Following up from our group view of the Jill Bolte Taylor video at the Tai Pan Hotel. Our Little Bangkok meditation group met for discussion on meditation, vipassana, mindfulness and neurology, or the brain. Following is the report from the event.
Jill Bolte Taylor certainly had some odd experiences during her stroke. Where other people might (rightfully) panic, there was always one part of her that thought
How fabulous, here I am a neuro-scientist given the opportunity to study the brain from the inside.
Putting aside the observation that this is precisely what meditators do, we can look at some of her experiences and examine what they have in common with some of the sutta descriptions. As a good example of a sutta that talks on some of these extraordinary states of mind, we’ll compare to some parts of the Samannaphala (Saaman~n~naphala) sutta.
Taylor told how she spent a time just looking at her arm, and how it was made up of so many molecules, and the wonder of this experience. Presumably she had always known about molecules, and had often looked at her arm. But here something special was occurring. She could hear the instructions going to her muscles to expand and contract as she moved…
I looked down at my arm and realised I could no longer define the boundaries of my body. I could not define where I begin and where I end because the atoms and molecules of my arm blended with those of the world. All I could detect was energy, energy….. then my brain chatter went totally silent. Like someone had taken a remote control and hit the mute button… I found myself inside a silent mind. .. and I was immediately captivated by the energy around me… I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all that was and it was beautiful there.
She ‘affectionately’ calls this LaLa land, and she describes losing 37 years of mental baggage. She felt euphoria. On the way to the hospital, like the last bit of air escaping from a balloon, she felt her
energy lift and her spirit surrender
Her senses burned her, echoing the Buddha’s declaration that any happiness found through the senses was like the happiness a leper feels when he burns his sores with a brand. Taylor continues:
I felt enormous and expansive, like a genie liberated from the bottle …. gliding through a sea of euphoria … there’s no way I could ever squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.
Any sudden change of experience is shocking and that shock adds to the experience. JBT found herself outside of her normal ‘self’ and was both awestruck and fearful alternatively. Yet some meditators find similar experiences, but having eased in slowly and consciously they are not so afraid. Lewis Carroll, whose Alice stories reflect genuine meditative experience (honestly) describes Alice becoming so suddenly huge that she can’t fit in the room. Then back to so small she is dwarfed by everything.
In fact it is a common meditative experience to feel very very large. Sometimes just certain body parts feel big, especially the hands or neck. Other times the whole body feels so big you can’t imagine how you fit in the room you are in. Of course, it is not so frightening, as you know you can open your eyes and be returned to ‘normality’. Some advanced meditators claim that the expeience is genuine – you are in fact inhabiting a larger body, something like ‘astral’. There are many layers to these bodies, that can be produced using intense concentration.
But are these anything to do with Buddhism? Though we do not normally talk on psychic powers and such, in fact the suttas do describe something like these states.
This sutta describes attaining jhana concentration (absorption) as one of the benefits of the Holy Life. The euphoria JBT describes has its counterpart here:
There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born of composure.
The next verse describes the view of the body as composed of energy and molecules in a way similar to JBT’s description. This insight is clear just like seeing a coloured flaw in a gem (which we might compare to a child’s marble)
With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision. He discerns: ‘This body of mine is endowed with form, composed of the four primary elements, born from mother and father, nourished with rice and porridge, subject to inconstancy, rubbing, pressing, dissolution, and dispersion. And this consciousness of mine is supported here and bound up here.’ Just as if there were a beautiful beryl gem of the purest water — eight faceted, well polished, clear, limpid, consummate in all its aspects, and going through the middle of it was a blue, yellow, red, white, or brown thread — and a man with good eyesight, taking it in his hand, were to reflect on it thus: ‘This is a beautiful beryl gem of the purest water, eight faceted, well polished, clear, limpid, consummate in all its aspects. And this, going through the middle of it, is a blue, yellow, red, white, or brown thread.
Following this JBT describes having a huge body, and her wonder at how something so huge could ever fit in a tiny body. This corresponds directly with the next part of the sutta that describes the production of a mind-made body. Such a description is fairly common through the suttas, and there are a lot of meditators who can replicate these experiences. They will tell you that each new body produced is far larger than the previous one.
With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright… he directs it to creating a mind-made body. From this body he creates another body, endowed with form, made of the mind, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties. Just as if a man were to draw a reed from its sheath. The thought would occur to him: ‘This is the sheath, this is the reed.’ Or as if a man were to draw a sword from its scabbard. The thought would occur to him: ‘This is the sword, this is the scabbard. The sword is one thing, the scabbard another, but the sword has been drawn out from the scabbard.’ In the same way… the monk directs and inclines [the mind] to creating a mind-made body. From this body he creates another body, endowed with form, made of the mind, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties.
What conclusions can be drawn from this? Here we have a Buddha, and a neuro scientist describing essentially the same experiences. The sutta goes on, and outlines the path to the real nirvana – not the euphoria that JBT describes. Often the more ‘magical’ or ‘psychic’ parts of the suttas are passed over in favour of those that seem more applicable to daily life and experience. But we should not dismiss the outlandish.
JBT figures that her experiences are all left brain/right brain. Yet she describes her ‘self’ as switching between these – almost like there is a third soul-like self, that can move about and choose where to place itself. Her reliance on neurological and brain physics seems to be the only vocabulary she can pick up and use. Would she have used different words if she had been a Buddhist? Would she relinquish the brain focussed explanation if she held the view that the mind can be separated from the body as in the Buddhist paradigm?
The brave and patient can click here for a full version of the sutta