Joel Riggs teaches Aikido, plays piano, enjoyed California for 22 years ('86 - '08), now enjoys Georgia, and reads voraciously.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Left Brain/Right Brain Dichotomy as a Window Into Religion and Spirituality

Much of religion and spirituality, from my point of view, can be understood through the lens of the left brain/right brain dichotomy. (For a delightfully accessible intro to this dichotomy, check out Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk.)

We humans live most of our conscious lives in our left brain, the part of our mentality that is concerned with abstracting our sensory inputs into words, labels, categories, logical connections, memories, and siftable sortable databanks of related information that can be brought to bear to help us understand what is happening to us right now. The left brain deals with memories of the past as well as plans and anxieties about the future.

In contrast, the right brain is that part of ourselves that absorbs and registers the present moment—the heat of this notebook computer on my lap, the ticking of the wall clock behind me in the kitchen, the hum of the refrigerator, the purring of the cat on the couch next to me, the light shining over my shoulder from the table lamp, the feel of the couch cushions on my back, and the slight thirst I have right now for a decent glass of wine. All these inputs come streaming into our bodies all the time, through all of our senses, creating an enormous flood of information that gets passed to the left brain for processing.

Over the past several hundred generations of human history, it is the evolution and growth of our left brain capacities that have given us our huge and historic advances in agriculture (remember what time of year to plant the seeds so that we can have food a year from now), language, industry, and now media and computer technology. The wide spread of information throughout our culture has led to an ever-accelerating rate of technical and political and even physical progress (e.g., curtailing of certain diseases).

But, religion and spirituality consistently and universally tell us that our thinking minds—our left brains—are not all there is to life. Whenever a sage or seer or seeker reports back from their enlightenment journey, they tell us that our life is also defined by our connection to the universe as a whole, that we are part of that whole, and that we are connected to all things. THESE ARE THE ESSENTIAL WAYS IN WHICH OUR RIGHT BRAINS VIEW THE WORLD EVERY SINGLE MOMENT. To become enlightened is to rekindle a relationship with our right brain experience, to recover that part of ourselves which we as a species have foregone in exchange for more potent manipulation of our environment (including each other) through our science and business and politics. It is truly a Faustian bargain to have given up our proper relationship with the universe in order to be able to control our world a little bit more.

Ethically, reconnecting to our right brain's innate realization of the interrelatedness of all things means that we need to have active care and concern for the well-being of others (my own definition of love). If we are connected to others or if we see ourselves in others, then we are far less likely to harm or kill them.

In other ways as well, the right brain sees our experience and the human condition in the same terms as those who are enlightened. For example, the enlightened speak of eternal life. "Eternal" means, of course, "without time", not "forever and ever." In exactly the same way, the right brain has no concept of time (past present future), but rather experiences only the "eternal now."

As I understand it, religion and spirituality generally move through a metaphysical frame (a myth of human formation and existence) to arrive at an ethical requirement ("Love one another"). In my opinion, both these elements—the narrative myths of religion and spirituality, and their resultant ethics—indicate that we need to work to create a balance of the two halves of our brains in our daily lives. Therefore, one goal of any religious or spiritual practice is the restoration of our right brain to its proper position as an equal partner in our human experience; we need sense and sensibility in equal measure. Ideally, both the left and right halves of our brain would work in harmony with each other to the point that we could be 100% right brain and 100% left brain all the time. (A topic for further study.)

But, more important than an explanation of the metaphysics and ethics of our human condition, it is imperative that we continually develop new ways of training and practicing our religion (re-linking) of our two halves, and developing our spirituality (our energy and our connection to others). With the existing suite of religious and spiritual technologies, plus any more that anyone cares to create from time to time, we can practice our humanity both alone and in concert with other people on the same path.

My goal in forming and operating an aikido dojo here in my new hometown of Decatur, GA, is to create a community of people who practice this religion and spirituality together in a space dedicated to that purpose. More on aikido in particular as a technology for this practice in a future post.


1. Anyone who understands religion and spirituality is not threatened by the technologies that others may use to explore and practice their humanity.

2. Most religions externalize our right brain experience into a "God", or a "Trinity" of gods, or a "Pantheon" of gods. While useful for mythic storytelling, this externalization has created an alienation of human beings from their own right brain experience and truths. This half of our condition needs to be reined back into our own lives in an immediate way. We need to draw God down out of the sky and restore 'him' to 'his' rightful position as a part of our own being. "Emmanuel" is a start. "I and my father are one" is far closer to the truth. Or again: as we know, little children have not yet developed the left brain capacity for abstraction and alienation, and therefore Jesus said in Matthew 19:14, "Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."


Blogger Kimberly Gauthier said...

Excellent article. I especially appreciate and agree with the notes section (esp. #2). Right on!

12:23 PM

Anonymous Robin Riebe said...

I recently discovered Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of her right brain experiences after her stroke and have been processing its impact on my spiritual/worldview ever since. In that regard your article has been a Godsend. Thank-you. As a life long seeker of higher consciousness when I first listened to Dr. Taylor's story I was stunned. From this honest, intelligent, and perceptive woman I heard descriptions of things which previously I’d only heard from the likes of Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Stephen Levine, and Stephen Mitchell, to mention but a few. Edgeless oneness with the universe, the eternal now, the constant presence of the empty blue sky of consciousness behind the cloudy chatter of left hemisphere intrusions--all this and available to everyone. Wonderful, I thought. But then it struck me, from hereon any attempted description of spiritual experiences and enlightenments were now meaningless unless viewed in light of this dramatic and undeniable quality of our right hemisphere. In terms of defining moments in the relationship between religion and science to me this stands on par with the impact of Galileo/Copernican astronomy and Charles Darwin’s publishing “On the Origin of Species.” Just as our worldview was forced to change after each of these, similarly any and all spiritual thought regarding heightened states of consciousness and the nature or reality of soul or spirit or any so-called transcend experience, must be re-imagined in light of the paradigm shift Dr. Taylor’s sojourn into the realm of the right hemisphere demands.

6:58 PM


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