Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.
On the 18th October I posted a piece inspired by Jill Bolte Taylor‘s TED talk on her experience of a stroke. Her video was so enthralling that I knew I had to buy her book, My Stroke of Insight, and I did.
What’s more I had a chance to read it on one of those tedious weekend journeys on the train, where they take you all round the U.K. to your destination to avoid the one spot where somebody’s working on the line you should have used. Normally I’d be the first to whinge and moan about the waste of life involved but this time I took it as a heaven-sent opportunity to relish her little jewel of a book – small it may be but priceless none the less.
I won’t rehash the first part of it, which tells the story of the morning of her stroke and how she got herself the help she needed even though she couldn’t speak. That’s all vividly recounted in the video I posted in October. It’s the story of her recovery I would like to focus on and what she feels she’s learned from the experience. But I’ll not say too much in case you feel you don’t need to buy the book after all.
The validity of her message in terms of stroke recovery is increasingly becoming recognised and is at the centre of Schwartz’s book, The Mind & the Brain, for example (see earlier post). She writes (page 94):
The try is everything. The try is me saying to my brain, hey, I value this connection and I want it to happen. I may have to try, try, and try again with no results for a thousand times before I get even an inkling of a result, but if I don’t try, it may never happen.
She recognises though that this is almost impossible to do alone. She gives her mother a huge amount of credit for helping her keep trying (page 95).
We celebrated all my accomplishments. She helped me clearly define what was next and helped me understand what I needed to do to get there. She kept me on track by paying attention to my details. A lot of stroke survivors complain that they are no longer recovering. I often wonder if the real problem is that no one is paying attention to the little accomplishments that are being made. . . . Recovery can be derailed by hopelessness.
She needed people to believe in her capacity to recover (page 111). It took her eight years to plateau out in her recovery, far longer than the two years conventional wisdom thought was the maximum recovery period after a stroke. What you hadn’t recovered by then, it was once thought, was never coming back. This is now known to be nonsense.
One of the most fascinating contributions her mother’s approach made to her recovery was in the use of multiple options (page 114). There is a superb example of the power of this on page 96. It concerns deciding what she is going to have for lunch. “Minestrone?’ Jill struggled to retrieve her sense of what that meant and then indicated she had understood. Then came ‘Grilled cheese sandwich?’ Another search around the hidden archives until this one was found. Next? ‘Tuna salad?’ A blank. An explanation. Still blank. So, that’s what she had for lunch.
That was our strategy if I couldn’t find the old file; we made it a point to make a new one.
And that principle was applied in every domain of activity during her waking hours, which initially were very few.
She also had to deal with the problems of emotional recovery, which in part involved initially accepting that who she used to be was dead. She now had to discover and develop her new self. As she recovered old abilities she might also find she was rediscovering the old emotional problems that went along with them (page 121).
Each new day brought new challenges and insights. The more I recovered my old files, the more my old emotional baggage surfaced, and the more I needed to evaluate the usefulness of preserving its underlying neural circuitry.
This brings us on to the other great challenge of recovery: how to rebuild her capacity to cope in the outside world without losing the insights into peace and unity she had gained when she was in the uninterrupted right-brain state. As she put it, quoting Marianne Williamson (page 83), ‘Could I rejoin the rat race without becoming a rat again?’
She explains the dilemma very bluntly (page 131-132):
Although I wanted to regain my left hemisphere skills, I must say that there were personality traits that tried to rise from the ashes of my left mind that, quite frankly, were no longer acceptable to my right hemispheric sense of who I now wanted to be. . . . .I didn’t want to give up Nirvana. What price would my right hemisphere consciousness have to pay so I could once again be judged as normal?
This was an extremely important choice because:
. . . the most fundamental traits of my right hemisphere personality are deep inner peace and loving compassion.
She needed a healthy balance (page 140). In her ‘right mind’ as she came to call it (page 141) she felt:
. . . “I am a part of it all. We are brothers and sisters on this planet. We are here to help make this world a more peaceful and kinder place.’
The left mind has a role though:
My left mind is responsible for taking all of that energy, all of that information about the present moment, and all of those magnificent possibilities perceived by the right mind, and shaping them into something manageable.
As I explained in my review of Iain McGilchrist‘s book, this left/right brain issue is reflected, for example, in how difficult it is to work both systematically and with a sense of the organic, to be both efficient and loving – something of great concern to the Bahá’í enterprise at the moment. This is what Jill Bolte Taylor was seeking to find a balance for in her own life after her stroke. Society at large needs to struggle to find this same balance, if McGilchrist is to be believed, and I for one do believe him.
I do not intend to spoil the book by rehashing in detail here the whole of her journey back to health and her summary of all she learned. It needs to be read for itself. But I cannot resist quoting a key passage from close to the end of the book (page 154 – it’s not a long read, this book, but it’s a richly rewarding one):
If I want to retain my inner peace, I must be willing to consistently and persistently tend the garden of my mind moment by moment, and be willing to make the decision a thousand times a day.
This idea of the mind as a garden is so close to the idea in the Baha’i Writings that the heart is a garden that I could not fail to resonate to it, particularly as I have written quite a lot about this issue in this blog already.
This human story, though briefly told, captures the essence of the struggle we all have to gain our full potential and that our society also faces as it strives to do exactly the same on a larger scale. We must become the skilful and tireless gardeners of our hearts/minds if we are also to prove capable of cultivating the kinds of communities we would all prefer to live in.
I am profoundly grateful to her for having had the courage to share her story and feel I am all the better for having read it.