Moments of Enlightenment
This is the wiring diagram of a human brain. It helps me to understand the complexities of the brain and of my recoveries.
I used to describe the recovery from a seizure as a series of awakenings, as an ongoing experience that rolls out before you and continues to grow and expand as my brain reconnects itself and comes back online. But it is more than that. It is part physical, part psychological, and yes, part spiritual.
I would describe it as an expanding experience that includes a higher level of cognition which pushes beyond where my experiential limits used to be. It is as if, once opened, the pathways that were at once limited become limitless – beyond where the eye could at one time see.
I know this is as much physical as it is metaphysical. I realize much of this is a function of my brain repairing itself and my neurons re-knitting the old pathways, but I cannot help but drop the limiting thoughts that used to define me, to peek into the void beyond the horizon.
Physically, I understand that the myelin that sheathed my nerves was probably weakened during my seven weeks of radiation. [Myelin is the insulating covering of protein and fatty substances that protects the nerves of the brain, spinal cord and body. Unlike the insulation of a power cord, it is not designed to prevent electrical shocks as much as it is to hold the electrical impulses within the neurons, enabling them to transmit signals more quickly and efficiently along the neural network of cells.]
It is one reason the doctors and I think I had my seizure in the first place. Seven weeks of radiation has a way of wearing away the myelin, leaving the nerves a bit raw.
As the myelin rebuilds, the synapses in the brain become stronger, the neurons engage and mesh together, recreating the network and the memories that I remember having. I am sure a certain level of neuroplasticity comes into play as the brain takes into account what is going on around it, enhancing the most relevant areas first, even letting go of some areas it deems less important.
In a way, I get a new brain. As this happens, it feels as if I am witnessing my memory expand at a rapid pace. The result is a hyper fast experience of watching my mind expand, not just rebuilding its old self, but often going beyond where it was, pushing past the old boundaries, and sometimes even forgetting or ignoring where they were.
In terrestrial terms, when I first left the hospital I had a very limited awareness of where I was. We often speak of being present – well, this was it. My focus was on the pavement immediately in front of my feet. I was not worried about what happened yesterday or the day before. I was not worried about what was coming up. The past and the future were not even concepts I could grasp. Mine was a very immediate and present-moment experience, all day, every day.
As my memories and my cognition came back online, I became aware of the entire block in front of me. I began to realize at some point I would reach the end of the block, and with it the concept of the future came into being. With that concept the street names beyond the block I was on became real.
I quickly learned if I went out on a ramble I would easily become lost, as in 100 feet out, I would lose my sense of direction and have to stop for a few minutes to regain my bearings. If instead I followed a set path, i.e., walking down a street I was familiar without turning down a side street, the streets in front and behind me would start to scroll as if a map was being unrolled with every step I took. Even the side streets would start to roll out and expand in every direction.
It was a fascinating experience to watch as my brain reconnected itself. I would have sudden realizations of the stores that were on this block and the next. I would not always remember their names, but I would often remember the smell of a bakery, the energy and the bustle of a coffee shop, or the emotional connection to a bookstore. The memories were not just physical, but emotional as well.
As the grid around me expanded from one block to three and to ten, I found myself having to stop on a corner, standing still and staring blankly at a sign or a tree, as my awareness and cognitive abilities caught up with my physical location and my brain’s growing network.
When I finally made it to the Hudson River – perhaps six blocks away – I practiced a walking meditation as I took in the smell of salt in the air. I removed my shoes to feel the cold planks of the boardwalk beneath my feet. I kept to the edge of the path to feel the reeds against my legs; it was the sensations I was after.
As those came in, I begin to smell the more subtle scents along the path, I could hear the birds singing, I could even hear the wavelets along the banks of the river. I became aware of the individual sounds that make up that wonderful tapestry of white noise that we all live in.
Perhaps this is why I teach a meditation that enables my students to embrace the world around them; to acknowledge and appreciate the individual sights and sounds that make up their world without feeling the need to attach themselves to each one.
About this time I also looked across the river to see the trees and the sky and the clouds that are beyond the walls of Manhattan. I can see where the Hudson flows out into the ocean and my mind quickly puts it all into place, that yes, there is a big beautiful world out there.
This is also the moment where I let go and allow my mind to roam, not stopping it at the edges where my brain says “real” or “not real”, or separating the “physical” from the “metaphysical.” Instead I enter a playground where I allow the sensations from each to overlap.
I begin to remember what happened during my seizure. I remember feeling the overload. I remember my brain shutting down. I remember my body closing off, and I remember giving myself up to the kindness of strangers, unable to move or to respond. And it is about this time that I am reassured of the kindness of human nature. Where not once has my experience tuned into the torture scenes so often found in the movies we are forced to endure.
Instead, people have always reached out, helped, and done so with kindness. It is about this time that I find myself smiling, knowing that I am on the right path.