Saving the planet. The move before the move

The game of chess involves making moves that prepare for ‘the winning move’. The preparation moves give the possibility for the final move, which can lead to success. 

So, thinking about the big problems of our time, if ‘the winning move’, involves sequestering carbon, creating equality, stopping war, taking out the plastic from the oceans, disarming all nuclear weapons, and the achievement of sustainable lifestyles. etc…. those are all concerned with ‘the winning move’. They are the final actions. They can only have any sense and hope of being realized if we prepare the 'move before the move’.

So, what is the ‘move before the move’? Brain Time. Please stay with me, I’m going to discuss a topic that might seem unrelated but stick with me and I hope you'll see that it is profoundly important. I will now crudely summarize the groundbreaking and immensely inspiring work of Dr. Iain McGilchrist which focuses on the importance of the different hemispheres of the brain. 

All animals have evolved asymmetrical brains, and there’s an adaptive advantage to that. In the recent past people incorrectly thought that the left brain only dealt with logical things and the right only with creative abstract things, but now it is known that both sides of the brain deal with all aspects of brain functioning, only in different ways. The left hemisphere is concerned with the ‘parts’ and the right with the ‘whole’. Being able to distinguish something to eat or use is because of the attention capacity of our left hemisphere, whereas, being able to have ambient attention that can be aware of potential threats is thanks to our right hemisphere. We can not only find things to eat but also do our best to not be eaten. This is the evolutionary game.

Using tools is left, awareness of our environment is right, separating and labeling objects is left, relating and feeling is right, and so on. In this way, the brain has a huge scope to operate, manage, control, and experience life. But we need a balance between these two forms of attention, and like the brain it is asymmetrical. Maybe surprisingly, it is not an equal balance that is ideal. Each situation in life requires different needs, different focuses of attention, and different activities of the hemispheres respectively. But, overall, one side needs to be dominant, and it needs to be the right hemisphere. 

Let’s consider relationships. I think we can agree that it is not limited to describing attributes. My relationship with my cat is not simply how old she is, how much she weighs, how much money I would get if I tried to sell her, how much money she costs me in cat food a month etc. There are other essential elements relating to my cat and me that are really really important but cannot be reduced to descriptive labels and usually sound quite abstract and subjective like “it's so heartwarming to come home and be greeted by her and have a cuddle” but the danger is that that can't be measured, and therefore invisible to the left-brain perspective and easily dismissed as irrelevant. However! I think we can agree that the subjective and difficult-to-describe aspects of relationships are far from irrelevant, but are central to well-being and meaning in life. Yet, we live in a specific moment of human culture when there is a steady withdrawal of our care and concern for relationships because we are focused on other values. We consider (and therefore value) utility, comfort, status, and growth. Measurably achievable goals. Is it not true that from generation to generation there’s diminishing concern for our communities, and our neighbors, less and less for our friends and family, and less even to ourselves, well…how much attention and care do we give to our planet?

If we can accept the diagnosis of McGilchrist, who says we have become a left-brain-hemisphere dominated society, and the elements of our current poly-crisis can be seen to directly stem from the limits and concerns of being left-brain-hemisphere orientated, then the ‘move before the move’ must be to engage our right-brain-hemisphere functioning. Ok, that sounds logical, maybe, but that sounds a bit extreme, surely we can't put the responsibility of our enormous global problems on to which side of the brain we're looking at things from? If I look at an apple from the left side or the right side it's still just an apple.

The left hemisphere can see the problem. It can do ever increasingly detailed analyses of how bad the problems are and how bad they could get. It can even make up potential sustainable pathways to fix the problems. But, so long as we are dominated in this form of attending to the world, we fail to see the most important thing. It is not the plastic in the ocean, nuclear threats, or global warming that are the problem, they are the consequences. The truth is we (humans) are the problem! To respond to that, we need to be able to see that, and to see that we need to be able to appreciate the big picture and see that we are in the picture not just looking at it.

So long as we remain a left-brain-dominated culture, we can’t change because we can’t see the big picture. We have become upside down as a society, the cart is before the horse, so to speak. We let the kids make the rules, where are the adults in politics? We put an abstracted measurement of value called ‘money’, and play a make-believe game pretending that it is more important than what is real and actually sustains life. It’s absurd. We know it. How can the sky or land or an apple or water or the future of our kids or the cleanliness of a river be reduced to virtualized currency to then be traded with against something else? And yet we do it and agree to it every day. Life’s meaning and the value of future generations, of being part of the web of life, of sacrifice, these can’t be measured so they are invisible and irrelevant, like my cat. But no! Of course that’s not right. Our right hemispheres can appreciate, recognize, and value these qualities, and that’s why we need to balance our activities of attention and the values that they give rise to. This is the move before ‘the move’.

Our perspective needs to be re-calibrated and re-enriched with a right-hemispheric-brain focus. How? Remember the whole. Recognize your place in it. You're not just a part in a machine. This is a living cosmos and you are an expression of that. As embedded in this world and solar system as a wave is in the ocean. Play, music, dance, sharing, acts of random kindness, charity, sacrifice, not just hearing people but listening, not just looking at the world around us but seeing it, what is it to simply feel deeply whatever it is that you are feeling, without needing to ‘fix’ or ‘react’ to it? We are human ‘beings’, not human ‘doings’. What is it to ‘be’ a human? You are the successor of around 650'000 generations of humans who survived. As any philosopher, psychologist or physicist can confirm, how we look at something changes what we see, and therefore changes what it means to us. How we attend to people, activities, and the world around us, fundamentally influences those experiences. I believe this is the move before ‘the move’. 

What do you think?

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