Saturday, April 22, 2006

Using Both Halves of the Brain.

Rational people condemn actions taken without proper forethought. Yet a reverence for rationality can obscure the equally powerful contribution of sub-rational thought, the kind of "thought" that goes on beneath our stream of consciousness.

Even people who are not James Joyce fans have experienced the “jingle channel” (as psychologist Martin Seligman calls it)—that steady hum of of what goes on in our heads that we tune in and out of. Driving home we run through our rational litany: "I guess it has to be laundry time this weekend... unless I've really been good and can fit in those khakis at the back of the closet... I did get a salad for lunch Tuesday... or was it Wednesday... I was finishing that project... got to get those stats... now's a great time to remember... I could really use a latte." And we consciously drift over to the drivethru window at our favorite coffee place.

All very rational. Or was it? We were consciously reminded we wanted to cut down on treats, yet we consciously order the latte with whipped cream on top. Unless we become aware of what drives us, we will continue to be baffled by our own behavior. Later, when those khakis are still too tight in the waist, we will berate ourselves over that latte.

What went on? It was something like this:

"I guess it has to be laundry time this weekend (don't really want to) unless I've really been good and can fit in those khakis at the back of the closet (I really want to fit in those again!) I did get a salad for lunch Tuesday (I sacrificed!) or was it Wednesday (it's been a long week) I was finishing that project (and my boss is asking about it) got to get those stats (Gee, am I the only one who works around there!) now's a great time to remember (why didn't I make that call) I could really use a latte (because dang it I've worked hard all week and something has to give!)"

And since pleasure is the antidote to pain, the the simple, unthinking part of us clamors for a treat. And since we haven't noticed what has happened, we are truly helpless to apply rational thought to it.

If we did pay attention to where that thought came from, we could follow it to a more rational conclusion. Whether it's getting an expresso instead, deciding to go for a walk to relieve tension, or just buying a new pair of khakis, we could apply our rationalization processes to the problem. Instead of thoughtlessly reacting, then berating ourselves for reacting, and being so busy feeling bad about ourselves we don't stop to think.

Because our instincts are thinking, too. They are simply the thinking that goes on in the right side of the brain, the intuitive, non-verbal side that can't speak. The side that can't jump into the jingle channel and make its wishes heard. The side that nonetheless manages to exert its influence in ways that are baffling, unless and until we make an effort to listen to all sides of ourselves.

This is the core of the Zen concept of Living in the Now. Because our instincts are always in the Now, making decisions nanosecond by nanosecond while the rational brain is speculating on the future and rampaging through the past. We need to use both halves of our brain, because they are equally important.

The rational half will tell us to step carefully out into the street.

The instinctual half will get us out of the way when a car comes unexpectedly.

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