The Power to Choose – A Stroke of Insight
Rosh Hashanah, 5773/2012

“Every great love affair begins with a scream.” [Diane Ackerman, NY Times, March 24, 2012] [TEKIAYH BLAST] Every great love affair begins with a scream: with birth, each of us is catapulted into the world, into the adventure of loving – and tonight, we begin a new year, hoping to feel the passion of new beginnings and second chances – though we carry with us our failures of love, armed with defenses and disappointments, and so deeply wanting to believe that we can love more, love better, that we can really change.

Hayom harat olam! This is the day of the world’s birth! [Tekiyah! Shevarim teruah] Rosh Hashanah is accompanied by the raw unadorned cry of the shofar. “Every great love affair begins with a scream. At birth, the brain starts blazing new neural pathways based on its odyssey in an alien world.” [Diane Ackerman] Scientists of the mind – neurologists, biologists, psychologists and educators – all once believed that our neural networks were set in place by the end of adolescence. First there was the DNA we were born with – the gifts and handicaps of heredity, and then the nurturing and experiences of our early years – and we were pretty much stuck with the final blueprint. The intricate dance of nature and nurture determined our personalities, our abilities and talents, pretty much setting a course for the future – and all of this was now fixed in the neural networks of our brains. This was certainly the scientific dogma when I was pursuing graduate studies in language and the brain, in the years before I decided to become a rabbi. The brain’s plasticity – its capacity to recover from serious trauma to the brain – was over, we thought, by the end of childhood or adolescence.

“A relatively new field, called interpersonal neurobiology, draws its vigor from one of the great discoveries of our era: that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.” [Diane Ackerman].

On the morning of December 10th, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a massive stroke when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. Two facts about Jill were particularly noteworthy: she was 37 years old, and she was a neuroanatomist, working at Harvard Medical School performing research and teaching young professionals about the brain. “Every brain has a story and this is mine,” she writes in the book she later authored, called My Stroke of Insight.
She woke up that morning with a massive, throbbing pain behind her left eye, followed by unusual sluggishness. “What is going on with my body? What is wrong with my brain?” she wondered. Her body slow and heavy, suddenly she was practically thrown off balance as her right arm dropped completely paralyzed against her side. “Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke. And in the next instant, the thought flashed through her mind, Wow, this is so cool!…How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out?” [p44]

As is evident from looking at any image of a human brain, our brains are made up of two halves, connected by bands of fibers called the corpus callosum. The two hemispheres process the world differently – almost as though each had a different personality. The right hemisphere takes in all the sensory and emotional information of this moment: what this moment feels like, what it looks like, tastes, smells and sounds like – in a brilliant collage of NOW. The left hemisphere functions more like a serial processor, in a linear fashion. It takes information, puts it into categories, connects it to all the information you already have, associates it with all the memories you have of the past and projects all your possibilities into the future.

A hemorrhage of the left hemisphere means, for most of us, a loss of language function, the capacity to remember anything about ourselves and to process any information. As I began to read Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of her stroke, two things startled me: first – she was writing about it! At some point, she obviously recovered her memory and her capacity to understand and use language. The second, equally startling, was the experience of euphoria she describes as her left hemisphere begins to shut down. “In the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria and omniscience. I was euphoric, euphoric. {I was a] beam of energy connected to every beam of energy everywhere in the universe. “I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana.” [p49]

“By the end of that morning, “she writes, “i could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. Just before noon, on December 10th, 1996, …sanctioned deep within a sacred cocoon with a silent mind and a tranquil heart, I felt the enormousness of my energy lift. I clearly understood that I was no longer the choreographer of my life” [63] “Curled up into a little fetal ball, I felt my spirit surrender to my death, and it certainly never dawned on me that I would ever be capable of sharing my story with anyone.” [p2]

It took Jill Bolte Taylor eight years, and infinitely patient, skilled and loving care, to recover from this devastating stroke. You may have heard other such stories – for as remarkable as this one is, it is not the only one. It turns out that our brains are more “plastic” – capable of growth and change, even as adults – than we knew. And as re-assuring as that information is, it was not the reason Jill wrote this book. She wrote about the power to choose. It is almost inconceivable to imagine that it was within the experience of a catastrophic stroke that she learned that she had access to a different way of seeing the world. As she began to recover, she realized that the condition that was forced upon her in the stroke – functioning only from her right hemisphere – was something she could consciously choose to tap into in a state of wellness. She could choose to run the deep, joyful, inner peace circuitry of her right mind. This is a startling awareness: We can actually choose how we want to be in the world; we can choose to be happy, we can choose anger and fear and anxiety and jealousy, we can choose misery, we can choose peace.

Jill learned this through her stroke – her stroke of insight was that she could choose to run the deep inner peace circuitry of her right brain at any time – that she could access the joy that was underneath everything at any time. Viktor Frankl learned it in Auschwitz. A famous Jewish Viennese psychiatrist, he was offered a visa out of Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938, but he turned it down because he did not want to abandon his aging parents. In the end, his parents were murdered, as was his only brother and his young pregnant wife. Viktor Frankl survived four concentration camps, and returned after the war to Vienna, where he continued to develop his understanding of human nature and the potential of human beings. It is not possible for us to imagine the brutality, the torture of mind and body, and the suffering of prisoners and victims of the concentration camps. In a triumph of the human spirit, Viktor Frankl taught that ultimate human freedom is in our power to choose – not to choose our fate, no, but to choose our response to whatever our fate is. We do not always choose what happens to us – but we can always choose our response.

Dr. Steven Covey, who died this year, may his memory be a blessing, described it like this. There are two kinds of people, he taught, the proactive person and the reactive person. A reactive person is someone who reacts to external circumstances. Do you and I feel better when the weather is good? We are being reactive to the weather. Do you and I feel better when we are treated respectfully by others? Of course we do. Do we get defensive and angry when we’re not treated the way we expect? Yeah! This person makes me mad. This job is driving me crazy. When we respond that way, and we all do, we are being reactive. When we are reactive, we are driven by the external, by the environment, by conditions.

When we are proactive, we carry our weather within.

In one of the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” workshops that Steven Covey described, a woman came to him excitedly during the break. “What you’re talking about,” she said, “’I’ve had a hard time with it. You see, I’m a full-time nurse for the most miserable, ungrateful man that you can imagine. He has no appreciation; he hardly acknowledges me at all; he’s down on me all the time. He’s worn me out and made my life miserable. For you to have the gall to stand up there and say that I chose to be miserable – do you think I could buy into that? That I chose it? I couldn’t swallow that bitter pill – too big – too bitter. And then I came to a very important insight. If it was true that I chose to be miserable, in other words, that I chose my response to a miserable circumstance, it was also true that I could choose otherwise. I felt liberated. I felt let out of prison. No longer can that miserable character control my life.”

What happens if “that miserable character” is cancer? Or heart disease, or losing a job, divorce, getting older, painful memories or depression? It isn’t only what happens to us; it is also our response to what happens to us that makes us who we are. In the face of terrorism, making a choice for peace. With a history of substance abuse, making a choice to see oneself worthy of change. Moments big or small. Between what happens to us and our response lies our greatest power – it’s the freedom to choose. All other human capacities are energized by that power.

A thousand years ago, the brilliant Jewish physician and scholar, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, was on to something when he taught: “We have been given free will. Do not imagine that character is determined at birth. Any person can become as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam. We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us, no one decides for us, no one drags us long one path or the other; we ourselves, by our own volition, choose our own way.’ [Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 5]

I learned something else amazing in reading Jill Bolte Taylor’s book. Deep inside our brains are the cortical cells that make up the limbic system. The limbic system functions by placing an emotion on information that streams in through our senses. These emotional responses are essentially hardwired into our brains in our early childhood. (If you think that all the loving attention you give to your children or grandchildren, your nieces and nephews, in their first years doesn’t matter, since they may not remember it, think again!) That means “that although our limbic system functions throughout our lifetime, it does not mature. As a result, when our emotional “buttons” are pushed we retain the ability to react to incoming stimulation as though we were a two year old, even when we are adults.” [My Stroke of Insight, p 18] Our emotional responses become essentially hard- wired into our limbic system.

Our emotional responses trigger a release of chemicals that take 90 seconds to course through our bodies. 90 seconds is a long time. If our buttons have been pushed, 2 seconds is a long time! 90 seconds. Our emotional

responses trigger a release of chemicals that take 90 seconds to course through our bodies. If we can learn to recognize those primary responses – and let them course through our bodies – we can then choose whether we want to stay with those feelings, or choose something else. This is the clincher: if we choose a different emotional response, time and time again, we will create new neural networks. The genius of our neurons is in their plasticity – in their ability to learn and to change. This is “one of the great discoveries of our era: that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose… literally transforms you.” [Diane Ackerman]

“Deep inner peace is just a thought or feeling away. To experience peace does not mean that your life is always blissful. It means that you are capable of tapping into a [peaceful and joyful] state of mind amid the normal chaos of a hectic life. This circuitry is constantly running and always available for us to hook into.” [p. 159]

You might try these steps: (I am trying them, too.)

First and foremost, wait 90 seconds. (If you’re with someone, you might say: “I need a minute!”)
Recognize when you are hooked into negative thoughts. Breathe. Slowly, a few times.

Be a non-judgmental witness as you listen to yourself. Even negative thoughts can be valuable lessons if we can see them with compassion.
Tell your brain, “Please stop bringing this stuff up.” – or “Not now, buddy.”


If that doesn’t work, turn your awareness to something else: Think about something that brings you terrific joy, or something fascinating to ponder, or something you would like to do.
After 90 seconds have come and gone, you can consciously choose what emotional loops you want to hook into.

Take responsibility for the energy you bring into that moment or that space.
“[You might wonder], If it’s choice, then why would anyone choose anything other than happiness? [We] can only speculate, but my guess is that many of us simply do not realize that we have a choice and therefore don’t exercise our ability to choose.”

“Another reason many of us may not choose happiness is because when we feel intense negative emotions like anger, jealousy, or frustration, we are actively running complex circuitry in our brain that feels so familiar that we feel strong and powerful. I have known people who consciously choose to exercise their anger circuitry on a regular basis simply because it helps them remember what it feels like to be themselves.” [Pp. 171-172]

This is true for all of us; this is how our brains work. We have each developed an identity – a sense of who we are – and, often unconsciously, our angers, our fears, our anxieties, our injuries frame our interactions and the way we see the world. This is true for each individual; I wonder if this might be true for whole communities as well. How have the injuries and pains that we have endured and survived as a Jewish people affected us? How much of our Jewish identity might be wrapped up in our suffering, in the memory of our pain – a question to which I will return on Yom Kippur.

Our body and mind are interconnected. The emotional states of our lives translate into illness and health. We do have gut feelings. People do die of broken hearts. Feelings and emotions are communicated to the body via peptide molecules. Anticipating something negative can make us sick. A surge of joy into our system can be measured in a blood sample. What we used to call ‘the placebo effect’ is the real physiological effect of hope and faith on the body. What we think, what we believe, how we feel, the totality of our lives cannot be separated from our physical health. It is one. We are one.

Our mind explains to us what the world means – it selects what we will see – and even helps determine what will happen to us. If I have learned to expect that the world is not a loving place, I will not see or recognize the efforts of people around me to love me; I will reject their efforts – and I will further confirm my deepest held belief that love cannot be trusted. I remember a fabulous Peanuts cartoon (it took me decades to understand why I had clipped and saved this cartoon strip): Lucy is sitting with her back to Snoopy, the dog, hands- crossed across her chest. She says: Nobody loves me. Snoopy is leaning toward her, lips pursed, to kiss her. Second frame: She repeats: Nobody loves me. He leans forward, even further. The third frame: She says: Nobody loves me. Still behind her, Snoopy, leaning too far forward, falls on his nose and says, “You’re right, Baby.”

By the way we understand ourselves and our world, we unconsciously help shape what happens to us. Yes, terrible things happen. Out there, and even in here, there is conflict and violence, there is betrayal and rage. But we are not helpless; we are not powerless. We have the power to choose our responses. One day, we will understand not only that we must be the change that we want to see in the world – but that we really can be the change we want to be in the world. Our tradition teaches us that we are each created b’tzelem elohim, with a spark of the Divine. We each have the God-given potential to choose how we see ourselves. We are free to choose our own response. In the face of illness, pain and suffering, I am still able to choose life and connection. When I am “wired” to respond with anger, I am still able to choose – perspective, understanding and empathy. When I don’t see love, when I only see disappointment and abandonment, I am still able to choose. I can choose to trust; I can choose to love. One day, we will understand that God has given us the power to end violence, and to choose peace. One day.

Sometimes I lay under the moon And I thank God I’m breathin’ Then I pray don’t take me soon ‘Cause I am here for a reason

Sometimes in my tears I drown But I never let it get me down

So when negativity surrounds
I know someday it’ll all turn around because

All my life I been waitin’ for
I been prayin’ for, for the people to say That we don’t want to fight no more They’ll be no more wars

And our children will play, one day

It’s not about win or lose ’cause we all lose
When they feed on the souls of the innocent blood Drenched pavement keep on movin’
Though the waters stay ragin’

And in this life you may lose your way It might drive you crazy
But don’t let it phase you, no way

Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know someday it’ll all turn around because

All my life I been waitin’ for
I been prayin’ for, for the people to say
That we don’t want to fight no more
They’ll be no more wars
And our children will play, one day Matisyahu Hashkivenu adonai eloheinu l’shalom V’ha’amideinu malkeinu l’chayim.