“A Sickness unto Death”
Posted by Adam Miller on April 17, 2013
Non-buddhism is instrumental. It’s a whetstone for chisels, a forge for hammers. Its tools are meant, as Glenn recently put it, to
deflate, flatten, and simplify the object of the application: x-buddhism. Then, you can place x-buddhism’s raw material next to mute reality. You can also democratize totalitarian x-buddhist material by putting it in dialogue with local knowledges. It is in enabling such acts of decommissioning that non-buddhism is a radical practice, “radical” meaning rendering some x-material minimally transcendental.
The aim is to “decommission” some religious material, to uncook a bit what’s been cooked up, and give us a peek at the x-meat when it’s still raw. This rawness becomes visible to the degree that the material has been rendered “minimally transcendental.” Such uncooking, Glenn suggests, can be accomplished just by bringing religious material into unprotected dialogue with other kinds of local knowledge.
Take the idea of “enlightenment.”
One straightforward way to render the notion of “enlightenment” minimally transcendental would be to assume the (not unlikely) hypothesis that “enlightenment” is, medically speaking, a pathology, a sickness, a defect, an accidental side effect of a bug in the human system.
If enlightenment is a kind of weird, local, peripheral pathology of my already strained humanity rather than the summum bonum toward which all reality bends, then . . . what?
That’s the non-buddhist question: then . . . what?
In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Harvard-trained neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes what it was like, from the inside out, to suffer a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain.
It turns out that, on Taylor’s own account, this kind of massive physiological trauma looks like “enlightenment.”
Anatomically, Taylor claims, the brain is composed of layered tiers that localize the processing of certain kinds of information in certain areas of the brain.
The brain’s right hemisphere, for example, is tuned-in to subtle variations in sensations, emotions, and physiology. Its apprehension of information is holistic, synthetic, empathic, and relational. And it is narrowly focused on what’s happening right now.
The left hemisphere, on the other hand, handles language. It is detail-oriented and analytic. It generates that nearly constant stream of “brain chatter” that evaluates, compares, categorizes, and differentiates phenomena. The left brain houses the “ego,” sorts the self from the other and, with its endlessly looping stories, holds the present moment together with a remembered past and projected future.
For most of us, our experience of the world, while composite, is dominated by the left brain. That is, our conscious experience is dominated by ego, by self-concern, by goals and plans and regrets, by judgments, preferences, and comparisons, by looping stories, and by a lot of linguistic noise.
When, on December 10, 1996, Taylor suffered a massive stroke, her left brain was flooded with blood. She remained conscious but with her left brain largely off-line. All that remained was a right brain world, and she was amazed at the character of her experience.
Even in the midst of this trauma, with her brain chatter stilled, an unconditioned peace and astonishing silence welled up inside of her.
As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace. (41)
I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. (41)
With this shift into my right hemisphere, I became empathetic to what others felt. (76-77)
Instead of a continuous flow of experience that could be divided into past, present, and future, every moment seemed to exist in perfect isolation. (49)
My perception was released from its attachment to categorization and detail. (50)
I understood clearly that I was no longer a normal human being. My consciousness no longer retained the discriminatory functions of my dominant analytical left brain. Without these inhibiting thoughts, I had stepped beyond my perception of myself as an individual. (63)
In a compelling sort of way, it felt like the good road home and I liked it. (41)
Now, brain trauma is bad. But Taylor claims that her wound wasn’t all bad because it allowed her to see an aspect of human experience that, while always a constitutive part of consciousness, is typically drowned out by the ceaseless, analytic chatter in our heads. It allowed her right brain consciousness to step into the foreground and it revealed the local contingency of the left brain’s collusion with the massive symbolic orders that enable it.
What if the induction of “enlightenment” by way of meditation is just a way of producing this same pathology but without the bloody trauma?
What if “enlightenment” is just a pathology, a glitch in your primate-grade neurology?
Would you want it any more?
Would you want it any less?
Would you put it to work differently?
Try answering such questions and, voila!, you’re a non-buddhist.
Reference: Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (New York: Plume, 2009).
Image: Dale Frank, Umbilicus Bracket creep Brain Wash Dead Loss, 2007
Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Villanova University, as well as a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brigham Young University. His areas of specialization include contemporary French philosophy and philosophy of religion. He is the author of Badiou, Marion, and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Continuum, 2008), Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Kofford, 2012), and Speculative Grace: An Experiment with Bruno Latour in Object-Oriented Theology(Fordham University Press, forthcoming), the editor of An Experiment on the Word (Salt Press, 2011), and he currently serves as the director of the Mormon Theology Seminar. He contributes to the blogs The Church and Postmodern Culture and Times and Seasons.
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