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Buddhism and the Bilateral Brain: A Brief Sketch of Ideas Ranging from the Ancient Greeks, Early Buddhism, Nietzsche and a Smattering of Neuroscience

In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of the reason and logic, appealing to the ideals of precision and abstract purity. Dionysus was the god of the spontaneous, the emotional, embodied, often irrational instinct. These gods were not considered to be antagonistic but rather complimentary.
Today, from the vantage of contemporary neuropsychology, especially in the works of Iain McGilchrist, Allan Schore and Robert Ornstein, we can readily note how these twin gods neatly represented the asymmetrical brain:
• Apollo depicts the perspective of the left hemisphere, which represents the world in static ideas; reality is comprised of separate and fragmented objects, abstracted from their context; reality is separated into parts. The kind of attention is inherently dualistic and isolating—self versus other, me versus you, humankind versus nature; this attention tends to represent the fluid and organic as lifeless, static, in language or symbols.
Dionysus depicts the worldview of the right hemisphere, which is complex beyond the capability of the rational mind to comprehend, fully embodied, ever changing, an interdependent, fluid, overlapping whole to which we are intrinsically connected.
As Iain McGilchrist notes, the Apollonian rational, left hemispheric attention "isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power."
McGilchrist profoundly continues: "
Science has to prioritise clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up from parts; sequential analytic logic as the path to knowledge; and the prioritising of detail over the bigger picture… it comes at the world from the left hemisphere's point of view."
Ironically, while our contemporary culture idealizes the left hemispheric perspective, the right hemisphere is far more realistic in its depiction of how we live relation to the world; we are not separate, but connected. Yet the left hemisphere, which constantly views "I" and "me" as separate, unique and static, is wildly optimistic, believing it can solve everything, overcome death by 'not thinking about it,' avoid pain by 'figuring everything out;' the rational mind is, in short, utterly unrealistic about its limitations.
Nietzsche, in his book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) proposed that the goal of human existence was to achieve a fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian, the rational and the intuitive, via the arts. Certainly, the sublime experiences of one's favorite music requires both intellectual and emotional investment. For 
Nietzsche this fusion was made incarnate by the music of Richard Wagner (which I can personally take or leave but many find sublime).

From an early Buddhist perspective, the left-hemispheric brain (represented in the canon as the manas or dhammas, essentially the 'interpretive mind') creates what's referred to as 'sense consciousness" (vinnana), focused spotlight attention that fixates on objects and isolates them from the whole (a process called tammayata). This dominant form of attention is what activates the flood of self-conscious ideas (papanca), separating experience into those unceasing dualistic oppositions (light/dark, good/bad, useful/needless, me/you, and on and on). Yet without the left hemisphere, though, we would have no dharma, which represents spiritual practice in words and concepts; the left allows us to have 'yoniso manasikara,' or the possibility of cutting through appearances to observe core 'so called noble' truths.
The right-hemisphere (citta, or 'heart mind') meanwhile, provides us with an intuitive, connected, somatic and intuitive perspective. On the positive side, this provides us with the practices of kindness, compassion, appreciation and equanimity (the last of which requires some degree of reasoning as well). This is the realm of implicit memory, along with emotional states—when we're aroused, repelled, anxious, calm and on; prioritizes our relational lived experience over abstraction. Yet the right hemisphere has its shortcomings: in the form of unwholesome mental factors (akusalasādhāraṇa), we experience a irrational disregard for the consequences of our actions (Anottappa), restless anxiety, Uddhacca, stinginess (Macchariya), laziness (Thīna), uninspired defeatism (Middha) and fear (bhaya).
When both left and right hemisphere work in tandem, utilizing temperoparietal and cingulate regions of both hemispheres, 'mindful spacious awareness' is produced (sati, sampujhanna or atammayata), a greater awareness which doesn't abandon the irreducible totality of present moment (tathata); atammayata doesn't collapse around specific objects but stays open, fluid, available to attend to whatever arises without needing to collpase experience into lifeless ideas; and yet ideas are available when experience crystalizes into profound insights: everything is fluid and impermanent, altruism and pro-tribal acts form the foundation for lasting piece of mind.
To summarize these ideas sketched above: In tandem with the ancient Greeks,
Nietzsche and the Buddha, the goal is not to prioritize one perspective over the other, ie reifying the conceptual and interpretive over the embodied and intuitive, but rather to seek a fusion of the both worldviews, where the intellect and the intuitive could function in harmony, like Apollo and Dionysus.

jk 6/6/17


  1. Analeptics — a drug, which has a strong stimulating effect on the respiratory and vasomotor centers of the medulla oblongata directly (caffeine, camphor, bemegride, cytisine), or by increasing the sensitivity (, which stimulates the vital functions of respiration and circulation.


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