While I certainly didn’t think I would ever say such a thing, my brain injury, resulting from a pill popping suicide attempt (Read full story here), turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Really.
The injury, medically called encepalopathy, was global, but I experienced more evidence of damage to the left side of my brain because I’m physically right dominant. So, while the destruction was probably similar on both sides, the damage to the left side was more physically evident.
Because many of the existing neuronal connections and pathways in my brain were wiped out in the suicide attempt, I got to start over with a clean slate, so to speak. While I’m not advocating this approach at all, it turned out to be a pretty good way to start over for me.
A Brain Scientist’s Brain Injury
Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist, experienced a massive hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. In her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey she knowledgeably describes her experience, from the perspective of a neuroanatomist, as her brain shut down, and she successively lost the functions of speech, motion, and self awareness. Taylor tells of living out of her right brain, which she likens to a parallel processor, for months after the stroke because her left brain was so damaged.
While your brain operates as a whole, some functionality is more centered on one side. According to Taylor, the right brain hemisphere is all about the present and interpreting our experience of ourselves in the world through the senses. The right brain thinks in pictures and connects us to everything around us through its awareness.
Your left brain is more like a serial processor, interpreting the world linearly and methodically, and is concerned with the past and the future. The left brain picks out details of the present moment, categorizes them, and assigns meaning based on associations it makes with past experiences. This side of the brain thinks in words and defines us as separate entities while also being responsible for that ongoing chatter which, in my case, was incessant and not very nice.
With her left brain shut down, Taylor experienced a kind of nirvana. I also lived in this blissful state for months after my brain injury as my left brain functions gradually came back online. For the first time in my life, it was quiet inside of my head, and I wasn’t haunted by wounds and painful images from the past. While I knew they existed, these hurts weren’t constantly, rudely intruding on my present anymore.
Thankfully, I also was no longer gripped by paralyzing anxiety about the future as I had been. To me, the future might as well have not even existed and wasn’t a concern because I lived entirely in the present. My crippled mind wasn’t capable of going there. The here and now required all of my attention and effort.
Laying on the trampoline (makes a great place for a nap BTW) in the sunshine just watching the puffy, white clouds float by against the backdrop of a brilliant, blue sky, I can remember being perfectly content, joyous even, despite having a serious brain injury, having lost custody of my kids, having no significant other, blah, blah, blah. I know this is going to sound crazy, but I actually miss that feeling.
Through her experience, Jill Bolte Taylor became convinced that anyone is capable of attaining this peaceful state by consciously choosing every moment of every day which of their two cognitive minds they exist in and operate out of.
In my own life, I have deliberately developed and maintained my glimpse of nirvana, by not allowing my left brain to bully the right brain and seize control again, through such practices as meditation, mindfulness, visualization, yoga, and other mental health tools. Anyone can also achieve this quiet mind. Brain injury not required.
Heaven or hell? It really is your choice and is in your brain.
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