Wise men and women have long advised that there is no greater understanding than knowledge of self. Scientific research and observation are essential to understanding ourselves, but mere data and analysis lack the crucial dimension of human experience, which if cultivated properly leads to wisdom and ultimately to a life characterized by a more holistic approach to spirituality.
To accurately understand our self and our world we must marry the findings of science with intuitive, experientially based truths – those ideas about reality that the great wisdom traditions have always attempted to convey. Only by viewing the whole picture can we gain a full understanding of all dimensions of who we are.
The increasingly important advances of brain science – which are now often subsumed under the terms neuroscience, cognitive science, or cognitive psychology – are an essential part of that process. But the most critical issue of our time goes far beyond the narrow concerns of science: it’s how we can create an environment of peace in ourselves and in the world – an environment that enhances and enables our best and most creative attributes – in this time of unprecedented global dangers and insanity.
Science holds an important key to finding that peace by showing us the exact nature of the conflict that spills over into our minds as a result of inherent conflicts in the specialized, complementary systems that operate the brain. Being complementary, the operating systems of the right and left hemispheres are yin and yang – and are often seen as opposites. When seen in opposition to our beliefs, our typical response is to refuse to accept what our non-dominant hemisphere is trying to tell us.
If our objective is to achieve mental unification – that is, coherence or consistency – in our understanding of things, we need the cooperation of both sides of the brain. This is called mental coherence unity consciousness – the perennial goal of philosophers and sages ever since Plato, if not before. To achieve true unity consciousness, the operating systems of both brain hemispheres must work cooperatively. But this unity consciousness is a complex unity. The holistic operating system and its perspective by itself is still just one side of the holistic-versus-dualistic polarity. But when our two operating systems cooperate, the holistic perspective includes and integrates the dualistic perspective’s views and information into a unified whole.
In addition to their communication with one another, our brain’s operating systems are in communication with our outer environment and educated by it. What we do, think, and feel are continually informed by cultural inputs – and herein lies a huge problem. Cultural values are not necessarily ours, yet their collective weight can sometimes shape us, even to the point where they dominate us and turn us into something other than who we are.
How do we reverse the polarization that grips cultures around the world? We work on our self. We find out who we are, with the hope that we can find out why we are here and what we need to do to achieve the satisfaction we seek.
Contrary to common usage, self-understanding does not refer to some private, isolated, internal self, apart from interpersonal, social, and environmental contexts. In this use of the term, it refers to an understanding of the whole self, which is inseparable from the encompassing reality in which the self exists. True self-understanding is necessary to establishing a viable civil society, and – of the utmost importance – in the realization of internal and external peace. We cannot achieve peace in our world without finding peace within ourselves; and it is also true that a peaceful external environment, free of distracting and soul-crushing conflicts, contributes tremendously to our ability to find inner peace.
To achieve inner peace – and to create conditions for outer peace – requires more than that we desire it. It requires more than meditation or visualization or positive thoughts. It requires more than electing public officials who will work toward peaceful relations with other countries or with the diverse elements of our own society. And it even requires more than efforts to be fair and peaceful in our relations with others. All of these things are important, even essential, but they do not address a critical component.
To achieve peace, we must also understand the brain’s role in informing our conscious mind, especially the choices it gives us. Without awareness of how the brain works, we will not be able to make the necessary changes in our personal and collective lives to achieve inner or outer peace. By learning how the two specialized halves of the brain relate to one another, we are better able to integrate their unique insights and make more informed choices, and in the process, more rapidly advance towards the peace we deserve.
March 23, 2017