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I’ve been thinking of your comments in light of Jill Bolte Taylor’s comments about her stroke. Her description of what it was like to have her left-brain functions blocked reminds me of descriptions I’ve heard about what it’s like to experience transcendance. How do you think her stroke experience relates to meditation?
I’ve read Taylor’s book. It seemed to contradict itself in places, but that could be for a number of reasons. She is great.
Generally the brain seems to tune itself through complex networks of recurrent excitation and inhibition of many, many submodules. Locally and globally, opponent processes are firing all the time, which allows for finely tuned and fast adaptive control.
Both a stroke and “classical buddhist enlightenment” seem to temporarily or permanently knock out one or both sides of the excitation/inhibition innervating particular submodules.
So, a stroke and “enlightenment” are similar in terms of the large, discontinuous changes that they can cause, which might put particular submodules permanently into “overdrive” or “underdrive.” And that could greatly change the content and dynamics of conscious experience and behavior.
In terms of the specific submodules being targeted by both Taylor’s stroke and by meditation or “enlightenment,” I could make a reasoned argument, but it would only be speculation. (One could match up Taylor’s medical records with functional neuroanatomy and meditation/fMRI/EEG literature, too…)
For whatever it’s worth, Taylor’s experience doesn’t seem to match most of the end-game descriptions that I’ve read. Her experience reads more like transient states that meditators sometimes go through (minus the most debilitating aspects of her experience). In the traditional texts and from modern teachers you get a continual litany of “Ok, yeah, that must of been really intense, but that’s not ‘enlightenment.’ … Nope, not that either. Nope. … Nope. … Nope. … Nope. …”
Personally, I’m most interested in how meditation alters “finely tuned and fast adaptive control,” in very specific ways; getting insight into all the slippery ways I fool myself; and deliberately using the contents of consciousness more effectively. I am wary of “the big stuff,” of poorly controlled, discontinuous changes in neural activity or anything that would interfere with my ability to carefully track self and world.
I think there can be value in “peak experiences,” though, as long as they’re properly interpreted, because they can make you aware of how vast the space of possible ways you can relate to the world is, and possibly give you more choice and flexibility in how you relate to the world in the future.
I am a fan of legitimate (oh, the arrogance!) profundity, meaning, grace, transcendence, being humbled and “broken open,” communion, and so much more, too.