The Master and his Emissary

The best and clearest way to understand the Integration Meditation model is as a depiction of the divided brain. There are two basic models: the “Samsara” system (Diva-Demon, Victim-Addict, Muppet-Muggle) and the “Nirvana” system (Mystic-Shaman, Warrior-Monk, Philosopher-King). The point of the meditation is to move away from the former towards the latter. So what exactly are we moving from and towards?

While reading Iain McGilchrist’s wonderful book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the scales fell from my eyes. It’s all about the brain hemispheres. “Samsara” is what happens when the hemispheres are out of whack and “Nirvana” is what you get when they’re in good working order.

The differences between the two hemispheres are probably not quite what you think they are, since there are a lot of popular misconceptions floating about. It’s not exactly that the left hemisphere is about language and reason while the right is about imagination and emotion, although that does approximate somewhat.

They do provide crucially different ways of experiencing and interpreting the world, but it’s more complicated than a simple division of labour. It’s not so much about “what” they do, as it is about “how” they do it. The left is all about grasping, focused attention and building up a picture of reality from constituent parts whereas the right is about holism, global vision, wide attention and exploration.

According to McGilchrist, the underlying problem of the modern West is that the culture has come to privilege the left hemisphere, and that people are suffering from a lop-sided, left-hemisphere dominant view of the world. This is because of the great success of the left hemisphere in manipulating and controlling the environment, most evidently in the staggering advances in science and technology over the last couple of centuries.

So how does this left hemisphere dominance manifest itself? It seems that people are becoming increasingly dissociated and alienated from their bodies and from their feelings (which are  mediated primarily by the right hemisphere), and from nature, art, music and religion. As a species, we seem to be getting ever more geeky, as though we were sliding along an autism spectrum. One piece of evidence in support of this is the (admittedly anecdotal) fact that in the past few years nursery school teachers have had to start explicitly teaching some children how to make sense of facial expressions.

The negative archetypes from the Integration Meditation model can be fruitfully applied here. Muggles, muppets, addicts and victims are precisely what you would expect from a hemispheric imbalance, especially one tilted to the left.

A muggle is someone who is seemingly immune from the magic of reality. They lack any sense of wonder or awe, since they experience the world as a kind of system, rather than a mystery or miracle. They live predominantly in their left hemisphere.

A muppet is someone who prioritises their left hemisphere model of reality over reality itself. They are “ideologically possessed” and will defend their (usually extremely illogical) position in the face of almost any evidence or reasons that contradict it.

Addiction is the result of “muggleness” taken to the extreme. It is simply the intensification of habit. The narrow world of the muggle narrows ever further as it finds its orbit around some object of desire. A sense of victimhood is the result of “puppetry” taken to the extreme. Radical delusional beliefs usually degenerate into conspiracy theories and then further into persecution complexes.

The best way to reverse this process is not by challenging the entrenched habits and assumptions of the left hemisphere dominated ego. You can’t escape your mental prison by debating the prison guards. Forget about your inner muggle, muppet, addict and victim. None of them can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

The best (perhaps only) way out of this samsaric trap is to put the left hemisphere to sleep and awaken the right. First of all, you need to learn how to inhibit the “default mode network” (which is left hemisphere dominated). This de-activation or “self-emptying” of the default mode network is traditionally called “kenosis”.

Next, you need to learn how to awaken the right hemisphere mode of being, which includes learning the “language” of the right hemisphere: imagination, metaphor, myth and archetype. This is experienced as a direct apprehension of being, traditionally known as “gnosis”.

Then, the contents of the right hemisphere’s “gnosis” need to be unpacked by the system-building left hemisphere to achieve explicit knowledge. This explicit form of knowledge (the left hemisphere “map” of the right hemisphere “territory”) is traditionally called “pistes”.

But now we’re back in the left hemisphere again. If we allow the “emissary” to once again usurp the “master”, we will find ourselves stuck in its simulated re-presentation again. If we want to remain free and connected to reality, we need to empty ourselves again (“kenosis”).

This then opens the possibility of right hemisphere “gnosis” and round we go. In Buddhist Tantra, this is known as the cycle of Purification (“kenosis”), Perception (“gnosis”) and Dalliance (“pistes”).

This is how the hemispheres of the brain should work: cooperatively and collaboratively. It is the pre-requisite for psychosynthesis and individuation. But it points to two related but discrete goals of spiritual practice: integration (the harmonious cycle of knowledge) but also separation.

What is Dharma if not a state of pure left hemisphere explicit knowledge (Pistes-Dalliance)? What is Samadhi if not a state of pure emptiness (Kenosis-Purification)? And what is Satori if not a state of pure right hemisphere non-dual experience (Gnosis-Perception)?

With hindsight, my own enlightenment experience must have been a prolonged inhibition of the left hemisphere accompanied by a full activation of the right hemisphere. I was all Perception and no Dalliance. Emerson describes this state beautifully:

“Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”