Tag Archives: Iain McGilchrist

Assert right-brain solutions to left-brain problems — like Jesus

Life caught in the clutches of the left-brain world

Several of my psychotherapy clients this year have, again, taught me to take the Bible seriously. I keep pondering this verse when they are talking to me: “Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET)

This assertion scandalizes the people with whom Jesus is arguing. The theory-bound, principle-following, control-oriented Jewish leaders of the time, who, in their own way, reflect the power-mad, bureaucratic Roman Empire which dominates them, are flabbergasted by this no-account Rabbi. He has powers beyond their imagination, he reframes their history in a way they can’t see and, most of all, he lives at home in love with a sense of his endless uniqueness over which they have no sway. Their arguments still seem comical and sad in the face of the Lord’s “I am.”

My clients, my comrades in the church and everyone, really, are caught up in a similar drama. The pharisees of our day are winning. The sense and assertion of our own endless, unique “I am” is very hard to hold onto, even when it feels “right there” and ready to grasp.

Left brain ascendancy

I wrote about Jesus teaching us to have our own sense of “I am” last year: I matter; The terrible, wonderful I AM. But lately I have so much more evidence to support my intuition since I became an Iain McGilchrist fanboy!

I have just been schooled by McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World [Summary in The Atlantic]. In that book he makes a fascinating case for why the world works like it does these days, dominated by the limitations of the “left brain.” As a result, the church, in general, and my clients, in particular, are struggling against significant odds to come to a sense of their true selves. We’re having a hard time having a whole-brain experience of life in the here and now. We seem to have lost our appreciation for our intuition about life beyond our present understanding. I applied some of my new insights a couple of weeks ago in my post Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

McGilchrist is having similar troubles. He “admitted in private that his text is heavily religious in inspiration. Yet if this were highlighted, he warned, many scholars would not bother to read it” (First Things). We are all under significant left-brain/scientific/
bureaucratic/legalistic/materialistic pressure all the time. We often try to find ourselves within a left-brain view of self and that world that is not big enough for what we experience and intuit.

In the conclusion of his book, McGilchrist summarizes how the “master,” the right brain, has been betrayed by her partner, the left. Here is a taste:

The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn’t believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to submit to be delimited – needs stasis, certainty, fixity – in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible; but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master. [Lecture on Youtube]

He has a lot of science and history to back up his conclusion. I offer a snippet to note how similar his argument sounds to the one Jesus is having with his detractors in John 8. Jesus is God delimited, submitted, and risking trust. The quote also sounds like an argument many of us are having in our minds and hearts about how to be incarnate as a being with endlessness built into all we experience.

Approach the left-brain world as I AM

Two experiences this week pointed out some common challenges we are all facing as we bump up against the domination of left-brain thinking.

I watched members of the Floyd family last week and marveled at their adaptation to the crazy world of law and media into which they decided to enter. How they became spokespeople for the worldwide movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has been painful, if inspiring, to see.

As they spoke at the sentencing hearing for Derek Chauvin, talk about justice by the court and media was reduced to minutia about sentencing guidelines and chances for further justice when the case goes to another territory of the bureaucracy about which no normal person really knows. The judge made a point to say that emotion was not going to be part of his judgment, as if to say the outrage and grief of the world did not finally put a murderous policemen in jail. He pointedly diminished the courageous vulnerability of the family as they faced a worldwide audience and an abusive legal system into which racism is deeply baked.

I think many of us who care about eradicating racism face similar problems with the left-brain problems that need right-brain solutions.  The consultants guiding our church’s leadership team through a process of racial awareness has spawned a host of conversations about how this new way to monetize equality has invaded almost every setting we inhabit, at least those who work in a bureaucracy that can be ignorantly racist. Analysis and principle-driven reorientation offers a left-brain solution to a left-brain problem — as if a bureaucracy could gain some self-awareness and a better abstraction would right its evil ship. Jesus was using the circumstance in which he found himself with his characteristic sense of being “I am.” He was present. He refused to relate on their terms.

I had several conversations with clients and acquaintances who do not intend to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and its variants. I realized my condo tower, mostly inhabited by Black people, is not lifting the requirement for masks because many people are not vaccinated and don’t intend to be. Twenty-three states have vaccinated less than half the eligible population. In the Congo there is no vaccine to be had at all, I heard last week from MCC workers.

Talk about health is reduced to suspicion about the genetic tinkering of the vaccine.  I am amazed at the research people have done! I continue to find a mistrust of science I have not seen, first-hand, until recently. I mistrust science because it trusts itself so completely. But many people mistrust it because they know it does not love them. Black families in Tuskegee were used as experimental animals and many people feel they dare not forget that. I heard, “What’s to prevent them from using the whole population as an experiment with an untried methodology?” My clients show some breathtaking logic as they are constantly make arguments which make them more and more anxious, trapped in their immanent frame.

When churches, not just ours, are considering how to “reopen” now that restrictions are lifted, they are often thrust into a left-brain argument about justice and equality in yet another way. What about the people who are not vaccinated? Can you really insist that someone get get the shot to be accepted? These endless arguments we have are often subject to the limitations of the left brain. Wisdom is not respected. Community is not an instinct. Love seems unreasonable, since the left brain is only about rationality. Jesus faced some thorny questions all the time, it seems. He usually answered them by being someone acting in grace as he was speaking. He was never a theory.

Isle of Skye

Asserting I AM

Jesus keeps teaching us about how to be ourselves in the grace of God in the face of a world in which the powers mostly believe in themselves. I think the pendulum might swing back, as it has in the past, toward right-brain awareness. And I hope the church, presented by us and millions around the world, will push that pendulum hard by being ourselves in truth and love. Iain McGilchrist seems like a good person with whom to team up in that cause.

He lives on the Isle of Skye off the western coast of Scotland — very trendy, but also still off the beaten path. I imagine him as a tweedy philosopher lighting his pipe with a twig from the fire.  I think his sensibilities reflect Robert Louis Stevenson’s lyrics to the Skye Boat Song:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Like I think McGilchrist does, my clients often have an old, unnamable tune emanating from their right brain that gives them a feeling that something has been lost. They are on the boat to someplace unknown looking for their lost selves when they come to therapy. They soon recall how their soul imagines sailing over the horizon to someplace better. They can’t help it.

As soon as they let their imagination sail, their left brain often kicks in with innumerable obstacles to why they can’t embark. These days it is all about the “economy” (a left-brain invention assumed to form the parameters of possibility). Then it is all about their own incapacity (often scientifically verified on the internet). Then it might be their situation (racial or education challenged) and their unbelief. The last one is probably primary.

Like the Pharisees degrading the uniqueness of the Son of God, so many dear people I know degrade their own uniqueness as a child of God. Unlike Jesus, they do not matter-of-factly assert it and confront all the other challenges from that basis. Their brain is out of balance with their out-of-balance society. But they know that something more is possible; they can feel it, and they press on.