Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

It Is Your Mind

Mexico: I have a whole week with nothing to do, a windswept white beach, and a busy mind that needs unwinding. I have brought along Peter Matthiessen's book The Snow Leopard, and he has picked me up and borne me along on his dream-quest through the Himalayas. All throughout this week it is as if my body is on the beach and my mind is in the clouds at the roof of the world, the sweet, fresh sweep of white snow against the immense blue of the sky; and yet I cannot quiet my thoughts. The engine of my mind still runs, relentless, a perpetual motion machine, until I run into a particular story. In one of his chapters Matthiessen invokes Hui-Neng, the sixth Ch'an Buddhist Patriarch of China, when he was asked of the prayer flags flying in the sun: Is it the flags that move? Is it the wind? And the Patriarch answered: Neither. It is your mind. And I read these few words, over and over, and time begins to slow.

The question and the answer come back in equal measure, neither bearing more weight than the other. They dance around one another in slow circles in my consciousness, their even tread wearing a smooth, patient path down my neurons. Is it the flags that move? Is it the wind? Is it the palms that move? Is it the ocean? Is it the clouds that move? Is it the sand? None of these things. It is my mind.

I experiment with what it means to rest, to cease the movement of my body. First I try the broad divan with the pillows that lies close to where the waves come hissing up the shoreline. I arrange myself so I'm propped up and can see the foam-tipped crests rushing in, can hear the music they make as they mutter the same language they've spoken for thousands of years to this same white-washed shore. I breathe deeply. I tell my muscles to let go, to un-clench, I tell my jaw to soften, my nerves to stop their screaming chorus.

But it is my mind that moves. It won't stop. I realize the irony in trying to get it to stop; I am a mind, trying to get my mind to stop trying, and it's not working because it is working too hard and I grow frustrated.

Perhaps I need a different place, a different position, I tell myself. This place isn't comfortable enough, it's too loud, it's too windy. I rise, grab up my book and notebook, retire up the beach to the hammock beneath the palms. It is quieter here, where the wind plays gently through the broad leaves and rocks the long tall trunks, swings the hammock. I can still hear the ocean faintly. Mother Ocean she is, merely a whisper at this distance, a soothing half-remembered voice. I wind myself into the hammock, go fetal, retreat to inner space. It works in much the same way as picking up a kitten by the nape of its neck; I go limp, my nervous system temporarily shut down.

But because I am not a kitten and because I have a conscious brain that niggles and wriggles and picks and percolates, the gears soon start up again. "I," it insists: I this, I that, I need, I want, I forgot but now I remember, my limbs are cramped, my neck hurts, what about changing into something dry, shouldn't I go check on this or that, I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, and on and on, like a child plucking at my elbow; it nags and bleats and cries until I resolve to get up. Exasperated, clock-less, I look at the sun, which has not changed much at all; the same shadow falls across my arm as when I lay down, which tells me I have been here mere minutes, actually. Where is the stillness, where is the quiet I so longed for back in Austin, and knew I would get from this vacation?

Ah. There. A crack has been made, a still point, a small, unruffled pool--no bigger than a puddle--somewhere among the swirling chirring chatter in my head. Wherever you go, there you are. I've brought the whole mess along, the mess that is me; it didn't somehow stay behind when I boarded the flight to Mexico, it didn't stay on the plane when I disembarked. It's here, treading the pristine sands; here, diving into the cerulean blue; it's here, when I open my eyes against the stinging salt. It's here in my held breath, here in my stubborn jawline, in every swirling thought, tucked into the chaotic dreams that crowd in like long-lost friends while the wind sings me to sleep. Truth? I am happy to see me here. I've missed the sacred mess of her, screwed-up as she might be, as batshit as it seems that she can't relax to the beat of blue-green waves shushing their white-noise whispers against secret sands.

Last night I dreamed Icarus came into my room. I was glad to see him. Every ancient culture, says Peter Matthiessen, has some iteration of a Bird-Man, or a Thunderbird, or a god with wings. In the dream he is big; his wings are enormous. Their tips scrape the walls, rasp against the woven ceiling. He is wearing his bird mask. He cocks his head to look at me; his eyes are bright behind the long, pointed beak. Without words he urges me to fly; I can sense the impatience in his powerful form, the way his feathers vibrate along their hollow bones, the quick bright jerks of his hands and his head. He turns his back to me, and I see the lattice of muscles along his supple spine. The wings rise higher. A rush of air, and he is gone.

The moon is full; it is the first full moon on Christmas in 40 years. We all sit on the beach and shout and drink a salute when she breaks free from the clouds and sails into the clear. It's not exactly a full-moon party, but it will do. Later on, when everyone has turned into bed, I will come back outside and commune with her. This nervous bright energy that stirs up my mind, makes it even harder to settle into the present, into emptiness. "Stay Present" warns a bright orange sign down the road, where traffic swells to its fullest, and there are no shoulders on the road for cyclists and pedestrians to shelter from passing cars. It's a free-for-all, and yes, you have to stay present at every moment to avoid becoming road kill. But isn't that always the way? I hear the voice of wisdom asking and answering the questions that perhaps can't entirely be answered. Is it the car that moves? Is it the road? Is it the earth that moves? Is it the moon? Is it the hawk that flies? Is it his shadow? 

None of these thing. It is your mind. 



















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