Getting Right With Our Brains
In the distance, a volcano can be seen spewing lava. There are mild tremors from earthquakes every few minutes. Here and there fires rage. Yet in the foreground there is a clear river in flood, its banks filled with luxuriant forests. In every direction, as the river's transparent current surges by, one sees all manner and colors and shapes of fresh life forms, several of them near, on, or in the water. Several of them are deliciously edible as I learn on following my father-in-law's example and snatching some up to nibble on as they float within reach. I am alternately half standing and half swimming in shallow water on a flooded part of a former bank, the water here varying in depth from perhaps two to four feet. Entranced like me with the adventure and wonder of this new and changing landscape, my wife is nearby. So much is happening and so quickly, we do not know, the three of us, if we shall survive. Yet for the moment we are in awe, a little afraid, but also excited, like children swimming in life's precious mysteries.
Perhaps fittingly, the above dream came to me shortly before I was to begin this little essay on enhancing awareness of right brain function. In this culture, most of us are much more "into" our left brains. Our right brains do not stop working and in fact are part of the way we perceive, yet they are kind of left on automatic, and we tend to so ignore the messages coming from the right hemisphere that it is as if we are conscious with but half a brain, which may help explain some of the odd things that go on for us individually and in the world at large.
I have been in dream interpretation groups for a few years and have learned some of the lessons about right vs. left brain awareness (usually, though, in terms of what is happening from the left vs. right in dreams, since in general, there is a crossover affecting both sight - including dream vision - and bodies overall, so that when we dream of things happening from the left, it is about right brain function, whereas those dreamed of to the right are due to left hemisphere activity) through them. However, a more detailed understanding of the significance of right vs. left brain specialization occurred when I had only recently read a short book by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., My Stroke of Insight, well worth a read. Dr. Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuropsychologist who several years ago, at age 37, herself suffered a stroke in her rational, logical, methodical thinking left hemisphere. Long story short, she was able to get medical help in time yet lost much of her awareness of things that are normally controlled by the left brain and had to rely instead on her still healthy right hemisphere, an alien landscape experience for her at the time, but one which she came to discover has much to offer us if we are open to it and do not let the often more dominant left brain functions jam awareness of its richness.
Human brain illustration viewed from the right (public domain image from BrainSource.com)
In the course of her recovery, Dr. Taylor found that her still fully operational right brain provided intuitive insights, a sense of complete well-being, a flowing kind of identity with all of existence around her, and deep joy. Ironically, while there were messages of chaos, loss of control, deterioration, and emergency from what had occurred in the left hemisphere, her signals on the right were providing feelings of bliss. Under the circumstances, it hardly took great willpower for her to "get right" with her brain. The long neglected right hemisphere became a sanctuary, a quite right place to be through much of the ordeal of her recovery and retraining to be able to again function normally with her left brain capacities as well.
After years of work, she lives once more with the left brain abilities and traits so prized by civilization: rational thought, efficient doing, competitiveness, a strong sense of a separate ego identity, a talent for quickly coming to logical conclusions, judgments, and the making of plausible (but frequently a little paranoid) dramas or stories from incomplete information.
However, she has also retained strong links to her right brain activity and finds this a wonderful "place" to be much of the time. Able to alternate modes of being and thinking more by choice than is the case for most of us, she is in many ways a more integrated person than is common, and much the better for it. Besides using her stroke experience and excelling in her professional life, Dr. Taylor has come out of that trauma with a strong commitment to living in her right brain far more than we generally do and to urging others to this course as well. She feels that the continued dominance of our left brain consciousness puts us as a species in jeopardy, whereas enhancing the more empathic and compassionate right brain functioning can bring back a vital balance that bodes well for us at the individual level as well as within the biosphere of which we are a significant part.
How, then, can one cultivate more a walk (or swim) on the "wild" right side? One way is to pay more attention to our dreams, there to give us direct messages from our more intuitive, creative, right brained selves. Others are through meditation, yoga, or deep prayer sessions. Many of the teachings of our spiritual leaders are evidently about being more right brained in our attitudes and behaviors.
Here, from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and others, are a number of ideas or steps that may be helpful:
- Consider that, amid the complexities of normal everyday living, a great sense of well-being is always just a thought or feeling away.
- This "place" is always to be found just here, wherever we are, and in this very moment, never in the past, the future, never in our worries or fantasies or negative obsessions, judgments about others, plans, big and little creative projects, ambitions, analyses, self justifications, emotional tape loops about how we should justify ourselves or get even after someone has criticized us, the things we say to ourselves to make us feel more important relative to others, etc.
- Access to the deep contentment of right brain kinds of functioning is not a matter of hard work learning new skills, but simply of paying less attention to the too well learned "circuitry" of our left brain functioning.
- Remember that, as in "The Desiderata," by Max Ehrmann, "You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars..." and so you can imagine that connection you always have with everything. There is in fact no distance between what you in awareness are and everything else that is. (My brother, who died from a brain tumor, had some apparent experience of this in the ICU, losing his sense of being a separate identity in just this one physical body on a bed there and instead being aware of the other patients in intensive care with him, one of whom he intuited was very frightened and so gave her comfort on a level beyond fragile lips and words.)
- Slow down; don't move too fast. Be willing to get mellow. Put things on "Pause."
- Certain books may help us get more into right brain activity. You might try, for instance, The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards.
- Focus on the here and now, perhaps first with an exercise of watching your breathing, then noticing the various other things, sensations, tensions, etc. that are happening in your body.
- Ask yourself how you are feeling just now, meticulously, concretely in this physical form. If eating, for instance, think about each sensation, the food textures, how they feel around your tongue, etc. Have fun with it.
- Try lighting a scented candle and being more conscious of the different types of awareness from focusing on it.
- Or try, either in actuality or in your mind's eye, looking at a beautiful landscape, taking in the overall big picture, the awesome majestic vista, rather than specific details.
- Or try closing your eyes and taking note of a few sounds you can hear. See if you can identify not just close sources of sound but distant ones as well.
- Some people may get more into their right brains by grooving or going with the flow of good music, without interpretation or analysis.
- On the other hand, bathing with one's ears underwater can be a right brain enhancing exercise as well.
- Notice the ways your skin is sending you information, perhaps about a bit of tension here or there, about temperature variations, textures, places where there are extra pressures, and so forth.
- While I do not recommend we go out and deliberately get ourselves infected, illness and fever can from time to time spontaneously shift us into a right brain awareness mode. So can certain medications. After my mom's difficult delivery of my second brother, she was prescribed a muscle relaxant. The first night after taking it, she suddenly found herself awake but floating up near the ceiling of her and my dad's bedroom, looking down at the couple in their bed and wondering how she was going to get back into her physical body.
- Deep, relaxing massage sessions can also be enhancing of right brain awareness.
- Putting our faces up to the rain or the shower head and noticing how this feels, both as a set of sensations and of emotions can do it for us as well.
- In general, vivid imagery of things going on just here and now and the recollection of such mental pictures are effective triggers for our getting back into a state of peace which is the hallmark of right brain awareness.
- Overall, too, conscious right brain functioning is enhanced with greater awareness of how we are intimately connected, as in a seamless tapestry, with absolutely everything else in the cosmos, perhaps as well even with how this brief instant is in no way separated from all time, that in fact all time may simply be, at once, here and now.
- To our right brains, we are not even different people but part of a flow, just as (per the author and meditation teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck) tiny whirlpools in a river eddy come and go, but the river is simply there, encompassing all the water in its moment to moment variations.
For some, attunement to their right brain function may come easily. For others, this may occur at times but not so readily, while for still others, there may be such an identification with left brain kinds of awareness that getting more in touch with their right brains just seems too weird, and they do not wish to try. For them, something may happen one day and then, as if by accident, that other mode of our being might come about, as with Jill Taylor during and after her stroke, but otherwise not, and never intentionally.
I am still very much a new student of such things, but, even if only briefly, have enough experience to say that our right brains can be every bit as important at times as our left. They may even save our lives, and they certainly can greatly enrich them.