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Your Brain and Death with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke at 37 and spent the next eight years working towards recovery. She details that experience in her memoir and viral TedTalk from 2008. And now, she’s written another book that will forever change how we think about our brains. In Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life, Dr. Taylor explains how the common understanding of left brain, right brain is wrong. There are actually four distinct characters that make up who we are. In this episode, Dr. Taylor explains this critical framework for understanding our perception of reality and how we can apply that to death.


Learn more about Dr. Taylor’s work and find her two books here: https://www.drjilltaylor.com/



Transcript:

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Hi, I am Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode we explore death, dying and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page. My guest today is Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a Harvard trained neuroanatomist who just exudes a passion for life. That zest for life comes from a deeply personal experience. When she was 37, she had a stroke and experienced a severe hemorrhage in her brain. It took her eight years to fully recover. A process that she details in her memoir and her Ted Talk from 2008.

It was actually the first Ted Talk to ever go viral. I highly encourage you to read her first book, but today, we're talking all about her second book, Whole Brain Living, The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life. You've probably heard about left brain, right brain, but that's actually not correct. Each hemisphere has emotional and thinking tissue, meaning that there are actually four distinct parts or characters who make up who we are. We're going to get into this remarkable framework that changed the way I think about my brain and how I show up in the world. I understand you live on a boat.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

I do. I live on a boat in a cove for six months, and I love it.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

It makes me very happy.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

That's wonderful. That's wonderful.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, welcome to Peaceful Exit.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

This ought to be a great conversation.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I'm so excited to talk to you today. Let's go. I mean, your book has been wonderful, actually working in my life over the last month, really, and you talk about getting something wrong, and that is so relevant to me in my life because I was raised as a right brained human and they didn't really nurture my left brain and yet I love how you kind of debunk the myth of classifying our brain in two sides, and what do we need to know about our brain and there actually being four parts to our brain?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Well, I think that knowing that we have emotional tissue in both hemispheres and thinking tissue in both hemispheres and the two hemispheres are different temporally, which means the right hemisphere, it's right here, right now. It's in the present moment, so that's going to be emotions of the present moment. That's very different from emotions in my left hemisphere, which has a linearity across time. So all my pain from the past and experiences for learning in the past are going to be in that left hemisphere emotion. And then, the thinking in the right hemisphere is going to be right here, right now experience of the present moment and a sense of awe of, "Oh my God, I'm alive."

And a sense of gratitude of, "Oh my God, I'm alive and I'm capable of this sensory information. I'm capable of motor movement. I'm capable of all the things, a digestive track that can fuel me." I mean, wow. I mean there's a million wows about what we are as living beings. And yet then, the thinking tissue in the left hemisphere is really about me in relationship to the external world, defined as right and wrong, good and bad, based on a construct of what is that societal norm and how do I fit myself inside of that box so that we can have an organized community. So I think that knowing that we have these four different modules of cells that do different things, getting to know them, then offers us, "Okay, well in this moment, which one do I want to embody and be, and do I have the power to choose? And yes, when I know what my options are, I completely have the power to choose."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Let's talk about the four characters as they relate to the parts of the brain that you're referring to.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Sure. So as we think about the fundamental difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere's linearity of time, then the right hemisphere, it's right here, right now. Emotion and thinking in the left hemisphere is linearity across time, so there's a past and there's a future. So I'm going to have, character one is the ... what I call character one is the left thinking rational portion of our brain that scientists think is conscious. This is the part that fits me into the social norm of right and wrong and good and bad. It's my alpha personality, and that it wants to get stuff done. It runs a list, it shows up in the office, it gets me punctual places on time, and we all have that part of who we are.

Some that's 100% who we spend ourselves being. Some of us resist that part of ourselves because we're just not very comfortable with that part of who we are. It's still a group of cells inside of that left hemisphere, so that's character one left thinking, character two is left emotion. And again, then this is going to be my emotions from the past and my emotions in the future, which means all the pain from my past, all my traumas, all my lessons, hard lessons learned, whether ... my self pride the day I got my PhD, the pride that I got from the past, but it is this linearity across time for my emotions, and isn't it remarkable that this group of cells had the capacity to step out of the consciousness of the present moment?

How does that even happen? I mean, that's like wow, talking about a miracle. These cells are capable of stepping out of the experience of the present moment and putting us into remembering, well, why did I put these shoes on this morning? Why did I pick those? Why did I pick this shirt? Et cetera. So that is going to be all the emotions of the past and any fears of the future. And as part of our past, it's going to be our automatic nervous system of fight, flee or freeze based on past experience.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Okay, so characters one and two are the logistical and emotional parts of the brain that see time as linear.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Got it. What about three and four?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

So character three is what I call the emotion of the right hemisphere right here, right now. So right here, right now, experiential, what does it feel like to have my clothes sticking to my back because I'm in humidity? What does it feel like to have my face sweat? What does it feel like as I experientially dive into the water and feel the pressure of the water against my body and the temperature of the water, the experience of the present moment is what's going on, and because it's of the present moment, it's about right here, right now. It's not about right, wrong, good, bad. It's not in with judgment. As a result, it's creative. It's open to possibility. It's entrepreneurial because what goes, goes.

It's collective whole. It likes to do things with others. And then character four is what I call that right-thinking tissue, which is all the capacity of being in the present moment, not thinking about what's right, wrong, good, bad of character one. Not being in my past pain from character two, not being experiential in character three, but simply existing in an awareness of a sense of gratitude that I exist at all and, "Oh my gosh, wow, what a wonder life is." So those are the four modules of selves, the skill sets that they exhibit, and they end up exhibiting four characters that we all have at a fundamental and neuroanatomical level.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

I encourage people to give names to each of your characters because they like being differentiated and identified.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes. I wondered if you had any trouble naming your four characters, because it took me a month to name my characters.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah, it was really easy for me because I wasn't hung up on it at all. For me, there was no right, wrong, good, bad, "Oh, if I decide I didn't like that name, I could give it another one and who cared," right? Even though now it's out in a book and millions of people know none of those names. Yeah, no I had no right, wrong, good, bad about it, but I wanted to embody it, like my character four, which is my blissful euphoria experience of the present moment. Well, she's called Queen because she's as big as the universe for all of us. Our character four is connected to all that is. There's no separation until the left hemisphere comes in and says, "Oh, no, I'm separate."

No, my right hemisphere knows I'm just a big energy ball. So I'm big as a universe because I'm connected to all the energy of the universe, so it's a queen, but I live on a boat, which is my lily pad named Brainwaves on a boat for six months out of the year, so I call myself Queen Toad. I know who she is, she knows who she is. She doesn't even need a name, but she's got a name and my character, three pig pen is just a mess. I mean, it's like, come on. It's always a mess. My music is a mess because it's creativity, it's possibility. My art is a mess. Character two, I call her Abby, which is short for abandoned because I feel like the moment I came flying out of my mother's womb, boom, talk about trauma.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

So that abandonment from being a part of her body and her collective whole to being my own separate thing now, that's Abby, and I call my character one, Helen, short for hell on wheels. She gets it done, because she does.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, so I struggled a little bit with one and three actually. And three is Sadie for sure. Character three is Sadie. She has always been my alter ego. She's the name I use when I order coffee. She's my adventure diva.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It was easy for character two because I grew up in the Sesame Street ethos. So Grover, the Blue monster was very much a part of my growing up. He's the one that always freaked out. He was always trying to do good. He had good intentions, but it never worked out for him. And then Character one was a little harder for me, but I came to Twyla and Twyla ... I was sort of raised in the right brain creative space, but then I read Twyla Tharp's book, and she gets up every morning at 5:00 and gets in a taxi at 5:30. So, her left thinking brain was getting her in that taxi every day on time and she said, "It's not going to the gym every day, it's getting in the taxi."

And I think that that really speaks to my character one like, how do you call forth that consistent, showing up, on time, all of that, right?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

And then the character four was easy for me because that's a place that I love spending time and character three and four is kind of how I operate. So that is a royal, and that's a very personal story that I'm probably not going to share on a podcast.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah, and I have public and private names.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, two themes I'd love to get into that really relate to peaceful exit are grief and peace. And at the end of our lives, we all want a measure of peace and a recurring refrain throughout your book is that peace is only a thought away, and I would love to read a passage and just riff and let you riff off of it.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Using those connections to bring our four characters into a brain huddle at any moment, empowers us to bring our best self forward and live our life on purpose. The evolution of humanity is an ongoing process, and we have the power to consciously direct our own development as part of that evolution. We have two beautiful cerebral hemispheres, each of which possesses information in its own unique way, and I believe that bringing them together into whole brain living is our roadmap to both our own deep inner peace and peace in the world.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

So I look at these four different parts of our brain, like the piece of the universe without the judgment of the rest of my brain, I see character four, part of who I am as connected in the present moment to all that is, simply in celebration that I'm here to witness. And I see that as the stars in the sky. They're always there. Then, I see the bright light energy of the sunshine coming down and bringing impetus to life. So character three is life in motion, life in action, but character four, that blissful piece, it's always there, but during the sunlight, with the sunlight, we don't see it because it's blocked by the view of the sunlight.

And in that sunlight then, plants come to life. We come to life, daylight comes to life and kind of distracted away from just the existence of the peaceful euphoria that's always there. Then, bring on a left hemisphere as a human, and we end up with this little character two, which is emotion of our past. So that's kind of the drama of the weather, the thunderstorms and the dark clouds and the excitement of lightning and all that of the drama of life, and that's a distraction away from the stars, right? I'm no longer thinking about the stars because now, I'm in the drama of weather. Then, character one comes in and says, "Oh, and let's analyze what kinds of clouds those are, and let's name them and let's talk to our friends about the weather patterns and let's get on the apps and analyze it all."

And so again, my mind of character one is pulling me away from this experience of the stars, but the stars are always there, and I think what brings me peace is knowing that it's always there. So then the question is what's in the way of it? And how do I clear out the analysis of it of character one? How do I not worry about if it's thunder, it's thunder. If it's lightning, it's lightning. If it's rain, it's rain. If it's hot, it's humid. Whatever it is, it is. Who cares? I don't have to have the drama around whatever it is. And so, if I forget about that, and then I slow myself down and I stop the impetus toward inaction, which is that character three in the playful, in the sunshine, then all that gets peeled away and there's peace and there are the stars and they're always there.

For me to be able to look at my brain as these four different levels of consciousness, and they're all focused on different things, giving us different skillsets, making us human, we all have all four. It's the human way that I have the ability. We all have the ability to look and see well, which weather pattern ... what's my current reality versus what do I want my reality to be?

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Do you think it's more difficult for you as a scientist to put aside that analysis?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

I think it is impossible for me as a scientist to not look at all of this through the lens of the brain cells, but the content ... so my story was that I was a brain scientist at Harvard, and at the age of 37, I had a major hemorrhage that wiped out my left hemisphere. And as it wiped out my left hemisphere, it wiped out my characters one and two, my rational thinking left brain as well as all my emotion from the past. In the absence of that, I took this route the hard way.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes, you did.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

And character three got wiped out because I was all but dead and I had no energy, and I was just a lump of lead in the bed. So all I had was a character four, but I still was alive.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

And instead of analyzing it through the lens of the near death experience or that whole framework, because I didn't have any of that, I didn't have the light, I didn't have the visitation, I didn't have to see my body from afar. I didn't have that. What I had was a loss of characters one, two, and three. And all I had was life. That's all I was. In the sense of knowing that I didn't die that day, I had all possibility possibly, unless you look at the brain cells and saw the big hole in my head, "Okay, well, I wasn't going to be that girl anymore, but I was still alive. So what could I build my life to be now and what insights could I gain?" Because my whole framework is as a cellular neuroanatomist, who my area of specialty in education was how does our brain create our perception of reality?

So the ironies here are just not lost on anybody that this experience happened to me and then, I ended up rebuilding the left hemisphere.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, and that time in character four really gave you a sense of abundance and a sense of the stars and the universe.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

It's all I had. It's all I was.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

And the importance of emotions in our lives and how they work through the brain.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Absolutely. Being peaceful, I knew in those moments ... it took eight years before I declared myself 100% again, and I declared myself 100% the day that I realized that I was a solid, my perception of myself was that I was a single solid separate from the whole.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

So I existed for eight years through the filter of knowing I'm a fluid, I'm connected to all that is. I'm a ball of energy. There's no boundaries of where I begin and where I end, and yet, my left hemisphere, and the construct of us as a society is that a normal person knows that I end and begin where my skin hits the air, and it's like, "Boy, are we really that naive?" Because I'm an energy ball, on top of the physical structure, so I can't define myself simply as the cellular structure because cells are energy and matter. The difference between being alive and not being alive is energy, and energy is in the flow and in the present moment and adding and subtracting and connected to everything.

So having lost the left hemisphere definition of individuation and self gave me that connection to all that is. Then, it was my commitment to myself that I would recover enough of my left brain to be perceived by others as normal, but it would never dominate my life again, and the values would always be about we, the collective whole, and not just about me, the individual, me and mine.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Do you feel more at peace now?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

I live in peace.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love that.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

My whole world is designed for peace. I mean, I live in a boat out in the middle of nowhere for six months a year because I like it here.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

There's not a moment in my existence that I am not aware of the magnificence of what this life gives me. It gives me possibility, it gives me experience, it gives me an awareness, and having been that close to death and knowing that one day I will peel off my rational left hemisphere and the emotions from my past and the energy impetus to go and dissolve back into the consciousness of all that is, there's no fear for me for that because I'm alive and the celebration of that, but when it's not this anymore, it'll be whatever that is. And I was so close to it that I tasted and I celebrate what that will be, but right now, I still have ... I'm an organic mass.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, let's talk about the brain in relation to death. That's often the conversation we're having here at Peaceful Exit, and you said the brain is not on or off except in death. So what happens to the brain when you're dying and you are, as you say, becoming part of all that is?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

That's a huge question. When I was a teenager, I had to ... when I was a senior, I had to write a paper and it was a 30-page paper for my compositional course and my subject was brain death. I mean, I was what, 16, 17 years old, and I was fascinated with brain death. When are we dead? Because when you think about the body at a cellular level, different cells die on a different timetable. So if we essentially have brain death, what is brain death? And are there different states of brain death? We've come a long way in 50 years, but we still ... there are still what we have medical miracles coming on, and what is a miracle, medical miracle other than a situation that medical world has no explanation for? But it doesn't make it a miracle.

It just makes it different from what the social norm can define. So this process of what's happening in the brain, the brain is made of cells and cells live and they die, and cells run in circuits. And the more you practice a circuit, the more that circuit becomes habitual. And then, we have cognitive thinking and emotional circuitry, and they're all integrated and related pretty much to the motor system of the brain. That's big enough for a thesis, I'm afraid.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Do you have a sense though, that any of those characters go offline first?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah, but that's a different question.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It is.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

You're talking to a neuroanatomist, so the first question is a very different question than the second question. So I mean, just naturally, if I'm dying, whether it's from over a long period of time, long-term death during the last few hours, and I'm considering hours as a long-term death. That's very different from boom, I'm gone, but whatever my situation ... let's say I'm in a car accident and I'm in the gutter. I call this going to the gutter, and I encourage people to go to the gutter on a regular basis. I think it's really important tool that people can use in order to access their blissful euphoria of the experience, big expansiveness of the present moment.

So let's say I'm in a car accident and I'm in a gutter, and I know that I'm going to die. I am bleeding. I feel the moisture of my blood. I recognize that my world out there, character one, is gone. There's no more, right? It doesn't matter. I don't have to fit into a social norm. I'm not in a social norm anymore. I'm on my deathbed. So character one is going to shut down, right? All that stuff related to the external is gone, except for what I have right here. Little character two is going to be all my pain from my past. Now, am I going to run through a lot of my pain from my past?

Well, if I'm really in the present moment, my pain from the past of character two isn't there anymore. I'm here. I'm in the present moment. We die in the present moment. We don't die in the past. Well, some of us die in the future. I mean, wasn't it Mark Twain who said, "I've died a thousand deaths and none of them happened," or something like that. I love that because that's the capacity of that left hemisphere. When we actually die, we die in the present moment. And character three, which has an impetus to go, there's no impetus, right? If I'm in the gutter and I'm coming to the end, character three is gone.

And that leaves me in the state of character four. In that state of character four is the feeling of love. Don't ask me why, but the feeling of the universe when none of the other stuff is in the way of it, distracting us away from it, is this incredible feeling of love. And in that love, there is a warmth and a gratitude and an appreciation and an awe and a wonder of, "Oh my God, I was alive," and I think I'm going to be feeling the, "Oh my God, I was alive" instead of an, "Oh my God, I'm dying."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes. Yes.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Because it's going to be the left hemisphere that's going to come in and say, "Oh my God, I'm dying." Well, once I've accepted the fact that yes, I'm dying and this is it, and don't we all have some kind of curiosity about our own final exit and what that's going to be like, and it's like, "Oh, here it is. Wow. Wow." And breath, and I have that breath until I don't have that breath. The breath actually usually isn't there and gone, it usually slows. And I want to tell you this because you care about this. I have on my podcast, on my ... not my podcast, on my iPod, my music playlist. I went to the ocean and I just recorded about four or five minutes of the ocean.

So I have the tide coming in and the tide pulling out, and I keep that on there. I love it because it just brings my soul back to that pace. Then, when my mother and my mother and I were best of friends from my whole life, and she was on her deathbed, and we knew that she was going to pass, and I recorded her breathing, and I did it for, again, about four or five minutes. So I have this beautiful four or five minutes of my mother's breath, a little bit of the rattle, but really just the pace of her breath. Then, I was out paddleboarding on my cove here, and I had my little tuner in, and it played for me the ocean.

Then, it's on shuffle, and immediately, after that came my mother's breath, and they were identical.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Beautiful.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

They were identical, and I thought, "Oh my God, I'd never put one plus one together in just the way of the pacing and the sound of her breath at death and the breath of our planet." And it was so moving and so beautiful.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

What was it like losing your mom, knowing how she raised you twice, she raised you as a child, and then she raised you out of this massive stroke. What was it like losing her?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

My connection with my mother ... when I had the stroke, up until then, I was kind of a normal person living a normal life, and we had a normal mother-daughter relationship, and we were very close because I have a brother with schizophrenia, and we were a team intending to my brother. And then I had the stroke, and my mother describes me when she comes to visit me for the very first time, the doctors had told her that I was stable and that I was going to live. She thought, "Okay, well, that means that she's okay. She's going to be okay." Well, when she first saw me, she describes me as a breathing body in the bed. That's all I was. I had gone from being her Harvard doctor daughter to a breathing body in the bed.

And when she came to me and she was expecting so much more, and here I am, all I am is a breathing body in the bed, she acknowledged the presence of all these physicians who were very excited that she had finally arrived on day three to Boston because she was going to be my decision maker. She came in and acknowledged them and then, she walked around to the side of my bed, picked up the sheet, crawled in bed with me, wrapped her arms around me, and started rocking her baby. And people say, "How did you know to do that?" She said, "There was nothing else for me to do." I thought she was going to be like a viable human, and she wasn't, she was an infant.

And what does a mother do to comfort their infant? They hold them and they rock them. So that was the new beginning for me and Gigi, and I was so in connection to my character four just, "Oh, this is what a Gigi is. This is mama." I didn't know what a mother was, much less who my mother was, but this woman was claiming responsibility for me, and she was going to take care of me and nurture me through this process. So she did, she did a great job. And by the time she passed, which was ... I had 20 more years with her, which was fantastic, I was so connected to her, I remained so connected to her in life or death that I always thought I would be devastated.

I always thought my little character too, Jill would be devastated that my mommy is dying, but it was not that at all. I got to be a character four in holding the presence and the state for my mother to ... my job was to help her get out of her body instead of my mother is dying and going to be gone forever. So, as I said, I live out in a cove and my mother is in every flower that is orange. She is in every internal joke I hear inside of my head. She was a seamstress among other things. She made her own clothing. So she has the bodice, the body rack that is hers.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Wonderful.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

And I can hold her.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

I can actually wrap my arms around her, feel my mother. So, I put a little flat Gigi on there, and she's right over there. My mother is with me, and she's with every breath I have, so it was okay.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It was okay.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

It was a beautiful death. Taking her out of her body was a beautiful journey for not just the two of us, but 35 of our nearest and dearest friends came and truly celebrated the life and death of my mom.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you for sharing that. You described the fear of death as a left brain monster and the way that whole brain living can ease that fear, how do you use whole brain living to quiet the fear of death?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Well, I think that by knowing where in my brain, which character, which part of me fears death is key. I truly believe that knowing each of our four characters, getting to know them, recognizing and honoring their identity, they are a group of cells inside of our brain. They're real. Wipe out those cells, you wipe out those skillsets and those character profiles disappear. So I think really knowing the four different parts of our brain, the modules of cells, the skillsets that come from those, and then skillsets get packaged together. For example, the part of me that has language and uses words is very different from the part of my brain, character three, that listens to my gut communication.

My intuition, my knowingness, these are different circuits, different parts of our brain. So for me, I think by knowing my character one, which is rational thinking, says, yes, one day I will die. And just that information about that, so I'm going to create my will. I'm going to prepare all the things that I can prepare for my family. That's what character one is going to do with death. Character two is going to fear death. "Oh my God, I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm mortal. Oh my God, I'm going to be gone. Oh my God, what's it going to be like?" I could be devastated. Just the fear of it is in that character two of ... because that's my ego. It's a group of cells in there that says, I am Jill Bolte Taylor. I am an individual. I am important.

The whole universe revolves around me. So letting go of me is like, well, then I'm dead, right? Then it's like, "Not necessarily. There are other parts of us." Little character three is on the great adventure, right? It's like, "Gee, I wonder is when am I going to die? Cool. This is kind of cool. Who am I going to die with or am I going to die alone?" And character four is going, it doesn't matter. None of that matters. What matters is, "Oh my God, I was alive and I had this gift, this organic accumulation of stimulate and be stimulated by." Wow. I mean, there's just this ... and then who knows? Then who knows? So I think that in knowing that there are different ways of looking at this ... and my mother was a fanatic about this.

She did not want people to come to her and be sad and be miserable and bemoan. She'd lived 89 years. She'd lived a great life. She wanted people to come in and just love on her and celebrate and share stories and be together and eat good food. Then, when it was gone, it was gone. She actually reached a point where she handed me her address book and she said, "I've marked all the people you need to call." And I said, "Well, you were going to call them." And she said, "Well, I started calling everybody and everybody was so sad." And I said, "I'm just calling to tell you I'm going to die, and I'm glad I've known you." And people are going, "Oh my God, you're sick. You're going to die." And she's going, "Yeah, and I've lived a great life. Let's not go there."

So she took control of the management of her own exit, and she wanted a peaceful exit, and she wanted a joyful, loving, celebrative exit, and everybody knew that going in. So you either did or she didn't let you in the house.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love that. I love that she wasn't managing other people's feelings. She was just doing it her own way.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

At her bedside, were you conscious of your brain anatomy at that time, or were you just in the moment in sort of your-

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Or was there a choice you made as far as how to experience that?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah. Well, my mother was healthy as an ox, and she should have lived to 110. Her mother lived to 94, her grandmother lived to 98. I kept telling her, "You're easily going to live to 110, so take care of yourself, right? Be prepared, and you will live with me, and I will take care of you, and we will be together, and you don't have to worry about it, but you're going to live a long time." So I was shocked when she was diagnosed with cancer, and it was going to be five months. She had five months. Then, she had surgery, and then she had surgery, and she found out no. And the surgery was either going to take care of everything or it was everywhere.

I mean, there was no little piece. It was everywhere where it was gone. It turned out it was everywhere.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Were on our way home from the hospital where she'd gotten this report and I said something to her because I was devastated, but I had to be in my character one, take care of mom, right? And mom came at me with her little character two. She became her little bitty character two. I said to her ... I put my hand on her hand, because she was scared.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

And I put my hand on her hand and I said, "Mama, I adore you. I love you, and I am not going to get this all right, but I need you to do this with me because otherwise, I'm going to be devastated after you die." And she paused and she breathed through it, and she squeezed my hand and she said, "I got it. We're a team." I said, "Thank you, and she never attacked me again." She never tried lashed out at me emotionally. We made the decision together that we were going to do this the best we could together as a team, and we did. So when my mother took her last breath ... again, I thought I would be absolutely devastated, but I knew she had had a beautiful death, and I thought, "Wow, if only everybody could have the kind of quality death and being loved and loving right up to the end."

And that was a choice for us, so then when she was gone, I literally started laughing and I just said to her, "Wow, that was a ride." And I just felt this expansiveness of my own self in this love that I share with her. It was like, she's just so here with me and remains here with me.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah. What happened after? Did she want to be cremated or what happened afterwards to her physical body?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

So before she died, about six weeks before she died, she wanted to be cremated. So, my brother came to town. We took care of all the character one stuff, and he made the spreadsheet and he did it his way and did what he needed to do. Goodness, thank goodness, right?

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

It is always so much more helpful when we take care of those details. So that was done, so I didn't have to deal with that. Gigi wanted to be cremated, and about 10 years prior to that, one of my best friends passed and she was young, and we had what we called a box party for her, as she wanted to be cremated. We got the box from the funeral home, we put it on my dining room table. I invited all of her friends over. We had a big party and we catered it and we decorated her box, and it was something that we did together, and it was beautiful. So after that, and that was back in 2012, we've all said, well, when it's my turn, I want a box party.

So my mom said, "Well, I want a box party." So we had a box party, so we set a date and invited 35 people. Every person came. How often does that happen, right?

Sarah Cavanaugh:

That's fantastic. That speaks to her.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah. They wanted to be a part of this celebration of her life. And so she was in hospice care at the time, and she was in my den, and she was horizontal, and the hospice people said, "Yes, you can have martinis." So she was having her little martini celebration and all these people came and we decorated her box and she was there. So, in the presence of Gigi, everybody got to spend time with her and then go and decorate her box.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love that.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

And so she ended up with this beautiful, beautiful box that was so, her, it had her favorite sayings, it had her favorite colors, it had her favorite things just had all ... it was just, you could look at that and say, "Yep, that was Gigi's box." And we actually have video footage of her dancing to her go-to pick me up song, which was Stompin' at the Savoy, Benny Goodman from her era. We have movies of her dancing around her box with all this love, and then we post it on social media on this date. At this time, Gigi will be cremated, and what we would like is for wherever you are in the world ... and we had people all around the world, literally hundreds of people all around the world.

At this moment, Eastern Standard Time, we're going to push the button and we want you no matter where you are, download Stompin' At The Savoy, listen and get up and dance.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Can we play it?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah. We had people dancing in restaurants. We had people dancing in the desert, on the dunes. We had people dancing wherever they were. It was this collective energy of love that we sent that girl out with a big bang.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

That is fantastic. Well, thank you for sharing that story. That's really fantastic.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

So what does a peaceful exit look like to you?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

For me or me in the presence of others?

Sarah Cavanaugh:

For you personally?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

I'm excited. I'm excited about how I'm going to go, because I don't know, right? So I don't have a vision of what that is. All I know is that I hope I am awake. I hope I have two or three minutes of conscious awareness of being in the gutter, of knowing this was it. "Wow, what a life. I hope I want to witness it." That's peaceful for me, and it really doesn't matter the circumstance because the circumstance will be what the circumstance is, right? Yeah. No, I have to say I'm excited about it. When you're born, so we're conceived, there's a beginning, and when there's death technically for this structure, there's an end. And it's like, "Yeah, I'm good to evaporate back into the beauty of the blissful euphoria of love."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you so, so much. I just loved our conversation, and I just want to thank your 50 trillion collective geniuses that showed up today. I just want to thank you. I am just so grateful for any framework that helps us be more emotionally intelligent in the world, because as you are creating this framework for individuals to choose how they respond to things, I think post COVID, it's going to be really important that people take this on for a collective piece.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

I've been so excited to speak with you on this subject because it's so important. This is the core of how we manage life and how we fear death has such impact on how we live life, and I think that it's important to acknowledge and honor and love that fear, but to recognize that's just a part of who we are. And in the big picture, in the long run, at the end of the jog of this life, we unite as a collection, as a part of the whole.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes, yes.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

So thank you. Thank you for reaching out to me. Thank you for the work that you do, and just thank you for ... it was a beautiful conversation. Thank you.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Take good care.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

You too, dear one.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. You can learn more about this podcast and my online course at my website, peacefulexit.net. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcast. This episode was produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. More of his music can be found on Bandcamp. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit.


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