Today we hear from columnist, Maggie Jay Lee, as she discusses Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight, and invites us to “step to the right”.
I recently finished Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, and I think her insight has a lot of relevance for naturalistic pagans. Many of you are probably familiar with Taylor’s story, which she also shared in a TED talk. Being a neuroanatomist, Taylor has a unique vantage point from which to tell her story, but ultimately her story is not really about the brain. It is the story of a life transforming spiritual awakening, a story which is completely grounded in the natural world.
The Left Brain on Vacation
At the age of 37, Taylor had a massive stroke centered in her left cerebral hemisphere. This stroke affected her ability to move and to sense her physical boundaries in space and time, as well as her ability to speak and understand language. With her left hemisphere severely damaged, Taylor relied much more heavily on her right hemisphere, and she found a lot of difference in the way the two hemispheres experience the world.
When her left brain went mostly off-line, Taylor experienced herself as a fluid, one with the Universe, and felt a sense of deep inner peace.
“My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.” (Taylor, page 69)
For me Taylor articulates so well what I think of as the very heart of spirituality. Spiritual practices set out to awaken our sense of deep inner wellbeing and connectedness with everything, out of which friendly loving kindness to all naturally flows. It is knowing, as Taylor puts it, that: “I am a part of it all. We are brothers and sisters on this planet. We are here to help make this world a more peaceful and kinder place.”
Stories of spiritual awakening are almost always packaged with a metaphysical worldview that is not naturalistic. However, Taylor is a neuroanatomist, and she explains her experience completely in terms of brain anatomy and function without reference to any kind of supernatural being or dimension. According to Taylor, this awareness of deep inner wellbeing and connectedness is present in each of us right now, and we can access it if we can “silence the voice of our dominating left mind.”
“I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind”
I find Taylor’s story so compelling, not only because it is an inspiring tale of resurrection, of human determination and the body’s incredible ability to heal, but because what she says about our minds resonates with so much of my understanding of human nature and my own less dramatic experience of myself. The idea that our two hemispheres, while being intimately linked and mutually influential, have essentially different personalities, different perspectives, different goals and values, brings to mind the idea of the divided self which is such a perennial part of philosophy and psychology.
“It appears that many of us struggle regularly with polar opposite characters holding court inside our heads. In fact, just about everyone I speak with is keenly aware that they have conflicting parts of their personality. Many of us speak about how our head (left hemisphere) is telling us to do one thing while our heart (right hemisphere) is telling us to do the exact opposite. Some of us distinguish between what we think (left hemisphere) and what we feel (right hemisphere). Others communicate about our mind consciousness (left hemisphere) versus our body’s instinctive consciousness (right hemisphere). Some of us talk about our small ego mind (left hemisphere) compared with our capital ego mind (right hemisphere), or our small self (left hemisphere) versus our inner or authentic self (right hemisphere). Some of us delineate between our work mind (left hemisphere) and our vacation mind (right hemisphere), while others refer to their researcher mind (left hemisphere) versus their diplomatic mind (right hemisphere). . . . And if you are a Carl Jung fan, then there’s our sensing mind (left hemisphere) versus our intuitive mind (right hemisphere), and our judging mind (left hemisphere) versus our perceiving mind (right hemisphere). Whatever language you use to describe your two parts, based upon my experience, I believe they stem anatomically from the two very distinct hemispheres inside your head.” (Taylor page 133-134)
I see this dichotomy of perspectives play out all around me. I see it here in our discussions of terms like spirit and energy. I see it in the different ways naturalists talk about nature and religion. We naturalists spend a lot of time judging and evaluating religion from the outside, from the left hemisphere, but I think ultimately religion is a right hemisphere awareness that the left just doesn’t get.
Good fences make good neighbors
But hasn’t science already debunked all this right verses left brain stuff as a neuromyth of pop psychology? Well as with so many things that all depends on how you look at it. The theory of right and left hemispheric specialization really took shape following the split brain studies done in the 1950s and 60s on epilepsy patients who had their corpus callosum, the massive band of nerve fibers that joins the two hemispheres, severed to stop debilitating seizures. Since each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body, it was possible with these patients to engage exclusively with one hemisphere or the other. These split brain studies (and later studies using other methods to temporarily “turn-off” parts of the brain) found significant differences in the perception and capabilities of the two hemispheres. The differences in the hemispheres are also dramatically demonstrated in people like Taylor who have had a stroke or other damage to one hemisphere.
This led to a model of the brain as being composed of parts that specialize exclusively in one activity or another. The left hemisphere was thought to exclusively do language and verbal reasoning, and the right to do visual processing and intuition. However, when researchers stuck people in MRI machines they found both hemispheres lighting up for virtually every activity. It is now well established that both hemispheres are involved in language, imagery, reason, emotion and just about every thought and action, but still, as even the detractors admit, the two hemispheres make very different contributions to all these activities. Take language for example, the left hemisphere understands the details of sentence structure and semantics and the meaning of individual words, but it is the right hemisphere that comprehends implied meaning and plays a major role in understanding and producing verbal metaphors and humor, not to mention picking up on all the non-verbal clues that are such an important part of face-to-face communication.
All vertebrates, not just humans, have two asymmetrical cerebral hemispheres. According to Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, our distant ancestors evolved two separate hemispheres in order to simultaneously give the world two different kinds of attention. To find one’s dinner or catch one’s prey, attention to specific task related details is needed, but to prevent becoming someone else’s dinner, a broad open attention is needed. The left hemisphere provides the narrow-beam, while the right hemisphere is the wide angle lens. This difference in attention is also present in humans, and in many ways forms the basis for the different character of each hemisphere.
Jill Bolte Taylor put in eight years of hard work to fully regain the skills of her left hemisphere. These skills are essential to our ability to effectively and efficiently accomplish our goals, but an unbalanced over-reliance on the left hemisphere can lead to a reductionistic view that misses the big picture and the meaningfulness contained between. As can be seen in experiments with split brain patients and people with right hemisphere damage, the left hemisphere thinks in a black and white sort of way often with a kind of closed-minded certainty in its own correctness. The left hemisphere’s tendency to simplify complexity into graspable abstracted categories helps us effectively manipulate the world, but it can also create a world that is static, fragmented, decontextualized and lifeless.
The title of McGilchrist’s book, “The Master and his Emissary”, refers to a story told by Nietzsche about a wise spiritual king who is usurped by his clever and ambitious but shortsighted vizier, which leads to the demise of a once large and prosperous kingdom. Both McGilchrist and Taylor believe that we as individuals and as a society would be better off if the left hemisphere stuck to its role as emissary and servant to the more farsighted, more relational right hemisphere, or as Taylor puts it, “we should stem from the peaceful consciousness of our right mind and use the skills of our left mind to interact with the external world.”
Spirituality as a Step to the Right
If I had to guess, I’d say Taylor probably fits the “spiritual but not religious” category. She recommends cultivating mindfulness to achieve a more right hemisphere centered way of being and doesn’t talk much about conventional religious practices, but for me it is primarily through my religious practices – my prayers and ceremonies – that I most strongly feel what she describes as her right hemisphere awareness, a sense of deep inner peace and connectedness with the Universe, a Universe full of dynamic vitality. I think awakening and deepening this right hemisphere awareness is at the heart of not just my religion, but all religions.
Religious rituals with their art, music and poetry invite participants to become fully present and open themselves up to the feelings of the moment, and because so much of the scaffolding of religion is already an expression of a right hemisphere sense of things, to me religious practice is one of the most powerful ways to engage the right hemisphere and transcend the limiting perspective of the left hemisphere. This is certainly true of my experience with practicing the meditations and ceremonies of PaGaian Cosmology.
To some, understanding and explaining spirituality and religious practice in terms of brain anatomy and function may seem like left brain reductionism and to an extent it is, but for me it gives a physical grounding to spiritual experience and religious practice that helps my left brain get on-board and explain to other lefts brains the value of “stepping to the right”.
Maggie Jay Lee is interested in growing a new religious culture grounded in the everyday shared world and the public revelations of science, that celebrates our relationship with Cosmos, Earth and each other, and strives to bring us into right relationship with the Nature inside and outside of us. She draws inspiration from modern cosmology, evolutionary psychology, and the myths and wisdom traditions of ancient Hellas. M. Jay is a member of the Universal Pantheists Society and the Spiritual Naturalist Society, and she has studied with Glenys Livingston author of PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. She celebrates the creative unfolding of Gaia in west Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, two dogs and cat.
This Wednesday, John Halstead reviews James Fowler’s Book, Stages of Faith and shares part of the story of his personal spiritual evolution: “Stages of (My) Faith Development”.