It’s just the way we are built. Each half of our brain looks at the world differently: our left hemisphere is cognitive and sequential, while our right hemisphere is intuitive and sees the whole.
Our left brain, praised for being rational, systematic, and intelligent, has reigned supreme in the west ever since Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am.” These cognitive qualities were used by society to portray the right brain as irrational and emotional, the seat of dreams and nightmares, “without whom we would probably be better off.”
But now — at long last — we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, picking up momentum since the sixties, to restore the right brain to its rightful place of honor. This shift emerged quickly in the arts, not surprisingly since art has always been both a harbinger and a driver of social change. As the poet Jane Hershfield told Ezra Klein in a recent podcast, it is an essential characteristic of art to investigate whatever mainstream culture is missing.
According to her, “one of those things in our current moment is certainly embodiment, not the body as an object of ads about how to make it more attractive, but our actual lived, embodied knowledge, experience, and the complete joyousness of remembering that we are animals.”
The Sixties’ fascination with Eastern spiritual traditions also encouraged this paradigm shift. Yoga, Taoism, and Buddhism all point to the right brain as a deep reservoir of wisdom, separate from our “thinking mind.”
Traditional gurus argued torrents of words were obscuring this wisdom; meanwhile, our modern sage, Bob Dylan, expressed the same sentiments in a song:
“I can see that your head has been twisted and fed
The Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana describes how to get below this illusionary torrent of words: “The brain does not manufacture thoughts unless we stimulate it with habitual verbalizing. When we train ourselves by constant practice to stop verbalizing, the brain can experience things as they are. It is only “by silencing the mind, we can experience real peace, not a thought or a concept, but a nonverbal experience.”
Buddhists have promoted paradigm change by demonstrating how we access this embodied space through contemplative practices like meditation. Psychologists and therapists have expanded upon it by developing new mindfulness and body therapies.
While philosophers have been a hard sell, a few pioneers began coming on board in the early 20th century, including heavyweights like Martin Heidegger, Maurice Marleau-Ponty, and John Dewey.
They understood that our two-pound brain, caged within our bony skull, can not generate thoughts by itself; instead, we are flesh-and-blood human beings interacting in real-time with everything and everybody around us. In other words, the body itself is the primary site for knowing the world.
Hard science has been the last to embrace this sea change. Jill Bolte Taylor provides a poignant personal example of how she made this shift: she was an up-and-coming, young neuroscientist, dominated by the thinking character of her left brain until she suffered a massive stroke. The brain hemorrhage knocked out her entire left hemisphere.
As a result, she discovered firsthand how the two halves of her brain differ. Not only do they privilege different things, but they also operate with different values. After the stroke, without access to her left hemisphere, she discovered “the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is…directly connected to my feelings of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.”
Jill achieved this sense of peace because her stroke released her from her left brain’s penchant for fragmentation, practicality, and certainty. Therefore, during rehabilitation, she worked hard to retain access to her higher self, the one who delights in paradox and enjoys holding ambiguous possibilities in suspension.
There’s a lesson in this for us all.
As Albert Einstein reminded us: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a world that honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”
Originally published at http://jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.