The brain, connectivity and compassion

by avocadoandlemon

Recently, on a day when I’d taught an early morning class on very little sleep, and was feeling a little muddled, I found myself watching* this astonishing TEDTalk by brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor. Initially, Bolte Taylor moved into brain research to try and better understand conditions like the one her brother lived with: schizophrenia.

Then one day she had a massive stroke.

In this talk, she describes experience of having a stroke as only someone who knows a lot about the brain could. She explains how she was conscious of moving back and forth between the two sides of her brain — the right side, which she affectionately refers to as La-La Land because it’s the part of our brains that experiences sensation, and that feels connected with the energy of everything around us; and the left side, which is thought to be where more of our more logical and linear thinking takes place.

The experiences she describes, and the way she describes them, are absolutely incredible. But perhaps even more incredible is that the experience made her realise how much kinder and more compassionate we all might be if we spent regular time in the La-La Land part of our brains. That is, the part of our brains that allows us to feel connected to everything around us.

Yoga is, at its essence, a philosophy and practice that tries to promote that very idea. The practices (hopefully) allow us to experience, as Bolte Taylor did, the workings of our bodies and minds as purely sensory experiences. They’re an opportunity to get to know ourselves as living things, and all the mess and wonder that comes along with that. The philosophy tells us that everything is connected — the word yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’.

Of course, the thinking and reflecting part of our brain is important too. It’s the part of us that allows us to actually function in the reality we share with other people and things. Bolte Taylor, of course, acknowledges the importance of both parts of the brain. But this is something that I worry is often not clearly articulated in the way yoga is often talked about. Not acknowledging the importance of the logical part of our brain is perhaps one of the reasons that yoga and other related practices sometimes get dropped into the hippy-dippy-fairy-land basket. You know, this kind of stuff:

Yes, yoga might feel blissful at times, and you might find yourself feeling connected to the universe (imagine me saying that in a deep, ethereal, uber-relaxing yoga teacher voice), but we’re supposed to be able to take all that love and compassion and heartfelt goodness off the mat. The idea is supposed to be that the sense of connection and peace we sometimes find in yoga in some way begins to inform the part of our minds that lives in the real world. It’s supposed to be bringing those two parts of our mind into greater balance, to be creating more and stronger links between the two.

In the end, this is exactly Bolte Taylor’s point. She’s not arguing for endless bliss-out. That’s not real life, and it’s far from realistic. Real life is often stressful, and often requires logic and thinking. In real life sad and bad things happen. What Bolte Taylor is suggesting is that if we had more direct experience with that blissful, sensory part of ourselves, perhaps we’d respond to the stresses of real life with more compassion, for ourselves and for others, and less fear, and that this would ultimately make the world a better place. And wouldn’t that be nice?
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*When I say ‘I found myself watching’, I mean that a lovely yoga teacher friend of mine happened to link to it on Twitter that day. So really I was just lazing about looking at Twitter.

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