Ever since I read Jill Taylor’s and Iain McGilchrist’s and Michael Gazzaniga’s accounts of how my left brain operates to constantly make up tons of weird bullshit in its undying effort to try and keep me safe, I’ve been paying a LOT closer attention daily to all the ways it attempts that mostly unnecessary, never-ending rescue operation. Here’s one simple, recent example …
We heat our house with wood. Over the five winters we’ve lived here on Whidbey Island, I’ve discovered that if the woodshed I built to hold our winter wood is still full on January 1, I’ll have enough fuel to last through to mid-June (we have a long wood stove season here in the Pacific Northwest). Well, it’s late December and I’ve already begun hauling wood in from the shed to the house. Left brain notices that the shed will not be full come January 1. Through my 10th cranial nerve it sends a signal to my stomach that makes it tighten in response to that thought. That same thought-triggered nerve simultaneously makes my breathing shallow and my heart rate increase.
When I notice this body-response and trace back the thought that triggered it, I burst out laughing. If there’s one thing on this island in great supply, it’s trees. Tons of them, living and dead. Right here on our two and a half acres. I’m like a man frantically rowing his boat on a clean, fresh-water lake terrified of dying of thirst.
Then, as if the Universe wishes to underscore the silly, over-protective zealousness of my left brain, the next morning shortly after dawn, our friend Betty stops by on her way to the ferry to drop off a bucket of worms for our worm box. “By the way,” Betty tells me, looking at the few pieces of fir stacked by the front door, “I have a bunch of birch rounds at the house if you want to come by and pick them up.”
Not All Bad
Now, obviously many of the functions customarily attributed to the left brain are useful and valuable. Using thought to be rational and realistic and discerning and precise and logical and then translate thought into language to communicate ideas and feelings and inspirations and aspirations comes in handy for operating in the world as a kind, loving, contributing human being. When left brain is not so useful and valuable is when it generates thoughts that cause unnecessary and unwanted pain for me and others. Which I discover is surprisingly often when I begin paying close attention through any day. In fact, WAY more often than many of us realize. Writer James Altucher claims to have done a personal worry study on his brain. Here’s what he discovered:
I’ve done a scientific study on my worries. Trust me that all the protocols were followed. I found that 99% of the things I was worried would happen, never happened. And when they did happen, there was nothing I could do about it. And here I am anyway. After all of those horrible worries. So I’m going to try and catch myself when I worry. I’m going to say, “Aha! There you are. A worry. Get away with you now!” And watch it scurry along back into the rat’s nest of my brain.
Great Servant-Horrible Master
There’s a wisdom teaching that identifies the mind as a great servant, but a terrible master. If we overlay Jill Taylor’s experience onto that observation, it seems more accurate to say that, remaining unharnessed and unsupervised, it is the left hemisphere of the brain that is the horrible master.
Living with only her right hemisphere active, the state Jill details is akin to what many prophets through the centuries have described as paradise-nirvana. Research with entheogens suggests too, that it is the right hemisphere that provides the portal to divine experience. These drugs, in some intermediary way, rein in the left hemisphere, or at least quiet it enough for action potentials in the right brain to gain a temporary handhold.
The Work, Post-Paradise
Ex-communicated Harvard psychologist, Ram Dass once commented how he continues to try to integrate the experiences and right-brain realizations he came to using entheogens during his awakening years. Part of how that integration, once accomplished, might possibly look on a brain scan, is massively increased and/or strengthened neural connections right behind the forehead, home of the hidden wisdom of the “Third Eye” in many Asian cultures. Strengthened connectivity initially works to increase the flow of energy and information in the brain, and this central location serves to bring together neural connections from near and far. How that massive processing might look in the real world from a woodshed perspective could be exemplified by this zen story I’ll leave you with:
Suddenly his tranquility was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior standing before him. “Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”
At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.
“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt, whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is rusty and neglected. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”
The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned crimson and the veins on his neck stood out pulsing wildly as he prepared to sever the monk’s head from his shoulders.
“That,” said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent, “is hell.” In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-descent and his eyes filled with grateful tears.
“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”