Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Wandering the Desert Bewilderness Without Two Brains to Rub Together

It's beginning to dawn on me that everything about religion means one thing to the left brain, another to the right. And this is because everything about everything does.

Nor does it matter whether the difference is truly rooted in neurology or just a useful metaphor, because it's the difference that makes the difference, not the neurology. In other words, neurology makes no difference unless the difference is meaningful, and meaning transcends neurology.

A brief procedural matter. In the last month or so I've read an unusual number of hefty tomes, and am having some uncharacteristic difficulty assimilating them all, i.e., coonecting the dots.

It started with the Giussani trio, and went from there to Bernard McGinn's new doorstop on renaissance mysticism, then a giant history of the Catholic Church, on to the Master and the Partnership, with half a dozen others in between. Normally I blog in order to help my psychic digestion, but I'm afraid I overindulged during the holidays. Nonblogging gave me more time to read, but also seems to have resulted in a psychopneumatic backup.

Normally I blog from the "center-out," but now I find myself trying to do so from the periphery in, which is simply impossible for this type of thingy. In a way, it parallels our discussion of right and left brain differences. Perhaps the immoderate reading overstimulated the left brain -- which takes things apart -- and the absence of creative expression put the right brain -- which reassembles them -- to sleep.

What's the solution to a brain imbalance? Good question. Another book I read during the hiatus was The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. It provides some helpful tips on what to do during a period of spiritual dryness, which, it seems to me, must almost by definition involve a loss of right brain integration and depth.

The bottom line -- at least according to St. Ignat -- is that we should change nothing during such a period. That is to say, resist the temptation to overreact and change things around, but rather, keep doing the same things you were doing during the period of spiritual consolation, before the dryness hit.

Gallagher describes spiritual desolation as being "trapped in confusion, unable to comprehend what is occurring spiritually. Mingled with this inability to understand is the affectively heavy sense that things are going badly and will continue to worsen."

Interestingly, there is a kind of "disquietude" which I think of as spiritual anxiety, while the "heaviness" sounds more like a spiritual analogue of depression. In such a state, it can take all day just to get nothing done.

Of the heaviness, Gallagher writes of a downward attraction toward earthly things, whereas in periods of consolation, the movement and the attractor are in the opposite direction: up and in as opposed to down and out, or flying in the light instead of crawling in the dark.

It is important to bear in mind that we are being lied to during the period of desolation (assuming that is what it is). The essential lie is the "false equation between what the person feels in desolation and what the person is spiritually."

Which is why Ignat's rule for dealing with it is to never make a change, because the change will be in response to a transient feeling that is based on a lie anyway. If you're going to make a change, wait until the consolation returns, and you'll probably feel very different about it.

I'm not sure if this goes to left and right brain differences, but Gallagher writes of how the "present spiritual desolation attempts to define the spiritual past and future" with various categorical universal negatives. Such abstract universality seems to be a function of the left, but I don't know if that really adds anything.

Back when I was writing the book, I would almost always respond to drysolation by ceasing to write, which is apparently the exact wrong thing to do, and undoubtedly perpetuated the disconnect. Rather, it seems that the correct approach is to firmly say FU to the desolation, and calmly carry on.

Now, where were we? I want to focus in on what Sacks has to say about meaning, because the meaning of meaning is crucial to understanding our cosmic situation, and the kind of meaning we're talking about is without question a right-brain specialty.

There is knowledge and there is meaning; there are the countless facts to select from, and then there is what they mean, and the latter is literally outside the province of left brain science.

Indeed, scientistic believers only fool themselves when they imagine they are dealing with facts in a perfectly dispassionate manner, because there can be no fact in the absence of a more overarching paradigm that tells us what to look for, i.e., what is important. And facts don't come labeled with signs saying "hey, look at me, I'm significant. That other fact over there is just trivial, so you can ignore it."

Now, "the meaning of a system," writes Sacks, "lies outside the system. Therefore, the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe."

This is axiomatic. If there is no meaning then the universe is a closed system, and if it is a closed system there can be no possible meaning. If this is the case, then one's only recourse is to a naked Nietzschean nihilism, a will to power and to pleasure. There can be no absolutes, no truth, no morality, no better or worse way to live.

I've always been intrigued by the meaning of meaning, ever since I was lucky enough to stumble upon Polanyi. This is just an intuition, but I do feel it quite strongly. That is to say -- to quote Wittgenstein -- "To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning."

Again, axiomatic. However, I've always sensed that the opposite holds equally true: that if meaning exists, then so too does God. God is disclosed via meaning, and the deeper and more comprehensive the meaning, the more God sort of "pops out" at you.

And the kind of meaning I'm talking about is again a quintessentially right-brained one, as it involves the synthesis of... of everything, from religion to science to history to anthropology to metaphysics, you name it. The whole existentialada.

Indeed, even the fact that it is possible to apprehend the inner coherence of these diverse perspectives speaks to me implicitly of God. I imagine that these things are "held together" in the divine mind as unproblematically as a human being holds together such diverse planes and modes as matter, mind, emotion, love, truth, beauty, animal nature, etc. Each of these is present in a man, and yet, we are still "one." Nor do we understand how we keep them together -- e.g., body and soul. We just do.

Unless we suffer left brain existential shrinkage, and end up puffing up one of the dots instead of synthesizing all of them. For example, scientism or metaphysical Darwinism or leftism all result from inflating a single dot to the exclusion of the whole. This is what the Blakester was referring to when he spoke of the dangers of "single vision" and "Newton's sleep."


John Lien said...

"Of the heaviness, Gallagher writes of a downward attraction toward earthly things"

Yes, interesting. Noticed that lately about myself these past few weeks.

"Rather, it seems that the correct approach is to firmly say FU to the desolation, and calmly carry on."

Ok, will do.

Gagdad Bob said...

I think the election also effected me more than I care to acknowledge. What an unmitigated disaster.

Christina M said...

Yes. This is the first time I have ever been afraid of my own countrymen.

mushroom said...

The bottom line -- at least according to St. Ignat -- is that we should change nothing during such a period. That is to say, resist the temptation to overreact and change things around, but rather, keep doing the same things you were doing during the period of spiritual consolation, before the dryness hit.

Makes sense. What you are going to do to “fix” it is analyze it. There is a reason analyze begins with “anal”. It’s a left brain function. If the tractor’s dogging or the computer’s crashed or the toilet won’t flush, analysis is the right approach. Sometimes it is even the right approach in human relationships – like figuring out early in your marriage why china is more likely to fly on certain days.

But the spiritual doesn’t work that way. Do right and don’t worry about it.

julie said...

Interesting. I haven't read much of the post yet, as my household gnomes keep demanding that I pay attention to them or else.

However, in response to the past few days and some of my own slow-paced readings, and apropos your opening talk of digestion, I've been thinking about something Prager has mentioned in the past about the significance in Judaism of meat and milk, and how they are to be kept separated when keeping Kosher (milk represents life, meat represents death; it is not right to combine them). It puts a new spin on the New Testament observation about being fed with milk and not meat. And of course, it isn't much of a step from there to assign milk to the right brain, and meat to the left.

Speaking of which, going back to yesterday's post, a few other things come to mind that seem related: the animism stage of cultural development is of course very present in early childhood. Is this not why everything for kids becomes anthropomorphized? Children live in a world where inanimate objects are just as likely to start up a conversation as anything else, especially these days when that might literally be true, thanks to advanced electronics. Rare is the toy that doesn't try to engage them in educational games. Hm...

One more random thought tied to animism: I wonder if some cultures - or rather, some languages - don't do a better job of fostering the idea that something can be inanimate. English has the concept of "it," a genderless something that does not necessarily conform to anything that might be alive. Many other languages don't have a generic "it;" everything is either male or female, and of course once you assign something a gender it becomes just that much easier to assign it a life, in some sense. If that makes sense.

Anyway, maybe I should get back to reading the post...

julie said...

That is to say, resist the temptation to overreact and change things around, but rather, keep doing the same things you were doing during the period of spiritual consolation, before the dryness hit.

Of course. Don't just do something, stand there!

mushroom said...

That's one of those weird commandments -- "Don't boil a kid [goat, one hopes] or calf in its mother's milk."

I like that rule. You can always say, sure, I know I curse, lie, drink too much, gamble, smoke dope, and steal candy from toddlers, but the Lord knows I have never boiled a calf in its mother's milk. So I have that going for me.

EbonyRaptor said...

"I think the election also effected me more than I care to acknowledge."

Me too. Kind of a strange meloncholy. It's like I know I should be outright depressed but I don't want to let myself abandon hope ... and yet I know it's lurking in the shadows. Now please excuse me, I have to go stick my head back in the sand.

julie said...

Mushroom :D

I may be mistaken, but doesn't any combination of meat and milk count? That's how I took it, anyway; every time I have something that includes both meat and cheese, there's a part of my brain that pictures Homer Simpson saying, "Mmmm, sacrilicious!"

mushroom said...

Bacon cheeseburgers.

I'm doomed.

mushroom said...


No hope in government; hope in no government.

julie said...

Speaking of food, and since I assume Van Morrison is never off topic, Tupelo honey is a real thing that one can buy.

Plus, eaten with cheese I'm pretty sure it's the opposite of sacrilicious...

EbonyRaptor said...

Mushroom, I know. I can assure you my hope is not in our government.

Gagdad Bob said...

Speaking of which, this forthcoming title looks interesting: Politicizing the Bible.

mushroom said...

It's not a particularly good movie, plot-wise, but an interesting "Bee" movie nonetheless -- "Ulee's Gold" -- I think that's the way you spell it. Peter Fonda and one of those "Jessica" actresses when she was barely a teenager, and Tim Allen's TV wife.

Ulee (Fonda) is a bee-keeper whose preferred selling product is Tupelo Honey, and credits roll with Van singing "Tupelo Honey".

Just add locust (perfectly kosher) for the Prophetic Smoothie.

Peyton said...

Father Stephen just posted another view of right-brain / left-brain, without calling it such: