A Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor is the remarkable woman who witnessed her own major stroke occurring from the right hemisphere of her brain. She has shared her experience through her wonderful book A Stroke of Insight. There are two things that particularly engaged me. One was her reflection that when the left hemisphere of her brain was seriously impaired she experienced her condition through the right hemisphere and it provided a radically different perspective on who she was. “I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.” It has helped her develop tools to access this inner peace that she realizes is always available when she casts off the restraints imposed by the left hemisphere of the brain. The second thing that captivated me concerned the chapter Owning Your Own Power. Here she reviews the nature of stimulus and response and that certain emotional reactions in the brain can trigger a chemical reaction that will flood our body and cause us to feel an emotion such as anger. The key for me was to discover that this chemical reaction lasts only 90 seconds and that after that period has elapsed we enter a time when we can take responsibility for our response. So if we stay angry it is because we choose to.

For about ten years I have been working with Steven Covey’s reflection “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.” At first I did not believe it. I encountered a situation with a friend of mine where I completely lost my temper with him. We were driving back from Whistler and he asked me for the return of his automatic gate opener. I laughed and said “But you gave that to me as a Christmas present.” His response was to tell me that it was still his, as he owned the cabin where I rented a room, and it was no use to me without his permission. And then it happened. I completely lost it. I interspersed my tirade with frequent four letter Anglo-Saxon expletives and let him know just what I thought of him. As I relapsed into some shock and shame about the way I behaved, I justified it by telling myself that I could not help myself, I had just reacted to an old wound. As it happened I was reading Covey at the time and of course came up against that quote. (It is so amazing how the right book always seems at hand at the right time.) At first I found myself arguing with his statement. There had never been a gap. My reaction had been entirely precipitated by his action. Then I sat in silence for a while reflecting and finally I could recall what seemed to be a miniscule gap when I actually had choice. I now realize that as the chemical reaction diminished, there was a moment when I could have taken another tack instead figuratively I pointed both barrels at him and fired.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of the limited chemical reaction helps me see more clearly how we can learn to use the body reaction as a guide to know that in 90 seconds we will be faced with a choice as to whether we hold on or let go. Whenever I am faced with an old wound, I may feel a reaction of shame, anger, embarrassment that flushes through my body like a warm wave of energy. This becomes the sign that I can take responsibility for my own response and avoid becoming victim of my own chemical reaction.

NB A presentation by Jill on her experience is available at http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

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