Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Saturday, May 25, 2013

India, Lesson One

Varanasi, India, March 2008

“The burning begins the learning.”  

I have come here, like all the other pilgrims, seeking something I lost so long ago my inner eye is beginning to forget its shape.  This is my first time in India, but I wind my way through the alleys of Varanasi like I’ve always lived here: dodging rickshaws, Brahma cattle, groups of shouting children, chai-wallahs, beggars and piles of dog shit. My limbic system thrums to the scent of fresh naan, aloo and incense, mingled with rotting bodies and human waste and pungent sweat.  I round a sudden corner and all of it fades to a background roar as I find myself brought to a halt on the banks of Mother Ganges. 

She is broad, dirty, green-backed.  The air around her is preternaturally still, the setting sun transformed to a supernova behind her.  There is no question that she rules this place. There is no question that she is old as the world; older than that. I am smitten, struck dumb, a child before her.

It happens that I have come to a halt near the burning ghats—the place where people bring their dying and their dead for cremation. In front of me are bodies, some still moving feebly, but most wrapped in cloth and waiting stiffly, silently, for their turn to enter the eternal flames.

Some say this fire has been burning since the beginning of the world: some say five thousand years; some say it is one and the same. It doesn’t matter what you believe—the fire, and the custom, are ancient. When your flesh burns away in this flame, your emancipated soul flies free—into nirvana—and the cycle of birth and death, of endless samskara, is broken. Such a soul gains enlightenment. Small wonder, then, that the paving stones that line the Ganges here are filled with the sick, the old, and the dying. All have come to seek the learning that begins with the burning.  All have come to give up the illusion that life ever belonged to them in the first place; that they were ever anything but love given form in which to dance. This is the end of the beginning.  This is the first day of school for the newly freed soul.  

The Ganges rolls on by, unperturbed, as she has for thousands of years. Body parts that refuse to burn--stubborn bones, bits of teeth--will be cast in, along with countless other nauseating detritus of human and animal waste. It seems barbaric to the Western mind: dirty! we are exhorted. Don't touch! But the people here don't just touch her; they bathe in her, baptize in her, wash away their sins with her warm, oily waters. Mother Ganges absorbs and expunges the hurts and wrongs, the evils and pains and worries of the many.

Strange, to imagine that filth can wash away filth.  Strange, to believe that ashes can birth a new soul.  From the old, the begrimed and the defunct the soul rises daily, renewed, no matter the state of the body it leaves behind. This is the beauty in decay.  This is the jewel in the crown of death.

Daily life in Varanasi tumbles on, its chaos and delight, its smells and sounds threading through the rising smoke, ash and incense. Life and death, inextricably bound together, meet here on the banks of the river of time itself. I walk its shallows. I soak in its meaning. I add my own words to its endless story.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013


tonight I am driving
through a memory of rain
and stale cigarette smoke 
in the bar where your words crumbled
to ashes in the drink I never finished

this old restlessness still tracking me
(the highway falling behind
rhythmic, endless
a decision already made) even now
after all these years without you

and my memory is this: you
standing in the rain at my door
damp, unshaven; and I, leaning out for a kiss
knowing all too well the bittersweet taste
of old smoke and promises

KB © 5/22/2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013


I imagine you went willing, with a gasp--
astonished? That one last breath--
were you about to laugh? to weep?
No; it wasn't fear that caught you then.
You opened your mouth to let god take a bite of you.

That's what you were here for, nomad:
you knew better than anyone
you weren't bound to stay.
Just a barnstormer passing through, touching down
to explore, to love, to laugh, to ache
to be eaten by life
bite by bite until you were so big
you had to go back to the universe.

There you will live in god's belly
deep in the galaxies and nebulas you came from
you will swing from the silk of Indra's Net
a lovely pearl reflecting all that is
all that was
and all that comes to pass.

There you will bathe yourself
in the light of the impossible
and a smile will stretch you wide
enough to swallow doubt's shadows whole.
It is your turn now; unfurl the mystery for yourself
meet the mystics and the saints
dance with sinners and hypocrites,
feast with gods and heroes.

In this life I have mourned you
mourned the self I was
learned my way around the hole that bears
your shape, a place that breathes your name
no matter how many years go by
no matter how I pull at the silk of Indra's skirt to catch
you in my dreams
or reach to touch your face
with these earthen fingers.

KB © 5/17/2013

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

the penitent

“For I have learned that every heart will get
What it prays for


it is the simplest
and also the most difficult
the most reverential thing you will ever do:
admit you were wrong
fall on your knees and cry out: 'i have sinned'
not for the deeds you have done but
for the imperfect way in which
you have done them.

if you were a better person
say, the buddha--or mahatma--
if you were christ himself, a peaceful warrior
whose life was a candle flame of love
well then maybe you wouldn't have fucked it up
to quite the monumental proportions that you did
but you're not the christ, you're not siddhartha
hollowing his cheeks beneath the bodhi tree awaiting
the vision that was soon to come.

no, in the end you are just you
making an admission: i fucked it up
and i'm sorry about that, i'm sorry i didn't do better
that i wasn't a bigger person back then;
i didn't even know there was a bodhi tree and if i had
i'd have chopped the damn thing down: that's
the kind of person i've been.
but now
i know better; i know something about love
and love is not what i was doing
though i thought it was--i was sincere,
if sincerely, absolutely, fantastically wrong.

and it's not like it gets better after you admit
you're an asshole--not if you've confessed
to the catholics or the fundamentalists, devil
might as well have you if that's what you've done--
because sure as hell
you find yourself alone before almighty god
the one you'd been hoping didn't exist.
you know the one, the old-style god whose face
must be covered by the wings of seraphim
so that you will not be roasted to bacon bits
just for daring to stand before him and plead your case:
o god, o most terrible and sacred and ancient of days
please dear god, give me one more chance
before you throw me in that lake of fire, just once
to do something that resembles goodness
that resembles the kind of love
i came to this life to learn.

you might even throw in a prayer to god's mom:
mother of god, you think to yourself--
you're his ma, maybe you can plead my case--
maybe you can make him less of a bully.
jesus, mary and joseph
cut us a break, will you, won't you, please
show us a little mercy?
good for you if you can get some--
that sweet milk of understanding, those honey-lipped
words of forgiveness--without the slap of the caveat:
forgave you this once, next time
it's the lake of eternal fire for you, buddy
so mind your p's and q's and study the Word,
that's right--the capital Word.

in the end it seems better to go back to square one
which in this case looks a lot like
a bodhi tree with a very skinny man sitting
quietly in meditation, waiting on a vision
waiting on the next thing
maybe waiting for christ to stroll up the path
and join him for a pot of rice.
waiting with the patience of a god who knows
all is not always lost;
mercy is always and ever available to those
who have nothing else to fall back on
who are here to learn about love
no matter that they've fucked it up
over and over, so many samsaras and second chances
so much karma wrung from the eyes of their hearts
that it seems a river must flow deep enough
to water this bodhi tree for centuries
which is never too long to wait
once you have been forgiven.

KB © 5/13/2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Never Dreamed

Could I forget
even momentarily?
Could I look at my own eyes
touch my skin
search my fingertips for traces
and not see you?

--Noel Ganter

From those who have
been given much
much will be asked

Forgive me--I never dreamed
I would be asked
for this

In giving you up
I sacrifice myself--like Abraham
a price I never thought to pay

KB © 5/11/2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


"The highest form of love is to be
the protector of another person's solitude." 
--Rainer Maria Rilke

Bullshit, Rilke; I'm sorry old chap but really--
protecting the solitude! of anyone!--that is their own,
that is their first and best lesson. You
must let them protect themselves.

In loving someone you will enter them
and they will enter you; intimacy demands this
or be evicted from love's province.
There are invitations
and consequences; deep hurts exposed and
mistakes made and forgiveness offered.
Such are love's conditions.

The highest form of love is a dance
and the best dancers are those who give
with grace: Yes, my darling, turn to me here
and I will open a space for you there.
Stumble, dear, and I will catch you;
lay bare your most vulnerable parts
and I will shield them from the eyes of the world.

If you fail in this, you fail in love--no matter
how much you may guard that person's solitude;
no matter how fiercely you defend her freeholder's rights
for a lover alone builds a battlement, eventually
against your most tender endearments.
She forgets how to dance with any but herself
these halting, solitary, loveless steps
that lead to the edge of alone: this single set of prints
disappearing into soft gray solitude.

KB ©5/7/13