States of Union

When you were in school, did you notice the talkative kid who sat up front and answered a lot of the teacher’s questions? He or she was bright, focused on the lessons, and probably oblivious to what was going on in the back of the room. Then there was the quiet kid sitting in the back taking it all in? You might have been barely aware of this child, because he or she did not speak up much, but the quiet one probably knew who you were.

This can be our experience with our brains as well. We have this verbal left (in most people) hemisphere that is task focused and talkative. We know it pretty well. It is the part that may be good at arithmetic or auto mechanics. It can construct a nice paragraph or a flow chart. It sits up front and holds our attention most of the time.

Then there is the non-verbal right hemisphere. Because it doesn’t talk, we might not notice what it is doing so much. It may be creating pictures all the time, like the classmate who doodles during lessons. But maybe we don’t value those pictures, because they are just doodles, and we ignore them. This non-verbal brain half is not working step by step. It is looking for the big picture. It does not always appear rational, because its logic is relational and intuitive.

The dominant culture on this planet values the sequential, logical, analytical, verbal mind functions that can break things down into their component parts, categorize them, and talk about them. We don’t put so much emphasis on the creative, emotional, empathetic, intuitive, unifying mind functions. They are usually quieter, usually more subtle, and easier to disregard because their reasoning doesn’t so easily conform to logic.

We have two hemispheres for a reason. One is not like a spare tire to be used if the other one goes flat. They should be working together. We are unbalanced when we are too often in one side of our head. We need to be able to break things down into parts and see the unity of their function, to zoom into the details and see the big picture, to run a logical analysis and intuitively sense what’s going on.

In order to use our whole brain, we need to be able to modify our mind states. Like when you read a book with pictures. Sometimes you read the words. Sometimes you look at the pictures. That’s probably a shift in activity from left hemisphere to right. When you are interviewing a job applicant, you look at the resume and ask probing questions. You check off your list of qualifications they must meet. It’s very linear and categorical. Then most likely you try to get a sense of them as a person.  Shifting to the non-linear mind functions, you unconsciously size up their emotional intelligence, assess how they are likely to get along with the team, and observe how you responded to them in your gut. Then you make your decision.

Traditionally, education in the West has emphasized the rational, analytical and verbal skills. Sometimes the law and science view only the realm of the left brain as valid. You need to have reasons you can state with words to be taken seriously. Your attorney would not choose to sum up your defense in the form of interpretive dance. It’s probably a good thing. But the best attorneys also know how to move the hearts of the judge and jury. And they are not doing it just with logic.

To function at our best, we need to be able to use our whole brain. We may need to train ourselves to use the parts of our brain that are less dominant. We may need to practice shifting attention from one sphere to the other. Some people badly need to have the experience of moving out of their buttoned down, calculating, rational mind into the wild and emotional big picture mind. And others would benefit from adding a bit of practical thinking and logic to their expansive but amorphous, Technicolor mind states.

It may be that sometimes we can use our whole brain all at once, but it is a complex unit with a lot going on. More likely, we can hope to be able to shift more readily from one mind state to another. For most of us, it takes practice.


 To give your right hemisphere a chance, you may need to either learn to quiet the verbal side or give it something to do that will keep it occupied. In meditation, we may just ignore the chatter inside our head until it fades away. We don’t try to stop it so much as recognize that it is unnecessary at the moment and not the focus of our attention.

Chanting and singing are useful for occupying the verbal function. Mantras and formal prayers also give the talkative parts of our brains something to do while we tune in elsewhere. We may give a puppy a chew toy to keep them from chewing our shoes. We can give your brain some words to chew on to keep it out of the way while we tune in to the quiet side, the deep still waters.

The arts offer opportunities for exploration of the relational, non-linear, emotive parts of the mind. Using our senses and moving our bodies in the arts opens us up to the creative mind. Music and dance take us out of the realm of linear logic and they can be portals to completely different states of being.

Imagination is largely a right brain function, so time in fantasy and daydream is not necessarily time wasted. Telling stories or drawing what we see in our mind can open access to parts of us that may be mostly hidden.

Observe synchronicity. Notice the many coincidences that occur in life that have no apparent logical explanation, but that may have some deeper meaning to you. You don’t have to do anything with them. Just notice how your mind connects events. Enjoy the mystery.

Be mindful of your varied mental/emotional states. Notice the shifts between them. For example, you might observe:  Now I am thinking hard. Now I am daydreaming. Now I am lusting. Now I am worrying. Now I am feeling guilty. Now I am relaxing. Now I am letting go. Now I am at peace. Now I am thinking again and I notice that my energy seems to be in my head and especially around my eyes. Now I am daydreaming and my thoughts seem to float outside my head above and to the left. Now I am worrying and the energy seems spiky and around my heart and throat. Now I am relaxing and the energy feels warm and heavy. Now I am letting go and my awareness is all over and feels expansive. Now I am at peace and everything looks and feels  lighter. Your own experience may be quite different from these thoughts. The important thing is that you can notice your own states and start to notice the shifts between one mental/emotional state and another. Once you become aware of the character of those states you may be able to move from one to the next more readily.

There are many more ways to attune to the creative, expansive, intuitive, unifying mind. When you seek them, you will find them.

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© 2008 Tom Barrett