The Divided Brain: Trying to be Sane in an Insane World

Sunday 22nd March pm

This is the sixth in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Trying to be sane in an insane world

With the course now nearing the end, key messages are repeated and key themes emerge more clearly, principally that the malaise of modern man is a malaise of the spirit.

(I should say, at this point, that it might sound from the progression of these course notes, that this was a depressing, dark course, but not at all. The words I would use to describe the course in general are thought-provoking, stimulating and deeply affective.)

And so we started this session with a quote from Carl Jung.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.00.51Source of Image

The inscription reads Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit, which translates as ‘Invoked or not, God will be present’.

The premise of this session was that our society is sick and going off the rails. The illnesses we see at the level of the individual we also see at the level of society (and we need to remember here that Iain comes from a medical background and practices as a psychiatrist). The microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of society reflect each other. The connection with sanity was illustrated with five principles to follow for good health:

  1. Take self-responsibility and awareness of boundaries seriously so as not to become subsumed amongst a common mass of misunderstanding
  2. Take trust and acceptance seriously
  3. Promote balance and harmony in work and relationships
  4. Try to see the ‘big picture’
  5. Be aware of ‘otherness’ beyond the material world

These five principles reflect Iain’s personal view based on his experience, reading and knowledge of great scholars from the past, such as Erasmus, who developed sophisticated critiques of contemporary life.

In addition an important part of the process of growth and health is to accept the notion of the ‘dark side’ or the ‘shadow side’ and not to deprive it of its power. This is an ancient wisdom which was recognized by Shakespeare in The Tempest. In looking this up, I found this written about and explained by Barry Beck in his writing about a Jungian Interpretation of the Tempest (the underlining is mine).

A very important line which Prospero speaks near the end of the play is, ‘These three have robbed me, and this demi-devil (for he’s a bastard one) had plotted with him to take my life. Two of these fellows you must know and own; this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ Prospero is saying Trinculo and Stephano are the responsibility of Alonzo’s court, but more importantly, Prospero is finally fully owning, acknowledging and taking responsibility for Caliban, his shadow, his unconscious. In his growth and individuation, he has taken a big step toward integrating his shadow within himself.

How sane is our society?

Responsibility and boundaries: From an individual point of view, we can take too much or too little responsibility. We have to accept responsibility for who we are and in this boundaries are important, because they are creative and make us who we are. Boundaries are semi-permeable, but some boundaries are necessary for freedom. An important boundary is that between inner and outer. From a society view, boundaries and responsibility have been eroded by the State. We don’t take responsibility for ourselves. We are ‘nannied’. The State spies on us and we are manipulated by the internet. For example, Google controls our searches, giving us back what it thinks we want, and trapping us in a ‘hall or mirrors’.

Trust and acceptance: From an individual point of view, we are social animals so trust and acceptance are very important. Nothing can happen without trust. We can’t do anything unless we are able to trust. The need for certainty and aversion to risk in our society leads to conditions such as panic and agoraphobia. Without trust we are on a treadmill of trying to achieve more. Trust is also needed for self-acceptance. We need self-acceptance before we can accept others. We need to accept ourselves with our limitations and face the ‘dark side’. Comparing oneself with others is toxic. The question of whether and how trust can be restored in a modern democracy was the subject of Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith lectures.  Reith lectures are available to download from the BBC but I’m not sure how accessible these are to people outside the UK. From a society view, trust is an old fashioned idea. We used to police ourselves, but now we live in a society of surveillance. A lack of trust in society is costly as we see in cases of litigation.

Balance and harmony: From an individual point of view, there is a tendency in today’s society for people to get unbalanced. Instead of allowing things to balance by taking a more circular approach to life, we follow linear targets. From a society view, work-life balance is difficult to manage. At work everyone is asked to do more and there is more to do, because of lack of trust. Think of all that accountability paperwork.

Seeing the big picture: From an individual point of view, there are lots of problems associated with having a narrow view rather than seeing the broader picture. In doing this we tend to personalize and generalize things that have gone wrong, and spend too much time living in an abstract world in our heads. From a society view, it is difficult to see the big picture. We live in a ‘black and white’ world, focusing on the short-term rather than taking a long-term view. We see this in companies and governments and the evidence is that they do not thrive by taking the narrow, short-term view.

Awareness of ‘other’: From an individual point of view we need to be open to the unknown. A failure of gratitude and forgiveness leads to problems. When there is no sense of ‘beyond’ we have no need to attend. Meditation and mindfulness can help us to step aside. From a society view, the official view is one of materialism. Awareness of ‘other’ is played down, but not to know the divine is to be very diminished.

In closing this session Iain referred to some of the philosophical movements that are the subject of the second part of his book The Master and His Emissary. These movements, with evidence from art and literature, show how we have moved away from RH thinking to become dominated by LH thinking.

The session ended with reference again to the work of Carl Jung, who believed that there are things that we are not aware of that are powerful, that are good and bad, that are beyond our consciousness and that have consequences, whether or not we take them into account. We can be drawn towards a virtuous life in which we are disposed to believe (or love) or we can be driven from behind, pushed by a set of propositions.

What does it mean to lead a virtuous life? What does it mean to flourish?

Authors and Philosophers referred to during this session

Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) Panopticon 

Desiderius Erasmus (1466 -1536)

Jonathan Haidt (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Allen Lane.

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Onoro O’Neill (2002). A Question of Trust: The BBC Reith Lectures. Cambridge University Press.

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)