Wisdom, Knowledge and the Divided Brain.
In understanding and seeking Wisdom we are needing to seek to understand ourselves better, how we function and what Wholes we are part of. I have suggested there is now an urgency about this. Life on this little planet is threatened, and our actions as human beings have brought us to this point. Something has to change. How can we become wise in the use of our power that our knowledge has given us? How can we cooperate rather than compete, care rather than control? And these questions apply to us as individuals in our everyday lives as much as they apply to our nation and our world, this beautiful planet that we can now photograph as a Whole, seemingly suspended in an endless Cosmos.
I am suggesting we might think of knowledge and wisdom as related poles in a continuum. Our knowledge now explores the Cosmos at the micro and macro levels, from blackholes to subatomic particles. We are increasingly surrounding ourselves with a world of our own creation by using this knowledge. Not only have we now created machines that do our bidding, we have created machines that have their own intelligence. More than that, the machine has become the model or metaphor of our understanding of everything including ourselves. We think we understand machines. After all we created them. But what we are putting at risk is our personhood and our origins in nature. What we are now facing can be seen as a fundamental clash between world views, between the world as a machine and the world as a natural Whole that is so much more than we can imagine. How can that potential clash be turned into a creative cooperation?
The triumph of the machine has been a long time coming. It is not a product only of modern science. Perhaps its origin is in the first attempts to self consciously use something as a tool with which to act upon the world. It is now believed to have reached extraordinary sophistication well before the modern period. In 1901 a mechanism was found by divers off the island of Antikythera near modern Turkey. It is known as the Antikythera Mechanism. It is an ancient Greek astronomical calculator. Researchers are currently working on it and attempting to reproduce it. It is thought to date from two centuries before Christ. Not only is it an extraordinary mechanical object in itself, but it also represents the Cosmos as it was then thought to be, ‘describing the motions of the Sun, Moon and all five planets known in antiquity’. The world was already represented as a machine a long time ago.
In the face of the triumph of the machine, wisdom has floundered, at least in the modern period. Some thinkers believe the last time knowledge and wisdom worked well and creatively together was in the Renaissance. But with the upheaval in values, religious and spiritual traditions, and the focus of authority that we call the Enlightenment, we have increasingly struggled to understand who we are and how we should best act. As our trust in the machine grew, our confidence and trust in our received traditions that carried our collective wisdom, was offended, to be replaced by even greater confidence that with our knowledge we can take control of any situation and prevail. Perhaps the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb is the great symbol of the demise of wisdom, at least in the western world.
On the other hand, perhaps all this has been a necessary part of the cycle we all need to go through as a human race in our need to rebuild the institutions that carry the Wisdom we so urgently need as a balance to our knowledge. Reactions have varied greatly. Some traditions have closed ranks and bunkered down against the storm. Others have tried to stay open to our evolving modern culture but still remain protective if not defensive. Still others have dared to think they not only need to rethink their own tradition but to be genuinely open to other traditions, including indigenous spiritualities. I place Open Sanctuary in this category. The challenge is to keep our own integrity while being genuinely open to truth and Spirit in other traditions. I am a man for whom Christ is central, to me personally but also to my understanding of the cosmos and history. Having this in my life I find invites me to be truly open. I am saddened that so much of the Church wants to bunker down.
But I am encouraged that some of us see there is much to learn from others, and in particular indigenous spirituality. Dadirri is now part of our vocabulary. I have been watching a recent video by Bob Randall entitled Kanyini, a concept similar to dadirri but used around Uluru. The opening sequences of this video are a beautiful example of being at home in the landscape, of feeling genuinely and personally connected to all life, of life filled with solitude but never loneliness, of connection, of seeing the whole in the parts, of holding everything in conversation, of moving in the flow of life. I have no doubt that Christ lived this sort of spirituality. How different from so much of traditional church life. Can we dare to face that and work through its implications; not only the church, but all present religious and spiritual traditions.
Some thinkers have called our original human consciousness participation, a felt connection in and with the flow of life, focussed in different ways over thousands of years in different forms of shamanism. That we began to progressively withdraw from this sense of participation and to separate and control and build our own world was perhaps inevitable, given the bodies and brains, and hence psyches and minds, we had inherited from the processes of evolution. Perhaps it was this inevitable separation that the ancient Hebrews captured in telling the story of the Garden of Eden. Certainly the world that Adam and Eve went into after their expulsion was the Neolithic world of cities and agriculture and crafts, not the Paleolithic world of hunter gatherers. A felt sense of participation had been compromised and the autocratic gods had been born.
This possible inevitability is because the bodies and brains, and hence psyches and minds, that we inherited in the evolution of life had long been split into left and right, and this split had been entirely necessary for life to survive long before the first homo sapiens. The functions of the left and the right complement each other and need to work together. The fundamental nature of this arrangement is only beginning to be more fully understood, thanks to neuroscience and in particular the work of Iain McGilchrist et al.
You can see this working together most easily in birds, because their eyes are on the side of their heads. With one eye, their right eye, they inspect the ground closely looking for seeds and worms, ready to act for their survival. The data is processed by the left hemisphere of their brain. At the same time but alternately they move their head and scan the world around to be aware of any unforeseen danger. They do this through their left eye and their right brain, again for their survival against predators. The right hemisphere takes in the whole they are part of; the left the part they wish to control and capture for their use.
Our brains and bodies, and hence psyches and spirits, are developed versions of these processes of discernment, awareness and capacity to attend. When they work together we have both a sense of the part and the whole, and this is a very creative place. But the relationship is not symmetrical. The functions of the right brain need to have precedence over the left if the mind is to function creatively; wisdom needs to guide knowledge. That is the rub. We are living in a world now where the left hemisphere has usurped the precedence of the right. How do we redress this crisis? How do we re-find a sense of lived participation and spontaneity in the Cosmos while at the same time valuing and understanding our knowledge by saying ‘No’ to technology and actions that are unwise to accept and take up, and instead rest at peace with gratitude in and for our wise Being.
These are the things we will slowly explore and practise in our Wisdom Circles at Open Sanctuary.
Now let me finish with some quotes from McGilchrist’s essay The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning.
What are the key distinctions? One way of looking at the difference would be to say that while the left hemisphere's raison d'être is to narrow things down to a certainty, the right hemisphere's is to open them up into possibility. In life we need both. 13
The left hemisphere, as in birds and animals, pays the narrow-beam, precisely focussed, attention which enables us to get and grasp: it is the left hemisphere that controls the right hand with which we grasp something, and controls the aspects of language (not all language) by virtue of which we say we have ‘grasped’ the meaning – made it certain and pinned it down. The right hemisphere underwrites sustained attention and vigilance for whatever may be, without preconception. Its attention is not in the service of manipulation, but in the service of connection, exploration and relation. 12
We had modelled the brain as part of a machine, the hemispheres as mechanical parts of a mechanical body. There are, of course, only two possible models: seeing it (the brain) as part of a machine or as part of a person. 9
Bob Randall’s video can be found at https://youtu.be/JyJ0Izztq28