Buddhist monk Pema Chdrn posits three qualities of the human mind natural intelligence, natural warmth and natural openness. A part of natural intelligence is the capacity to focus in on material specifics what some call left-brain traits.
Since my occipital lobe stroke on Aug. 30 of last year, Ive noticed that along with some deficits, my ability to achieve such one-pointed focus on detail has been significantly enhanced. (Scroll down for the 4-1-1.)
Singular attention to continued hiking, simple guitar strumming and writing pays off with more creative energy, new songs, more intriguing stories and backcountry rambles. Swift switching between left- and right-brain thinking styles, from details to metaphors and back, also has improved.
When ambling along the Lost Valley Trail or up Rattlesnake Canyon, I ascend into more right-brain enjoyment and forgetfulness about urban cares and responsibilities. After the right brain voraciously feeds in raw nature, the switch into one-pointed concentration feels seamless and easy.
I had worried about mental energy and the memory needed to keep all of the song lyrics Ive learned available, but those memories remain intact after the stroke, and even enhanced.
I feel better focus for writing. In the almost five months since Aug. 30, Ive scrawled a dozen of these columns and completed several chapters of my next outdoor tome, The Human Lemmings.
Obviously, the joys of deep time episodes outdoors overwhelm the city-mind, and I still ramble solo or with others into backcountry sites such as Fish Creek, Negus Meadow and even freezing Fir Canyon with impunity and firm self-confidence.
Today, many humans endure their own undiagnosed massive neurological crisis, about which Oliver Sacks issued a clarion call in 2015. American millennials, and especially white males, suffer greatly and have somehow surrendered their joi de vivre.
These are undeniably dystopian times for the young in particular. Having served as a classroom teacher for 45 years, Ive often tried to bring students back from this Slough of Despond, as John Milton called it in his aptly named poem, Paradise Lost.
Thus, I associate my stroke recovery and individual neurological crisis with this devastating whole-culture American mental breakdown. How else can you explain caging immigrant kids or the cultlike idolatry of President Donald Trump prevalent among these depressed white males?
Yet political dysfunction only mirrors the deep personal anxieties and fears plaguing Americans now children, adolescents, adults and the elder folk all experience it. How to handle these psychological and political issues, as well as the parallel neurological problems?
Answers I utilize, and have very much heeded after the Aug. 30 blow, include express gratitude, expand affection to those around me and beyond family members, and hike as if each venture is the last one.
Acceptance of being-in-the-moment is the crucial difference now, and Chdrn calls this taking the leap. This very instant, pounding letters on the keyboard, may be all there is; and one struggles to accept that this is time-limited.
Suffering and increasing debility frighten us more than death itself.
Forest immersion leads to some solitude in these concocted Stone Age times out on the trail. As the brain shifts more to the right hemisphere and away from left-brain precision, ones panoptic vision expands dramatically.
Once you slip into the trance of eternity, linear-time designations lose their power and worries evaporate. If the external eyes were like a camera, the induced shift forces us into macro or wide-angle perception and away from narrowed-down micro-vision.
Play, song, dance and poetry flower in your ecstatic right-brain visions when roaming the more remote trails. While my body lost right-side peripheral vision in both eyes (homonymous hemianopsia), and I experience occasional unsteadiness (ataxia), I move about fairly well and consider myself very fortunate.
If theres a bit of short-term memory loss, I cannot distinguish it from what happens as the brain naturally ages (Im 72). I enjoy hiking and writing more than ever, and after 20 years of desultory guitar practice without much progress, post-stroke my strumming and musical memory have dramatically improved.
Joking around helps, and we recall how silly and even stupid Socrates acted in front of his students. In 1905, Sigmund Freud wrote a prescient book, The Jokes and Its Relation to the Unconscious, and Im trying to be more playful in my dialogue with friends and well-wishers now.
I jokingly tell friends who ask about the stroke (it happened during an awful ocular migraine), Oh, Ive lost some peripheral vision and stuff, but the most interesting aspect has been a minor wobble in my walk hitting exactly every 27.5 steps on the trail!
Lately Ive been wandering working as your On the Trail columnist! to Upper Mission Falls along Tunnel Trail, up the newly reopened Cold Springs Trail and along Manzana Creek as far as Rays Camp (a 10-mile round-trip).
After a right-brain expansion of the skylike mind associated with our natural bent toward openness, it also paradoxically becomes easier to slip into left-brains one-pointed focus and precision.
Our human minds are naturally open, flexible, curious and originally pre-prejudice. Teaching the young for 36 years at Country Crane Day School in Montecito founded on Waldorf principles and established on 11 beautiful acres out of the city I know factually that young humans are more naturally right-brain oriented.
Its ironic then that in modern education we take kids who already know how to be and teach them how to do as the old saw goes. By middle age, these Anthropocene adults need a therapist, pastor or pills to help them relearn how to be again in the splendors of right-brain juvenescence.
The original right-brain dominance fosters many tremendous attributes when channeled properly, and its a sort of thinking we adults ought to try to relocate in our battered heart-minds (buddhi). Ecstatic hiking experiences form the cleaning grease needed to move lightly between open-sky right-brain infinities and narrowed-down left-brain precision.
William Blake reminds us in his famous proverb, If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would be seen as it is, infinite.
Once youve experienced a genuine stroke, the odds of successive strokes are sadly much higher. Thus, Seize the Day! shouts my right hemisphere to the Dan who controls executive function in this somewhat altered brain.
If youre a parent or grandparent, remember to haul your children into the wilds, and go out there often while maintaining your place in the city, too. Too much digital desiderata clouds our Stone Age-type perceptions, so I usually leave electronic artifacts behind (and Ive never trusted myself with a cell).
During this encroaching Anthropocene Age, the discrimination to know which modality serves you best right- or left-brain thinking also must be accompanied by the capacity to make these switches deftly and with discrimination as your skylike mind savors the expanding cosmos.
Pema Chdrn, Taking the Leap (2019), pages 5-6 for the three minds. I experienced a posterior circulation stroke on Aug. 30 in Santa Barbara, spent two days in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and received excellent care at Sansum Clinic from neurologist Dr. Stephanie Rothman, Dr. David Dodson and the entire staff. Dr. Oliver Sacks, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (2019); David Talbot, Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke (2020); Sigmund Freuds Der Witz (Wit) und seine Beziehung zum Unbewuten remained untranslated until 1960.
Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [emailprotected]. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.
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Dan McCaslin: Post-Stroke Hiking and the Skylike Mind - Noozhawk
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