“When we are being compassionate, we consider another's circumstance with love rather than judgement... To be compassionate is to move into the right here, right now with an open heart consciousness and a willingness to be supportive.”
I never thought I'd fall in love with a non-fiction book about a stroke survivor. But Dr Jill Bolte Taylor's story, 'My Stroke of Insight', is one of the most memorable and beautiful tales I've read in a long time.
Dr Jill was 37 when she suffered a rare form of stroke called an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM). A large hemorrhage impaired functionality in the left side of her brain and had to be surgically removed.
This event, although traumatic, may not have been book-worthy if not for one interesting fact: Dr Jill is a brain scientist.
By suffering a stroke, she was in the unique position of being able to observe her brain "from the inside out". Having spent most of her adult life studying the brain, she was now witnessing the deterioration of her own - an event that must have been frightening as well as enlightening.
And the best part is, she survived to tell the tale.
Dr Jill's book is about her eight year journey to recovery, and is therefore an invaluable resource for anyone who has suffered a stroke or known someone who has.
However, this is not what made me want to read her story. I was inspired to buy this book after watching this TED Talk online.
In this 18-minute presentation, Dr Jill herself talks about her experience and refers to what she calls her "stroke of insight".
One of the biggest revelations that Dr Jill had when parts of her left brain were impaired was that she could reach a state of peace or 'nirvana'. Her language centre was harmed by the hemorrhage, as was that 'little voice inside her head' constantly speaking.
She said that she experienced complete silence and removal from years of emotional baggage - and this made her feel "at one with the universe".
Gone were her insecurities, fears and anxieties. Instead of worrying about what other people thought or letting her imagination run wild - or her 'story-teller', as she likes to call it - she was at peace. She didn't feel like a separate entity, a living being removed from everything else: she felt connected to the world.
The way she talked about this experience intrigued me, because I'd never really thought about my brain being separated into two halves. I'd heard people talk about left and right hemispheres, but I didn't have any idea how they really worked - and this concerned me.
How is it that I'd learned so much random information, yet I still didn't really understand how my brain functioned?
I thought it was about time I found out.
Dr Jill's book explained the basics of brain science to me in an accessible, enjoyable way. Not only was I reading about the brain, I was reading about her journey to recovery and her spiritual enlightenment.
My Stroke of Insight is a feel good story about the human brain's capacity to regenerate cells and heal itself, as well as the capacity people have to love and nurture the world around us.
It's also a story about being gentle to yourself and looking after your brain and body: about aiming for optimum mental and physical health.
After her experience, Dr Jill is adamant that we possess the power to select and control our own thoughts - a belief that is shared by many people around the world, only Dr Jill draws on science to back this theory up.
She talks about how the brain is programmed to follow familiar paths, so that if you constantly think negatively it will fall into the same cellular pattern on a regular basis. She encourages people to own up to the power of their minds and focus on positive, healthy thoughts and creating empowering brain patterns, as opposed to damaging ones.
Dr Jill ultimately it believes that we have a responsibility to ourselves and the world around us to "tend carefully to the garden of our minds".
"Without structure, censorship, or discipline, our thoughts run rampant on automatic. Because we have not learned how to more carefully manage what goes on inside our brains, we remain vulnerable to not only what other people think about us, but also to advertising and/or political manipulation."
Food for thought, no?
Whether you are interested in achieving the state of nirvana that Dr Jill describes or simply want to better understand how the human brain works, I would highly recommend this book. It's a quick and easy read and full of insight, humour and compassion.
Plus, in a world where the prevalence of mental illness is only continuing to rise, I think it's important that we all have at least a little understanding about how our brains operate.
But if you can't spare the time to read the whole book, then there's always the TED Talk - this sums it up pretty nicely:
"Take responsibility for the energy you bring."
“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 programmed 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.”
“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”