Tag Archives: neuroscience

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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The Promise of Consilience

Consilience Terms

One hundred seventy five years ago a term was coined as a name for the phenomenon in science where separate traditions of research and evidence “leap together” in a higher-order theory. The outstanding example of this phenomenon is the grand theory of natural evolution, which came together as an overarching explanation for the adaptation and advancement of life on our planet. Separate research traditions such as paleontology, molecular biology, genetics, and comparative anatomy seemed to resonate with a higher vibration that transcended and included their distinct lines of scientific inquiry.

As time went on, this same word was used to describe a hoped-for reconciliation of sort between the sciences which study facts and measurement, and the humanities which concern themselves with value and meaning. In a 1959 talk entitled “The Two Cultures” and presented to the Senate House in Cambridge, England, C.P. Snow laid out his grim prediction that the irreconcilable differences between these two domains would continue to undermine Western education.

The sociobiologist E.O. Wilson (1998) answered Snow’s prediction with his influential book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, wherein he argued that our quest to understand reality, construct meaning, and celebrate beauty are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary in the mind’s great adventure for knowledge.

And there’s the word I want to reflect on further: Consilience.

In my professional environment of higher education there has been much talk in recent decades about “learning communities,” “integrative learning,” and “creative collaboration.” Educators and school administrators are aware of how the division of academic disciplines, departmental programs, and specialized services for students is shattering the vision of what we once knew as a college education. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish the traditional objective of education (referring to the art of “leading out” a student’s curiosity and ability to learn) in the face of a growing demand for straightforward instruction and passing performance on assessments.

The question becomes How can we bring together these many pieces which are necessary to education, and go beyond mere instruction and standardized tests so that our schools can become centers of creative innovation, genuine community, and lifelong learning? My proposal takes a different approach to the attempts at throwing a lasso around all the loose pieces and building skywalks between departmental silos. What we need is a deep understanding of consilience and how to foster it in the learning alliance of teachers and students, in every classroom, boardroom, student program, and strategic initiative.

To help in this effort, I will introduce and operationalize six key terms which I see as critical to a deep understanding of, and commitment to, consilience in education.


First of all, we need to understand that everything exists in a system. Relationship and its connecting forces are the essence (the true being) of reality. Even though we might look around us and see many separate individual things – and regard ourselves as essentially separate from everything else – the best of science and spirituality has confirmed time and again that there really is no such thing as a separate individual. Nuclear forces, electromagnetism, molecular bonds, gravitation, sexual attraction, emotional affinity, social networks, local cultures, and complex ecosystems are really what we are working with (or against) all the time. Our very existence is their manifestation.

Because reality is a system – or better, a unified system (universe) of many smaller-scale systems – our health and success in anything depends on how conscious and intentional we are as agents of systems. Schools are systems situated in larger social systems, inside still larger cultural systems. And inside every school, on a daily basis, there are numerous “episodes” of interaction in systems known as classrooms. Successful education transpires in classrooms where teachers and students engage one another as agents of a shared (if only temporary) system.


Every system is characterized by some degree of coherence (discussed below), where the flow of energy and information is smooth and harmonious. But coherence doesn’t just happen; the conditions have to be right. Priming refers to what is done in order to maximize the chances that teachers and students will “jump together” (the literal meaning of consilience) into the higher experience of learning. This involves everything from classroom dialogue, to the use of teaching media, to the way a topic is introduced and presented, to both the nonverbal and spoken signs of mutual respect, to the physical space and furnishings of the classroom itself, to the internal state and personal investment of attention on the part of teacher and students alike.

When it comes down to it, successful education is not something that a teacher “does” to students, and it isn’t something that standardized assessments can measure. When the conditions are right, it happens. This distinguishes education from mere instruction, which reduces the classroom experience to nothing more than transmitting information and organizing data. Consilience in the classroom must be primed.


System is a higher-level perspective on those connecting forces mentioned earlier. It all mysteriously works as one harmonious, rhythmic, and integral whole. But as I said, every system is really comprised of deeper systems, which means that a “consilient” classroom is actually a higher-order manifestation of the quality of engagement happening between teachers and students, and among the students themselves. In education the basic “units” are teachers and students, or more specifically, a teacher and each student. This relationship has the promise of becoming what I call an “effective learning alliance,” where both teacher and student are fully present and actively engaged in learning.

Synapse is a term borrowed from neuroscience and names the microscopic gap between nerve cells in the brain. Nerve cells (or neurons) conduct electrical impulses that travel down their axons, activating the release of molecules known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters enter that gap and prompt the cell membrane of the next neuron to either open its gates to the flow of ions which regenerates the impulse of the pre-synaptic neuron, or keep them closed and let it effectively fizzle out. While the electrical impulse is “digital” (either ‘on’ or ‘off’), the amount and mixture of neurotransmitters in the synapse allow for “analog” (‘more’ or ‘less’) changes between cells and across the entire brain.


What I earlier called the connecting forces in relationship are really another way of talking about the energy that flows throughout a system. In the context of consilient education we can see this as the current that flows from teacher to student, from student to teacher, and from student to student. Its different nuances of meaning – something present and ongoing, something that flows (air, water, electricity), something that moves and makes things happen (like currency in an economy), and something of relevant value – enrich our understanding of consilient education.

In this context we cannot force the current that connects individuals and elevates them into a higher experience of community. Community itself is not something that is arrived at by simply adding individuals together; it must be primed. We might speak of current as the life energy, mental force, creative intelligence, and flow of meaning that connects, inspires, and transforms those involved in learning. But in the end it remains only something we can open ourselves to and participate in, never cause to happen.


Giving attention and care to priming the system and synapses of education serves this inherently unpredictable event of consilience. When the conditions are right, the current “jumps” across the synapse and engages both teacher and students in a genuinely self-transcending experience. We might think of a spark that jumps across the two poles of a spark plug, and consilience certainly can be regarded as a kind of illumination: a flash of insight, intuition, and greater understanding.

But let’s remember that the neurons in our brains do not actually pass electrical impulses directly to each other. The arc of communication between them isn’t a hard-wired bridge, but rather a potentiated space allowing for countless adjustments to be made to what would otherwise be an all-or-nothing prospect. Similarly, what I’m calling the arcing of consilience will always reflect the unique individualities of those involved. Just as slight changes in the amount and mixture of neurotransmitters will affect (excite or inhibit by degrees) the generation of an electrical impulse in the post-synaptic neuron, so too the current in a system like a classroom will be the dynamic product of unique individuals leaping together in the shared experience of learning.

All of that is to say that each individual, teacher and student, will jump (arc) into consilience as an individual, but everyone involved will go beyond their individual self. In consilient education, learners leap out of themselves and into a communal – or at least an interpersonal – experience. This event of self-transcendence elevates them beyond their present assumption of knowledge, and even beyond the teacher’s lesson plan, into a space of higher resonance.


When the nerve cells are effectively communicating in circuits, and when neural circuits are resonating across the specialized networks of our brain, the entire organ will enter a dynamic state of coherence. When our brain as a neural system is coherent, our mood is stable, attention is steady, and our thoughts are clear. An inner composure supports deeper insight, artistic creativity, strategic thinking, and effective action – but also quiet contemplation. A coherent brain just works better. And as the owner of a coherent brain, you can do everything far better than when your brain is confused, irritable, or depressed.

Consilient educational systems such as classrooms demonstrate similar virtues: consilient partners (teachers and students) are calm and attentive, creatively engaged, insatiably curious, and actively involved in the learning opportunity. Oftentimes partners will be able to finish each other’s sentences, playing off each other’s “riffs” like members of a consilient jazz ensemble. They are caught up in the current of an ineffable experience, and when they come back down into their individual centers of consciousness, their minds are more open, their excitement for learning is stronger than ever, and their understanding of the topic of discussion has shifted to a new orientation.

Coherence is the optimal state of any system. It happens when the connecting forces between and among individuals move them to leap out of themselves and into the higher experience of community. By now it should be clear that this doesn’t happen accidentally, but neither can it be manufactured. We do our best to prepare for its emergence, and when it comes, we learn how to “go with the flow.”

Despite the fact that our present education system is failing students at higher rates than ever before, and failing them in both senses of the term, hope is not lost. For as long as human beings come together and open themselves to the transforming spirit of truth and love and beauty and peace, consilience will take them the rest of the way.


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God On The Brain

I don’t typically talk much about the brain in Tracts of Revolution, where it’s more about how spirituality, religion, philosophy and science offer frequently contradictory (but possibly at some deeper level, complementary) accounts of reality. This three-pound organ and its central place in our ongoing efforts to live happy and meaningful lives is, however, my veritable obsession in another blog of mine, called Brain Tracts. Perhaps this brief excursion into the neuroscience of God will entice you to check it out.

Mental Theater

In order to beat down the grass a bit and make a path to this grand topic of God, let’s begin by talking about what your brain is doing right now. Throughout the day your brain is entertaining a series of loosely chained scenarios, as you move in and out of the various environments and situations of daily life. One of its important contributions is the faithful representation inside your mental theater of what’s going on outside and around you. As you drive your car on the road, sit behind your desk at work or school, or engage a conversation with friends, your brain attends to (or bends toward) the stimuli coming across its sensory outposts – the classic five (or so) gross senses of your body.

Gathering together these numerous strands of sensory information, your brain projects this composite representation on the screen of your conscious awareness. Whether it’s an apparently seamless and dynamic movie unfolding there or a “still shot” of something you are studying with concentrated effort, the focus of your attention is your mental object. As it flashes up there on the screen inside your mental theater, it is only information. In my attempt to make it as uninteresting and impersonal as possible, I will simply name it: “IT.” IT is what you are focusing on right now.

Now, your brain isn’t just a fancy mechanism for collecting and processing sensory information from the environment – although that in and of itself is pretty amazing indeed. Your mental object might instead be something you are recalling from yesterday or five years ago; or again, IT might be something you’re making up on the fly, as it were, by the wonder-working power of imagination. Perception, recollection, and imagination are thus the three channels by which your brain brings your mental object (IT) to the screen of present attention.

The debate between theism and atheism over the existence of God gets predictably hung up at this point, with one side (the atheists) refuting it on the claim that this particular mental object has no basis in the sensory-physical realm of our senses and was simply made up (imagined) by superstitious storytellers. Theists will typically counter by appealing to sacred writings that record and inerrantly preserve the actual (miraculous, supernatural) experiences of people many centuries ago. The responsibility of faith today is to trust these accounts as a reliable witness to the objective truth of God’s existence.

In my opinion, this debate is tired, boring, and pointless. The theists are misreading their sacred texts by taking the stories of God literally, and the atheists are playing right into it by taking the theists literally. For a way through the stalemate, we need to go back to the brain.

Lower BraintractYour brain is “wired” into your body through a complex nervous system that reaches out to your muscles, organs, glands, tissues and cells. I call this a braintract – specifically your lower braintract, since you have an upper one as well (which we’ll get to in a bit). With brain-imaging technology and carefully controlled experiments, neuroscience has discovered that your brain is constantly monitoring the stream of experience flowing below the threshold of conscious attention. This spontaneous engagement with the stream of experience is called intuition (or at least that’s what I’m calling it), and it’s where your brain is “picking up” all kinds of subtle impressions of what’s really going on.

Of course, “stream of experience” is only a metaphor – although I hasten to add that the word only here should not be taken to mean merely or nothing but a metaphor. Metaphors are image-words used to convey something that cannot be grasped in objective terms. Many of our most powerful experiences in life are of things that have no separate existence of their own but are nonetheless real to us by virtue of the unmistakable and frequently overwhelming feelings they evoke. Any attempt to extract such metaphors from the moving stream of experience and strip them of feeling ends up destroying them along with the connection to reality they provided.

I have argued that religion began as a way of contemplating the present mystery of reality. Its deepest and earliest metaphor is the ground of being – the providential support and creative source on which all depends, moment to moment. The feeling of this ground is registered in your nervous system, generated out of a syndrome of countless synchronized events transpiring in your cells, glands and organs. The present mystery of reality is grasped intuitively and “known” spontaneously in the rhythms of your breath, your heartbeat, and the nerve cycles of consciousness.

Religion thus began with a metaphor that conveyed a profound and essentially ineffable experience of reality as the rising support of being-itself. Quickly enough – for the next task of religion is to tie the concerns of daily life back to this deeper support – it further clarified the ground metaphor into the natural incarnations known intimately by every newborn mammal: mother and (to a lesser extent) father. The earliest representations in religion of the present mystery of reality were the generative provision of Mother Earth and the supervisory protection of Father Sky (or heavenly Father) – both archetypes (or “first forms”) of the grounding mystery.

It’s important to understand that these primordial representations (and earliest mental objects) of reality were not of a being in the earth and another being in the sky. As archetypes of the ineffable mystery of being-itself (i.e., the ground metaphor), they translated a deeply intuitive experience and established a relationship to reality that acknowledged our natural dependency and communion with the universe.

Upper Braintract

So far my theory explains the origins of our concept of God, beginning in the spontaneous engagement with the stream of present (and preconscious) experience. This intuition of reality as provident support and creative source was first grasped and communicated in the ground-of-being metaphor, but pretty quickly got translated into the specific incarnations of Mother and Father – and by extension, Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Once your brain fastens the focus of attention on a mental object, it sends this information via your upper braintract to your mind where its meaning will be determined. Your two braintracts are constantly working in parallel, with the lower braintract (your body) converting the information in your brain (the mental object) into an energy-state of feeling, and the upper braintract (your mind) translating it into a narrative composition (story) of meaning. Your mind is a storyteller and perpetually busy constructing narratives around your mental object, which serve to frame a context, establish causality, project possible scenarios, predict outcomes, and generally link the mental object into a web of associations that makes it mean something.

Storytelling is recursive elaboration on a mental object, or what is commonly called reflection: the bending-back of your mind on a work-in-progress, weaving strands of identification and significance around it, like a spider bundling up a trapped fly in sticky fibers. As the mind cannot help but construct meaning when your brain presents it with a mental object, telling stories (including theories, hypotheses, explanations, reports, excuses and lies) is its primary business.

Coming back to religion and its concept of God, this business of storytelling is how humans make sense of their experience and link everything back (Latin religare) to the grounding mystery. Yes, this is mythology – not fallacies, deceptive tales, or bad science, but dramatic narratives connecting our life-world and daily concerns to the provident reality supporting and supplying our existence in this moment. The many deities of religion are personifications of hidden agencies in the rhythms of life and death, the landscape and its resources, the seasons and catastrophes that shape our experience in the world.

The danger of telling stories about the gods (these hidden agencies) is in our mind’s need to perform further recursive elaboration on these elaborations – constructing the god’s genealogy and sibling relations, reputation and character, sovereign will and inner thoughts – all of which may encourage the belief in his or her separate existence. As the archetypes of Mother Earth and Father Sky reproduced into the countless offspring deities of the regional and tribal myths, the actual origins of God were forgotten and the literary gods became literal beings. The stage was thereby set for the theist-atheist debate. Who’s right? Neither one.

Braintracts_full pic

If – and I grant this is a BIG if – we can look through our deities, descend along the winding path of our sacred stories and deeper into the intuitive experience that got everything started, we will be able to relax our grip and loosen up. It all began with the waking of consciousness to the provident uplift of life in this moment. You’ve never left it, despite your long and tired journey in its quest.

One day you will close your eyes and unwind completely into a mystery beyond name and form.



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Mystical Faith and the Way to Peace

And now we began to drive through that narrow strait. On one side was Scylla and on the other Charybdis. Fear gripped the men when they saw Charybdis gulping down the sea. But as we drove by, the monster Scylla seized six of my company–the hardiest of the men who were with me. As they were lifted up in the mouths of her six heads they called to me in their agony. But I could do nothing to aid them. They were carried up to be devoured in the monster’s den. Of all the sights I have seen on the ways of the water, that sight was the most pitiful.

– Homer’s The Odyssey

S_CIn Book XII of Homer’s classic Odysseus must steer his ship through a dangerous strait, carefully threading his way between two monsters on either side. Charybdis is a whirlpool infamous for pulling vessels into its vortex and crushing them beneath the water, while Scylla, on the opposite bank, is a six-headed monster who reaches out and plucks sailors from their decks and devours them whole, if the captain should venture too close.

Beyond the strait is a beautiful island where Odysseus and his men will find peace and refreshment. But that fantasy must be suspended in the face of their present challenge. Circe had counseled the captain to not allow his panic over losing his ship to one monster drive him, by overcompensation, into the other.

And yet, that’s what happens: In their fear over falling into the swirling void of Charybdis, some of Odysseus’ men scramble to the other side of the deck, whereupon they are snatched up by Scylla and lost forever.


In my last post I offered a way of understanding yourself as driven, motivated, and inspired by the impetus of desire. Composed of a sensual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nature, you seek different types of experiences, satisfying fundamentally distinct needs.

The pursuit of pleasure, though exploited by advertising and a slippery slope into addiction, is an evolutionary set-up designed to move you toward what your body needs to live and reproduce. Emotionally you seek happiness, which likely arose in correlation with the strong social affinity of our species. The quest for meaning compels you to construct an intellectual model of reality, called your worldview, that will orient your life inside a context of significance. Finally, your spiritual nature desires authenticity, wholeness, communion and peace – all summarized under the single term well-being.Quad

I offer the diagram to the right as an abstract representation of the artistic illustration above, from the scene out of Homer’s Odyssey. The “strait” that Odysseus – Captain Ego – must guide his ship through begins at the bottom of my diagram, which corresponds to the developmental stage of infancy and early childhood.

Pleasure and its opposite, pain, were the guides that helped you stay inside that provident niche where your basic needs could be satisfied. Spontaneous reflexes and deep unconscious drives in turn provided clues for your caretakers to know what you needed.

Through a process known as socialization, your cultural handlers (parents, teachers and other adult higher powers) exploited this natural preference for pleasure and avoidance of pain, using it to shape you into a “proper” member of the tribe.

In this way, “right and wrong” were associated, by the pairing of pleasure (reward) or pain (punishment), to your evolutionary interest in good (pleasant, tasty, nourishing) versus bad (unpleasant, disgusting, toxic). Thus the moral categories of “good” and “evil” have their roots in your natural inclinations. The moral pedagogy of your tribe first anchored into, re-coded, and then abstracted from the sensual intelligence of your body.

Because no culture is perfect and no family is without its shadows, your moral development might have gotten hooked and saddled with shame, guilt, and self-doubt. Such complications can make relationships difficult depending on whether you cling to others for security and reassurance, antagonize and push them away, or remove yourself emotionally to avoid being swamped.

This is where I see Odysseus as Captain Ego, on the narrow path between Charybdis and Scylla. In the painting above, Charybdis (the whirlpool) is on the right and Scylla (the picker) is on the left – corresponding nicely to the right and left hemispheres of your brain.

Although many functions are shared across the two hemispheres and their deeper networks, neuroscience has discovered stronger (more numerous and vibrant) connections between the so-called right brain and the body. Your early development was dominated by right-side processing, which was all about emotional formatting, making necessary attachments, and setting the general “feeling tone” of your emerging worldview.

It took a bit longer for your left brain to get involved. Left-side processing involves cognitive functions of denotative language, classification, cognitive abstraction, forming inferences, and constructing theories that explain and predict reality in meaningful ways. This world-building work picked up the deeper emotional codes of your right brain and incorporated them into a more elaborate perspective on reality.

So, whereas your emotional right brain communicates with your body and its visceral interior, your rational left brain uses the scaffolding of language to arrange and interpret your external environment.

But again, because no one gets through the gauntlet of childhood without bumps, bruises and a few psychological scars, the larger evolutionary task of steering your way between emotional engulfment and intellectual nitpicking – watch Scylla picking off Captain Ego’s crew – can be a tricky ordeal.

Perhaps, as happened to Odysseus, there is a tendency in all of us to swing our ship away from the prospect of getting overwhelmed, exhausted in emotional struggle, and pulled down into a hopeless depression. In compensation, we pick things apart, strip out the passion, and lock our life’s meaning inside small stuffy boxes of dogmatic conviction.

Either way is death: either the death of enjoyment (happiness) or the death of significance (meaning). It’s possible that an entire lifetime (or more) can be spent tacking back and forth, steering clear of suffering but dying inside our convictions, or refusing to take a stand for anything and consequently falling for (into) everything.

The real tragedy, however, is that your spiritual nature and the desire for wholeness, communion and well-being is kept from advancing to the Isle of Serenity beyond. Of course I’m not talking about paradise after you die, but the bliss that awaits your realization this very moment, on the “other side” of the challenge.

Between Scylla and Charybdis is a very narrow path indeed, one that requires focus and control, mindfulness and balance, equanimity and orientation, along with a deep internal calm and full release to the present mystery of reality. A large number probably never make it.

This mystical faith in being-itself is the only way through.


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