Our disposition towards the world makes all the difference

Much of psychotherapy is listening to stories about relationships. When married couples are with me, they are having their relationship as we speak! The quality of these relationships often hinges on the dispositions of each person, specifically toward the people they are talking about, but, more important, to the world.

You may have never used the word “disposition” in a sentence. I think the word should be more popular than it is. Since it is an inherently relational word, it has fallen out of fashion in an age in which people are mainly interested in their identity, their self-hood, their personal power. Just this week, Michelle Goldberg wrote a op-ed about the movement in feminism away from meaningless sex towards a restoration of relationality. Relationships might make a comeback! I hope so. If they do, disposition might get into one of your sentences!

You may have heard the word “disposition” used to mean the inherent qualities of mind and character that give someone their unique way of being in the world: “Your sunny disposition has a way of rubbing off on those around you” — temperament, nature, makeup, the grain of them that might cause them to go against the grain. In a less individual sense, someone’s or something’s “disposition” is the way someone or something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other people or other things: the disposition of infantry on the battlefield, the disposition of trees in an orchard, the disposition of the parts of this blog — arranging, ordering, positioning, relating.

When a couple moves into therapy, each has a personal disposition which their mate will learn to understand better and, hopefully, to respect and even love. Their relationship will also have a disposition of its own — its own character and a sense of how it relates to the world, how it arranges itself and how it has been arranged by various forces and its own history.

Since this word and all its synonyms are built into the English language, one would expect us to understand it. But during the last 50 years or so, the relationality of words has not been not assumed — we no longer assume words relate to something more than themselves. This blog post is for exploring that oddity in the hope that things are changing, just like Michelle Goldberg is exploring how sex is trying to regain human connection and love.

La‘amea Lunn and helpers on Oahu, Hawai‘i

A deeper knowing

A lot of what makes people “indisposed” when it comes to relating is the “left brain” dominance which accompanies the present domination of machines and technical skills. You may have friends, like I do, who have dropped off the grid and bought a farm so they can restore their relationship with the earth and feel all the parts of themselves in a natural setting (new farmers above). Most people have done the opposite and spend most of their time indisposed, in the sense they are unavailable for relating to others, the world, something or someone Other than themselves. This is so true that China recently passed a law to restrict video game use by minors. Chinese kids have been dwarfing themselves by attaching to a machine.

My favorite book of the year, so far, is The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In that book Iain McGilchrist exhaustively shows the difference between the left and right brain and how the left is meant to serve the right, contrary to much of western philosophy since Descartes. He says:

If one had to encapsulate the principle differences in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, one could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care. The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really “break out” to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own re-presentations only. Where the thing itself is “present” to the right hemisphere, it is only “re-presented” by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere’s consciousness is of itself.

I meet up with people who are dwarfed by their left brain disposition. Their relationships are especially difficult. In the case of men, their sexual relationship with their partner may be difficult to maintain, since they have been having sex with themselves via internet-delivered porn for much of their lives. When it comes to intimacy, they are often indisposed.

The deadly disposition of control

In an out-of-control society, in a state of perpetual warfare, on an outpost in the warming atmosphere, it is easy to see how one could conform to the illusion of control the left-brain-dominated, corporate world promises. For instance, below is a Lexus commercial from this past summer by a student in Oklahoma which tells a young man that it (the car) needs a fellow dreamer to experience the “power of the spirit of now” together. This is a popular idea; a Cadillac ad from this year depicts the growing “light” within a woman climbing the corporate ladder as resonant in her Cadillac.

The philosophy the video neatly expresses in thirty seconds promises that the “spirit” can be reduced to a relationship with a car. I hope the student was being ironic, but I suspect he was angling for an advertising job one day.

Longing for what a car ad promises is healthy humanity. But actually attaching to representations of meaning within the limits of scientific, consumer capitalism reduces one’s will to managing the elements of a merely material world. McGilchrist explains the philosophical necessity of thinking beyond the boundaries of that kind of representation of reality:

Philosophy being a hyperconscious cognitive process, it may be hard to get away from the left hemisphere’s perspective that will is about control, and must lie in the conscious left hemisphere. But if our disposition towards the world, our relationship with it, alters, will has a different meaning. The disposition of the right hemisphere, the nature of its attention to the world, is one of care, rather than control. Its will relates to a desire or longing towards something, something that lies beyond itself, towards the Other.

The relentless teaching about “the spirit of now” is all about power and control. Even the search for the beloved community often descends, these days, into a fight about power and one’s share of spoils of capitalism.

When people with a “left hemisphere” disposition enter into the self-exploration of psychotherapy (or spirituality) they often feel confronted with a terrifying choice to make. Will I leave my “zone of control,” aided by all sorts of machines and society’s present philosophies? Or will I moved with my right-brain empowered longing for what is beyond the left brain’s frame? Will I leave my porn world for a real relationship? Will I desert the constant, anxious monitoring for what I dread and my anesthesia against that anxiety in order to move with the desire I have neutered in honor of my fear of betraying what dominates me? If I change my disposition, I will have to care and become respons-ible.

I believe in you

When I was in high school I played the lead in one of the more unpopular musicals my director could have chosen for us: How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying. [Harry Potter tried it]. I did not understand the tongue it had in its cheek. But I got sort of famous on campus for singing the signature song: “I Believe in You.” It is a left-brain hymn to looking sincere and believing you are good at looking sincere.

How to Succeed was lampooning what happens when advertising execs become the advertising (nowadays when we are all our personal brand). Robert Morse is singing a right-brain idea in a left-brain environment. He is climbing the ladder by performing the representation of a man who can succeed in a left-brain world devoted to selling right-brain dreams. He is literally singing to his representation in the mirror! I did not get it. But after a life of believing, I do now. As a result, I found this quote from McGilchrist compelling.

Believing is not to be reduced to thinking that such-and-such might be the case. It is not a weaker form of thinking, laced with doubt. Sometimes we speak like this: “I believe that the train leaves at 6:13,” where “I believe that” simply means that “I think (but am not certain) that.” Since the left hemisphere is concerned with what is certain, with knowledge of the facts, its version of belief is that it is just absence of certainty. If the facts were certain, according to its view, I should be able to say “I know that” instead. This view of belief comes from the left hemisphere’s disposition towards the world: interest in what is useful, therefore fixed and certain (the train timetable is no good if one can’t rely on it). So belief is just a feeble form of knowing, as far as it is concerned.

But belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not “know” anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of “responsibility.” * Thus if I say “I believe in you,” it does not mean I think such-and-such things are the case about you, but can’t be certain I am right. It means I stand in a certain sort of relation of care towards you, that entails me in certain kinds of ways of behaving (acting and being) towards you, and entails on you the responsibility of certain ways of acting and being as well. It is an acting “as if” certain things were true about you that in the nature of things cannot be certain. It has the characteristic right-hemisphere qualities of being a betweenness: a reverberative, “resonant,” “respons-ible” relationship, in which each party is altered by the other and by which relationship between the two, whereas the relationship of the believer to the believed in the left-hemisphere sense is inert, unidirectional, and centers on control rather than care.

Marriage is the queen of all adult relationships, where we create more care in the world, daily – at least the opportunity presents itself. In marriage we are called upon to see “the other” and relate ourselves to it in the person of our mate. Friendships and church covenants do much of the same kind of work, of course — that is, they do the work if we are disposed to it, if we turn into it, if we hold on to the love.

Right now relationships are under a barrage of criticism all day and night, left-brain radicals think justice is exactitude in speech and action, and the generation raised with a cell phone in the aftermath of 9/11 is sure they are saddled with the personal power to succeed in their business. I bring it up to give another opportunity to choose see the Other and to turn a new eye on the world which might develop a more holistic disposition toward it. As the world disintegrates under the weight of its left-brain foolishness, surely it is time to listen to the voices within and without, even built into our brains, that lead us deeper.

* Belief, like faith and truth, etymologically implies a relation of loyalty, and has the same root as love (and as the German words Glauben and Liebe).

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