Monthly Archives: October 2016

The MWS Podcast 108: Roderick Tweedy on the God of the Left Hemisphere

We are joined today by the author and book editor Roderick Tweedy who’s here to talk to us about his book ‘The God of the Left Hemisphere. The book explores the remarkable connections between the activities and functions of the human brain that writer William Blake termed ‘Urizen’ and the powerful complex of rationalising and ordering processes which modern neuroscience identifies as ‘left hemisphere’ brain activity. Blake’s prescient insight into the nature and origins of this arguably dominant force within the brain allows him to radically reinterpret the psychological basis of the entity commonly referred to as ‘God’.

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Everyday absolutisation

On retreat this summer, Willie Grieve asked a question well worth asking: “What would be a Middle Way first aid kit?” A question that I take to mean, what are the most immediate applications of it in a variety of everyday situations? I didn’t really have an effective answer to this question at the time, but I wonder if I’ve found at least one possible answer now after stumbling on a series of very simple, practical videos by Senseability.

These videos describe six basic types of thinking error and also then go on to offer ways of addressing them – all in an extremely accessible format. This could be described as ‘critical thinking’, or indeed as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’. To make it into practical Middle Way Philosophy, all one needs to add is the recognition that all six of these errors are different types of absolutisation.  Here’s the first video, that introduces them:

The six errors introduced here are as follows. For each one I’ll give the label used on the video, plus some other labels in terms of biases or fallacies, plus what it absolutises:

  1. All or nothing: false dilemma or false dichotomy. Absolutises a limitation on the number of options and/or boundaries between them.
  2. Over-generalisation: sweeping generalisation fallacy. Absolutises one or a few examples into a universal truth about a whole category.
  3. Mind reading: projection. Absolutises an idea we have about someone else or their motives by assuming it must be true.
  4. Fortune-telling: forecast illusion, or pessimism/optimism about oneself. Absolutises a particular idea about what will happen to use in the future by assuming it must be true.
  5. Magnification/ minimisation: ad hominem. Absolutisation of a view of oneself as good or bad regardless of the arguments. Anything else might also be magnified or minimised as a general feature of absolutisation.
  6. Catastrophising: slippery slope. Assuming one bad event will necessarily lead to a worsening situation.

It’s worth noting that all of these also have opposites. In the case of 1 and 5 two extremes are already noted in the presentation, so it’s already obvious that a Middle Way is needed. In the case of 2, the opposite would be denying generalisation, in 3 denying all knowledge about others, in 4 and 6 denying all knowledge of the future.

The next video gives some example of these thinking errors without comment. It’s a helpful exercise to ask yourself which is occurring in each.

The third video suggests solutions to these thinking errors.

Here are the five solutions suggested on the video, all of which could be helpful for quite a wide range of absolutisations.

  1. Consider the evidence
  2. Is there an alternative?
  3. What would you say to a friend who was thinking like that?
  4. What is the likelihood?
  5. Is there a more helpful way I can think about this?

All of these strategies in some way prompt wider awareness beyond the absolutised belief you’re holding onto.

Of course, these responses to everyday absolutisation are only a start to the practise of the Middle Way. There are a great many more biases and fallacies (these all being discussed in my book Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief). In order to make strategies like these effective in the longer term, you may also need longer-term integration practices such as meditation, the arts and (a fuller training in) critical thinking. But this is a first aid kit. It might help patch you up in the face of immediately overwhelming absolutisations so you can then start to think in a longer-term way.

The Fall of Phaethon

I recently came upon this Latin phrase: Medio tutissimus ibis (You will go most safely by the Middle Way), and was intrigued. I looked it up, and found that it came from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was one of the greatest Roman poets, and his Metamorphoses are treatments of various Classical myths around the theme of transformation. The quotation comes from the story of Phaethon, and it turns out that it has quite a lot of symbolic power as a story about the Middle Way.

The story goes that Phaethon was the unrecognised son on Phoebus (Greek Helios), the sun  god who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. On finding out from his mother that he was the son of Phoebus, Phaethon went to him asking for recognition. Phoebus agreed to grant him any favour he might ask, so Phaethon then demanded to drive the sun chariot across the sky for a day. Phoebus warned him about how difficult this involves. The horses are difficult to control, and you need to follow a middle path to make sure the earth gets the right amount of heat.  Deviating from that middle path could have disastrous consequences. But Phaethon insists. Here is the crucial passage where Phoebus advises Phaethon on his course.

Observe with care that both the earth and sky
have their appropriate heat—Drive not too low,
nor urge the chariot through the highest plane;
for if thy course attain too great a height
thou wilt consume the mansions of the sky,
and if too low the land will scorch with heat.
“Take thou the middle plane, where all is safe;
nor let the Wheel turn over to the right
and bear thee to the twisted Snake! nor let
it take thee to the Altar on the left—
so close to earth—but steer the middle course.—
to Fortune I commit thy fate, whose care
for thee so reckless of thyself I pray.

(Metamorphoses 2:137, trans. More)

It is “take thou the middle plane, where all is safe” that corresponds to the Latin phrase medio tutissimus ibis. There are a number of interesting aspects to this from the standpoint of the symbology of the Middle Way. Firstly, the middle course is three dimensional: not too high or too low as well as not too far to the left or right. Of course, the Middle Way is not any old middle course between any set of conventionally-define extremes, but the extremes given by Ovid seem to be of greater significance than that and so in many ways match up with those avoided by the Middle Way. If we consume the mansions of the sky, this could stand for appropriating the divine or the idea of the perfect and infinite. If on the other hand, we scorch the land, this can stand of absolutizing particular worldly goals and thus allowing our ambitions and ideologies to consume the world. The twisted snake may be associated with Asculapius, the god of medicine who was supposed to have been punished for taking medicine too far and reviving the dead. On the other hand, the Altar obviously has associations with religiosity. So the left and right extremes here could well be understood as standing for scientism on the one hand, which pushes science too far by drawing absolute conclusions from it, and religious absolutism on the other.fall-of-phaethon-carlo-dellorto-ccbysa4-0

Like us, pushed into the world to try to follow a Middle Way, Phaethon is horrifically unprepared. He is a reckless and naïve youth who has neither the skill nor the wisdom to follow that middle course. The results follow in the rest of the story. Phaethon is unable to control the horses, and plunges to earth, where the fire of the sun starts to burn everything up (apparently producing the Sahara desert). The earth appeals desperately to Jupiter, who sends a lightning-bolt which destroys Phaethon and somehow stops the conflagration.

The Fall of Phaethon thus seems to be a potent symbol of the potentially disastrous consequences of veering from the Middle Way. By falling to earth he veers too far off the path downwards, giving way too much to narrow worldly goals and beliefs. The idea that this might destroy the world through heat can be a potent one for us today, given the threat of global warming, one of the effects of which are a greater threat of conflagrations and desertification, both mentioned by Ovid. This threat can be directly linked to our tendency to absolutise our desires.


Wikipedia on Phaethon

Online translation of Ovid’s metamorphoses


Picture: Fall of Phaethon, mural in a Genoese villa, taken by Carlo Dell’Orto CCBYSA 4.0

The MWS Podcast 107: Krista Tippett on Becoming Wise

Our guest today is the journalist and best-selling author Krista Tippett. Krista has her own series of podcasts from her On Being radio programme on NPR in the US, that stretches back 15 years. In that time Krista has interviewed a diverse array of inspirational people including scientists, theologians and artists. I talk to her about her experience of this and about her book “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” which draws on the wisdom of many of the people she has interviewed and is also interwoven with the story of her own spiritual journey. We discuss this through the five key topics in her book which are Words, Flesh, Love, Faith and Hope. Finally, we discuss the Middle Way and how this relates to her work.

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The mystical flip

‘Mysticism’ is for me a term with many positive connotations: though I know that there are some (primarily secularists) for whom it is a term of disparagement. I see it as primarily an attitude that recognises mystery, and thus the extent of our uncertainty and ignorance, very often in the sphere of religion and very often supported by states of temporary integration such as the Buddhist dhyana. I’ve written about the positive qualities of mysticism in a previous blog post, but here I want to focus on a problematic feature that has often accompanied it, and perhaps contributed to the negative views that some have formed. I call this problematic feature the ‘mystical flip’, and I’ve encountered it particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, and related emptiness and non-duality type talk, but I’ve been surprised recently also to find it in a Christian context, reading Thomas Merton.

The mystical flip seems to start with refined and subtle experiences, perhaps in contemplation or meditation, where people dwell much more fully than usual in right-hemisphere dominated openness. If you want to know why this kind of state is right-hemisphere dominated, watch this TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor: Bolte Taylor effectively describes a mystical experience that is created by the disabling of her left hemisphere. In this state, we lose the goal-orientation and the belief in linguistic representation that is characteristic of left hemisphere dominance. If they’re not accompanied by the disabling features of a stroke, such experiences can be helpful temporary integrated experiences. However, at some point they must finish, and we must go back to left hemisphere dominance.

In our normal mode, what do we make of this? Well, many people seem to immediately draw the conclusion that they’ve seen a higher ‘truth’. In this higher state there are no goals and no linguistic representations. Nevertheless, of course, back in the normal state there are goals and representations. pancake-tossWhen talking about what they regard as mystical truths, then, the mystics claim that in some ultimate state there are no goals and representations, but when talking normally they flip back to admitting that normally, in the ‘conventional’ state, there are. This, then, is the mystical flip. Other terms for it, in various traditions, could be Nagarjuna’s Two Truths doctrine, or the divine versus human view, or the Spinozan ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ (from the standpoint of eternity) versus the standpoint of time.

The Buddhist Diamond Sutra is a good example of a text that consists almost entirely of constant mystical flips. Here is one example:

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata [Buddha] conceives the idea: I must set forth a teaching. For if anyone says the Tathagata sets forth a teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to say what I teach. As to any Truth-declaring system, Truth is undeclarable, so “an enunciation of Truth” is just the name given to it.  (21)

At one and the same time, such texts constantly insist that they have the truth from one perspective and that they do not from another, but there is rarely, if ever, any attempt to bridge the gap between the two perspectives.

Here is another example I discovered recently in Thomas Merton:

We are plagued today with the heritage of that Cartesian self-awareness, which assumed that the empirical ego is the starting point of an infallible intellectual progress to truth and spirit, more and more refined, abstract, and immaterial…. But in actual fact, Hui Neng says, there is no attainment, and therefore to busy oneself about seeking a “way” to attainment is pure self-deception. Zen is not “attained” by mirror-wiping meditation but by self-forgetfulness in the existential present of life here and now. (Mystics and Zen Masters, 25-6)

Merton here does the mystical flip not so much in terms of ‘truth’ as in terms of ‘self’, being apparently unable to engage with any third alternative between self-obsession and self-forgetfulness.

Of course, I’d rather that people were able to do the mystical flip than that they were just stuck on one side of it or the other. But it is, at best, a transitional stage in recognising and applying the Middle Way, and it certainly seems to me like a big mistake to identify texts, however hallowed, that merely do mystical flips as ones that tell us anything much about the Middle Way. The Middle Way is how you stop doing mystical flips, or at least slow them down or limit them. It requires you to reframe the ways you are talking about ‘absolute’ and ‘conventional’ perspectives so as to avoid getting into such a false duality in the first place.

The key ways I would suggest that we can avoid mystical flips amount to the five principles of Middle Way Philosophy as I identified them in an earlier post and in the first six of my introductory video series. Scepticism, the first principle, tells us why both absolute and conventional positions are uncertain, whatever experiences they may appeal to. Provisionality tells us how we can practically cultivate an attitude that doesn’t identify entirely with either the absolute or the conventional positions. Incrementality suggests ways of breaking down the absolute dualities involved and re-conceptualising them as increments. Agnosticism confirms us in our determination not to be sucked into either of the absolute sets of assumptions. Integration relates these to a process whereby we unite divided beliefs and energies in our experience rather than merely taking the side of one against the other.

In terms of the brain hemispheres, the Middle Way doesn’t just involve flipping from one dominance to the other, but rather using the right hemisphere perspective to inform and integrate the conceptual and goal-driven world of the left. Any spiritual perspective that simply leaves out the left hemisphere is inadequate to the vast majority of our experience and thus unable to transform it positively. But right-hemisphere experience can help us recognise the limitations of any particular set of goals and representations we may have grown accustomed to.

There is no need at all for anyone to get stuck at the stage of doing mystical flips. But unfortunately they seem to be very much reinforced by traditional authority in many traditions, as well as by the perception that there is no alternative. If we can avoid mystical flips we might also manage to avoid ethical flips (between absolute and relative positions) or scientific flips (between absolute belief in scientific results and disparaging science for its fallibility). There is an alternative.