Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Calling

Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance; and there is only the dance. --T.S. Eliot

People always say "follow your heart," but it was my body that led me to the career that became my life's work. I wasn't one of the lucky ones that knew what they wanted to do from the time they could speak. I think most of us are still looking for our "calling," or have given up looking, and settled for whatever pays the mortgage and gives us two weeks' vacation every year--I can't blame anyone for that, because I did something similar for years. For myself, I'd already graduated with a degree in creative writing, which I loved. There's nothing more satisfying than churning out a new poem or short story or blogservation on whatever is uppermost in my mind that day. And it gave me the chance to make the world my playground. It was my way of settling.

But my true calling, my entry into the world of Rolfing, came about because my body demanded attention. Childhood injuries and accidents--a broken leg on the ski slopes at 3 years old that meant re-learning how to walk, numerous falls from my horse, landing on my head while jumping on the trampoline in our backyard, etc--left me in chronic pain by the time I hit my early 20's. And nothing seemed to help. I sought relief through chiropractic care, physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, and loads of ibuprofen. It was all temporary. If anything it only held back a rising wave of symptoms: I began to suffer constant neck pain, daily migraines, and sharp, stabbing nerve pain beneath my shoulder blades. My early 30's found me dependent on ibuprofen and alcohol to get through the day. I still exercised, but everything I did involved bolts of pain shooting through my head, neck and upper back.

I first heard about Rolfing from my mother, who mentioned it several times over the course of a year or so. I ignored her at first, because of course I'd never heard of it anywhere else, and who ever listens to their mom? Weird word, anyway: Rolfing. It sounded like somebody was going to throw up on me. But eventually I tried it out of desperation--just one session--seeking relief. I told the Rolfer about my neck and back pain, but he spent most of the session working on my chest and my ribcage, and a little time in my arms--what the hell was he doing? was the question that kept reverberating through my confused brain. But after I paid him and drove off, promising myself I'd never come back, a strange sense of openness, freedom and relief coursed through my entire being. I realized I was breathing, truly breathing deeply and effortlessly, for the first time in years. My head sat atop my neck, and my neck atop my shoulders, without strain. I was overwhelmed. I had to pull off the freeway, get out of the car and walk around, to make sure I wasn't losing my mind. Breathing. Just breathing.

Still, it took several years before I decided to go to Rolfing school. I kept writing and waiting tables, and I didn't go back for another session until I'd moved a couple more times, back and forth between Anchorage and Austin, and traveled to Africa and Europe and India. I was on the run. I resisted my calling, refusing to hear it for what it was; after all I was already doing something I loved, which allowed me to travel the world, and to stay several steps ahead of my true self, which was crying out for something deeper and more fulfilling than what I was doing. I was having fun, freewheeling it all over the globe. But when the migraines started in again, this time worse--numbing half my body and striking me periodically blind--I finally hit the wall. I applied to Rolfing school and packed myself off to Boulder, Colorado, for school in 2008.

It hasn't been easy. It hasn't even always been fun. Rolfing has put me on uncertain ground. I never know what's coming in the door on any given day, or how I will respond to what people bring to the table. Clients have presented me with challenges I never thought I'd face. I've worked with finely-tuned athletes, circus performers, opera singers, exotic dancers, cage fighters, weekend warriors, professional weightlifters, infants, pregnant mothers, and people dying of cancer. My oldest client was 89, my youngest barely two months old. Every single day this work puts me in the trenches, demands my best, and if I don't take care of myself like a professional, then I can't show up for my clients and give them the attention and care they deserve. But if I do show up, then each person has something to teach me, so that I'm constantly learning. This is the beauty of working on uncertain ground: if you are willing to admit that you don't know, then there is so much to be learned. Writing, my first profession, is the same way. I never know, when I sit down with my laptop or a pad of paper, what exactly is going to show up on the page. I just have the tools. The rest is--well, magic. It's a dance. It's a process of learning to be still enough so that the magic can show up. That's all you can ever do. Everything else revolves around that still point. You must give it precedence before all the other beautiful, crazy, miraculous, mundane shit can fall into line.

So it is in work, and so it is in life. Be still, the scripture says, and know that I am god. Or perhaps just: be still, and know. The rest is merely noise. It will dissipate, the more familiar you become with stillness. And then the dance will begin.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wolf in the City

I've had cause for satisfaction recently--a new word in my lexicon. Things are going well. I live in a city where I can find pretty much anything I need, when I need it: good food, entertainment, exercise, mental stimulation, companionship and creature comforts. The weather isn't perfect but I'm not suffering from light deprivation or lack of sleep. I have a career that I love. The place where I live is comfortable, within walking distance of good coffee and wine and food, and my dog is welcome on all their patios. What could be missing?

Last night I returned home from a lovely party where I felt loved and wanted; the food and drink were delicious and the night was warm, but not too warm; dark, but lit with candles and lively stories and laughter. I came home to the wagging tail of my dog, always and unequivocally glad to see me, whether I've been gone an hour or a week. What could possibly be missing? But I went back out into the night and looked up at the stars. I felt inexplicably hungry and desperate, wanting to reach them somehow, wanting to disappear into their sharp, shining depths, their moonless eyes.

Can it be I'm the only one to feel this way, this wild wanting in the dark of the night? Like an animal in a cage, craving to be let out. It's no surprise to feel pent-up; I came here from the wild, comparatively speaking. From a place where you can drive for a few minutes and be out of civilization, into the mountains, away from human habitation, out where your place on the food chain diminishes appreciatively. Grizzlies, black bears, wolves and moose take their place above you; the weather might swerve at any moment and collide with your lack of preparation and--just like that--you're dead. The wild is a fierce, relentless, indifferent place. And I absolutely love her. I walk up into her mountains every chance I get. I bury myself in her snowdrifts. I dip into her glacial rivers. I thrill to see her citizens when they show themselves to me.

And yet, I left her and moved here because I was lonely; fiercely, unbearably lonely. I felt like I was the only animal of my kind; like the zoo had somehow made a mistake, and collected only one specimen instead of two or more. How could you have taken one wolf and missed the rest of the pack? What if I was the only wolf left on earth? It was a breathtaking thought: no more wolves. No others like myself. I thought I might have a better chance of finding others in a larger population. I was wrong, naturally. I have a few good friends back home who are wild like me, who are unafraid of my weirdness. They'd scare the devil out of hell if god ever sent them there, so it's no wonder we get along. But they're already paired up, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to take up residence in their living rooms--much as I might desire it. So I came out into the wider world, hunting. Hungering to be understood. One shadow among many, moving through the mystery, looking for my reflection smiling back at me from the soul of the world.

I've found so many things out here, but maybe the most unexpected is this newfound softness in myself. This vulnerability. If you take that word apart it is simply another ability, isn't it? From the Latin we get "vulnus," or wound, and so we have an ability to be wounded, and to live with the wound, that open place where, as Rumi says, "the light enters you." Thinking back on my life, I can't remember a time when anyone, any wise teacher or mentor of any consequence, ever told me that life wouldn't hurt. No. In fact I think every single one of them, from Christ to Buddha to Mahatma to my own mother, told me it would hurt. How right they were. And so here I am, wild and wounded. Strange and lone and vulnerable.

Something is changing in me since moving to the city. It's not that nothing is missing; it's not that I am always satisfied--I am beginning to accept that something will always be missing, and that I will always have a hungry wolf inside. But I am beginning to notice that the creatures around me, human and animal alike, are suffering and vulnerable, too. Today I went to use the ladies' room in a restaurant and looked down at the floor to spot a cricket hiding in a corner. Does a cricket count as a wild animal, a sentient being? We don't speak the same language, so there's no way to know. Normally I would have recoiled--it started crawling along the wall, then stopped when it perceived my movement--but I felt a sudden surge of empathy. We looked at each other. Probably that was a fantasy; probably I imagined the little bug saw me at the same moment I saw it. Either way, I couldn't squash it. I tore off a piece of paper towel and gathered it up, gently, and ferried it through the restaurant and safely outside under a bush. This little bit of the outdoors, this tiny wild creature who, after all, wants to live as much as I do, never mind that our thought processes differ.

I don't know what's precipitating the change. I still feel like a lone wolf trapped in the city. But I am seeing people differently. If a cricket gets a magic carpet ride on a piece of paper towel, how much more do the humans around me deserve compassion and warmth, especially in the crush of this too-crowded town? How much love can I direct toward my own crazy, sweet, weird and wild self? So I still want to make a run into the night whenever I hear a train clattering by. So I still want to disappear into the stars. That doesn't mean I can't also love and be loved; it doesn't mean I can't approach the warmth of a candle-lit night with a group of kind souls, and come in from the wild for a few moments of rest.

Maybe those moments could stretch into hours, days, of satisfaction. I don't know, because I am still learning the language. I am learning to say to myself: Go to sleep, wolf. You've had your moment with the night, and you've been fed. It is alright. You will find your way home again.

My Life as a Whale--a True Story

One regret dear world, that I am determined not to have when I am lying on my deathbed is that I did not kiss you enough.    --Hafiz

Life is scary. And that is an understatement.

Life is terrifying. It will tear you limb from limb, metaphorically speaking, or sometimes actually speaking. I never knew this until I went to live in West Africa at age 25. I was working with an aid organization, trying to stop the bleeding from the war in Sierra Leone. I was too naive then to know that the bleeding couldn't be stopped. We were a drop in a bucket--no--in an ocean whose currents we were powerless to alter.

I began to understand the extent of my uselessness when I went out to the refugee camps to take stock of the situation so that I could write about it to our potential donors. We needed money to fund the programs we were running: education, job training for women, hygiene, food distribution, rehabilitating child soldiers. All of these I could, and did, throw my heart into. All of them came to a screaming halt whenever the refugees tried to repatriate and then were attacked and driven back across the border, more ragged and wounded and torn apart than before. Many had had their arms chopped off at the elbow, or at the shoulder; or had their eyes put out with battery acid; or seen their families brutally murdered--dismembered--in front of them.

And after awhile I began to go numb. After so long of trying and failing, trying and failing, it seemed easiest to just stop feeling. Substances helped numb the pain: alcohol, hash, whatever was on offer. I tried that for awhile but it didn't sit well with me. The people I'd come to "help"--I couldn't imagine what they possibly did to dull the pain. Something extreme, no doubt, and god bless them for it. And I'm sure there was a lot of that--but there was something else, something I couldn't grasp, that kept people buoyant.

There is one day that stands out in my mind. I was headed to the marketplace in downtown Conakry, Guinea's capital, to do some shopping in one of our battered old Land Cruisers. The windows were down so all the sights and smells and sounds of market day assailed our senses. I loved this; though it was hot, and humid and dusty, I loved being inundated by the sensory overload of an African marketplace. I was looking around, absorbing it all, while we were stuck in traffic, when I heard the sound of singing. The voices were beautiful and strong, but disembodied; I couldn't see the singers anywhere. I looked all over--but nowhere in the crowd pressing around us could I see anyone singing. Then I thought to look down. Craning my neck out the window, I glanced down by the side of the road, and found two women there, crawling in the dust. They were crippled, their legs useless; but they were moving at a steady pace, pulling themselves along with their powerful arms. They wore flip-flops on their hands to protect them from the rocky soil, and they carried heavy baskets of goods on their heads, bound for the market. Their mouths were open and their heads held high, and the music bellowed up out of their throats hot enough to give Aretha Franklin a run for her money. Did they think for one second that they had it rough, walking on their hands in the red African dust? Did they feel sorry for hauling a load on their heads that I couldn't have borne in my arms without stumbling? Probably they did. Maybe that was bitter music howling out of their mouths. You wouldn't have known. For me it was pure joy--nevermind the guilt I felt sitting high up in that stupid vehicle--to hear it. And it threw me straight out of my crazy Western mind and into an altogether different realm.

I made a decision in that moment. I didn't know I'd made it, but it was made. My mind changed quietly, unnoticed, and after that I was never the same, from that day to this. I can look back on that day and say that I became a different creature. No longer quite human, and yet more compassionate--braver, more reckless, more prone to wildness.

Where I grew up, I was privileged to see and sometimes venture close to humpback whales and other baleen whales of that sort. They are the giants of the planet. Native Alaskans (and others of us who observe them up close) believe them to be wise, sentient, incredibly forbearing beings who, despite their massive size and potential ferocity, refrain from killing small, bothersome creatures (i.e. humans) who often intrude far into their comfort zone. I've always been intrigued by the way humpbacks go about getting food. It takes a lot--a LOT--of calories to sustain their massive bodies. Basically they do it by swimming through the ocean with their mouths wide open, sucking in everything in their path--mainly krill, but also herring and plankton and whatever else happens to be around. Baleen whales aren't like toothed whales. They don't confront and attack their prey; they just open wide and figure, "fuck it--I've got this enormous mouth, if I open it wide enough, everything in the entire ocean is gonna swim in." And then, once the mouth is full (one whale can consume about 5,500 lbs of food per day), it can filter out anything it doesn't want in there. So if there's a stray shark or something, out it goes (that doesn't happen, ok, but it could). Primitive system, but it works--obviously it's working for the whales. They've been doing this for thousands of years.

So that's what I did. From that moment on--the women in the market--I became a humpback whale. I decided there were good things in Africa that I needed to experience. There were awful things, too; painful, excruciating, horrible things--but if I kept those out, I would miss the beauty. I would miss the singing. I would miss the bravery and the incredible shining moments in the midst of the horror; and I couldn't deny myself that. So I would swim through it all and take in every single thing, and I would just filter it out later. And I just dove in, mouth agape, eyes wide, soul completely open to every possibility, and said Yes to it all. Yes this is painful. Yes this is beautiful. Yes this is strange. Yes this is terrible. Yes this hurts immeasurably.

And then I kept on doing it, when I came back to the cooler, measured, sterilized, Western world. I stayed open. I said Yes to writing a book. Yes to falling in love. Yes to getting hurt. Yes to moving across the country, and Yes to going home to Alaska. Yes to making mistakes. Yes to learning from them. It's invariably painful, and invariably rewarding. I have grown bigger as a person. On the outside, I'm a human being; no different from anybody else. On the inside, I'm huge. A whale. A world. A galaxy. A cosmos of experiences. So many lives lived in this one lifetime.

I went to Hawaii last year, and the biggest and best pleasure of it all was diving under the waves and hearing them sing. The humpbacks. The same whales who travel thousands of miles from my home state to the warm, clear waters of Maui to mate and give birth. Then back over those thousands of miles to fatten themselves in the summer--mouths agape, inhaling it all, leaping and thrashing and singing for joy. I count myself in their numbers. I know what it's like to take it all in. Then sing, from the deepest parts of myself, of the mystery and the horror and the goodness that is life on this planet. Dear god let me never stop being brave enough to give myself this: the singular pleasure of Yes.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

For the Beginner

Today is a good day to be reborn
It is a good day to run a new road
And give myself a younger, happier heart.
I have been many things in my life
But an old woman is not yet one of them.

I have danced on the bones of the earth.
The rhythm of my feet against her skin
Is the beating of my heart
Is the beating heart of the universe
Is the measure of time, beating steadily.

I am alive today
I am alive and not alone.
We are alive today
We are alive and we are in motion
We dance beneath the belly of the sky
We skim along the smile of the water's mouth.

Today is the birthday of being human
Merely and incredibly being
Only that and nothing less.
I am content, and also
Nothing will ever be enough.
I didn't come here to lead an ordinary life--
Existence is far too large for "ordinary"--
I came here to walk off the edge of the known
I came here to leap off the ledge of Impossibility
I came here to get hurt, and I came to heal.

I will falter and fail
I will rise from the ashes and then one day
There is beauty in staying
And there is beauty in going
And there is beauty in this
Perfect, painful, unrepeatable day.

KB 9/2015

Thursday, September 3, 2015


 The trouble is, if you don't risk anything, you risk even more.   --Erica Jong

I refuse to apologize
for wandering back into your life
a little lost, a little wild
leaving muddy footprints across the
floor of your mind.
So do not forgive me for touching your scars
and holding your secrets close to my skin.

I will not accept your apologies
for laying your hands on me and reining me in
pulling me closer in the wilds of the night.
For pouring yourself over me like a
shock of cold rain and
drowning the echoes of that distant rhythm:
the one that sounded like goodbye.

Was it a senseless risk we took?
Don't ask me if I care.

Instead be still and I will come
to you with salt kisses
in my mouth and seaweed in my hair
I will come with a thousand waves at my back
which may do nothing at all to erase
the unspoken line between us
nor falter the drum of that distant rhythm.

Let this be what it is, we told ourselves
play to the beat you're given
but when the time came
we changed the music anyway and shouted
our own mad and lovely songs
loud enough to wake the moon
before the tide washed it all out to sea.

Did anyone hear? Did we?

It is always a splendid risk we take.
I won't ask you if you care.

KB 9/2015

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Love in the Time of Extinction

If desire causes suffering then the world
is burning to death with it:
millions of square miles on fire
the mountains shedding their glacial mantles
into the sea, the proud crest of the planet
like a child's melting ice-cream cone
dropped to the ground.
Simple. So simple that same child could work it out:
we want, and want, and want
cellphones and cars and green lawns and daily showers
and beef and vacations and new jeans and televisions
and the earth has given us all this and more
and more
and more.

They say (those who know)
that we have reached critical die-off
which is the point of no return.
Here is a partial list of loss:
there will never be another Zanzibar Leopard
--we can thank agriculture for that--
and the wings of the Dutch Alcon Blue Butterfly
have ceased their soft, delicate dusting
in the spent grasses of the Netherlands.
If you've always wanted to follow the trail
of the Vine Raiatea Tree Snail--well then
you are out of luck; it has vanished
along with the Aldabra Banded Snail.
If you are not alarmed by this, it is safe to say
you are not a hedgehog, or a toad. But listen:
can you hear the soft and weighted tread
of the Western Black Rhinoceros? No?
You never will again.
Nor the Javan Tiger's slinking shadow
falling on a jungle path
nor the call of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow--
what song would she have sung today?
There is no way to know
and here we must note the particular effect
of losing not only a species
but the song of the species:
mating calls and mothering-calls
fighting songs and cries of joy
entire musical compositions intended
to communicate the depths and heights
of the experience of being a bird
or a leopard or a rhinoceros
or a snail (do snails sing? are you certain?)
or a hedgehog
or a human being.

But before we go extinct, as we certainly will
I must take one composition off the endangered list
because when you call me later across
all the thousands of miles of scorched and suffering
earth between us
this smoke and destruction desire has wrought
I want to sing you a new song:
the wild, unfettered anthem my heart begins to shout
every time you speak my name.

KB 8/2015