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