Friday, December 31, 2010

The Limitations of History, The Magic of Nature-Based Ways

The Problem with Written ‘History’

The ‘historical record,’ the collection of information presented as our shared ‘history,’ presents at least two interesting problems for Moderns. Prior to the written word –something which began in earnest with the ancient Hebrews- the agricultural peoples of Europe and the Middle East and the nomadic tribes-people who came before them- imagined ‘time’ to be a cyclical process. Just as seasons turned each year and the sun rose and set each day, as the moon waxed and waned in a predictable pattern, as breath entered and left the body, as the human heart expanded and contracted with each beat, and as living things were born, grew, aged, and passed on, all things were conceptualized as part of a ‘cycle of return’ (see Mircea Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return*). The invention of writing, and, in particular the introduction of written history, rapidly transformed time into a linear process whereby some thing ‘began’ at a far-away point in the past, and events have since ‘occurred’ just once along a timeline that reaches up to the present. So the first problem with written history –for a brain that is evolutionarily and cosmologically keyed to cycles- is that history is sequential and linear, and events are static and unique in time and place. However ‘fact-based’ and ‘logical’ this appears to us Moderns, it is juxtaposed against an evolved human psychology which is predisposed to interpret time in a cyclical fashion, with all events recurring over and over again in eternal cycles. If human universals have any relevance –and what we know about tribal cosmology bears this out- a concept of time that is linear and sequential is not ‘organic’ to the way that nature-based humans conceptualize time. For 99% of our self-conscious existence as a species, time has been regarded as cyclical, not linear. Our Present World viewing of time as a sequence of events that have occurred across a linear map of history –however factually consistent with popular views of the universe- alienates us from the cycles of nature, from the predictable birth, death, and rebirth that happens most obviously through the annual seasons. Our own relationship to this seasonal movement through birth, growth, death, and rebirth –in the absence of a cosmology in which we humans participate in cycles of renewal and rebirth- can generate a great deal of anxiety about the meaning of life and about the consequences of death. Whether ignorance is actually bliss, we Moderns would do well to consider the psychological consequences we have incurred by imposing a linear conceptions of history on a brain that evolved with a predisposition to imagine cyclical conceptions of time.

A second concern emanating from a linear view of history is that it sustains a cultural model framed by ‘historical facts.’ We Moderns tell ourselves that we have arrived at this moment in time and have built our ideas and conceptions upon a concrete and factual sequence of historical events that have occurred in a particular way. This is the story we tell ourselves. If we consult the written record, so the idea goes, we can learn all about our ‘past.’ The problem here is twofold. First, historical ‘facts’ are a collection of interpretations, usually written by elite, literate members of ruling classes. If modern Historiography (the study of the methodology of the discipline of history) has taught us anything, it is that written history is laced with fictional interpretations stemming from faulty memory (at best), and intentional deception (at worst). A second problem is that, as an activity, both the composing of historical narrative, and the recounting of written history, are largely rational, linear, and logic-based activities. As such, they are a predominantly undertakings of the left-hemisphere of the brain, and given their prominence in defining who we are, they tend to perpetuate the under-valuing of our right-hemisphere capacities for intuition, creativity, supposition, and mythical ideation. The cultural dominance of a linear perception of history not only alienates us from a meaningful participation with cyclical nature, but also reinforces the very cognitive tendencies that lead us to devalue half of our mental inheritance.

The Hemispheric Proclivities of the Nomad

For 99.9% of our long social history, human growth from infancy to old age depended upon an ongoing interaction with wild, living nature. Our healthy psychological and emotional unfolding was keyed to a subtle stimulus that the organic forms provided. A notable consequence of our current separation from this stimulus is that we have been without this critical ingredient to healthy brain development. As a result, certain more natural tendencies of the mind -evident among contemporary tribal peoples and part of the cognitive repertoire of all ancestral peoples- have been largely denied to Present World peoples. In particular, Moderns do not so readily and regularly quiet the cognitive left hemisphere of the brain; the thinking mind. We do not intuit subtle essences, garner messages from the winds and streams. We do not breath in awareness of our connectedness to all things living, and live in a constant state of graceful balance with the order of life. We live instead with incessant brain chatter and a deterministic commitment to rational, linear thought. We are distrustful of the intuitions and mythic readiness of the right hemisphere. This more mythical mind is activated during prolonged contact with wild nature. A human living as a nomadic hunter-gatherer must move through terrain with a pronounced sense-based awareness. For nature-based peoples, the smells, movements, and sounds of the natural world are keenly observed in an all-at-once fashion during many much of the day. Successful food gathering, animal tracking, weather prediction, landform evaluation and many other activities require an active sensory focus and a quiet cognitive mind. The nomad spends much time in this moving meditation through terrain. This is a right brain activity during which time the neural capacities of the left-brain for speech-based thought are quieted.

The Insights of a 'Nirvanic' Scientist

While the linear, cognitive mind is a remarkable adaptation, it is not the only mind. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher who suffered a stroke in her left hemisphere, recounts that experience in a lucid and compelling book entitled My Stroke of Insight. She describes the world of the right hemisphere, the intuitive, creative, emotional center of the brain. With her left hemisphere essentially incapacitated by the stroke, she could neither understand speech nor generate speech, yet she describes herself being very conscious and aware of her life. She could not assemble linear thoughts, and yet she understood that there was some hidden secret in the quieting of the linear, cognitive mind. So illuminating was this experience, that she says she fought death, lying on her hospital bed, so should could heal from the stroke and recount her experiences to others. Her will to live was driven by a desire to spread a message gained during those dark moments in the hospital bed. As she recounts in one of many speeches she has given about her experiences, this one recorded for TED, an online archive of talks by first-rate thinkers,

"On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body…The right hemisphere is all about the here and now. It thinks in pictures. It learns through the kinesthetic movement of our bodies….Our left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks serially, methodically…Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. The left hemisphere takes that collage of the present moment and picks out details... It categorizes and organizes that information, associates it to everything we’ve learned in the past, and projects onto the future all of our possibilities. It thinks in language, the ongoing brain chatter that connects the me of my internal world to the external world. It’s that little voice that says to me ‘I am’ and as soon as it says this, I become separate.

This is the part of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke…When the chatter of my brain completely stopped, I was captivated by the energy around me. I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body. I felt huge. My left hemisphere then came back on line and said, ‘Hey we got a problem, we got a problem!!!!!’. But then I would return again to the place I call ‘la la land.’ When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life…I was suspended between two worlds….I just wanted to escape…I felt enormous and expansive like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free…I found nirvana. I remember thinking there would be no way to squeeze the enormity of myself back into my little body. But then I realized that I’m still alive, and I’ve found nirvana. And if I can find nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is still alive can find nirvana. And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at anytime. And that they could purposefully choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover…It took me eight years to completely recover.

So, who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds, and we have the power to choose moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here, right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are, I am, the life force power of the universe…at one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, intellectual, Neuroanatomist. These are the ‘we’ inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when?

I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be. And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.” –Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight. This excerpt is from her very popular videotaped lecture on TED.

May we step again into a world where flaring nostrils, bifocal vision, hyper-sensitive hearing, and deep appreciative awe for the majesty of our bountiful earth are not relegated to secondary status, step-children under the shadow of the brilliant if suspect renderings of the cognitive left-hemisphere that has so much dominated our lives and ways. May we become more balanced, more awake, more conscious. ~End

*Current projections about the Big Bang being an outward expansion of time and space that will eventually slow and collapse, only to explode outward again in an unending multi-billion-year pulsing of Big Bag and Big Collapse, points to a primary cyclical phenomenon at even the most macrocosmic level of the physical universe.

In A Post-historic Primitivism, Paul Shepard writes, “The hidden truth of history is that the more we know, the stranger it all becomes. It is human to want to know ourselves from the past, but history’s perspective narrows that identity to portraits, ideology and abstractions to which nation states committed human purpose. True ancestors are absent. The meaning of our lives, of nature, of purposeful animals, of simple societies, of everything in this past is in doubt. We do not feel our ancestors looking over our shoulders, or their lives pressing on our own. Once we have shaken off that mythic immersion and put on the garment of dry history, we are unable to shed the attachment and skepticism that define the Western personality.”