Lessons from Those Who Lost … and Found
–by Pavithra Mehta, Apr 25, 2012
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.