As Iain McGilchrist has suggested in his wonderful book The Master and His Emissary, there are two profoundly contrasting perspectives on life, or perhaps more accurately, of attending to experience:
From one perspective the world is composed of many separate objects, which interact with each other, but can be isolated, extracted, studied and represented in words and theories without any change to the object in question, or the context to which its connected. This is certainly the western, materialist, consumerist take on the world.
The second view of the world is a perhaps more spiritual, certainly holistic, and in line with the profound discoveries of modern physics: that it is not possible to separate objects, beings, natural phenomena from its context, that there’s a fluidity and profound interdependence to the world. Things are iterations of and act dependent upon their context, we cannot isolate people, animals, flora and so on, without not only effecting the object itself but the entire environment to which it was connected.
• One perspective produces a quick representation of the world, allowing us to grasp, manipulate, package and consume objects, to think in abstract ideas, to set goals and maintain our progress through life in stories. These capabilities are largely provided by the brain’s left hemisphere.
• One for which the entire, global setting is what really matters, along with viewing all experience as unique. This view doesn’t fixate but notes the relationship between self and other; its profoundly embodied, in other words aware of the feelings and emotions expressed via the body. These capabilities are certainly associated with right hemispheric circuits.
Given the prominence of the left hemisphere in adult life (in early childhood we rely far more on the right for connecting and surviving), its not surprise we are given to fast, either/or certainties about the world, other people, what and who is right or wrong.
The adult, isolated, overly representational thinking demands that we must be in control of our world; that's how we stay safe and get our needs met. It tells us we must learn to manipulate everything, to inhibit our emotions, to change other people to meet our needs. The left hemisphere desperately control, for ideas to be concrete, absolute, fixed, unyielding. It wants to the world to be like a machine predictable.
But the world, our bodies and emotions, other people, nature, you name it isn’t predictable. It’s forever in flux, fluidly interacting, no experience ever repeated; nothing can be isolated or extracted without ramifications. Every mind is hosted by a body, which is not limited to biological survival; our embodied experience is fundamental to our capability to make decisions, to survive in relationship—for without feeling anger we cannot set boundaries, without grief we cannot process loss, without guilt we’ll struggle to detect the implications of our selfish acts, without joy we cannot broaden our responses and think ‘outside of the box.’ All of our most vital human capabilities are rooted in an entire being that is embodied, physical, alive and in flux.
Follow your left hemisphere too far down the path of abstract reasoning and you’ll wind up alone, hypervigilant, emotionally dysregulated, incapable of meaningful relationships.
Thankfully most of us, at one time or another, find that our views and strategies don’t work; we’re unhappy and suffering and, reflecting on life, realize that our certainties have driven us in entirely isolated and lonely destinations.
Fortunately this is when the emotional mind steps in: if we’re adult and open to new ways of thinking we become interested in uncertainty, fluidity; the felt experience of the body becomes a refuge from the spiraling abstract categories of the ever chattering mind.
To have any true understanding of experience depends fundamentally on the willingness to put aside our fascination with text messaging and emails, the fetishizing of our representations of the world, in denotative language, abstract ideas, excessive intellectualization and return to the implicit experience of non-verbal life: allowing language and stories to be uncertain and metaphoric, by tone of voice, to look at art and movies without needing to ask ‘what it means,’ take in facial expressions, body language, tone of voice.
Until we learn to rebalance our perceptions of the world it will forever be drifting beyond our understanding, a vague shadow where trees and mountains once stood.