In Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and the Emissary, The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, he tells a story of a wise spiritual master that looked after a community so well it kept growing and flourished.
As the community became larger he realized he couldn’t continue being so involved in the day-to-day affairs, that in fact, he would lose his wise perspective if he remained too close.
So he chooses an emissary to take over the daily business of the community but he is also to report back to the master about what’s going on.
After a while, the emissary starts thinking, “hey I’m the one out here every day taking care of everything, I know what’s going on, I don’t need to report back to the master anymore. Who needs him?”
Not long after the community falls apart.
The lesson is that the master knew he needed the emissary, the emissary didn’t know he needed the master.
This story is meant to illustrate the dilemma we face with the two hemispheres of our brain, the right hemisphere as the master and the left the emissary.
The concern is that we have become too left hemisphere dominant and therefore the servant has become the master.
If that leads you to believe we are becoming more logical you might still believe the very popular MYTH that the left hemisphere is in charge of reason and language, and that the right is more creative and emotional.
It’s not the differences of what each hemisphere does so much as how they do it. And really it’s about attention.
Our left hemisphere has a much more narrow field of attention.
The example Dr. McGilchrist gives is of a bird using its right talon to grasp at a worm. It’s the left hemisphere that gives it the narrow focus to pick up the worm. But it’s the right hemisphere that is keeping track of what’s happening everywhere else so that the bird doesn’t become someone else’s lunch.
You can see in this simple example they are dividing and conquering – but ultimately both are involved in the same task.
While speech is the domain of the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere gives language context: it gives the poem meaning, gets the punchline in a joke and understands when your partner says everything is fine in an angry tone, that everything is not fine.
The left hemisphere is very much about reaching out and getting, fixing, controlling and manipulating in a very narrow band.
The right hemisphere is more big picture, it sees everything as flowing and interconnected. Not in a woo-woo kind of way – the right hemisphere is actually much more grounded and reasoned than the left which tends to jump to conclusions before having all the facts.
The most obvious example of how we have become more left hemisphere dominant is in politics, the extreme polarization of views and opinions, and how tribal we are becoming.
There’s more information available at our fingertips than at any other time in history and yet we look for information that conforms to views we already hold and dismiss that which doesn’t. That’s the left hemisphere – not only does it not know what it doesn’t know, but it also doesn’t want to know.
This is not healthy for us as individuals or as a species.
I don’t mean to make the left hemisphere out to be a bad guy, it’s not. It’s very good at what it does. But we need to check back in with the right hemisphere more regularly – to see beyond our little slice of the pie and see the whole pie.
We can see how this trips us up in our own day-to-day experience. How easily we can become fixated on the aspects of our lives that aren’t working: the bill we weren’t expecting, the broken fridge, the ache in our back, getting passed over for a promotion, missing out on something…
This is where we create the story of poor me, my life sucks, everyone else is doing great, I’m such a loser. Remember left hemisphere is the talking part – the thoughts you hear.
But when we check back in with our right hemisphere to see the big picture, we are reminded that these are just challenges, a part of life that everyone has to deal with. That we’ve been faced with challenges before and we’ve gotten through them. That in fact, our lives, on the whole, are quite good.
Even within our spiritual practice – we can beat ourselves up for having a day where we were completely mindless and think what a horrible practitioner we are. But if we looked at the whole picture, of how far we’ve come we’d find an entirely different conclusion.
It’s all about perspective and I would think the longer and broader perspective is generally more accurate.
Make no mistake we need both hemispheres to flourish but we also need to make sure we are actively engaging the right hemisphere so its role is not diminished.
Here is a list of some things we can do to activate the right hemisphere more:
1. Listen to music – not as background – just listen.
2. Read poetry.
3. Spend time in nature.
4. Be more conscious of your life as a whole, not as individual pieces.
5. Practice meditation.
6. Practice mindfulness.
7. Contemplate our existence, the planets, the universe, infinity…
8. Look up more as you walk around, we do need to look down as well, but notice how everyone is looking down at a narrow field and missing the enormous space above us.
We will live much happier lives if we ensure the master stays the master and the emissary stays the emissary. To do that we need to give more attention to our right hemisphere. Not to crowd the left hemisphere out but to keep it under control.