He paced back and forth across the room like a caged animal. He spoke about life behind iron bars in a penitentiary, and other stories about a life in which he spent more years in institutions than with his family. For 14 hours he stayed with me. I sat curled up on a sofa, transported by his honesty about unmentionable human pain, as he guided my passage through the dark night of the soul.
More than once through life, I have discovered that our earthly guardian angels appear in the most unexpected individuals. My closest friends were oblivious to my reaching out in need at a critical moment that could have ended my life in the mid-1980s. I refused to upset my parents with my unbearable pain following yet another blow in life. The previous night, remaining awake, I wrote a series of poems to stay alive.
On the second night, the last phone call I intended to make was to this Cree man, whom I initially met through his girlfriend, a fellow journalist. Frank enjoyed visiting with me for long, intense conversations. He respected me because of my commitment to produce tough, materially unrewarding, journalism that challenged the ongoing injustice inflicted upon Aboriginal people.
Those 14 hours apparently were life-changing for both of us. Frank’s girlfriend later told me that he felt a renewed sense of dignity in not sexually taking advantage of my vulnerability, and experiencing a friendship with a woman in a new way. As for me, I swear to God that Frank saved my life in understanding human pain – non-judgmentally, I must add, unlike most people around me.
Frank brought me a second gift – the first gift residing in his compassionate presence. The wooden board had a poem glued onto it, titled Don’t Give Up, which I still keep in a special place with my other spiritually meaningful items.
Hi oral testimony ascended from his own wounded soul, as a step in his journey to healing and renewal, in which he also expressed a sentiment that remains in my consciousness, powerfully. Do not trust books, he cautioned.
Indeed, in the coming years, as I became immersed in media literacy, I fully realized Frank’s words of caution as I came to understand the incredible damage of so many books through the centuries that had demonized the spiritual belief system of Indigenous peoples – wrongly – and further undermined the integrity of Indigenous cultures because of the blindness and arrogance of Euro-western peoples.
Paradoxically, as a writer through the past 30 years, I have tried to right these wrongs, through images and written language, even sometimes in essays published in books.
Through time, I found my focus shifting to explore what is at the root of the imbalance within Euro-western culture. This quest for understanding has never ended.
In earlier research, I had discovered the parallels in spiritual belief systems among Indigenous cultures and in Western and Eastern cultures prior to monotheism. In these older systems, gods and goddesses held various symbolic roles, to represent life-affirming and destructive powers and energies in relation to planetary life. They were seen as interconnected with the choices made, and the respect given, by the human species.
In a masterfully researched book, the late Leonard Shlain (1937-2009) illuminates how and why a split in human consciousness happened particularly in the West, a split that influenced extremely violent recurrences at specific moments through the centuries.
Shlain, moreover, identifies the ways we can restore balance within ourselves – and already are, through the discerning uses of visually-based communication technologies – to revitalize a fuller understanding of interrelatedness with the human family as well as other planetary life.
His book’s title THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS, The Conflict Between Word and Image identifies starkly what Shlain argues to be a formerly unrecognized root cause of the sorry history of the treatment of women – predominantly told to us through “his story,” since the earliest days of written history.
Leonard Shlain worked as a professor of surgery at a medical school and also as a vascular surgeon operating on carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain. He observed firsthand the profoundly different functions performed by each of the brain’s hemispheres, and felt inspired to “propose a neuroanatomical hypothesis to explain why goddesses and priestesses disappeared from Western religions” [Shlain, 1999, p. viii, ix].
I consider his hypothesis so important that, in this blog post, I want to provide a few highlights from his medical and scientific knowledge about the brain’s physiology, and introduce his use of terms such as the feminine principle and the masculine principle. In the next blog post I will select examples of how the shift between visual/oral cultures to alphabetic cultures wreaked havoc in human life and upon the earth’s environment.
I believe that if more people could understand how human consciousness functions, we could take more responsibility in our choices and actions, by learning how to integrate our brain hemispheres more holistically. Our willingness to expand our awareness can help us evolve more peaceably as human beings. Doing so is possible and no longer can be dismissed as sentimental bafflegab.
Perhaps a million years ago, writes Shlain, the human brain began to differentiate its mirror-image hemispheric lobes from other vertebrates. Human brain lobes became functionally different, a specialization called `hemispheric lateralization.’ Today we refer to the `right brain’ and the `left brain,’ two cortical lobes connected by a bridge of neuronal fibres called the corpus callosum [p. 17]. The split in brain function happened in order to rewire one lobe, the left brain, and thus accommodate the evolutionary onset of speech.
Regardless, even today in a human fetus, the right lobe matures more quickly than the left, and the initial ways of engaging the world by a newborn, in turn, privilege characteristics of the right brain.
“The right hemisphere integrates feelings, recognizes images, and appreciates music. It contributes a field-awareness to consciousness, synthesizing multiple converging determinants so that the mind can grasp the senses’ input all-at-once… The right brain is nonverbal…” [p. 17].
“The left brain’s primary functions are opposite and complementary to the right [lobe]. The right side is concerned with being, the left with doing. The left lobe controls the vital act of willing… and knows the world through its unique form of symbolization – speech…
“All the innovative features of the left hemisphere – doing, speech, abstraction, and numbers – are linear… An appreciation of linear time was the crucial precondition for linear speech [p. 22]… [for example] the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion” [p. 5]. “Words are tools… We use them to abstract, discriminate, analyze, and dissect the world into pieces, objects, and categories” [p. 21].
To clarify how we `see’ the world, Shlain describes how the human eye operates like the brain. Within the retina of each eye are two functionally different types of cells – rods and cones – that are opposite yet complementary. “[R]ods and cones correspond to the division of tasks between the right and the left brain” [p. 24].
“Rods share with the right brain the ability to perceive reality all-at-once… Because rods supply the big picture, they are the key component of a visual, physical, and mental state known as contemplation… This receptivity affects the whole body… and a person slides into the integrated mental state of being.”
“Cones, in contrast, congregate densely in a small spot in the central part of the retina, called the macula… Concentrating on one aspect of reality at a time, cones view the visual field as if through a tunnel… Cones allow an animal to scrutinize. Scrutiny corresponds to the mental state of concentration… Cone vision [Shlain suggests] created the necessary parameters for the left brain to invent the all-important idea of next, which led, inexorably, to foresight (or next-sight) – a sense of the future” [p. 24-5].
You may be asking, so what does the above have to do with treatment of women through the centuries? I will explain the connection more fully in my next blog post. Here, I can sum up Shlain’s physiological descriptions as his introduction to prove, scientifically, how and why the human animal’s response to “images” calls upon the right brain, while the response to “linear text” calls more upon the left.
In his diligently researched book, Shlain shows that every time a culture (whether Western or Eastern) shifted its religious focus from images to written text, not only were entire societies ruptured by violent upheaval. But, moreover, women lost power, were brutally treated, and their feminine spiritual representations – in images – were marginalized or destroyed.
That fact, for which Shlain provides historic evidence chronologically, brings us to address the meaning of the `feminine principle’ and the `masculine principle.’ Shlain is not the first, or the only, thinker and practitioner to use these terms. His focus on how and why the brain evolved, however, helps to further legitimize their use as identifiers:
“Because of their different roles, evolution, in time, equipped men and women emotionally to respond differently to the same stimuli. This resulted in men and women having different perceptions of the world, survival strategies, styles of commitment, and, ultimately, different ways of knowing: the way of the hunter/killer and the way of the gatherer/nurturer. In accommodating these differences, nature redesigned the human nervous system, radically breaking with all that had gone before” [p. 16].
The redesign, of course, was the aforementioned hemispheric lateralization of the human brain. Shlain emphasizes how both modes of survival – gather/nurture and hunt/kill – are combined in each human being, man and woman. “The lateralization of brain, eye and hand affects how each person perceives, manipulates, symbolizes, and, ultimately thinks about the world… Every individual has encased in his or her skull both a feminine brain and a masculine one [right brain and left brain, respectively]” [p. 27].
Therein resides the innate, naturally-endowed, hope for the future of the human family, as well as the healing and well-being of the planet. Each and every one of us has the biological capacity to draw upon, and develop more fully, our inner, invisible resources to live more harmoniously on this beautiful home we call Earth.
My next blog post will outline the sad history of what has happened because so many people, regardless of technological advances, through many centuries, unconsciously marginalized our more holistic human potential, not recognizing our innate power. Instead, it was intentionally repressed by self-serving religious, political and economic power holders who prefer that we remain unaware of how to access and, then, act upon our full innate intelligence to co-create a better world that supports dignity for all.
To watch a seven-minute segment of an interview with Leonard Shlain, which focuses on the content of this blog post, click onto THINKING ALLOWED. This website has a series of insightful and inspiring interviews with highly esteemed thinkers and practitioners, whose wisdom remains through their good works and these interviews.