Jill Bolte Taylor, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy and Chef Grant Achatz are an unlikely trio. What do this brain scientist, late eye surgeon, and a leader of the molecular gastronomy movement [yes there is such a thing] have in common? At a takeoff point in their careers they were each dealt a sucker punch -- one that robbed them of what was arguably their greatest gift. Yet none of them threw in the towel. And each would rise to greatness after mining their unthinkable experience of loss for deeper insight into the human experience.
Loss. Consider the paradox of how that one word, brief as a seed, can swallow our world whole. We’ve all experienced it, in ways that range from the mundane to the profound.
“Lose something every day,” the poet Elizabeth Bishop urged us perversely,
Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Except that it is. The experience of living is fraught with loss. And wrestling the thorny experience of it into an art form is not easy. But there are some rare individuals who’ve done it with inspired grace, and our world is the richer for it.
In the face of milder, more everyday losses what can the rest of us learn from what these three extraordinary people lost, and found?
The Chef Who Lost His Sense of Taste
In 2007 Grant Achatz’s star was on the rise. He’d been named one of the best new chefs in America and was running one of the country’s most wildly innovative restaurants. Just as the culinary spotlight hit him, so did the diagnosis: Stage four squamous cell carcinoma: tongue cancer. Aggressive treatments followed. Achatz lost peeling layers of skin in his mouth and throat -- and lost his sense of taste.
A cruel outcome for a man whose life’s work depended on perceiving the delicate nuance and shaded subtleties of flavor. And yet, “Tapping into the discipline, passion, and focus of being a chef, he rarely missed a day of work. He trained his chefs to mimic his palate and learned how to cook with his other senses. The food was never better.” Five months later Achatz was pronounced cancer-free and in the same year won one of the nation’s highest honors in the culinary arts.
When his radiation cycles ended, Achatz’ ability to taste did begin to come back. His perception of flavors returned literally one flavor at a time, first sweet, then salty, and finally bitter. “My palate developed just as a newborn -- but I was 32 years old,” Achtaz says, “So I could understand how flavors were coming back and how they synergized together … It was very educational for me. I don’t recommend it, but I think it made me a better chef because now I really understand how flavor works.”
His loss and the subsequent slow recovery afforded Achtaz a chance to understand the evolution of taste and the chemistry of how different flavors interact, with a visceral purity that few, if any of us, will ever know. His initial loss through the radiation was accompanied by a total and complete annihilation of taste perception, followed by a very gradual relearning of it -- this with a radical new self-awareness. Unlike a newborn, Achatz could actually consciously and proactively tune into the process of taste acquisition underway. He could observe it in ways that were previously indiscernible and that led to fresh insight.
Achatz’s experience shows us that with loss can come the opportunity to re-acquire and re-learn experience with greater consciousness and intention -- in such a way that the inner logic and the natural laws of experience become deeply apparent to you for the first time. Jill Bolte Taylor can vehemently attest to the truth of this.
A Brain Scientist’s Stroke of Insight
At 37, Jill Bolte Taylor was a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist with a promising career. Until one fateful morning, when a blood vessel detonated in her left hemisphere. With the dispassionate curiosity of a true scientist she bore incredible witness to the breakdown of her brain functions. [Her vivid description of the experience and what followed is now the second-most watched TED talk of all time].
The stroke left Taylor initially unable to talk, walk, read, write or recall her past. In her own words, “I didn't even know what a mother was, much less who my mother was.” As her left-brain shut down she lost her processing capacity and all acquired language. Her mind was suspended in a newfound silence, and she experienced a simultaneous sense of deep peace along with an inability to distinguish edges and boundaries between her, and the rest of the world. It took eight dedicated years for Taylor to completely reclaim the normal functions of her mind and body. In the process she would become her own experimental subject, and arrive at many profound realizations.
One of her first, was the realization that every emotion has a physical component that we can learn to consciously feel. “Joy was a feeling in my body. Peace was a feeling in my body. I thought it was interesting that I could feel when a new emotion was triggered. I could feel new emotions flood through me and then release me,” says Taylor, “I had to learn new words to label these "feeling" experiences, and most remarkably, I learned that I had the power to choose whether to hook into a feeling and prolong its presence in my body, or just let it quickly flow right out of me.”
Imagine the freedom that accompanies the visceral (not merely intellectual) realization that you have the autonomy to choose your response to the onslaught of emotion. A newfound knowing that runs cell-deep.
“I made my decisions based upon how things felt inside. There were certain emotions like anger, frustration, or fear that felt uncomfortable when they surged through my body. So I told my brain that I didn't like that feeling and didn't want to hook into those neural loops. I learned that I could use my left mind, through language, to talk directly to my brain and tell it what I wanted and what I didn't want. Upon this realization, I knew I would never return to the personality I had been before. I suddenly had much more to say about how I felt and for how long, and I was adamantly opposed to reactivating old painful emotional circuits,” writes Taylor in her best-selling book, My Stroke of Insight.
Her story demonstrates how loss can give us an opportunity to practice being present to the physical component of our emotions. And in practicing this, we can increasingly choose through the power of our awareness, to either strengthen an emotion’s hold on us -- or gradually weaken it. Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy was someone who experimented extensively with his awareness this way, and in the wake of an extreme loss.
A Perfect Surgeon With Crippled Fingers
Born in a village of southern India, Govindappa Venkatswamy lost several cousins to complications during childbirth, all before his tenth birthday. There were no doctors in the village, and these early losses steeled his resolve to become a surgeon when he grew up. He steadily worked his way to and through medical school. Then in his early thirties, just as he was about to embark on his lifelong dream of specializing in obstetrics, he was struck by the dire symptoms of acute rheumatoid arthritis. A disease that drastically twisted and froze his fingers permanently out of shape, like the gnarled branches of an old tree.
Dr. V (as he would come to be better known) was bedridden for the better part of two years, and through it all his body was wracked by pain so intense that he could neither sit, walk, stand nor eat without assistance. When he recovered enough strength to return to medical school, he knew his dream of becoming an obstetrician had shattered. Someone recommended the field of eye surgery instead. Dr. V enrolled in the field of ophthalmology and trained those badly afflicted fingers to cut and operate the eye. In the course of his career he would perform well over 100,000 sight-restoring surgeries. How did he do it?
The force of his willpower had a role to play, but it wasn’t just sheer stamina, that allowed him to wield the surgical knife with such precision. There was more at play. His fingers were affected but his mind was clear, and he began to give it firm instructions. “You want your life to lose all hatred, jealousy and envy, and to look instead for courage and love. You want to surrender absolutely to the divine, to perfection, to whatever you may want to call it. You do not want anything egotistical within you. It is an experiment you are constantly conducting,” he said.
This man consciously and routinely attempted to put himself at the service of a higher force through deepening his inner awareness. “Once you separate your inner consciousness from your outer consciousness, you can contact a deeper reality than your reason can. We have the opportunity to do this all the time, every minute, every second,” said Dr. V.
His life and work reveal how the seeming limitations clamped down by loss can be eclipsed by the strength of the human spirit, and its capacity to put itself at the service of immutable values. When we work to expand selflessly beyond our loss, we can tap into a strength that far transcends our surface frailties. And we regularly grow our circle of care.
Sometimes, as the stories of these three extra ordinary individuals demonstrates, if we have enough resolve and bring a certain discipline of mind and heart to bear on our lives, then --
Loss is more.
This article is printed here with permission. Pavithra Mehta is the co-author of Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion.
Lovely article! Beethoven started to lose his hearing as his music started to get better and better. By the time he composed his last and greatest symphony, he was completely deaf.
inspiring stories. good! The case?
1 reply: Debbie | Post Your Reply
What inspiring stories! Helped me reflect on the significance of loss and how it generally considered a negative thing, when that is not always the case - thanks for sharing.
yes. everything can be discussed where you can say all positively and then I can look it positively.
we can then agree based the facts and friendly way . It can be bad really if the ideas look or are put in a way that wreaks. so start one you think comes first. one by one we can't disagree as I give you all confidence one would like ever. there we are at peace and we are brothers.
Thanks a lot
Thank you, Pavithra Metha, for writing of such "rare individuals" whose losses have inspired them to live grace, enriching our world. You must know that they represent the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more whose stories may be less well known. As a singer, teacher and psychotherapist who lost her voice for 22 some years, only to find and employ it in new ways, I can assure you that loss in life is a given, yet the creative spirit is forever alive and well, not nearly as rare as you'd imagine. The key, as Rumi so deftly expresses in the poem you've quoted, is in discovering that the gift which is at the very center of one's God-given skill or talent, as profound loss, becomes the teacher that leads the way through shadows to ultimately emerge into an even more brilliant and compassionate clarity of purpose.
thanks for posting this. it made me think of my own situation in a new, more positive way. :)
2 replies: Tushar, V•a•n•i•l•l•a•b•e•a•n | Post Your Reply
'chef who wanted american best cook art lost' that part is interesting. the rest of the text is frightening and I remember leaving the Google plus group when they made very complicated and fearful articles. I don't really know where the writers perceived the wrong ways of doing with fear. I can be a great man to open them other ways of saying the insights.
1.What do you exactly feel that made you behave in hardcore?
2.Do you think you are right doing that very messy way ?
3.Can you make your ultimate objectives easy and clear?
4.Did you know that if you are not understood it can be worse?
5.Without you loosing that energy to write many messages, don't you know it can be very easy to state a fact and explain it with 97% of confidence from the object.
6. Did you know what you write have many ways of interpretations negatively and positively?
7.Are you revenging the Gulf damn if about the dirty Gulf you are pinching the wrong person. I talked that sometime ago and told to give me M16 or place me in as a pilot I would really make the whole Gulf into a dust place. But instead you talked about suppressing baboons...I can tell you I own them and it must be like a man planting coffees in his firm so that when selling the coffee he knows which to sell first and which to sell last. I don't like to repeat things I say what I say. So understand that am not your enemy in any way under any circumstance. It is possible my people may talked about me as a real danger but you need to confirm as people can't be trusted these days. One can tell you Noor is threat to us and to you. all those are rumors and am the most trustworthy and why I don't reach out for those saying about me bad is this that I only wait one chance to show them where God charges people. I really don't like to argue but I like to see some people having no time to regret. That is why even today there are many people mostly Gulf who I don't agree they have the rights to be on earth. When I needed support for that is when you too don't understand my problems and you misrepresent yourself such a way that doesn't please me. I can tell you we are not enemies so give me power so that I kick those kicked you the other time. It is only that if you can understand why do you feel hostile?
8. Give me feedback and know all I write are positive
These stories are wonderfully inspiring, reminding us of the strength of spirit and soul to take control of mind and body.
An amazing article about three amazing people. However, I disagree that "loss" is more. I lost m oldest son.
It will never be more.
"Sometimes we have to let go life we have planned ,so as to accept the one that is waiting for us."
Nice article, very inspiring. thank you for sharing. my fav
“With loss can come the opportunity to re-acquire and
re-learn experience with greater consciousness and intention”
“You want your life to lose all hatred, jealousy and envy,
and to look instead for courage and love. You want to surrender absolutely to
the divine, to perfection, to whatever you may want to call it. You do not want
anything egotistical within you. It is an experiment you are constantly
conducting,” he said.
On Aug 22, 2021 Anna Tasya Cindy Wika wrote:
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Tetapi jembatan menggantung itu aman buat kamu lewati. Kemudian kamu harus naiki beberapa tangga dan jalanan yang naik. https://wisatadokar.com/ Keadaan jalan tidak begitu susah untuk dilewati, di sejauh perjalanan kamu akan didampingi oleh pohon kelapa dan pohon-pohon yang lain.
untuk ke arah posisi. Tetapi keelokan alam yang tersaji di sejauh perjalanan membuat kamu makin semangat untuk selalu melanjutkan perjalanan.
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