic Consciousness distinction may be appropriate at this point. The Divine has projected itself into the Universe in multi-faceted ways, passive as well as active.  When the soul steps back from the ego and identifies with the passive aspect, it is called Nirvana in which the world appears empty and shorn of life.  Similarly, when the soul identifies with the active aspect of the Divine, it is denoted as Cosmic Consciousness in which one feels as if the world and all its beings are infused by an in-dwelling Divine presence.

A similar experience limned in Savitri

In God’s supreme withdrawn and timeless hush
A seeing Self and potent Energy met;
The Silence knew itself and thought took form:
Self-made from the dual power creation rose.
In the still self he lived and it in him;
Its mute immemorable listening depths,
Its vastness and its stillness were his own;
One being with it he grew wide, powerful, free.
Apart, unbound, he looked on all things done.

(Sri Aurobindo.  Savitri Book II, Canto XIII)

Video of Jill-Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on her stroke experience

References

  1. Jill Bolte-Taylor.  My Stroke of Insight (New York: Penguin, 2006).
  2. A.B. Purani.  Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, First Series, pp 201-202 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1982)

Related posts

  1. Explaining out-of-body and near-death experiences
  2. The brain is not the mind as per Yoga psychology
  3. Memory transference in organ transplant recipients
  4. Sleep disorders : somnambulism and somniloquy
  5. Embodied cognition in Yoga psychology
  6. The action of subliminal memory
  7. Similarity between Neurological and Yogic models of human memory
  8. Sri Aurobindo on synchronicity
  9. Ghosts explained
  10. The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
  11. How can we “see” in our dreams when our eyes are closed?
  12. Epistemology of perception
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22 thoughts on “Can a brain stroke victim experience Nirvana?

    1. Sandeep Post author

      I agree that not all stroke patients can experience Nirvana, but the case of Jill Bolte-Taylor is unusual in that she remained aware of her benumbed left-brain.

      Reply
      1. yousuff

        hi I am male computer engineer i got right brain stroke because doctor wrongly given high tablets for BP but my colestrol is actual high 620 but doctor given high tablets for BP not for colestrol. of so that i cannot able to proper my left site leg and hand freely to work it is before too bad i but now can walk after taking checkup doctor every month checkup and intake Madison(tablets)but till not normal walk my jobs stroke more then 2 years give me some idea
        thank you

      2. Sandeep Post author

        Yousuff,

        Sorry to hear of your stroke. I am not a doctor! This article is exploring a theme related to yoga psychology.

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  5. mike

    Well. apparently, according to this excerpt from the Mother in the agenda, nirvana can be achieved at any level of our being. Something l wasn’t aware of before. So, the possible nirvana experienced by jill would obviously not be the same as, say, SA’s or Buddha’s Nirvana [l’m still confused about what it really is. Guess l’ll have to experience it first-hand LOL]:

    “August 13, 1963

    (Regarding an old “Playground Talk” of 1950 and noted from memory by a disciple, which Mother asks Satprem to scrap. The subject was Nirvana, which one was to reach – or so the notation said – by withdrawing all one’s energies into the psychic being or soul.)

    None of that is true!

    In the first place, we should say that each realm has an energy of its own. But what people generally feel as energy is vital energy; and vital energy… (hem!) is vital! Therefore to say that those who withdraw withdraw all their energies and consciousness into the psychic to attain Nirvana is nonsense!

    There is a nirvana behind the vital, a nirvana behind the psychic, a nirvana behind the mind; there is a nirvana on every level, even behind the physical – it’s death. And those who withdraw, who try to attain Nirvana, NEVER go into the psychic – the psychic is something essentially linked to divine manifestation, not to divine nonintervention, not to Nirvana.

    All that is fit for the wastepaper basket!1”

    Reply
    1. ipi

      The push to Nirvana has two motive forces behind it. One is the sense of the imperfection, sorrow, death, suffering of this world — the original motive force of the Buddha. But for escape from these afflictions Nirvana might not be necessary, if there are higher worlds into which one can ascend where there is no such imperfection, sorrow, death or suffering. But this other possibility of escape is met by the idea that these higher worlds too are transient and part of the Ignorance, that one has to return here always till one overcomes the Ignorance, that the Reality and the cosmic existence are as Truth and Falsehood, opposite, incompatible. This brings in the second motive force, that of the call to transcendence. If the Transcendent is not only supracosmic but an aloof Incommunicable, avyavahАryam, which one cannot reach except by a negation of all that is here, then some kind of Nirvana, an absolute Nirvana even is inevitable. If, on the other hand, the Divine is transcendent but not incommunicable, the call will still be there and the soul will leave the chequered cosmic play for the beatitude of the transcendent existence, but an absolute Nirvana would not be indispensable; a beatific union with the Divine offers itself as the way before the seeker. This is the reason why the Cosmic Consciousness is not sufficient and the push away from it is so strong, — it is only if the golden lid of the overmind is overpassed and opened and the dynamic contact with the supermind and a descent of its Light and Power here is intended that it can be otherwise.

      ***
      source:
      http://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/sa/22-24/eng_1_5.htm

      Reply
    2. Sandeep Post author

      Well. apparently, according to this excerpt from the Mother in the agenda, nirvana can be achieved at any level of our being. Something l wasn’t aware of before. So, the possible nirvana experienced by jill would obviously not be the same as, say, SA’s or Buddha’s Nirvana

      I guess by the word “Nirvana” the Mother implies the immobility of a particular plane of consciousness. One can experience the solidity of mental immobility, vital immobility and so on for a while in meditation and come back refreshed.

      SA’s Nirvana was the experience of the Nirguna Brahman (i.e. Brahman without qualities) in which the whole world feels like an illusion.

      Reply
  6. mike

    l’ve always found it strange that buddha never had an experience of the soul or the Divine – apparently they don’t believe in these things [not sure if every buddhist sect is like that i.e. Tibetan buddhists]. Weird, though.

    Reply
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  9. Kai

    It seems that Entheogens have been used in relegions through out the history for altering the brain chemistry and through that process producing a particular state of consciousness more or less similar to the states produced in spiritual practices. If it is possible for some substances to change the chemicals in brain produced altered states then what is the need for doing spiritual practices for years.I remember reading JK saying that the states produced by Drugs are not Authentic. I try to understand this way, the change in consciousness produces corresponding changes in the Brain activity and in the other way changing the brain chemistry produces a corresponding change of consciousness.But not sure why JK says one is authentic and other not.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Authentic states of consciousness are produced when chakras are activated in the subtle body, because of which one acquires a measure of tranquility, diminishing of ego as well as transcendence over desires. These states are more profound than those produced by mere chemical changes produced in the brain.

      Drugs lead to what may be called “unconsciousness” rather than complete consciousness. In Aurobindonian terminology, you can unknowingly enter the “vital world” with two added complications: (a) this transition is not under your control, and (b) you can fall victim to hostile spirits which seek to possess you and misuse your life for their nefarious actions.

      The Dalai Lama once posed a Koan: “If you take LSD, can you see what’s in that Briefcase?” (Ginsberg, Indian journals)

      Reply
    2. Sandeep Post author

      Sri Aurobindo commented on the subject once

      11 September 1926 (Evening)

      (X referred to the use of drugs by some Yogis.)

      Sri Aurobindo: This has been greatly abused. The drugs give artificial stimulation which makes possible certain experiences, but these experiences do not bring any permanent change; on the other hand, the normal condition becomes more dull. Merely the throwing out of the consciousness from the body is not at all difficult but it brings no improvement. Those who are conscious of and can control such going out of the consciousness can make proper use of artificial drugs.

      (X referred to certain drugs in America which, when taken, are supposed to give clairvoyance.)

      Sri Aurobindo: I do not know of such drugs but that is quite possible, though this is not the proper method. Salvation achieved through the use of drugs is not worth having. The ancients found out some such drug in the soma plant.

      Disciple: What happens when a person becomes unconscious under chloroform?

      Sri Aurobindo: The vital consciousness is thrown out of the body.

      Disciple: What happens to the mind?

      Sri Aurobindo: That, of course, goes with the vital consciousness.

      Disciple: There remains certainly a connection with the body, by which the consciousness returns to the body.

      Sri Aurobindo: Yes.

      Disciple: The medical explanation is that the nervous centres are disconnected.

      Sri Aurobindo: That is the result of the going out of the vital consciousness.

      from
      http://overmanfoundation.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/conversations-with-sri-aurobindo-recorded-by-anilbaran-roy-part-4/

      Reply

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