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Secular Spirituality

I just finished reading Dr. Jill Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight.[1] It is a wonderful, awesome and inspiring book. It is the story of a brain expert who experiences a brain injury. It is the journey of a neuroscientist who experiences a stroke and loses the faculties of the left side of her brain because of a hemorrhage. She lost her mental functions within a few hours but it took her a few years to regain them. It is a story from a breakdown to a breakthrough.

Being a psychiatrist and a practicing psychotherapist, I have been curious about the functions of the brain and fascinated with the mysteries of the mind. One of the things that I found amazing about Jill’s journey was that although she had lost the functions of her left brain and could not walk, talk, think logically, or use words, she still retained the functions of her right brain. That is why her story provides wonderful insights into right-brain functions, the brain that deals with the mysteries of creativity as well as spirituality.

I have read the descriptions of spiritual experiences in the religious and holy books, but this is the first time I have read a biological, neurological, and secular, description of spirituality. It is a description that can be accepted by a priest as well an atheist as it is based on human experiences, and not on belief and blind faith.

Jill describes what she saw, felt and experienced. Being a scientist she describes her illogical or supralogical experiences in a logical way, and she provides profound secular insights into spirituality. She highlights how the experiences of the right brain, that transcend traditional rationality, cannot be satisfactorily described by the logic and language of the left brain.

Jill Taylor, being a teacher, describes the functions of the left brain that appreciates the size and dimensions of the human body, and recognizes the separateness of the person from the environment. When that sense is lost the person with the functioning of the right brain feels one with the universe. It is like a drop feeling part of the ocean. In fact, some call it an “oceanic feeling.” It is a wonderful and peaceful experience. She writes:

By the end of that morning, my consciousness shifted into a perception that I was at one with the universe. Since that time, I have come to understand how it is that we are capable of having a “mystical” or “metaphysical” experience—relative to our brain anatomy … (p. 3)[1]

Ultimately, it’s about my brain’s journey into my right hemisphere’s consciousness, where I became enveloped in a deep inner peace … As my consciousness slipped into a state of peaceful grace, I felt ethereal (p. 43)[1]

Losing the functioning of the left brain also changes the experience of time. Left brain divides time into past, present, and future; into yesterday, today, and tomorrow; into yesteryear, this year, and next year. So the person with only the right brain experiences every moment and lives in the now without relating it to the flow of time. Taylor writes:

To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with emotion … To our right mind, the moment of NOW is timeless and abundant. (p. 30)[1]

And here, deep within the absence of earthly temporality, the boundaries of my earthly body dissolved and I melted into the universe … I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana. (p 49)[1]

Although Jill Taylor experienced that peace, yet she was also completely dependent on her doctors, nurses and her mother to look after her for years. Because of the dysfunction of her left brain she had lost the balance of the right and left brain, and could not survive on her own for years.

Losing the functioning of the left brain people also lose some of their social and cultural conditioning, and the sense of judgment associated with it. People with the left brain judge themselves and others, sometimes quite harshly. By losing that function the person with the right brain finds it easier to accept oneself and others unconditionally. It paves the way for unconditional love. The right brain person feels good, wonderful and awesome, and considers oneself beautiful. Taylor wrote, “I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful just the way I was.” (p. 71)[1]

Jill Taylor brings to our attention that people who remain in touch with their right brain are:

  • more peaceful
  • more accepting of themselves and others
  • less judgmental
  • live in the moment
  • feel a part of the universe.

These characteristics have been described in many holy books hundreds of years ago. Bhagavad Gita states (p. 83)[3]:

  • Meditation helps humans to find peace of mind.
  • It helps people to transcend the rewards of their actions.
  • Such people do not hate anyone.
  • They are even kind to animals.
  • They are no longer arrogant and conceited and egotistical.
  • They can control their anger and become forgiving.
  • They are no longer anxious and sad and worried.
  • They can rise above their worldly desires and become caring and compassionate
  • Be friendly and compassionate.
  • Released from ego selfishness.
  • Patient, hate not any being.
  • The same in pain and happiness.

It seems obvious that Gita has described the characteristics of those people who are in touch with their right brain, and who lead peaceful and loving lives. Those are the characteristics that many saints and sufis, monks and mystics, try to develop with meditation and other spiritual practices. Many followers of spiritual traditions—whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Hindu—not only acquire spiritual enlightenment themselves like Buddha, but also like to inspire others. One such 20th century mystic was J. Krishnamurti, who was admired by Easterners as well as Westerners. Krishnamurti was chosen by Mrs. Besant of the Theosophic Society of India, who believed that he had spiritual potential, and he was brought to England for spiritual grooming.

In 1922, Krishnamurti was first invited to Sydney, Australia for a Theosophical convention, where he met his old teacher Leadbeater. Later on he flew to Ojai, California, which was the beginning of a new chapter of his life. After meditating regularly, his mystical experiences became the beginning of his spiritual enlightenment. Some experiences were very painful, traumatic and bizarre.

Most people around Krishnamurti were unable to fully understand those experiences but were nevertheless very supportive of his mysterious mystical journey. They believed that he was experiencing the awakening of his spiritual self, generally known in the spiritual world as kundalini in which the person experiences transformation of consciousness not accessible to ordinary people. One such experience Krishnamurti described to Mrs Besant in a letter:

The climax was reached on the 19th. I could not think, nor was I able to do anything, and I was forced by friends here to retire to bed. Then I became almost unconscious, though I was well aware of what was happening around me. I came to myself at about noon each day. On that first day while I was in that state and more conscious of the things around me, I had the first most extra-ordinary experience. There was a man mending the road; that man was myself, the pickaxe he held was myself; the very stone which he was breaking was a part of me; the tender blade of grass was my very being and the tree beside the man was myself. I almost could feel and think like the road-mender, and I could feel the wind passing through the tree and the little ant on the grass I could feel. The birds, the dust and the very noise were a part of me. Just then there was a car passing by at some distance; I was the driver, the engine and the tires; as the car went further away from me, I was going away from myself. I was in everything; or rather everything was in me, inanimate and animate, the mountain, the worm and all breathing things. All day long I remained in this happy condition … I have seen the glorious and healing Light … I am God-intoxicated.”[2]

This experience is similar to what Jill Taylor shared as being “one” with the universe’ after her stroke.

For the next few months Krishnamurti continued to have these mystical experiences and spiritual encounters. During a number of those episodes he became semiconscious, and his brother and friends had to look after him so that he did not hurt himself. Many times he would fall to the floor in a trance and experience seizure-like states. In 1929, he said, “The vision is total. To me that is liberation” After that liberation he resigned from the Theosophical Society and started his solitary journey as a mystic. He stated his philosophy in these words:

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect … Truth being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path.[2]

After resigning from the Theosophical Society, Krishnamurti traveled around the world for the next half-century giving lectures, meeting people from all walks of life, and sharing his knowledge, experience and wisdom. He inspired thousands of people to rise above religious institutions and follow the wisdom of their own hearts. Those who consulted him were not only laypersons but also included three generations of the prime ministers of India: Jawarlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajev Gandhi. People who admired his knowledge and wisdom included the Dalai Lama, George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, R. D. Laing, Joseph Campbell and many more. He was one of the most respected mystics of 20th century.

In many cases it takes saints years of commitment and contemplation to develop mystic personalities and become loving and peaceful people. In the case of Jill Taylor she developed those features because of a neurological tragedy, a stroke. Her stroke became a mixed blessing as it transformed her into a spiritual person. As she recovered she had to choose to regain some of the functions of the left brain to function effectively in this world but decided not to develop those features that did not help her in leading a peaceful life. Recovering from her painful tragedy and a debilitating stroke, she became wiser and developed a rare insight in life. No wonder she called her book, My Stroke of Insight.

I feel optimistic that Jill Taylor’s book can develop a bridge between religious, spiritual and secular people so that they can develop insights into those practices and experiences that are traditionally discussed in religious and holy books, and develop a language that can be used to share experiences and insights. Developing a language and discipline of secular spirituality will help people from all over the world to learn from the wisdom of all traditions. It is the road of the 21st century and our collective future. It will help us rise above the culture of war, violence and judgment, and pave the way for love, acceptance and peace in the world.

I would like to congratulate Jill Taylor for sharing her story and profound insights. She will be an inspiration for many men and women all over the world.


[1] Taylor Jill. My Stroke of Insight, Viking Publishers, New York, 2006

[2] Jayakar Papal. Krishnamurti … A Biography, Harper and Rowe Publishers, New York, 1985

[3] Parrinder Geoffrey. The Bhagavad Gita … A Verse Translation, One World Publishers, USA, 1996