08 May 2008

Dear seekers after the Spirit,

Now four people have sent me this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, telling me how amazing it is. Finally I watched it and they were all right, it’s astonishing. Now I get to become part of the viral spread of this video by recommending it to you. It’s 18 minutes long, and it is well worth it. I’ve made some comments below as a response to the video.

Taylor is a brain scientist who describes her own experience of having a stroke, and how this event opened her perception about the workings of the brain. She points out that each side of the brain essentially creates its own reality and those two different realities are only barely connected by a thin (but exceedingly wondrous) membrane.

The left brain’s world relies on the sense of “I” and therefore a sense of being separate from everything else. It observes everything as objects outside itself. The right brain relies on a sense of oneness with everything, a sense of expansiveness and inclusion. Each brain lives in a wildly different universe; each creates its own language and its own way of living in its universe. I love Taylor’s main point: our task is to learn to step into each of these worlds comfortably, back and forth, in order to gain wisdom, strength and skills from both.

The video is astonishing for me because Taylor summarizes – in essentially non poetic, non spiritual language – what I think we are seeking in shamanic studies and in our regular drumming groups. She uses the language of right brain/left brain. Shamanic language describes it as traveling between worlds – this world and the spirit world. The triumph, for me, of her 18 minute lecture is that she does not arrive at the usual scientist’s conclusion – that all of our religious experiences are merely a function of right-brain chemistry, and therefore God/ess/Spirit is an illusion. That is a conclusion arrived at by the left brain. What I hear her saying is that there are multiple realities operating inside us and each have their own basic validity, because each generates a specific kind of perception.

Our main task is not to prove the validity of one perception over the other. That is the work of the left brain. You see it at work in science and you see it at work in every human effort to espouse and enforce on others a certain kind of Truth, whether that truth is scientific materialism, atheism, or monotheism – the list goes on and on. This left-brain fundamentalism came to the forefront of human evolution in the 17th century European Enlightenment – a great awakening of science and reason, and a sweeping movement away from religion and “superstition.” Science seemed to be able to prove what is real and what is not. Material facts and intellectual conclusions are real; dreams, poetry, myth and art are not real. This became a direct attack on religion’s truth which rises from story, poetry and metaphor. All fundamentalisms today, no matter what flavor, are outgrowths of the Enlightenment which is based on the left brain’s universal principal that things are separate, some things are real/true and some are not, and that everyone should be made to accept the Truth. That is all left brain work.

So our task is not to prove the validity of one brain’s universe over the other’s; our task is to learn to step into each of these worlds comfortably, back and forth, in order to gain perspective, wisdom, skills and strength from both, because both brains offer us skills to live as full human beings.

I think this is precisely the skill I am trying to teach people whether it is in the monthly drums or in shamanic workshops: to gain first the courage, then the skills to step from one brain to the other, from this world to the spirit world, from one valid perception of reality to another valid perception of reality. The work of moving between multiple perceptions, or multiple universes, is the same whether you think of it as spiritual path walking, intellectual calisthenics, or art-making. What matters most to me as a teacher is expanding your skills to travel from the land of hard facts, separation and sequential reality to the land of image, poetry, belonging and simultaneous multi-meaning (and back again), and to be able to draw on both universes.

There is a connection between this “traveling” or “journey” work and healing. People often experience drumming as healing, and when people begin shamanic journeying, early on they begin to experience healings by the spirit world. Michael Harner said that when people practice shamanic journeying long enough they inevitably start to ask what their role as healers in this world can be. The answer may be contained to themselves: My role is to heal myself. That is certainly enough, for we need more healed people walking through our world.

I’ve certainly experienced what Harner was talking about. When I began my shamanic studies in the mid 1980’s, I applied it to my playwrighting life which was also my discipline of self healing, as I think all art-making is to some extent. But after (in my case) seven years, I turned my artistic endeavors to creating plays in the Hmong community, which really was all about finding a place where I could use my skills to bring healing to this refugee community (although I would not have been able to articulate it that way at the time). One of the finest things ever said to me was by one of my Hmong partners. We were at a rehearsal where our cast of 40 excited young Hmong actors was preparing for one of our ten plays written over ten years. I was remarking how fascinated I was by shamanism and how I have so often had this suburban white boy’s ego fantasy about being a shaman and how even saying that embarrasses me so. She said so simply: “But Jaime, you are our shaman – look at all the energy and all the healing you have brought into this room. None of this would be here without your work.”What I saw was not at all my inner vision of “shamanic healing” but she was right – all humility aside, I had brought some skills to bear (skills given to me by the spirit world), moved energy, and there was a lot of healing happening in those young adults. One of our actors went on to become a state legislator and certainly being in front of audiences helped prepare him. And as we brought that work out into large audiences of both Hmong and non-Hmong people, healing was brought to them as well, in simple, yet profound ways. After mentoring my two partners, they took over the Hmong arts company (it’s still operating!) and I turned my attention to “my own tribe” as someone once called it.

Well I tell you this only to emphasize that this work does lead us toward becoming healers, but we may not know what that means –at least I didn’t, and to a large extent I am still discovering what that means. I believe if you are doing this kind of work – drumming and /or “journeying” – it is because you are asking on some level what your role as a healer of this world is to be. We work with power animals and guides to help us articulate that question and shape the answer and then take action.

Shamanic work takes us into healing because it takes us into the reality where the Life Force flows freely and openly, in immense abundance and accessibility, where it permeates all boundaries. This is a different place from that of Dr. Taylor’s left brain which thrives on hard boundaries. For the left brain to fully use its skills, it must restrict the flow of this universal energy so that we can do good, helpful left brain things like scientific experiments, analysis, drive the car, read the TV Guide, follow recipes, speak in structured language rather than grunts and moans, and, of course most importantly: write overly long, theologically pedantic blog posts.

When we drum and enter into ceremonial space, or what Harner calls the Shamanic State of Consciousness (what I call opening the dreaming eye, what Ken Wilbur calls opening the eye of Spirit) we step into this other universe where the life force interpenetrates everything, where the distinction between one sound and another begins to blur, and where small “I” and immense “Thou” begin to merge. The healing that shamans and energy healers do comes from their ability to step into that flow and then learn how to absorb Life Force and channel it. That channeling of the life force can take so many forms, and really one of your main tasks is to become open to the signals of what form it wants to take in you.

Because this Life Force is far too immense for us to comprehend (no less contact directly), we find ways to grasp it (or as the poet Rilke says “we are grasped by what we cannot grasp” – god, how I love that line!). We use metaphor and symbol to describe it and explain it to each other, and anyone truly aligned with Spirit understands that, as the 14th Century Meister Eckhart says, “All language has taken a vow to be wrong about God.” So we grasp at it with words that seem large to us, but are only small human words. In the shamanic path, we also comprehend the Life Force through personal imagery, through visions, dreams (night dreams, or half-awake drumming dreams). We contact the Life Force through power animals and spirit guides. These images are condensed parcels of Life Force that we communicate with, merge with, and allow to work through us. And we channel Life Force through learning spirit songs or dances, ceremonies, healing acts large and small, and through choosing certain ways to live and respond to this world. This is why we drum and why we journey to the spirit world – to step into this other, valid universe were the rules of how the life force works are different from the universe we live in most of the time.


  1. Yes, I have had that video on my blog for 6 weeks now...but as usual, very enjoyable to hear your take on it. Hope to see you friday. Blessings! fanona

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  3. I recommend Amazon as the place to get Jill Bolte Taylor's book MY STROKE OF INSIGHT because they have a wonderful interview with her on Amazon that offers new content I haven't seen anywhere else - that link is: http://www.amazon.com/My-Stroke-Insight-Scientists-Personal/dp/0670020745/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1211471755&sr=1-2

    The book is an absolutely wonderful journey by a brain scientist who suffered a stroke. She recovered fully, back to teaching at Medical School no less (and she gives great tips on how and what to do to recover from a Stroke or help others recover).

    Dr Taylor also learned to fully be present in the part of the brain/mind where we experience full inner peace and Nirvana. SHe teaches that too, and that's why everyone should read this book.

    This story is as inspiring as The Last Lecture or Tuesdays with Morrie - and it has a Happy Ending!

  4. I read "My Stroke of Insight" in one sitting - I couldn't put it down. I laughed. I cried. It was a fantastic book (I heard it's a NYTimes Bestseller and I can see why!), but I also think it will be the start of a new, transformative Movement! No one wants to have a stroke as Jill Bolte Taylor did, but her experience can teach us all how to live better lives. Her TED.com speech was one of the most incredibly moving, stimulating, wonderful videos I've ever seen. Her Oprah Soul Series interviews were fascinating. They should make a movie of her life so everyone sees it. This is the Real Deal and gives me hope for humanity.