Thursday, March 05, 2009

Just like that; perspective shifts to the right

"Time's up. Put down your pencils."

You remember the feeling, don't you? You're in 5th grade; you are taking a school-wide standardized test; all the instructions are delivered, wooden, word for word as the test dictates. The pressure is on; you must perform; you must do your best. And then, just like that, it's over. You go out and play.

And just like that, my intellectual pursuit is over and I'm going out to play. Indeed, 20 years is quite a long time to devote to the cultivation of a particular type of thinking, a certain point of view, a certain understanding of the world and my place in it. Now I feel free to cultivate a new type of mental, emotional and psychological functioning, an alternative point of view and a different understanding of the world and my place in it. The need to change perspectives crystalized for me as I read Dr. Jill Taylor's, "My Stoke of Insight." Dr. Taylor experienced over the course of a few hours what she described as the equivalent of Buddhist Nirvana, because she suffered (at 37) a left-brain hemorrhage that left her unable to speak, to understand speech, to understand anything about numbers or math, to move, to recognize where she ended and everything else started, even to know who she was or anything about her past. This was "quieting the mind" all at once and completely. But while those functions shut down, her right-brain continued to function perfectly and, in fact, treated her, for the first time ever, to the perception of herself as a fluid, connected to the universe, and to an experience of absolute joy and non-judgmental acceptance of everything and everyone. Upon reading about her experience of the stroke and her effort to reintegrate her left-brain functioning (which took nearly a decade) without losing her right-brain point of view, I realized that the awareness, peace and tranquility, the compassion and openness the Buddhist texts speak about are all simply a perspective on the world, on life, and on living that is present within me, a perception I can experience at any time because it's actually how my right-brain perceives things, at this very moment and at every moment. It is just that the dominance of my left-brain reduces the right's expression of this perspective to a subtle nagging sense of dis-ease with the analytical point of view that dominates my thinking and my actions. The right-brain is the little voice that says, "be more generous," "listen, just listen," "it's not good or bad; it just is," and that I routinely ignore as I let other thoughts and feelings, including ego, fear, anger and resentment, manage my decision-making. I hear the right-brain, or I sense it, but I turn away from it. Starting a little over a week ago I stopped ignoring it. I found myself instantly able to see the world, my place in it, my relationships to friends and family and my tasks and chores, even my conflicts and challenges, in a completely different way.

For example, this right-brain point of view has changed how I see my mother and myself as we walk together down the path with Alzheimer's. It changed how I felt about making a trip to Houston to deliver Dennis' motorcycle to his studio (an arduous and expensive process we have undertaken four times now, as we move the motorcycle sculpture to locations for shows). Suddenly it was just 'what we were doing' that Wednesday. It had no aversive quality. I was freed of any kind of resistance, and full of energy and happiness all day.

And most amazingly, it helped me to articulate for myself at a much more basic level than I had imagined, the choice I have been gradually edging towards, without realizing it, since last summer. The inability to find any dissertation topic for inquiry that interested me enough to devote two years to it, and more recently, any topic that interests me enough to devote an hour to it, to say nothing of the rest of my life, was merely the reluctance to continue to intellectualize, period. It is just time to turn away from that. I took up law to challenge myself intellectually, to earn enough to have choices later in life, and to join a respected profession. I accomplished and enjoyed that. It is now time to turn to what has been missing from intellectual pursuits -- emotion, open-heartedness, connection, compassion and love. It's simply time to turn to other things. How could I be so fortunate as to come across this book that perfectly framed the problem, and the solution I have been seeking below the level of verbal articulation? My friend Peg says that its my personal dawning of the age of Aquarius: Jupiter and Mars are aligned and I can expect these kinds of insights. I think it is, as well, that Dr. Taylor's explanation of her experience was understandable to my left-brain in a way that Buddhist texts have never been. It's as though Buddhism's explanations were too far beyond my understanding for me to bridge the gap. Taylor's explanation was the bridge.

When a Buddhist writer says that we are one, we are all, and we are peace, the left-brain entertains those assertions as statements of fact and quickly discredits them. "We most certainly are not one. What does 'we are all' actually mean? And we are peace? Please." Taylor set the stage right from the start to allow us to step around this reflexive negation of her experience. She does not assert that the left-brain must accept what it can never perceive. Rather, she asserts that the right-brain ordinarily perceives the world this way, by nature. It is not possible for the left-brain to see us as one, whole, all, and peace. But the right brain sees nothing else. The challenge is no longer to convince your left-brain its life-long perceptions are wrong -- merely to convince it to take a break so you can see your right-brain's perception for yourself.

Caring for my mother, for Dennis, for myself, my friends, cultivating openness, compassion and a loving heart, doing what I know is the right thing to do with my time and my energy, these may well take hard, hard work over a long time, but at least I am convinced now, in a way I have never been before, that they do not represent a state of mind to "achieve" or "develop" at the high cost of the typically futile effort to break habitual patterns of understanding, but merely a state of mind existing in my right brain, right now, to recognize and to listen to, to let express itself in my days, weeks -- in my life. The perspective is already there and functioning. It requires only that it be recognized and released from left-brain's dominance. It needs a chance to at least be part of the view, maybe even to dominate at times.

All this is not to say that intellectualizing has no place in a healthy, happy, effective life or that I will never pursue intellectual life again. Far from it. I place immense value on my intellect and can't imagine not having and relying on it a million times each day. But I have put so much effort into nurturing my intellect for so many years, that my right-brain has simply stagnated by comparison. The left-brain can take a rest, chill out for awhile, so that I can nurture right-brain perspectives and begin to see what I've been missing. Balance is ultimately what I'd like to have. Dr. Taylor worked long and hard to regain her left-brain functioning, but she determined from the start of that process that she would not attempt it at all if it meant losing what she had gained from experiencing her right-brain's perspective while the left shut down. She had recognized in a deeply profound way that despite her brain's having shut down important functions, she was undamaged. I paraphrase here her description: In the absence of my left hemisphere's negative judgment, I was simply a being of light radiating life into the world -- a cellular masterpiece -- perfect, whole and beautiful, just the way I was. (Ch.6)

This was not a platitude or cynical consolation. She saw herself this way, at the core of her being. Who would want to lose such absolute certainty about the nature of who and what you were? Who would not want to gain it? Similarly, I have no desire to cultivate right-brain functioning at the cost of left. I'm convinced, however, that it's time to shift focus and go from there.