Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Report: My Stroke of Insight

Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time and energy degrading, insulting, and criticizing ourselves (and others) for having made a "wrong" or "bad" decision.  When you berate yourself, have you ever questioned:  Who inside of you is doing the yelling, and at whom are you yelling?

One of the things I'd love to utilize my lovely little blog for - book reports!

There are always dozens of books that I want to read on any given day, and ever since I moved to the city and started pursuing yoga as a career, about a million more books have been added to that reading list.

Whenever I read fiction, I can easily speed read and plow through fairly quickly.  Nonfiction or "educational" books, however - especially those that delve into the insanely deep territory yoga can cover - take me a lot longer to absorb.  I often feel the need to spend a month on one whole book just so I feel like I absorbed part of it, and even then it feels like it's eluding my grasp.

Hence - a book report.

I decided to go with My Stroke of Insight for the first of this series.  Ironically, the book doesn't mention the word yoga one single time.  Its principals and revelations, however, are unbelievably relevant to yoga, and I think this book should be required reading for everyone who can possibly manage to get their hands on it.  It is truly phenomenal.

As a brief skeletal sketch - My Stroke of Insight is written by brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor chronicling what happened to her when she woke up one morning to find she was experiencing a severe stroke.  With incredible ingenuity and determination she managed to save herself by calling an ambulance (even when she couldn't distinguish the numbers on the phone or which ones to call - truly a terrifying chapter).  She ultimately survived (obviously) and wrote this book to tell us all what she learned about the brain from this first hand encounter.  Dr. Taylor obviously know a great deal about the brain before her stroke, but what makes this amazing is that her knowledge went from being merely academic or rote to being deeply ingrained, personal, and a present part of her everyday life.

I read this book at the behest of my boyfriend who read it after one of our favorite yoga teachers, Joe Somodi, recommended it highly during a meditation workshop.  While reading it he couldn't stop telling me all the fascinating things he was learning, and as soon as he finished it I picked it up.  Joe recommended this book so highly because, despite the fact that it's not "about" yoga, strictly speaking, it empowers us with the revelation of just how much control over our thoughts and emotions we have - more than you ever would have thought possible before reading this book, even if you're an experienced meditator / yogi.

Dr. Taylor's stroke took place in the left part of her brain, severely damaging it, leaving her right brain to take over for a good long time.  The difference she illustrates between our left and right brain go far, far beyond "math vs." art, and she illustrates it both in scientific terms and visceral, personal terms.  She's a deeply skilled teacher and storyteller - her ability to impart complex knowledge while keeping it clear and accessible is impressive.

Here she is describing the sensation she was given as she was ruled by her right brain in the aftermath of her stroke:

I could not determine how my body was positioned, where it began or where it ended.  Without the traditional sense of my physical boundaries, I felt that I was at one with the vastness of the universe.

 If that's not yogic...

Though the entire book is fascinating and worth a read, the real gems are in the last couple of chapters.  The biggest revelation for me was that physically, our emotional response (via the limbic system) to any given situation only lasts 90 seconds.  As Dr. Taylor puts it, " takes less than ninety seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our bloodstream...if, however, I remain angry after those ninety seconds, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run."

I felt a lot of disbelief after reading that.  It made me almost feel like a robot, or that she was suggesting I could have the emotional control of something robot-like.  After a really traumatizing or upsetting event - a death, a breakup, a physical trauma - it sure doesn't feel like I regain perfect control after 90 seconds.

The thing to remember, though, is that Dr. Taylor doesn't say it's easy or simple to let it go and tap back into the perfect bliss that always exists in the right brain after the 90 seconds.  It's a choice, despite the fact that it rarely feels like it.  If it was easy and simple, everyone would be happier all the time and we would all always feel connected and empowered.  Dr. Taylor refers to the work of discovering that empowerment as "tending the gardens of our minds."  It's work and it's every day.  Although her stroke has given her a major ability to access that joy and bliss, she still lives and struggles in this world like the rest of us and has to work to make that decision to choose calm over frustration, forgiveness over anger.

This book is a classic example of one I feel the need to read over and over and over again until it's a part of me.  It's so empowering but it's also very frightening.  It has made me acutely aware of the moments I feel attached to negative feelings of worry or anger.  Despite the fact that they're not pleasant and they don't make me feel good, it seems somehow easier to stick with those than to make the choice to be joyful despite whatever challenging realities may be going on in my life.

I recently read a passage from this book to a class of mine during savasana.  I told them it's easier said than done - but it is vitally important to each individual's happiness.  I hope you find it enlightening and I really hope you get a copy of this book and discover your own empowerment for yourself.

Don't have cash to get the book or time to read it right now?  Check out Dr. Taylor's website for more information.

For me, it's really easy to be kind to others when I remember that none of us came into this world with a manual about how to get it all right.  We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment.  Consequently, I choose to be compassionate with others when I consider how much painful emotional baggage we are biologically programed to carry around.  I recognize that mistakes will be made, but this does not mean that I need to either victimize myself or take your actions and mistakes personally.  Your stuff is your stuff, and my stuff is my stuff.  Feeling deep inner peace and sharing kindness is always a choice for either of us.  Forgiving others and forgiving myself is always a choice.  Seeing this moment as a perfect moment is always a choice.

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