Thursday, July 1, 2010

JIll Bolte Taylor and Some Spiritual Fallacies

Above is a video that is getting a lot of play in the spiritual community, I wrote this post when it originally aired on the TED channel, but as you may know this new blog is a place I am gradually uploading to from an archive on - which was recently shut down.

The video is inspiring, it's exciting, it's deeply personal, poignant, intelligent and funny - but ultimately I think the message and it's underlying assumptions are hugely problematic.

I am going to save my comments until this has been up for a little while, and let any readers make their own observations.

My suggestion: watch it once and take the emotional/altered state ride - its great! Then watch it again and pay more attention to the details...



OK - let's think this through a little, shall we?

* Let me say first of all, this is not intended in any way to be hostile toward Ms. Taylor. She is obviously a bright and sincere woman, who has recovered from and struggled to make sense of a very intense experience of brain injury. She is clearly in touch with a feeling of wanting to share a message that is positive with the world. Her talk is engaging, intelligent, self-revealing and impactful.

At the same time, she is unwittingly enacting a set of fallacies that a basic knowledge of transpersonal psychology, integral theory, philosophical reasoning and recent studies on meditation and neuroscience can enable us to see.

Why does this matter?

Well, the subjects she is touching on regarding the brain, altered states of consciousness, stagewise development and the future of humanity are important and meaningful ones - and they not only deserve to be addressed with more clarity, but when misrepresented as she is doing perpetuate misconceptions that do none of us any good, let alone the ideal of world peace and unity.

Now before you get all bent out of shape, let me acknowledge that yes, of course this is opening a door for many who might otherwise not link these subjects or be exposed to certain possibilities. At the same time I maintain, as I have done with The Secret, What The Bleep, Steve Pavlina's blog and other purveyors of these kinds of fallacies - that it is sometimes better to not be exposed to important ideas than to be exposed to distorted, poorly-reasoned, incorrect manglings of important ideas, dressed up as the next big thing...

For those who will say - ah but this is stage appropriate, don't be so mean to people who think this way, I have one statement: fallacious arguments are not the domain of any healthy stage, especially once one has developed the capacity to reason. There is a healthy version of the interaction between Ms. Taylor's experience and an interpretation that weaves together spirituality, science and philosophy that would represent what integral calls healthy Green - this however is not it.

Here's why:


1) The talk falls into the trap of conflating an altered state experience with an uncritical interpretation of that experience, without differentiating the two and creating a three strands of science set of well described links and hypotheses. Now, I know its a short talk, but this could be done in a more exciting, though grounded/conservative way, that would map out some very fertile territory for future inquiry, instead of jumping right into a very grandiose narrative about saving the world by choosing to be in your right brain as much as possible.

What i think is going on here is that Ms. Taylor has yet to integrate the experience of this radical altered state with her scientific/cognitive abilities. Understandable - it was a radically different state of mind than she had ever experienced. Furthermore, as the talk progresses it becomes apparent that Ms. Taylor is in a bit of an altered state on stage, this is captivating at first, but read as a little hysterical and manic on second viewing. again - no judgment or mean-ness here, this is just a subjective observation of her mental state. I mean the words "hysterical" and "manic" in their technical usage - not as some kind of ad hominem.

I have written at length here about the importance of recognizing the distance between altered state experiences and the conditioned interpretations that we are all prone to filter them through based on three factors:

1) The universal (with varying degrees of intensity) human proclivity toward not only experiencing altered states but also towards finding those altered states to some extent meaningful and significant.

2) The personal stage of development from which one
a) Interacts with or “co-creates “ the experience and
b) Interprets the experience – both based on one’s psychological profile.

3) The socio-cultural context within which the experience both
a) occurs in the first place and
b) Is then interpreted

You'll notice that Ms.Taylor does something that a lot of badly structured attempts at integrating science and mysticism do - she starts off with simple but good scientific information and then dives right into spiritual assertions without carrying over a similar kind of rigor or analysis. Notice the cadaverous human brain, the qualifications, the scientific background that make us take her seriously - but then as soon as she goes into the emotive, exciting, compelling and humorous discussion of her stroke experience, she starts using certain words without defining them via, unpacking them with, or linking them to, the brain science she is using as their support.

Unfortunately, the listener may get the impression that Ms Taylor's empirical objectivity carries over into her subjective and socially conditioned statements of interpretation and conclusion - lending them more than their deserved objective weight.

This means that even though she gives a very faithful and balanced account of her experience in the body of her talk - the inability to use her muscles, the inability to think, understand language, the presence of extreme pain and chaos etc - as well as the novelty, beauty, wonder, freedom of being in an expansive state, she still somehow manages to arrive at a conclusion in her talk that is unsatisfying.

That conclusion, that begins at around 15:30 is that we could "choose" to step to the right of the left hemispheres and live in peace and beauty. Observe how emotionally charged this idea is for her and how it becomes the central driving force toward her recovery.

Then, at around 16:50:

"So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you. "

Nirvana. Spirit. Energy. Surrender. Not the choreographer of my life. One with all that is. My moment of transition. Planes of reality. Life force power of the universe.

All of these are words that carry emotive power - and that's fine, they are descriptors of a experience, and they also exist within a context of meaning - but what would do her cause a better service and make the talk more than a cool story that seems to bolster somewhat superficial spiritual ideas, would be if she did more of a step-by-step linking of what integral theory labels the Upper Left (UL) and Upper Right (UR) quadrants. it would also help to step back a little and look at the socially constructed (LL) phrases used above and bear in mind that these are non-empirical observations - which is fine - but they should be identified as such! Instead it all kinda blurs together in an undifferentiated way that could be mistaken for integration or holism, but alas is more of a fun mess..

In other words, how about: I was experiencing something that felt to me like what I had heard called Nirvana. How interesting that a stroke that limited the function of certain aspects of brain function would induce a state of spaciousness, freedom from fears and pre-occupations, wonder at my connection to the universe. Perhaps this has to do with such and such structure in the brain that I know from my background deals with such and such processing, which makes me wonder what a healthy version of this pathological side-effect might be and what would make that possible.... This would ground her interpretation instead of sling-shotting it into speculative metaphysics and emotive argument that stumbles into several naive pitfalls.

This leads to my second point:


2) Again somehow Ms. Taylor comes to the conclusion that we can "choose" to be in the right brain, and that being in the right brain is the answer to our problems and the prescription for peaceful Nirvana.

Really, this is laden with two fallacies. One is that the left brain is 'the problem," the other has to do with an overstating of the possibility of choice regarding states of consciousness. (Stages too - but I'll get into that in a moment..) Bear in mind she was thrust into this expereince by a stroke - no choice there...

This plays too easily into the approach to spirituality that, rather than encouraging an integration of cognition, emotions, creativity, embodied experience - a real embrace of all that we are, pushes what I call the "self-attacking" position that something, whether it is sex, or 'the ego," or as in this case, the left brain, or materialism, or emotional attachments, something about what and who we are is in the way of being free and enlightened, and if we could just get rid of that, overcome it, choose something else that would be the key!

This is a dualistic oversimplification of any serious process of self-transformation and it does us two forms of dis-service. First: it feeds the fantasy that there is a simple answer, a utopian prescription that we could all just "choose."

Second: because of the previous heady misconception - it serves to keep people in an unfortunate cycle of failing at the impossible (just choosing to be in the right brain, transcending the ego altogether, not having sexual desires, completely controlling my emotions) but holding onto the idea that its their fault and they aren't trying hard enough, setting strong enough intentions, being disciplined enough, surrendering to the guru enough, choosing deliberately enough to be "in love" and so on.. This cycle is basically a dead-end, even though we all go dancing merrily down it with a gleaming hopeful eyes and well-intentioned hearts.


3) The third problem here is the most glaringly obvious: the talk conflates brain injury with enlightenment. It conflates disorganized pathology with integrated development and then draws conclusions from one based on the other, again without creating good links a la some kind of quadrant analysis.

This mistake shoots itself in the foot, because the quadrant reductionism and the variation on the Pre/Trans Fallacy being enacted here allow one to easily arrive at additional poor conclusions, thus: maybe spiritual experiences are just brain pathology, or maybe what we call the healthy brain is in the way of being more spiritual. This doesn't do brain science or any kind of viable spirituality any favors whatsoever!

While a reading of contemporary neuroscience and its study of meditative states (a la Newberg) gives a solid set of links between areas of the brain that serve particular functions and the experience one has as those areas are "turned on or off " by meditation, nowhere does one find the kind of conflating that suggests that states of mental illness are identical to states of meditative absorption.

Differentiating the qualitative value of various altered states and what they do and don't mean is a crucial responsibility that this kind of research needs to be engaging.

(It's also unfortunate that she mentions her brother's schizophrenia and then leaves that loose end dangling while making a case for her brain disorder as a doorway into Nirvana - the implications are obvious and unfortunate - again they do neither meditators nor mentally ill people any favors... and leave the rest of us giddily confused on the matter.)

To quote Meister Eckhart " The madman is drowning in the same waters in which the holy man is swimming."

(I have gone into some depth and detail about this in the Kundalini Dragon post you can find on this blog.)


4) Altered states of consciousness are one thing, stages of development are another. We learned through the 60's and 70's (and had mapped out by Transpersonal Psychology) that one could experience meditative rapture, psychedelic ego-death, darshan from the great master, and the euphoria of mass demonstration or celebration and still return relatively unchanged to one's existing stage of development.

This niggling reality forced theorists to make a distinction between states and stages and try to make sense of which states were useful glimpses of higher stages and how they could then be translated into a developmental process that would turn the altered state into a permanent trait.

What the research clearly shows, is that one does not develop stagewise by wishing it so, by believing, by choosing, by magical intervention, or by one-off altered state explosions - one progresses through stages of development at the higher end of the spectrum by hard work, practice, self-inquiry, process, healing, study etc...

As inspiring as an altered state - or someone else's account/interpretation of their altered state may be as fuel for transformation - leaving out a map that actually engages the process of transformation renders the inspiration somewhat empty and lacking in direction.


Let me end by saying that I am immensely sympathetic to the message, the emotional tone, the intentions of this talk, and I have immense compassion for Ms. Taylor and her experience. At the same time, i think that identifying the popular fallacies that limit the healthy and differentiated integration of mind-body, brain/spirituality, stages and stages, science and mysticism, empiricism and idealism - and offering alternative lenses, is an important, grounding and forward-looking task.

It is the passion I share with Ms. Taylor for the subject that inspires this critique. May it be of service!

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