My Stroke of Insight

stroke‘Incredibly helpful but ultimately hopeless’ – would be how I would sum up this book in 5 words.

It is fascinating and intriguing and thought-provoking. It’s the story of a 37 year old brain scientist who had a massive stroke at the age of 37. A huge haemorrhage in  the left hemisphere of her brain   it left her unable to talk, walk, read, write or recall her life.

In this book she charts what it actually felt like to have a stroke, how her perceptions of the world and of her own sense of herself changed utterly. She also charts her eventual complete recovery. She had to relearn such things as the fact that you have to put socks on before shoes and that it’s not dangerous to walk on the cracks in the pavement.

Her insight into her own experience is hugely enriched by the fact that she does know and understand how the human brain functions. She wrote the book a decade after her experience by which time she had recovered all her training in brain anatomy. The book’s real fascination though is not in what she lost and recovered but in something new found.  Her ‘insight’ was that she discovered a place of peace and harmony, a ‘oneness’ with the universe while she inhabited her right hemisphere only. And she believes that this place of peace is always accessible to all of us.

The book offers much that is of great practical benefit including excellent advice on how to care for and rehabilitate stroke victims. She spoke about how she could read the energy that people brought to her beside even though she couldn’t understand their words, in the same way that an infant ‘reads’ and picks up on the emotional energy state of it’s mother: calm or stressy.

If you have a loved one who has suffered a stroke this is a great book to read. Chapter 13 tells you exactly the kind of things that they need. The most moving of these recommendations is ‘I needed people to love me not for the person I had been but for who I might now become’.

But the story also has much to offer anyone interested in how our brains work, she explains in detail the right and left functions of the two hemispheres. This is fascinating. As Jill recovered from her functioning right hemisphere she gained insight into the ways that her controlling left hemisphere had dictated so many of her response to life.

She talks about choosing not to recover parts of her left brain ‘character’ that caused her to be mean, to worry incessantly or be verbally abusive to herself or to others.

And this is the part of the book where I really sat up and took notice.  Is it really that easy to change those character traits? She says she can ‘own her power… to stop thinking about events in the past’ and that 90 seconds is all it takes for the physical flight or fight sensations to rush through her body after something upsetting has happened and after that time she can resume serenity by simply choosing not to reopen that file in her mind.

Hmm- I dare to suggest that she doesn’t have any memories or files that contain deep trauma or lasting hurt, I’m not sure it’s that simple.

Having raised that objection, there is much that she says about ‘mindfulness’ – the art of living in the present which is incredibly useful  (and, by the way, straight out of the Christian contemplative tradition, so nothing new there).

It was in the last couple of chapters that she lost me. She appears to have found a ‘faith’, a route to inner peace, joy, serenity, nirvana, she calls it. But I don’t think the route is as simple as she makes it out to be nor do I find her ultimate destination that appealing.  Her hope is that even though she knows she will die one day, she is hugely comforted by being part of a ‘cosmic flow’, that one day her ‘energy will merely be absorbed back into the tranquil sea of euphoria’.

Hmm (again!) – being part of a cosmic flow doesn’t do it for me. The Christian view is that the source of all life (energy) is a personal being, God the creator who can be known. There is no sense at all in Jill’s account of a personal, exterior, objective reality and that is why in my summary I say it is ultimately hopeless i.e. without hope.

And yet she is SO close to a Christian understanding – in the way she rejoices and marvels constantly over her amazing body and brain (as the psalmist says we are indeed ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’) but Jill doesn’t ever ask, ‘so who made me?’ ‘For what purpose was I brought into being? Whose image might my amazing two hemisphere brain reflect?’

She is amazingly close when she talks about the practices of mindfulness, when she talks about quieting the inner chatter and accessing inner peace but she has only her own resources to draw on whereas I believe that when I retreat and pray I am asking for (and receiving)  outside help in the person of God, the Holy Spirit.

She is amazingly close when she talks about character transformation and overcoming emotional baggage and hurts. And I’m not saying this is impossible to do without God (NLP has a lot to say about this but that a whole other blog post currently being formulated!)

The kind of character transformation she seeks by simply closing down files in her mind and opening herself up to other files is parallel to Christian discipleship and the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit -‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’  (Gal 5:22)

These qualities are virtually identical to the ‘angel cards’ she draws each morning inviting ‘an angel’ into her life – an angel of enthusiasm or abundance or clarity and so on. This is where it got seriously weird for me. But I faithfully draw on the resources of God each morning to give me strength, courage, patience and so on. So what’s the difference? The difference is that God is a personal objective reality outside of me.  There is no personal source of goodness in Jill’s worldview. She writes ‘ultimately everything we experience is a product of our cells and their creativity’ and I disagree.  If all I am is cells I am disappointed.

The Christian world view says there is an ultimate reality that is objectively exterior to what is going on in my head and that reality is God himself: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And over and over, things have happened to me that I could not have engineered that speak to me of the presence of this personal being who want to relate to me. Through this relating he wants me to flourish, to become my true self and to find (in all the ways Jill hopes for) a lasting inner peace. The Bible calls it a ‘peace that passes understanding’ and promises that it will ‘keep my heart and mind in the knowledge and love of God’ Philippians 4:7 (uncanny that the apostle Paul should so accurately describe this NLP /mindfulness/brain function stuff before scientists had words for it).

There is much to learn from this fascinating book, much that is useful for self awareness, but it is forgiveness not forgetfulness that is the only route I know to transformation. And God alone forgives, restores and transforms us so that we might also forgive, restore and transform.

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