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stories

Heart and Right Brain Insights

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. is a fascinating true story written by a neuroscientist who had a stroke at age 37, about her lengthy but full recovery and what she learned about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. When an aneurysm ruptured in her left brain, leaving her without language temporarily, she discovered the wonders of her right brain. A blissful sense of peace, fluidity and oneness, like nirvana, enveloped her. She was able, with great difficulty, to make the phone call for help which saved her life. 

While her left brain slowly recovered, Jill was at first unable to understand any words spoken to her or to communicate verbally, but she was acutely aware of the energy and intention a person brought to her – kindness and compassion, or frustration and impatience. All sound was chaos, noise; everything radiated pure energy, without clear boundaries. The inner dialogue was silent. She was aware of how everything affected her energy; that some people (anxious, irritable) quickly drained her energy while others (kind, gentle) gave her energy. She no longer thought linearly, and had to be taught to put socks on before shoes. 

“I liked knowing I was a fluid. I loved knowing my spirit was at one with the universe and in the flow with everything around me. I found it fascinating to be so tuned in to energy dynamics and body language. Most of all, I loved the feeling of deep inner peace the flooded the core of my very being,” she wrote. Whenever her wounded brain needed time out from an overload of stimuli, which was often, she would sleep. This was crucial to her recovery. Her mother devoted herself to Jill’s care and gradually introduced new things to re-learn. After 8 years, she decided she was fully recovered.

“I learned how to feel the physical component of emotion. Joy was a feeling in my body. Peace was a feeling in my body…I could feel when a new emotion was triggered. I could feel new emotions flood through me and then release me…I learned that I had the power to choose whether to hook into a feeling and prolong its presence in my body, or just let it quickly flow right out of me…Certain emotions like anger, frustration or fear felt uncomfortable when they surged through my body. So I told my brain that I didn’t like that feeling and didn’t want to hook into those neural loops… I suddenly had much more say about how I felt and for how long…Nothing external to me had the power to take away my peace of heart and mind. That was completely up to me.” She realized that the surge of an emotion (such as anger) lasted just 90 seconds before it was completely flushed out of the blood stream; and at that point, we are at choice about whether or not to keep running the circuit of anger and return to the present moment. She calls this “stepping to the right” – choosing a peaceful mind.

Prior to her stroke, she believed, “the judging and analytical character in my left mind dominated my personality,” inhibiting the right brain. “At the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.” It seems clear that the right hemisphere is connected more with the heart and emotions and with intuition; some call the right hemisphere the “feminine” aspect. The question of balancing the hemispheres showed up for Jill as the desire for normal functioning in the world while retaining the ability to access deep inner peace, compassion, and oneness. 

“Sadly, the expression of compassion is often a rarity in our society. 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.” These negative thought patterns generate increased levels of anxiety and/or hostility. The more we repeat these patterns, the more ingrained and automatic they become.

“My right hemisphere is all about right here, right now. It bounces around with unbridled enthusiasm and does not have a care in the world…it is filled with gratitude…content, compassionate, nurturing, and eternally optimistic…my right mind character is sensitive to nonverbal communication, empathic, and accurately decodes emotion…it is my intuition and higher consciousness…it is tuned in to my gut feelings…My right mind sees unity among all living beings, the big picture.”

On the other side, “My left hemisphere is preoccupied with details and runs my life on a tight schedule…It clenches my jaw and makes decisions based upon what it learned in the past. It defines boundaries and judges everything as right/wrong.” She adds, with appreciation, “My left mind is responsible for taking all of that energy, all that information about the present moment, all the magnificent possibilities perceived by my right mind, and shaping them into something manageable.” She refers to the left brain as a great weaver and teller of stories. “Most impressively, our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data.” She realized that this story-teller created upsets because of these fabrications and repetitive thought-loops. 

Tending the garden of the mind: “Learning to listen to your brain from the position of a nonjudgmental witness may take some practice, but once you master this awareness, you become free to step beyond the worrisome drama and trauma of your story-teller.” When her brain is running loops that feel out of control, counter-productive or harshly judgmental, she surrenders for 90 seconds for the physiological emotional response to dissipate, acknowledges the feelings, then says firmly: “I am really not interested in thinking these thoughts or feeling these emotions anymore. Please stop bringing this stuff up.” Jill believes that we must pay close attention to how much time we spend hooked into anger or despair, acknowledge these emotions, and then make a conscious choice to return to the present moment.

If the story-teller persists, she recalls something fascinating to ponder, or “something that brings me terrific joy,” like her dog. “I whole-heartedly believe that the feeling of deep inner peace is neurological circuitry in our right brain…constantly running and always available for us to hook into, in the present moment.” To come back to the present moment, we must consciously slow our minds, not be in a hurry. Focusing on slow, relaxed breathing is a great way to do this. Attending to smells, sounds, sensations in the body, or listening to music can help. “When I am simply grateful, life is simply great!”

“Once I consciously take over the responsibility of tending my mind, I choose to nurture those circuits that I want to grow, and consciously prune back those circuits I prefer to live without…with determination and perseverance, even the gnarliest of vines, when deprived of fuel, will eventually lose its strength and fall to the side…You alone choose who you are and how you want to be in the world…Own your power and show up for your life.”

I believe that this book sheds light on the heart-brain connection. It seems as though the ego has its home in the left brain, while the heart is in close contact with the right brain and they share emotional qualities of connection, compassion, gratitude and intuitive wisdom. So when we bring our awareness to our heart and away from the “thinking” brain, essentially we are choosing to experience through the right side of the brain, where we can access insight and see the bigger picture. 

It’s very valuable for me to recognize that a pure, biochemical emotion runs its course in just 90 seconds. This can be seen in babies, who have not developed the “thought-loops” we adults hook to our emotions that can keep us stuck there for hours or days. After a red-faced, all-out screaming fit, within a minute a baby can be smiling and cooing. Jill taught herself the skill of detaching from those thought loops by “moving to the right” side of her brain, and even by purposely interrupting the repetitive thought patterns. 

The tips she shares for “moving to the right mind” are very much like what HeartMath teaches: setting the thoughts aside, slowing and deepening the breath, being in the present moment, focusing on a beloved pet or something that brings joy. 

What Jill learned through the painful process of recovery from a cerebral hemorrhage can guide us all in our goal of becoming balanced: less frequently highjacked by our stressful stories, better able to recover from emotional upsets, more aware of energies, more compassionate with ourselves and others, able to access the bliss of oneness. 

Digging deeper into the dirt

Digging deeper into the dirt

Sometimes I really slip up on my goal of regulating myself when I get into a bad mood. Usually that mood accompanies some judgment I am having.

We three housemates have a Friday night meal, and it was up to T. or me to cook. M. was working  that day and T. was busy on the phone and seemed content for me to cook the meal. I had hoped T. and I would be cooking together, and began to judge her behavior as “entitled.” M. came home from work and jumped into making a salad.

Some part of me is a really nitpicking score keeper, obsessing about fairness, and after dinner when M. was helping clean up, I said I thought she was helping T. too much–as if I was trying to even the score, for T. not helping us cook! In reality, we all have times when we are busy and do less, and times when we put in more effort on behalf of the household.

After dinner we were planning our gardens, and when T. started drawing the existing garden beds on the whiteboard, I thought I would contribute by adding a little piece, but T. erased it. This happened twice. I got triggered because I judged T. as “controlling” and left the room saying, “This is really annoying.” What I wish I had said was, “When you erased my drawing, I felt hurt and annoyed because I interpreted that as a lack of respect or negating my input. I was judging you as controlling. I value cooperation and collaboration, and I need to be seen and heard.” When I came back I played with my phone, not even looking at T.’s drawing. T. explained that it was easier for her to be the one doing the drawing and that she was open to verbal input. She acknowledged my discomfort and even came and rubbed my shoulders!

The next day, M. and T. got started digging out a garden bed to put a vole-barrier of hardware cloth into it. They had agreed to do that the previous evening and I was not actually asked to take part; however, I thought it was only fair for me to offer to help, so I started shoveling too. The hardware cloth needed to be bought, and that was easier than shoveling, so I volunteered but neglected to research the best place to find it for a good price. When I got to Lowe’s, the price seemed high so after phoning T. and M., I made several calls to other stores. I started feeling stressed that the cost was so high. M. had offered to help make calls and call me back, but I said it would take longer that way. She still offered to help, and I gruffly said, “Whatever,” and hung up. I had not realized how much time it would take to get the errand done and I was getting impatient, hungry, and hadn’t had lunch yet. Yes, I was “hangry!”

When I got home she expressed to me that she did not like how I had spoken on the phone, and especially being hung up on, and I apologized.

Later I wrote: “Were you feeling stressed, hurt and sad when I said ‘Whatever’ and hung up the phone, because you need respect, harmony, and consideration for how you’re trying to help? I’m feeling embarrassed and regretful because I didn’t self-regulate or attune to you.  Instead, I was out of control with my grumpiness! I did not mean it personally. I need more self-awareness and to walk my talk. I would really like to be more mindful and respectful with you.” She thanked me and forgave me.

When I have a day like this, I’m often hard on myself. I think, “Who am I to teach heart coherence or compassionate communication? I’m not practicing it when I hit a rough spot, and instead I vent my impatience and bad attitude on other people, the opposite of being compassionate!”

So I stopped myself, took a breath, and acknowledged that even though my behavior was far from my ideals, I had communicated in a better way afterwards and had been forgiven by both housemates. Going deeper into questioning my high reactivity, I was aware that I was feeling envious of T. for the important and meaningful work she is so deeply engaged in, and that I had been in a self-critical and financially stressed place over not having generated enough work for myself. I had been looking forward to an afternoon to nurture myself on Saturday, and didn’t like spending part of it shoveling and running errands, but imagined that there was peer pressure to do so…a story I was telling myself, since T. and M. said they did not have that expectation. The pressure came from my own desire to be seen as a collaborator, someone who does her fair share.

And so by writing this blog I am sharing with you the truth that we all struggle with our old patterns, I am not proud of my bad habits but they give me plenty of opportunities for growth and learning!

Charles Eisenstein and “the space between stories”

charles eisensteinAccording to Eisenstein, who spoke last week in Asheville, we are transitioning from the “old story” of separation to the “new story” of inter-being. The “old story” was domination and hierarchy, competition, judgments, and war; the “new story” is interdependence, relationships, and empathy. “If we really understood one another’s worlds, we would not judge,” he stated. “We would see that our judgments are delusional.” As in the process known as Circling, the question we want to ask in order to inhabit each other’s worlds is “What is it like to be you?”

“Real stories can pierce ideologies like racism and homophobia,” he said, whereas simply attacking police as racists changes nothing. For example, in South Africa there were Truth and Reconciliation committees in which people told their stories of suffering to the perpetrators of apartheid; there was no bloodbath, because people were deeply heard. How can we create conditions for people’s stories to be heard?

Why do we judge?

“Judgment is a deficiency in understanding. Judgment is chiefly a pain avoidance mechanism, channeling it into hatred of others,” said Eisenstein. “So we must learn to feel the pain, instead of channeling it into judgments.” He added that our society does not provide channels for grieving properly. “Judging ourselves for judging does not solve the problem either.”

“What’s wrong with you?!”

Every child hears this growing up, from frustrated parents and teachers. Is it any wonder that most of us grow up feeling deficient, not good enough, and believing there is something fundamentally wrong with us. In the “old story,” goodness or virtue was seen as overcoming our basic nature – like the concept of “original sin.” What if instead a teacher gently asked a misbehaving student, “What’s going on for you?”  “From true understanding comes appropriate action,” Eisenstein emphasized.

Why not focus on what is “right” with a person? The story we tell ourselves about others does determine our behavior toward them, and often the outcome. Eisenstein told a story of a woman who held fast to her story that despite their early criminal behavior, “These boys just want an education.” The result was that their behavior transformed for the better!