Much of the suffering in the world is due to one central misguided understanding: in our mindless attempt to avoid death or blindly try to extend life, our own and our children’s, we have established cultures that have erroneously over-developed the neural networks in the left/fear structures of the brain. Along the way we have inadvertently sacrificed brain for heart, intellect for wisdom and joy for the illusion of invulnerability.
Many of you are familiar with the TED talk about her near-death experience after a stroke given by Jill Bolte Taylor. I have posted and spoken about her here before. In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Jill goes into extraordinary detail about what life was like with only her right brain operational. Much that we experience as spiritual and precious, global and wise is born of the right brain where memories of our first few years of life are stored, primarily as imagery and sensation. Jill also speaks at great length about the many choices she had to make concerning which left-brain circuits she wished to reactivate in the wake of her profound right-brain realizations. Here’s some of what she discovered as her left brain/mind began rewiring back to life:
One of the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories. This story-teller portion of our left mind’s language center is specifically designed to make sense of the world outside of us, based upon minimal amounts of information. It functions by taking whatever details it has to work with, and then weaves them together in the form of a story. Most impressively our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data. In addition, during its process of generating a story line, our left mind is quite the genius in its ability to manufacture alternative scenarios. And if it’s a subject you really feel passionate about, either good or awful, it’s particularly effective at hooking into those circuits of emotion and exhausting all the “what if” possibilities.
As my left brain language centers recovered and became functional again, I spent a lot of time observing how my story-teller would draw conclusions based upon minimal information. For the longest time I found these antics of my story-teller to be rather comical. At least until I realized that my left mind full-heartedly expected the rest of my brain to believe the stories it was making up!. . . .I need to remember however, that there are enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know (my italics). I learned I need to be very wary of my storyteller’s potential for stirring up trauma and drama.
Death is one of the things I don’t really know much about; it’s one of life’s experiences my storytelling, lying left brain though, tries to convince me it knows everything about. Anytime any of us are upset about ANYTHING – our kids, our partners, our puppies – there’s a high probability that our left brain is busily at work making stuff up. And if we trace it down and around to any kind of ultimate vulnerable wellspring, at bottom, the story will often end up with us or those we love fearful of dying a painful, lonely death from illness, lack or inconsolable grief.
Suffering: The Gorilla Glue of Love
It used to surprise me to discover that people who have suffered greatly in their lives are some of the kindest, most joyful, compassionate people I’ve ever encountered. It no longer does. Traumatic memories are primarily stored in our right brain circuitry. Out of the healing that comes from profound suffering, many of those encapsulated or disorganized circuits become reactivated, apparently helping to bring much greater right brain strength and balance to counter our culture’s left brain dominance. It’s often described as strength of heart, true grit or compassionate heart. And while many of my right brain friends assure me that the heart is definitely involved, what we know for sure, both from science and from anecdotal evidence like Jill’s, is that right brain reclamation appears to be the primary driver of Compassionate Heart.
What’s the takeaway from these brain hemisphere discoveries? Parents would do well to honor and embrace everything they can that will help mitigate the left brain dominance designed into western education and culture. Rather than math and science, going forward the arts might well be the focus that receive overwhelming nurturing and support. Contemporary culture will take care of necessary left brain development all by itself. Instead of ABC’s and 123’s, kids would be well-served to memorize this quotation from French Renaissance writer, Michel de Montaigne:
To begin denying death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death …. We do not know where death awaits us, so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. (S/he) who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.
Such early compassionate exposure to aging and death will demonstrate that just as birth has inherent in it a wise organic intelligence, death does as well. We all would be well-served by learning to be emotionally honest, vulnerable and learn to play nice with the Reaper while we’re in the prime of life. It’s painful to have our own actions and motives ignorantly misunderstood , and so I’m guessing even the misunderstood Reaper could use a hug now and then.