I must profess right up front that I am not an expert on Buddhism. I am not even very knowledgeable about it. I have read a few books on meditation that are derived from Buddhist style meditation and that would be about the extent of my knowledge.
First off, I know a lot of people use nirvana and enlightenment interchangeably but for the purposes of this article I think there should be a distinction. As I understand it nirvana is an end to suffering while enlightenment is the realization that everything in the universe in interconnected.
I thought I would give that little set up before I shared with you a video I ran across that really made me think about the Buddhist notions of enlightenment and nirvana. The speaker is Jill Bolte Taylor who is a neural anatomist. She describes one morning of her life in which she suffered a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She details how the left hemisphere of her brain shut off and only the right side operated.
For those that have forgotten your primary school anatomy (like I did) the left hemisphere of the brain is your logical and thinking part of the brain. Your right hemisphere is what many people call your creative brain but I think Bolte Taylor’s description of it being the side that experiences and receives all of our sensory inputs is probably a better way of thinking about it.
So when her left brain shut off all of that internal dialogue you have going on inside your head shut off. She was living simply in the moment. Experiencing things without the aid of the left brain attempting to contextualize the experience and relate it to the past or think about the future.
And if you’ve ever done any mediation one of the main goals is to turn off that left brain. To focus the mind on the now. It can take many hours of practice to get anywhere near turning off the left brain. Our left brains are very noisy and constantly trying to interpret the signals the right hemisphere is sending over. In my own experiences in mediation I don’t think I can do it for more than 15 or 20 minutes. And, if anything, I feel I haven’t really turned off my left hemisphere so much as quit paying attention to it temporarily. It’s still chatting away but I’ve disciplined myself not to listen to what it’s saying.
I would assume that with more practice and perhaps some guidance from a teacher I could extend my meditation beyond such a trivial 15 minutes and I could perhaps silence my left hemisphere completely but even in my limited exposure to meditation Bolte Taylor’s description of what she calls nirvana was very compelling.
And I looked down at my arm and I realized that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and molecules in my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. And I’m asking myself “what is wrong with me?” “What is going on?” And in that moment my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter, went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. Total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the bounders of my body I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was and it was beautiful there.
She goes on to describe waking up in the hospital.
Nirvana. I found nirvana. I remember thinking there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body. But then I realized but I’m still alive. I’m still alive and I have found nirvana. And if I have found nirvana and I’m still alive then everyone who is alive can find nirvana.
And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be. What a stroke [pun was probably intentional] of insight this could be into how we live out lives. And it motivated me to recover.
I’m not sure that’s how a Buddhist would explain nirvana but it does sound a lot like how they might describe enlightenment. And within that context it seems that there is a medical explanation for enlightenment.
I’m going to go off on a tangent here that is likely to piss a lot of people off. Although I was raised Catholic my personal belief is that all the world’s major religions are basically the same. The Judeo-Christian idea of heaven is basically the Buddhist version of nirvana and enlightenment. Adam and Eve were set down on this planet in the right brain world and they ate from the tree of knowledge and developed a left brain. Everything from that point forward has been a battle between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
It is man who has introduced all of the confusion and complexity to religion. Die a martyr in Islam and you get 72 virgins. What kind of life is that for the 72 virgins who have to serve at your beck and call? And once you bang one of them do you get a replacement virgin or do you work your way through the other 71 until they’re all no longer virgins?
You will be with all the people you’ve loved before in heaven in Christianity. But what about the people you only kinda liked? Or what about the people who liked you but you really didn’t like them? Supposedly if you’re a born-again Christian you can be a child molester all of your life and be saved on your death-bed by accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior. Will you run into any of the children you molested in heaven? If Hitler became a born-again Christian seconds before he blew his brains out would he be accepted as a brother by the millions of people he put in gas chambers?
Better yet, who wants to follow a god that will condemn half the world for not believing in Him? The Buddhist styled religions make up more of the world than the rest of it combined. Are we to believe that a merciful God is going to throw these people into an eternal pit of fire because some farmer in Thailand who never heard of Jesus lived a virtuous life and treated everyone around him with kindness? If that is my god I don’t want that god.
I would prefer to think that, despite what religious leaders tell you, that there exists a god who loves all his people. He spoke to the analytical Jews and Muslims in a language they could understand and he spoke to the Asians in a language they could understand. To your average Jew there can be no sin without redemption. So he sent Jesus down on earth to pay for man’s sins. But in Asia where they had no hang-ups he spoke through Buddha to show them how man can become closer to god by shutting off the left hemisphere of his brain. Nirvana is the end of suffering to Buddhists and enlightenment is the path to getting there. Isn’t that what most Western religions teach? Heaven is a place where there is no suffering or pain?
This post isn’t about convincing you that your religion is wrong. I still kneel before the cross and say my prays to Jesus. However, my mind is open to the fact that the humans who wrote most of our religious texts might have filtered it through their own understanding of the world. My mind is open to the fact that although I am technically a Christian that the Buddhist isn’t necessarily wrong. A good man is a good man no matter to which god he prays.
Like I said, I know what I’m saying is going to piss a lot of people off. We believe what we believe because our parents believed it and their parents believed it and their parents believed it. It’s called dogma. Without those beliefs our whole lives fall apart. So we cling to them and look for anything that validates them and that becomes our world view.
I absolutely and completely reject a god that would sentence a poor Thai rice farmer to an eternity in hell because all he knew was Buddhism. I would rather spend eternity in hell with a virtuous man who didn’t know Christianity than an eternity with someone who pledged his life to Christ on his deathbed after a lifetime of evil.
I’m happy that Blote-Taylor had her experience. I’m glad she shared it with the world. It says to me that there is a life beyond our own physical being. It says we are more alike than different. And most importantly, it says that the human existence is to strive for nirvana. Every human being on this planet is hard-wired to seek this state of enlightenment and to shed suffering and pain. \
I will still go to my Catholic church and pray to my Jesus for the forgiveness of my sins but I also have a glimpse into what heaven is like.