by Molly Keeton Parnell, Ph.D.
“Mind, body, and breath complete the circle of life”
This is what my yoga instructor stated last week as we were moving into Savasana, or the meditation portion of the class. This observation gave me pause for a moment and then quickly resonated as true. I was immediately aware of how much more time my mind spends actively thinking compared to the miniscule amount of time that I spend just “being” in my body and with my breath. For a moment, I was absolutely captivated by the fact that while we are equally mind, body and breath, the mind takes about 99.9% of the airtime. I suddenly had the image of a horse drawn carriage with the coach using a whip to keep the horse going. The mind is like that coach, whipping the attention back to itself over and over and over again. If the mind even begins to wander towards a moment of quiet, there’s that crack of the whip and we are again deeply entrenched in thought. On the contrary, for most of us the body only demands attention in the case of physical discomfort (and even then, the mind never stops going full speed. It may just share some of the real estate with awareness of body). And it seems that the breath almost never dominates our attention, unless there is some respiratory illness or perhaps a panic attack, where the ability to breathe is perceived to be diminished. In fact, a panic attack is a good example of the connection between mind, body, and breath because of how quickly the mind jumps in to perpetuate the sense of panic. Shortness of breath may be a cause of concern, but it only turns into a full blown anxiety attack when the mind starts putting negative labels on the feelings in the body, which causes an intensifying of bodily sensations that lead to more panicked feelings in the mind, and so forth. Just thoughts of not having enough breath leads to what feels like a physical reality of not having enough breath.
And yes, I had all of these thoughts while I was SUPPOSED to be headed into a meditative state. The irony was not lost on me. I redirected my focus to my breath, yet my mind continued to think about the way it was thinking, about the way that humans seem to be programmed, about my grocery list and messy house, and how well this thinking vs. being struggle would fit into the article that I needed to write. Sensing that my restless and hyper brain was not easily inclined to getting quiet, I opted to give way to trying to force it to happen and instead to simply notice the way that my mind seems to work. I was immediately aware of the desire to let go of thinking and the sense of panic that my mind felt at that notion – the fear of letting go. I then felt frustration that this seems to be such a difficult task, wondering if it is only difficult for me and why I haven’t mastered it at this point in my life and emotional growth. As I started to berate myself for this, I noticed what my mind had done. By beating myself up for my lack of meditation skill I was remaining active in my mind. My mind had tricked me into staying mentally focused by distracting me with the oldest trick in the book – self-criticism. While I did not have the breath-body experience that I wished for, I learned something significant about the various ways the mind manages to stay primary and also found inspiration for this article!
So, what is it that compels us to think, think, think? To think about thinking? To think about how to not think (now, there’s a no-win puzzle for you!)? What is responsible for the non-stop dialogue of the brain, the million thoughts a minute diatribe wherein I can go rapid-fire from thoughts of my to do list, to pondering my spirituality, to worrying about getting my article written quickly, to beating myself up for my habit of procrastinating, to wondering what purpose procrastination serves for me and if I’ll ever find a better way, to reflecting that perhaps I could practice self-acceptance related to procrastination and simply accept it as a part of life?
It turns out that the source of the 24-7-365, not-a-millisecond-off running monologue is the left hemisphere of the brain. You may have heard that left brain dominant people are better at math and right brain people are the artists of the world. And perhaps it is true that people are generally more dominant in one side than the other, but the reality is we all have two hemispheres that work together as a whole yet have dramatically different purposes and functions. In cases where the two halves of the brain have been surgically separated (by cutting the corpus callosum, or the structure that connects the two sides) the right and left hemispheres have been found to operate as two separate brains, each with distinct personalities. In humans with a normally functioning corpus callosum, the two hemispheres of the brain are “more appropriately viewed as two complementary halves of a whole” and “virtually every cognitive behavior we exhibit involves activity in both hemispheres – they simply do it differently” (Bolte Taylor, p. 29). However, scientists still do not fully understand the way the two halves work together. While it was long believed that the corpus callosum created communication between the two hemispheres, recent research supports the idea that the corpus callosum may actually be serving to keep the two halves divided.
The Left Hemisphere
My experience in yoga class can be well understood by knowing the dominance of the left hemisphere and its instinct to remain in the driver’s seat of the mind. The job of the left brain is to sort, organize, and analyze all incoming information. When stimuli is received through our senses (eyes, ears, etc.), the left brain categorizes and notes distinctions, or where things are different. For example, it is your left brain that is interested in better understanding the differences between your two hemispheres. (Your right brain is in the moment, feeling peaceful, and doesn’t really care what part does what)!
The left brain is “linear and methodical” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31) and sees the details rather than the whole. The left brain manages our interactions with the world by time streaming every piece of data. It both sorts things according to the proper sequence (i.e. we put on our socks before our shoes) and organizes events in their proper place in time (i.e. past, present, and future).
The mechanism by which the left brain completes its duty of sorting, organizing and analyzing is through language. The left brain contains our language centers, which utilize words to define and categorize, or break the big picture down into data bits that are distinct and manageable. For example, Bolte Taylor points out that when out in nature, our left brain sees and labels the distinct parts of all that we see, such as stem, petal, and leaf. The left hemisphere then organizes those details back into the whole to see a flower. It “… thrives on weaving facts and details into a story” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31). It uses deductive reasoning and creates an understanding of the world in this way (i.e. if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C).
The left mind’s language centers help us to understand that letters form words and that words form sentences. It is the left hemisphere that comprehends the meanings of these words and sentences, but it can only do so in a literal way. If I say that my friend is really cool, the left brain might want to give her a blanket, whereas the right brain understands the more subtle interpretation of this phrase. We need our right hemisphere to help translate things like humor or sarcasm as well as for interpreting non-verbal communication.
Our left brains also think in ways that become patterned based on incoming sensory information. Neurological circuits are developed and then run mostly automatically. These circuits allow us to take in information efficiently without having to break what we are sensing down into the individual pieces and then reconstruct those pieces into a whole. So, when I see an object that can be easily held in the hand that contains buttons with numbers, I know it is a telephone even though there is wide variation in the way different phones look. Each time one of these neurological circuits is stimulated, it becomes more engrained and then takes less outside stimulation to run in the future. Our left hemisphere then becomes quite adept at prediction, not only predicting how objects may function (a phone will ring) but also how we will feel, react, or respond to things based on the past. Thus, our left brain may give us a story such as “I always turn in my assignments late”, which then gets replayed and strengthened every time the topic of an assignment floats through the mind.
In receiving all sensory stimuli as distinct parts, the left hemisphere also focuses on the separation between ourselves and others. This half of the brain contains the “ego center”, which defines the self as “I” and defines what we do, think, and feel as “I am”. Our constant brain chatter helps us to rehearse and memorize the details of our lives, such as our names, occupations, relationship status, values, preferences, etc. As it is the job of the left hemisphere to categorize, all data is sorted into dichotomous classes such as “good”, “bad”, “like”, or “dislike”. The left hemisphere similarly engages in constant comparison between ourselves and others, using a comparable hierarchy for “better”, “worse”, “success”, “failure”, etc. While the right brain sees connection and wholeness and holds the intuitive knowledge that we are perfect just the way we are, the “… ego mind revels in our individuality, honors our uniqueness, and strives for independence” (Bolte Taylor, p. 33). Guess who wins when it comes to our self-concept? You got it – the left hemisphere.
The Inner Critic and Judge
Byron Brown states:
This is the courtroom of life. And you are the one who is on trial… The judge is a part of your mind… it also lives through your body and your energy. The judge is a master of words, and yet you can feel it in your belly, your shoulders, and your jaw without any awareness of words. The judge is both pervasive and invisible. It speaks to you from commercials on TV, magazine ads and movies, as well as from the expression on your partner’s face, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the tone in your supervisor’s voice (Brown, p. 14).
The inner critic is the part of the mind that continuously and constantly evaluates, compares, judges, criticizes, blames and attacks us and others. The inner critic is always on call to condemn any of our innermost thoughts, beliefs, feelings or desires or which it disapproves. Nothing gets by the critic. It is rigid and perfectionistic, so most of our feelings, beliefs, and thoughts do not escape its judgment. The inner critic is always present but also invisible. It presents its point of view as fact rather than opinion.
The inner critic uses every piece of information ever taken in (from your caretakers, cultural group, school system, church, etc.) about how one is supposed to operate in the world. It is guided by the harsh and punishing attitudes of the environment in which we live. It compares you to yourself – your past self, your future self, the self you should be. It compares you to others, others to you, and others to others.
The inner critic excels in the ego center of the left hemisphere of the brain. The ego exists based on the concept of “I”. When we use the word “I”, we are generally referring to where we live, what we do for a living, what our relationship status is, what our hobbies include, etc. So, I might say I am a psychologist. I am a sister. I am American. I love movies. I might say that I am introverted, I am compassionate, I am a procrastinator. These things are part of my life circumstance, value system, and personality, but are they me? Are we able to say who we are without going down the list of where we came from, what we do, and what we believe ourselves to be?
According to Brown there is a way to quiet the inner critic. To begin the process of “disengaging from self-judgment…” you must begin “knowing yourself as a living soul” (Brown, p. XVII). Perhaps the best way to do this is to learn more about the right side of the brain.
The Right Hemisphere
While our left brains maintain dominance throughout most of our lives, it may actually be our right hemispheres that are primary. We come into this world right hemisphere dominant and remain that way until we are about two years old. Furthermore, for all humans at all stages of life, sensory information goes first to the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain), next to the right hemisphere and lastly to the left hemisphere. Information from the heart and the gut (both of which contain neurotransmitters) also goes to the right hemisphere of the brain before the left. This flow of data seems to prove that “… although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (Bolte Taylor, p. 19).
The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor that takes in multiple sources of information simultaneously, comprehending at once the “big picture”. The right side contains our emotional sense of self and is responsible for relationships and emotional attachments. The right hemisphere sees the implicit meanings in things and is the part that responds to poetry, metaphor, and humor. It interprets non-verbal communication, such as tone and facial expression. The right hemisphere does not speak in words but rather in images, symbols, pictures and metaphors. If you have ever had an “A ha” moment where a light bulb of understanding suddenly illuminates, that occurs in the right hemisphere.
Our right hemispheres see the connections between things rather than the boundaries that separate. It sees how parts make up a whole. We have our right hemisphere to thank for the gift of empathy, or the ability to place ourselves in the position of another and imagine what their experience might be.
It is our right mind that gives us the ability to remember with crystal clarity certain isolated moments that have significance in our emotional lives (i.e. the first time you exchanged the words “I love you” with your partner or where you were when you heard about the September 11th attacks). The right mind takes in information in relation to other pieces of information and “… Borders between specific entities are softened, and complex mental collages can be recalled in their entirety as combinations of images, kinesthetics, and physiology” (Bolte Taylor, p. 30).
After Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist who had devoted her professional life to studying the brain, suffered a stroke resulting in the total (but temporary) shut down of the left hemisphere of her brain she realized that
…deep internal peace is accessible to anyone at any time. I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment, we can choose to hook into that part of the brain (p. 111).
Bolte Taylor learned that in her pre-stroke life, her personality had been dominated by the left side of the brain and by the tendency to judge and analyze. The experience of the stroke taught her that the two sides of the brain not only function in different ways with different types of perception and thought but also contain different types of interpretations for what is perceived. In short, Taylor’s experience revealed that the two hemispheres have quite different value systems and personalities. She found that the right hemisphere is “…completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world” (Bolte Taylor, p. 133) and that “…peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind” (Bolte Taylor, p. 111).
However, “left brain is dominant, speedy, and prone to rush in with words and symbols and prefers not to relinquish tasks to its mute partner unless it really dislikes the job or is unable to do it” (Edwards, Courtesy of Courtney Armstrong). How to silence the left mind is a question that Bolte Taylor does not answer. Is it possible to completely silence the inner critic and live completely in each moment? Is this the goal or should we simply strive for a better balance between the two halves? These are not questions that I can answer for you, but I can invite you to take better notice of the inner critic and when its voice begins to take over.
Without awareness of the way our brains are structured, the judging part remains invisible, which makes it very, very powerful. It brings to mind one of my favorite movie quotes from the movie The Usual Suspects. It goes something like this…. “What is the smartest move the Devil ever made? To make man think he didn’t exist”. I am not trying to make a religious point here but simply articulate that a force is far more powerful when we don’t even fully understand that it is present. Various forms of oppression have been weakened greatly and social systems changed just through consciousness raising, or helping those being oppressed to understand the larger system of power. When something is unseen, how can it be challenged and overcome? Just simply recognizing that the inner critic is a part of the brain rather than some omnipotent messenger of truth does a great deal to lessen its hold.
Brown points out that while we are in the habit of defining ourselves as the “I” – the one who was born in Atlanta, is bad about procrastinating, works as a psychologist and can’t figure out how to keep a clean house – who we really are is a soul. Our right brain seems to be more in contact with that soul and to recognize that as a soul we cannot be compared to any other soul and deemed better or worse. On a soul level we have worth and value that must be separated from the specific details of our lives. We must fully take in that the “uniqueness of the soul is inherent in who you are at birth; it is not achieved, not can it be destroyed, and it is not dependent on your appearance or anything you do” (Brown, p. 31).
To learn more about what life could be like with soul awareness, I invite you to watch Jill Bolte Taylor describe her experiences of living in her brain’s right hemisphere.
Some of the information in this article came from a presentation by Courtney Armstrong, LPC of Chattanooga, TN. Thank you, Courtney, for helping me to better understand this exciting topic.
Other sources include:
Bolte Taylor, Jill (2009). My Stroke of Insight. New York: Plume/Penguin.
Brown, Byron (1999). Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within. Boston: Shambala.
Edwards, Betty (1999). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Penguin Books.