This pair of posts draws on some (very) ancient wisdom that could be so valuable in our modern times – to help us re-connect to a kind of wellbeing that we’ve lost touch with.
I’ve become fascinated recently by how ancient people lived. I don’t just mean going back a couple of thousand years. I mean the hunter-gatherer culture that goes back tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Many of the books I’ve read recently which appear to be about different areas – parenting, education, meditation and psychology – all seem to point to the same thing.
Which is that with the birth of agriculture, we began to lose our sense of connection – to the earth, to ourselves, to each other, and to our ‘right brain’ that mediates these connections so powerfully.
Anthropologists suggest that in hunter-gatherer cultures, people experienced much higher wellbeing that we do in modern culture. I’m not ignoring that certain hardships may also have been more prevalent in those environments, or at least that some of the advantages of modern life weren’t available. I’m not wishing to romanticise their experience. But a few things have really got me questioning the received wisdom of our own times. What can we learn from those ancient people?
To start answering that question, I’m going to first mention more contemporary idea. I first stumbled across the idea of the ‘right brain’ when I realised that my son’s style of learning doesn’t fit the current dominant model: he likes to learn in a very embodied way, with a passion for storytelling through enactment, visual resources and hands-on exploration of geometric shapes. He reads very fluently, but contrary to the phonics-type step-by-step model, he learned to read the big, apparently complex, words first. He plays with numbers in a very creative way, but doesn’t enjoy learning by rote memory. When I stumbled across the theory about brain hemispheres, I began to appreciate his wonderful learning style more fully, and to see the joy and wonder that emerge when he follows his deep curiosity.
The basic premise of the theory is that we have 2 brain hemispheres, left and right, and that some of us tend to use one side more than the other*. The left side is associated with logic, language, planning, analysing and step-by-step learning. The right side is associated with creativity, intuition, imagination, spatial abilities and ‘bigger picture’ learning. This is a huge simplification – there are also other attributes for each side, and we tend to use both sides in combination.
Recent science has found that the right ‘brain’ is actually the right hemisphere of the brain plus the whole of the body (not just one side). It’s all linked up. The vagus nerve that links the gut to the brain figures somewhere in here (you’ll have heard of ‘gut instinct’). I read somewhere that we actually have more receptors for messages that are passed from the body to the brain, than the other way round. This certainly made me reevaluate the importance of the information that our sensitive bodies can pick up.
In modern culture, we’re encouraged to rely heavily on our left brain skills, and so we disconnect somewhat with the right brain/body. We literally become disembodied, and lose the ‘body wisdom’ that in ancient cultures would have equated success in the world of hunter-gathering. Stressful experiences can lead us to dis-connect further from the body: to escape uncomfortable feelings, we may seek refuge in numbness or mental strategies such as explanations or evaluations.
You might think that right-brain skills aren’t as relevant in our world as they might have been to our ancestors. But in withdrawing into the left-brain, we also disconnect from the emotional energies that are associated with the right brain/body. When we disconnect from emotional parts of ourselves (even the ones we might not like, such as vulnerability, fear or anger), we feel less whole and our wellbeing gets compromised.
This is where practices like mindfulness, self-kindness and meditation can help us to re-connect with the lost parts of ourselves, and rediscover wholeness and greater ease of being. In the second part of this blog, I suggest some ways that our experience could be enriched by greater connection to our right brain/body, and also some thoughts about how to actually make that happen.
*I should say that much of what I’ve written here about left/right brain theory is a gross simplification, and possibly includes my own interpretation of information that could be read a different way. I’m also aware that some studies would appear to disprove some of what I’ve shared, but I’m a strong believer that ‘truth’ is what we find in our own experience. I can appreciate too why there might be resistance to the idea of our bodies being at least as wise as our brains.
If you want to learn more about the brain hemispheres and modern-day disconnection (and see what seems true for you personally), you might like the books or websites of these authors:
Reginald Ray on body-based meditation (his book ‘The Awakening Body’ is a good starting point)
Peter Levine on how the nervous system processes stressful experiences (‘In An Unspoken Voice’ is a very comprehensive book)
Cindy Gaddis on the ‘right-brained’ learning style
Peter Gray on hunter-gatherer cultures (you can find his blogs about education on psychology.com)