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The Right Brain Left Brain of Embodied Listening

What are we doing when we tune in to sensations within our bodies?There are many ways of exploring the answer to this question. For instance, we can seek to understand scientifically, psychologically, or poetically. Each mode of understanding has its own genius. In the scientific direction, one way of looking at what we are doing is say that we are giving the stage to our right brain and its unique mode of intelligence, which is implicit. Implicit knowing is impressionistic and relies on sensation, feeling, and symbolic association, without reference to words, time, or linear processing.

Words and time belong to the left brain, which is the seat of the hippocampus, that wonderful bundle of cells that allows us to perceive time and create a linear narrative order to our memories. The left brain is home base for our capacity to think "explicitly." Explicit thinking enables us to understand information via specific contexts and to place this information within a narrative governed by time and words. For instance, the left brain allows me to know that I am my parent’s child, my name is Christine, December is my birth month, and I ate a banana for breakfast. Time, context, words. However, the left brain only comes online fully at around 3 years of age, until then, the right brain rules supreme.

The right hemisphere is fully functional at birth and governs the processing of our critical first impressions from years zero to three, thus our foundational mode of “thinking” is dreamy, deep feeling, sensation-driven, and highly perceptive. Infants are intelligently aware of their environment and the people who care for them. From these infantile perceptions fundamental attachment patterns and defenses arise that will govern every thought and action of the developing child right into its adult years. Powerful stuff. The potency of these early, implicit, and non-narrative “beliefs” cannot be touched by left-brain talk and analysis, try though we might. And we do try. Despite the stubbornness of many dysfunctional behaviors, we talk and talk and talk, trying to “figure out” what is wrong, but fail to ever consider meeting fire with fire in order to effect transformation.

Sensory, right-brain, thinking is "implicit"--meaning it is intelligently felt, but there is no reference to left-brain based contexts of time and narrative. It is vitally important to understand that implicitly held beliefs must be accessed through implicit processes, which is what we are training ourselves to do when we tune in to bodily sensations. The basis of effective trauma resolution therapies rely heavily on body awareness practices. Why? Because they work.

Despite its potential for creativity and healing, practicing body listening can feel odd and strange, something we feel compelled to do in private. Why? In Western society, explicit left-brain values are diligently trained into us through the process of “education.” Right brain ways of knowing are directed to the sidelines to be indulged only peripherally. Intuitive, feeling, and symbolic knowing are relegated to the much denigrated “feminine” order of things and usually only seen as valuable if they are channeled into artistic enterprises that make a great deal of money. However, what if right-brained ways of knowing were indispensable to a happy, fulfilled life? What if right-brained knowing was the key to the successful future of the human race?

Carl Jung was one of the first great champions of the right-brain world-view, elevating the value of dreams and even schizophrenic “fantasies” as ways of looking into the ancient archetypal substrate of the human psyche. He was one of the first in the West to encourage and teach a deep respect for the implicit language of the right brain, and he often addressed the extraordinary cultural prejudice against it. Today many leading-edge thinkers are pointing forward to a right-brain renaissance, perhaps even a revolution. Authors like Daniel H. Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future” (Riverhead Books, 2006) makes the powerful case that those who can associatively synthesize divergent information streams to create novel systems for solving problems will be the leading-edge entrepreneurs, developers, and change-makers of the coming centuries. I don’t doubt it.

However, in order to tap this treasure trove of creative genius we need to build the capacity to access its information, what I call “hearing its voice.” Body meditation is a fundamental skill on the pathway to right-brain literary. I look forward to the day when embodied listening will be a normal part of social interaction and not just something we do in private or in meditation halls. Until then, keep tuning in your body’s messages to access the genius that you have right under your skin.

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