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The Imaginarium of Belief

Humans are a storytelling species. Anything else that may set us apart from our fellow earthlings – our art, technology, industry, government, science, spirituality, and personal life – is made possible only as part of a larger endeavor in constructing meaning. As one of our ultimate concerns, making meaning through storytelling is how we orient ourselves in reality, open up new possibilities, find strength in adversity, come together for fresh solutions, or drive ourselves to extinction.

In a recent post entitled Above Us Only Sky I introduced the imaginarium of belief as the place where stories are born. It’s also where those interesting characters of a particular kind of story known as myth enter our world. I don’t claim that god literally exists out there and apart from our imaginations, but that god’s existence is literary, as a figure in narratives that tell of our origins and destiny, of our place in the cosmos, and what we have inside ourselves still to discover and awaken.

I understand that such a statement may sound heretical and blasphemous to those who have been instructed to take the stories of god literally and who believe in a literal (factual, metaphysical, supernatural) deity. Even though they have never encountered a separate deity – and we need to carefully distinguish this from undergoing certain experiences and attributing them to an idea of god they have in mind – the expectation is that they should persevere in believing such, as this adds merit to their faith.

As religion insists on the objective truth of its myths (or sacred stories), any hope of restoring an appreciation of their genuine significance recedes. We might be tempted to review every myth for its deeper meaning, and in some cases it will be worth the effort. But rather than committing ourselves to such an exhaustive review, which would take a long time and carry us across a wide diversity of cultures, I’m taking the option of remembering what you may have forgotten.

Once upon a time you played in storyland and every feature of your life-world had roots and branches in its magic.

It’s conventional these days to regard the myths of culture and the fantasies of childhood as amusements we’ve outgrown. As modern adults we need to put aside stories that don’t connect us to reality, and focus instead on straightforward descriptions of the way things are. Our preference is for theory over myth, since theories are explanations of objective facts we can count on. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what mood you happen to be in today; a valid theory is true regardless. In fact, the theory is true precisely because it has methodologically excluded the idiosyncratic factors of personality and perspective.

This virtue of an absolute truth outside our human experience is what seduced religion into confusing its own stories with supernatural journalism – as an objective reporting on revealed facts, metaphysical beings, and historical miracles. Once this move was made, the validity of religion as a system for the activation and development of spirituality was almost entirely lost. Religion has consequently become depleted, defensive, regressive, and irrelevant.

My hope is that as we individually recover an appreciation for the mythopoetic imagination and its stories, our perspective on religion and its future will brighten as well. We’ll see.

In Whole Picture, Whole Brain I proposed that meaning is the product of two parallel processes working together: communion (based in the right hemisphere of our brain) and knowledge (based more in the left). A deep rootedness in reality (i.e., communion) or an objective understanding of reality (i.e., knowledge) is insufficient in itself to make our existence meaningful. We need the contributions of both sides – communion and knowledge, embodied contemplation and detached observation, stories that reveal (myths) as well as stories that explain (theories).

As these two storytelling processes (right-side myth and left-side theory) work together, they deepen and expand our experience of meaning, as well as empower our creative authority as meaning makers. As we mature into adulthood and our belief system needs to become more realistic, responsible, and relevant to the daily concerns of public life, the challenge is not to lose our sense of communion with reality and its integral wholeness.

Whether a particular belief identifies and explains something in objective reality or reveals and expresses something from our deeper experience, our method for determining its truth value will be different. A story about god, then, might be scrutinized for its factual accuracy or contemplated for its metaphorical depth. In the first case it will be rejected for lack of empirical evidence, while in the second it might open new insight into a mystery that can’t be isolated and defined.

Since the Western mind has been moving steadily toward the mastery of knowledge and away from the mystery of communion, I will devote the remainder of this post to clarifying what the mystery of communion is all about.

Let’s drop down from the imaginarium of belief in my diagram and begin where it all starts: in the stream of experience where each of is every moment. It would be easy to assume that the ego – your prized center of personal identity – is immersed in this stream, but not so. Ego lives inside the imaginarium of belief, caught in its own delusion of separateness. (This delusion of separateness is an important phase in your self-actualization as a human being, so long as you are enabled to transcend it in higher experiences of inclusion, wellbeing, and wholeness.) To enter the stream of experience, you must surrender the center of who you think you are.

This, by the way, is the path of mystical descent practiced across cultures and often against the orthodoxy of (particularly theistic) religion. The goal is to steadily unwrap the constructed self (ego) of every last label identifying “I, me, and mine,” until nothing is left but boundless presence – not “my presence” or the presence of something else (like a god), but the present mystery of reality.

To arrive at this place of deep inner calm you will have to first sink past the delusion of who you think you are, descend the electrochemical web of your sentient nervous system, deeper into the ancient biorhythms of your animal body, and finally pass through the trough of the wave to a silent stillness within.

You need to be reminded that you are always already here, and that this inner clearing of boundless presence awaits you even now.

We moderns are so much into the management of identity (who we are or strive to be), that we have forgotten the wellspring in the depths of what we are, as human manifestations of being. Our essential nature is in communion with reality, while our conditioned self (ego) is separated from it.

When you were very young, the stories that shaped and inspired you were less concerned with objective reality – simply because your separate self had not yet been established and there was no clearly objective reality. What made these stories so compelling for you had nothing to do with factual accuracy. They were compelling by virtue of their metaphorical profundity, where profound is in reference to containing deep insight rather than intellectual sophistication. The characters of story were metaphors – vehicles, mediators, and catalysts – of the immersive experience in which you took such delight.

Such an immersive experience is another name for what I mean by communion.

Again, when you were a young child, these imaginary and metaphorical beings were spontaneously appreciated for their power. But on the other side of childhood (specifically after age ten) your perspective on these stories and their characters began to shift more toward the left brain, which is the hemisphere with greater investment in the match between words and their objective referents in external reality. From that point on, theories (as explanations) became more important to getting on in the world than myths (those revelations of inner life).

The challenge became one of contemplating those same fictional characters in conscious acknowledgment of their metaphorical nature. They are still capable of facilitating the mystery of experience into constructs of language (meta-phorein means “to bear across”) – but now you have to look back down through them in order to catch the insight at their roots. 

And this is where we are today with respect to the myths of religion. The sacred stories that once carried our spontaneous experience of communion with reality began very naturally to lose their enchantment. Which put believers on the horns of a dilemma: either reluctantly give up on the myths and leave them behind for a more adult engagement with reality, or else insist on their literal (i.e., factual) truth and consequently reject many well-established theories in the contemporary system of knowledge. Unfortunately, not only have a large number of theistic believers gone with mythological (or biblical) literalism, but metaphor-blind leaders have encouraged and even insisted on it.

Back one more time to the imaginarium of belief, where our knowledge about reality and our communion with reality intertwine (without fusing into confusion) in our constructions of meaning. Theories alone or myths alone are not enough for the important work to be done. We need them both, which means that we need to brush up on our creative skills as storytellers.

 

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Whole Picture, Whole Brain

I’ll start with a proposition, and then work it out in more detail below:

The meaning of life is an ongoing construction project involving two parallel processes, communion and knowledge.

Communion refers to an experience of no-separation, where your existence is felt as not just connected to but as “one with” the rest of it. The present mystery of reality rises into manifestation as you, but also as that other, which means that both (and all) of you express into form something which is itself formless.

If that sounds overly mystical, then you should at least be able to agree that anytime you touch this thing or that thing you are touching the universe, since these (along with countless other things, both nearby and far-flung) are symptoms of a single universal event.

Knowledge, on the other hand, presupposes a separation between you and the object you presume to know (or know about). Outside and all around you revolves that same universe, but now you are looking at the qualities that differentiate one thing from another, and you from the rest. Whereas your existence manifests the grounding mystery, it also participates in a turning mystery which includes you and everything else.

From your vantage point, each thing is apprehended according to what distinguishes it and sets it apart. Gathering this information and representing it in your mind, then testing your conclusions by repeated experiences (or more rigorously by repeated experiments) is what we call knowledge.

The construction of meaning involves both processes: (1) a deep sense of communion or oneness with reality, and (2) a conceptual representation of the objective qualities that distinguish things and allow for the classifications of knowledge.

If this also sounds like the difference between spirituality and science, then you’re on to me. For the past several years, I’ve been building a case for regarding spirituality and science as inherently complementary, non-competing enterprises in our construction of meaning. They both tell stories – the myths of religion and the theories of science – but they are not telling the same kind of story.

Myths are stories of communion, and theories are stories of knowledge. One constructs meaning out of a primary experience of oneness with reality, while the other constructs meaning as a system of explanations by which reality is increasingly known.

As I tried to show in The Wheel of Fortune, a scientific theory of the primordial singularity that released energy into matter, and a religious myth of the primordial dragon whose dismemberment by a god formed the cosmic order, are not competing explanations for how the universe came to be. The theory is an explanation about how it came to be (a question of causality and evolution), while the myth is a revelation of why (a question of intention and purpose).

Today’s science still doesn’t permit any serious consideration of intentionality in the universe, most likely because that’s the step which historically has put careless scientists on a slippery slope toward the necessary postulate of god’s existence.

In fact, religious myths are not better explanations, nor do they require a belief in the objective existence of god. Myths are narrative tapestries constructed from the dramatic elements of setting, character, intention, agency, and outcome. They were designed for traditional occasions of sacred performance, when this veil (i.e., the tapestry of words and images) would be pulled aside and the community suddenly found itself in a universe awaiting their response.

Scientific theories are not composed for sacred recital, and they don’t presume any kind of back-and-forth dialogue between human intelligence and the greater universe. Knowledge without communion produces something less than meaning, something meaningless, what Albert Camus in The Rebel named “the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” Camus’ nihilism was an understandable conclusion at a time (following the Second World War) when many had lost faith in human nature and hope for the future.

The modern West has been bereft of a sense of communion for so long that we’ve grown accustomed to a feeling of homelessness in the universe. An exponential increase in our knowledge registry over the past 500 years has coincided with a steady decline in our general report on the meaning of existence.

I’m not suggesting that while science sends us into despair, our only salvation is to believe in the objective existence of god, the immortality of the soul, or the literal realities of heaven and hell. The qualifying terms “objective” and “literal” indicate that what had begun as metaphors of sacred fiction are no longer appreciated as such, but have been pressed instead into service as referents to supernatural facts.

Those who believe and defend their religion as an infallible source of knowledge are responsible for its inevitable degradation to a catalog of superstitions. Once again, the point I’m making is that spirituality – along with the form it takes in healthy religion – seeks to cultivate an experience of communion with reality, not knowledge about reality.

The best analogue of this relationship between spirituality and science is the bicameral nature of the human brain. In fact, I will contend that our best way of overcoming the current impasse with respect to defunct religion and meaningless science is to consider what goes on in our brain on the path to maturity.

My diagram places a graphic of a brain at the center of the universe, the ultimate meaning of which is the shared project of spirituality and science (as earlier proposed). The right (peach colored) hemisphere corresponds to key terms on the left side of the picture, as the left (blue colored) hemisphere corresponds to the terms on the right – in the crossover of functions characteristic of our brain.

The right hemisphere has more downward-projecting nerve pathways into lower (more primitive) brain centers and the body’s internal state. Consequently it is more “somatically gifted” than its neighbor to the left (from the Greek soma for body). It houses the neural anatomy (nerve nuclei, circuits, and networks) that facilitates our gut feelings, intuitions, hunches, and premonitions. Since our language centers are located in the left hemisphere, such experiences facilitated by the right are essentially ineffable (beyond words, indescribable, speechless).

Developmental neuroscience discovered that from the time we’re born until about age ten our right hemisphere is dominant. This doesn’t mean that nothing’s going on to the left, but that our primary mode of engaging with reality is somatic – through our body, from our gut, more emotional than rational. As newborns our right hemisphere entrained with our mother’s right hemisphere to form the empathic bond that would serve as our secure base.

The experience of communion, and hence the inspiration of spirituality and many of the earliest, most enduring metaphors of religious mythology, has its roots in this resonance of brain and body (via the right hemisphere), of our body with our mother’s body, and still deeper into the rhythms of life, “Mother Earth” and the provident universe.

Somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11, the average human brain makes a dramatic shift from the right hemisphere and into the left. The talents of our left hemisphere are semantic, focused in language, logic, analysis, reasoning, and rationality. Just as the right hemisphere communicates with, by, and through our body, the left hemisphere uses the conventions of language to participate in the collective mind of our tribe and culture. In this way we acquire a knowledge of reality that builds on the theories of others as well as on our own observations.

That word “observe” helps to distinguish the strength of our left hemisphere from that of our right. Observation presupposes a critical separation between observer and object, a separation brought about by the right-to-left shift mentioned above – a shift away but not apart from the right. Our right hemisphere takes in reality from its unique position of communion with it, which is what is meant when we “behold” something. We don’t gather intel on a separate object with our five physical senses, but rather we grasp something by our sixth sense of intuition prior to its separation as an object.

Our brain’s leftward shift can be mismanaged by culture (as it has in the modern West) into more of a severance, where the values of observing, analyzing, and explaining reality not only outweigh but drive out the right-sided virtues of beholding, contemplating, and revealing its mystery.

I suspect that our Western conflict between science and spirituality – which, I need to stress, is distinct from that between reason and superstition, or between ethical responsibility and religiously motivated terrorism – is really the cultural manifestation of our failure to integrate the two hemispheres of our brain.

What could (and would) be a normal developmental process of drawing an intuitive sense of communion with reality (right hemisphere) into our empirical knowledge about reality (left hemisphere), has instead collapsed into a sense of being adrift in an indifferent and meaningless universe. Our knowledge won’t ultimately matter – that is, it won’t support and enrich the meaning of existence – unless we can recover our communion with reality.

 

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